An encounter with Solzhenitsyn

I was planning to no longer post from Do Not Avenge Us! (the book with testimonies of people deported in Siberia by the communists), but this story is too interesting :). Ion Moraru encounters Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag. The meeting took place a few days after Stalin died.

One of the days that followed, the electricity was interrupted on the yard where we worked. The blackouts were our joy! We ran immediately to the foundry, where people worked with metals at high temperature, and we could warm our frozen bodies a little.

At the foundry there was someone who had come recently, transferred from a brigade in construction. He was a tall, thin man, having a long face, a pointy beard, and a pair of piercing, black eyes. He seemed to be around forty years old. He was a history teacher, had been in the military service and became a captain in the army, and then arrived in the soviet camps as an “enemy of the people.” He did not talk much; when he spoke, he pondered on the word before pronouncing it.

The moment we came in, revived by heat, we began speaking, saying that now, that “the father” had died, we would be liberated and would go home. He stayed at his place and listened to us carefully. Then, he said calmly:

“We will not get out from here so fast! For the Bolsheviks, we are a great problem. The world’s public opinion is in turmoil as far as we are concerned, it supports us, and it protests against the regime. In these conditions, they are forced to liberate us, but they do not know how. Once liberated, we would speak at home and tell what we did, how they treated us, or what we ate, and the relatives will say this to others. We are a thinking biological bomb that they fear more than the atomic bomb. Why? Because the erosion that we will produce in society speaking the truth about the “red happiness” will be the decisive erosion that will lead to the collapse of the regime!”

We did not really try to see what he wanted to say. Why would we bother with so much philosophy? They will liberate us and that’s it! But he was right.

He was an extraordinary man, having great warmth. I liked him from the first moment; I felt him close. However, to be fully honest, I was almost on the point of grabbing a brick—I did not have much intelligence then—to prove to him that I was Romanian. He told me:

“You are no longer Romanian, you are Moldavian!”

He had been a history professor in the Soviet Union, and he was a Slavophil in his core, considering that the Slavs would be the race that would dominate the entire earth. He told me that I was not a Romanian, and that Bessarabia was something different than Romania. I could not make peace with this…

I valued him much even then, in the camp, but only after the fall of the soviets, when he sent each one of us, survivors, his book, The Gulag Archipelago, I realized who he was. I knew from the camp how he wrote the book. The people from his brigade told us that after the guards took from him his written pages several times and then punished him with solitary confinement, the professor stored the entire material in his memory, dividing it and organizing it on the beats of a prayer rope that he kept always in his hand. Then, he repeated the book daily until the day of liberation, just like a prayer, like praise dedicated to the millions of martyrs from the Gulag.

He had within him the soul of a writer… This is a gift from above; it does not happen by chance. You must know the language very well, you must know how to write, how to use the words and contain within sentences the entire idea… This gift is a talent offered from above, only from God. Solzhenitsyn had this gift.


A few reflections stemming from the "beauty" of communism

This is a draft of the intro for the book Do Not Avenge Us (to be published by Reflection Publishing), from which I have already posted some fragments.  The book, which I translated from Romanian, contains the testimonies of people who were deported to Siberia after the Soviet Union occupied Bessarabia. I “publish” the intro here in the hope of receiving feedback. If any of you have suggestions of any kind, please let me know. Thank you!
A while ago, I had a conversation with a gentleman. The discussion took place online, in the presence of others, as many of our conversations these days. We had a common friend, but we did not know one another. Someone had praised Marx, and I confessed that for me, after living in a communist country and after being exposed to a multitude of testimonies about the sufferings inflicted by a regime that considered Marx a spiritual father, it was difficult to accept that communism can work otherwise than it “worked” wherever it gained power. The gentleman pressed me further, talking about the beauty stemming out of the socialist doctrines’ interest in the poor. I still confessed that the interest in “the poor” made no sense to me, as I could find no meaning in loving masses of people, separated from the others by a certain quality. I could rather understand the interest in Johnny or Mary, the persons who may be, in different or all moments of their lives, poor. This interest in Johnny and Mary would not generate a slogan and would not be the attribute of the state, but rather of anyone who acts humanely. True care and sacrifice for another, whoever he or she may be, could not be imposed from above, from the state. I do acknowledge that the discussion was weak on both sides, as many of our “online communications” tend to be. None of us may have had the time to express clearly his views. Here, I am certainly the favored one, since I narrate the story. But this is not about whether one of us “won” the battle, since dialogues, in principle, are not about wars. What I think, however, is telling for what falling in love with an idea can do to an inherently good person is the gentleman’s final reply: “People like you are the reasons why things are wrong in this country! The world would be better without such individuals!” I could not help but think that this gentleman could have easily been a young man with good intentions who would want to cleanse the world of its problems by sending the “troublemakers,” those who are just blind to “truth,” to concentration camps.
I do not mention this story to paint unfavorably those who believe in socialist ideas or any other people, for that matter. Instead, I think this story reminds us that anyone, and especially those of us who may believe that they are the manifestation of beauty in the world, can become so blinded by our ideas that we can murder in their name. The moment when we see us as potential saviors of the world is a dreadful one, for this is when we have already lost the world and ourselves: we become judges of beauty instead of having communion with it. It is a temptation that we all face. Some people believe that their lives are better without Jews; others, without Christians; still others, without Muslims. Some of us may just want a “beautiful” world with people who would have only one color, whichever that may be. Further, we hear today how the world would be a better place if homosexuals were to disappear, or, the reverse, if those who disagree with gay marriage would just be thrown away on a lost island. If we do not recognize ourselves in any of these situations, we may still remember a moment in our lives when we may have thought that our family would have been just fine if that distanced uncle did not belong to it.
The readers of Do Not Avenge Us! may find themselves in the middle of the same temptation: “if just these communists did not exist, life in Bessarabia and Romania may have been better.” When you witness the terrible sufferings experienced by the people of this volume, anger and resentment toward the persecutors are contained with difficulty.  This fall is “normal.” To be tempted by justice, by paying back the one who harmed you with the same evil that you have received from him or her is what the majority if not all of us do. The people from this book have done it too. But at the end of all things some of them remembered something, and that is the love found in a relationship with another person.
While this book reveals how individuals faced the wrath brought upon them by a murderous regime, it truly is about how one relates to another person. Fr. Moise, the monk who put together the testimonies of those persecuted by the Bolsheviks in Bessarabia, told me once that the people in this book are revivers, not survivors (this translation was suggested to me by Fr. Ciprian Sas)—and this phrase may not fully capture the beauty of his words. In Romanian, it sounds quite poetical: “învietori, nu învingători,” that is people who revive, who rise, and not people who win or are successful. Fr. Moise referred especially at the education of these days, when, from an early age, children are taught to compete with others and do everything necessary to win. We are taught that we can be either tigers or gazelles in life.[1]We either eat from the flesh of another, or we are eaten. Both cases are found in Do Not Avenge Us! There are indeed tigers and gazelles in these stories. The book you have in your hands is written from the perspective of the gazelles. The darkness that transpires from those pages is overwhelming, and the suffering is unbearable, even for those who, after years, only read about them. The lack of humanity, the inability to perceive a human being in the presence of another, and the viciousness that a human being can manifest are as many reasons to say that the world would have been a better place without the Bolsheviks. How could the book then be beautiful? Who would want to read a text full of darkness, of death, and of destruction?
The answer may be found in Fr. Moise’s phrase that I mentioned above. Indeed, the idea that we are to be revivers, not survivors, captures the essence of this book and witnesses to its beauty. You will encounter in these pages people who have lost everything: they lost their families, their homes, their country, their goods, and, at times, even their hopes. Nevertheless, they somehow come to surface once again[2]and do not lose precisely that which the Bolsheviks wanted to destroy: themselves. This recovery is achieved in connection: a son that reminds a mom of who she used to be, a good word from a fellow prisoner, or an embrace that reminds someone of being human.
This is not a book of morality. People do not give lessons and do not encourage others to only act in certain ways. In fact, many deal honestly with the temptation of being a “tiger.” In those times, being a tiger meant to betray your neighbor or to arrange things with authorities so that someone else would be send to Siberia in your place. It meant to become the head of the village and take everything from the others, trespass their properties, and threaten with rape. After all, it also meant just a “small” thing such as giving up your faith. I do not know how many of us can say without a doubt that we would choose the life of a beggar for our children if this were the only option that would allow them to maintain their human dignity. The people in this book do not claim such a heroic thing. They go even as far as acknowledging that, as luck has it, they could have been on the other side. Nicolae Istrate, one of the narrators, actually says, “I may have been like them. If they did not take me to Siberia, I may have been like them.”  When he says this, Istrate acknowledges that life is not about being better than the other, be it morally or socially. Suffering does not make one good; having powers over others does not make one evil. In fact, from the lines of this book we see once again—this testimony is recurrent among many of the survivors from communist persecution[3]—that there is nothing about human beings that make them good or bad.[4] There is, however, something, in which they express the meaning of being-human: the love for another person. Fr. Moise’s revivers do not love concepts; they do not love equality, the poor, or freedom. They love an infinite person in anyone of their neighbors.

[1] A president of a college actually delivered a speech to the new freshman class telling students that the school would teach them to be tigers and not gazelles, so they can feed themselves with the others and not be among losers.
[2] This does not mean that all people could revive; many did not.
[3] See also Aspazia Otel Petrescu’s With Christ in Prison, published by Reflection Publishing.
[4] I emphasize here that the phrase claims something about human beings, about persons, and not about actions.


A while ago, Reflection Publishing published a small but precious book, Aspazia Otel Petrescu’s With Christ in Prison. The book is about one of Mrs. Petrescu’s experiences in communist prisons in Romania, but it is also about more than this: suffering and forgiveness, personhood, and genuine life in communion with all people. In fact, if we listen attentively, I think we discover that, while seemingly describing suffering in prisons, Mrs. Otel Petrescu talks about love.

My wife, Elena, translated the text from Romanian. I copy here a short passage from the introduction I wrote for the book.

Aspazia Oțel Petrescu’s With Christ in Prison is a testimony for how one finds one’s true freedom, how one remains a person. I refer here to only one aspect of her book for it brings with itself a beautiful concept: the fact that people are connected over centuries as in a constellation. Oțel Petrescu talks about the power of the words of prayer because through them we enter into a connection with the people who came before us, the people who are contemporary with us, but also with those who have not yet come to be. She says, “In our prayers there were other people’s prayers, other people who had probably been in similar situations, who prayed with the same words, who used those words to connect with the Divinity. The prayer’s words allow me to be on the same ‘frequency,’ the same channel that connects me to God.”  If we take her words further, I think we can say that we are all connected in various constellations, the constellations that are themselves the beauty of the world. In a constellation every star has its own meaning. While it is a star, and in this sense the same as all the others, it has its own personal importance. I call it personal for stars are persons, not individuals; stars are fully understood in their beauty when we perceive them connected with other stars. In itself, a star is no different than any other star. There may be shades of brilliance, but there is nothing special about them in separation. They are just bricks, as Fr. Calciu described the people of a totalitarian regime. Personhood is gained through belonging to a body; stars are persons in their connectedness with other stars, because we discover them as what they are in their own constellations. Constellations show both the uniqueness and irreplaceability of every star, for there is no other star in the sky that can take its place. They also show that a star is the star that it is only in communion with the stars of its constellations. Oțel Petrescu reminds us that constellations are formed not only with the people in our contemporary world, but also with those who came before us. Furthermore, we are not the source of these constellations (as communism and fascism erroneously think when they want to create the world as they want), but we are responsible for that which is already given to us.

Oțel Petrescu’s book shows us how ugliness comes into the world by the breaking of connections. To refuse to accept another person in your heart is to refuse an already given constellation; it is refusing to love your neighbor. We do not choose our neighbors: they are given to us. In this sense, the beauty of this world is already created for us; it is already present. For the neighbor is the face, to use a term consecrated by the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, that calls on you to acknowledge the presence of a constellation. Refusing the neighbor (who may happen to be your torturer) is refusing the participation in beauty; is accepting ugliness, separation, and, I may add, objectivity.