But what is an ordinary person to do? If one is not young, fit, resourced, and skilled, survival seems hardly attainable. However, real-life survivors of all ages and conditions abound. And they offer “tools of the survival trade” for whoever will step off the panic grid and listen, even those gripped in some dark corner of danger known only to themselves.
One such “instructor”—and story-teller—is Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Russian author, activist-and gulag survivor. Here are survival tools for body, mind, and soul drawn from his famed novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, based on personal experiences in one of Stalin’s “corrective labor camps” and on studied observation of fellow inmates. He has much to tell and there is much to learn if we—the fit and unfit, young and old, brave and timid—will also observe and take note.
Another story-teller, the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, offers further insight into the nature of evil itself.
And for observers of another sort, here, from a different Book, is another cache of instruction—and hope—for survival of the spirit. I pray, in all, you are encouraged.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn once told an interviewer, “Of all the drama that Russian lived through, (the novel’s narrator) Ivan Denisovich was the greatest tragedy” (Licko 36).
Of all of Russia’s sweeping revolts and revolutions, purges and pogroms in the last century, the fate of an ordinary, loyal citizen caught in the irons and the ironies of a repressive political machine and unjustly imprisoned was, to Solzhenitsyn, the epitome of the evil consuming his countrymen.
Denisovich’s story, highlighting one day of his life in a Soviet “corrective labor camp,” illustrated not only the personal effect of Stalin’s prison system, but in doing so, unmasked its realities. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was the first of its genre to “cut the barbed wire of the camps” (Yevtushenko xiv), to expose the truth.
Although the book (and its author) fell in and out of favor in the turbulent social and political milieu of Russia in the last century I believe its universal importance remains. Solzhenitsyn not only “conveyed the truth to his fellow man removed from him in time and space” (Kodjak 22-23), he gave him/her a primer on coping anytime, anywhere the jackboot of injustice tramples human rights.
SPARSE BUT TRUE
Solzhenitsyn wraps description and dialogue tightly around the harshness of camp life on the frozen steppe. Elaboration is applied only to the stories of individual injustices and to the details of survival such as how to eat meager rations, how to hide forbidden tools, and how to assess camp politics in order to lessen the threat of brutality. There are no romantic idealizations, intellectual discourses, or melancholy soliloquies in this literary classic, only tight prose paralleling the careful energy conservation necessary to remain alive. After all, notes critic Yevgeny Yevtushenko, “A blade is much more useful […] than discussing (artists)” (xii).
Nor does the author offer any shimmering, Zhivago-esque winterscapes, only “frost gathering strength for the night” and “greenish-tinted skies” hanging above the piercing cold at morning roll call stilling, not inspiring, words.
Yet throughout his carefully measured literal and literary landscape Solzhenitsyn conveys a wealth of (survival) truths for those with ears to hear who suddenly or at length find themselves tunnel-visioned to the minute by minute struggle in a world become suddenly stark. Consider:
Know your enemies.
“Three mortal enemies constantly stalk a prisoner: starvation, exhaustion, and annihilation by the authorities” (Kodjak 35). Lesser, but equally pervasive enemies gnaw, too, at the inmates of Denisovich’s camp. Chief among these is the arbitrary brutality of camp officials. In addition to the power to maim and kill, they hold other powers.
When the prisoner’s sentence is up, for example, there is no guarantee he won’t be retained weeks, months, or even years more due to new “evidence” found that, according to the infamous “Article 58”[i] could be interpreted as a “crime against the state”. Subject to a penal code riddled with (loop) holes for the state’s benefit, the prisoner holds little hope of freedom on the date anticipated—unless, of course, he correctly deciphers camp politics; unless he figures out how to fend for his survival amid the camp’s complex class and “cash” systems wherein he realizes another enemy—his fellow prisoner, or zek.
“Who’s the zek’s main enemy?” asks the narrator. “Another zek. If only they weren’t at odds with one another—ah, what a difference that’d make!” (101).
“Things were so lumped together, the sweet and the sour” (100), the prisoners had to be wary of who was a friend, who, a foe, and sometimes it was hard. However, notes the narrator, “Like a big family, it was a family, the squad” (69), a family with rivalries and problems, yes, but the zeks’ best hope for day-to-day and long-term survival. If one slacked, all suffered; if another found a way around or through the ever-present oppression, all benefited one way or another.
Another nagging adversary of the imprisoned was the tyranny of work with scant time left over for the prisoner, himself. “Life in camp wore him out from reveille to bedtime, with not a second for idle reflections” (107). The precious ten minutes at breakfast and five, each, at lunch and supper plus any time a prisoner could make for himself at the cost of his precious few hours of sleep in the morning and at night are all he had to speculate, read (forbidden) Bibles, or make a little money on the side. And if there was free time, “(The authorities) knew how to keep them jumping even on Sundays” (108).
Oppression circled the mind and sapped the soul, too. With little time to do anything outside of trying to satisfy arbitrary commands of camp authorities and ferreting for physical survival, the prisoners had little mental energy left. “A couple of ounces of (bread) ruled your life” (50). It was easy to give up planning for the future, another essential tool.
The prisoner had to be constantly alert and cautious of others and his surroundings, becoming “an inert, though wary, zek” (65) because he did not know how long this would last. Seasoned prisoners also knew that although the injustices of the camp were many and though anger and cynicism provided a certain toughness there were better—and surer—ways to cope. Most of these lessons were learned, however, at the end of a boot, beneath a club, or in solitary confinement.
“Preserving” (hiding) tools—and what those might be—was another category of survival. Denisovich, for example, not only hid his trowel, but also his spoon and a crust of bread with which he could most effectively scrape the last food specks from his soup bowl. Other prisoners preserved tobacco, food from home, extra scraps of clothing that could be used to sustain themselves later on or to trade for favors or other items. “Waste not, want not,” noted Denisovich as he pocketed a bit of a hacksaw blade. “You can never tell what you might need in the future” (68).
Other less critical but still handy “tools” included the directives: don’t squeal on your buddies, make sure to have gifts for higher-ups, don’t be afraid of hard work (it warms you)—and last, but not least, maintain a sense of humor. Prisoner Kilgas illustrated the latter. “He never spoke without making a joke, that Kilgas, and was popular with the whole squad for it” (45).
And one could never have too many friends in the squad.
Not feeling sorry for oneself, not cheating the squad leader, and retaining personal dignity also aided self-preservation. Prisoner U 81 exemplified how to maintain personal dignity in this bleak clime. In spite of years of incarceration, diseases which had left him bald and toothless, though “all life had drained out of his face” and his hands were “cracked and blackened” by years of unrelenting hard work, U 81’s spirit prevailed. He sat straight, not hunched, though cold and cramped, un-hurriedly brought his worn, wooden spoon to his lips, instead of bowing to the bowl, and carefully placed his bread on a clean bit of rag. “He wasn’t going to give in, oh no!” Denisovich notes (119). .
And there were those who survived via another “intangible tool”.
The Baptist, Alyosha, Denisovich’s bunk mate, was one who shared yet another “source” of survival—his dogma, as Solzhenitsyn put it—which enabled him to be grateful, even, in the prison camp. For Alyosha, it was not a punishment, but an opportunity.
“Why do you want freedom?” he challenged Denisovich. “In freedom your last grain of faith will be choked with weeds. You should rejoice that you’re in prison. Here you have time to think about your soul” (136).
Denisovich, however, though he entreated God for an occasional favor, such as allowing him to smuggle in his bit of hacksaw, was not convinced. He saw only blunt reality.
“What had (Alyosha) to be happy about? His cheeks were sunken, he lived strictly on his rations, he earned nothing. He spent all his Sundays muttering with the other Baptists” (36). Yet Denisovich noticed the Baptists “shed the camp’s hardships like water off a duck’s back.” And he appreciated Alyosha’s loyalty: “(He) did whatever was asked of him […] If everybody in the world was like that,” thought Denisovich, “(he) would have done likewise. If a man asks for help, why not help him? Those Baptists had something there” (85).
For Denisovich, religion was more about the salvation of his skin while retaining dignity. It was about surviving “the law of the tiaga,” the forest, akin to the law of the jungle. And yet, when it was time for Denisovich to mentor a new zek, he included the Baptist’s outlook in with the gold he’d mined in the mud and muscle of imprisonment. The system need not rob the prisoner of human feelings and ethics, concluded Denisovich, it need not sever him from the community of his fellow man through fear and intimidation. And in Denisovich’s belief, this goal—the choice of one, ordinary man falsely imprisoned—Solzhenitsyn presented a critical antidote to the brutality of a regime intent on delegitimizing if not eliminating dissidents. No matter how cruel and harsh unjust imprisonment could be, Ivan Denisovich tells us it need not accomplish the destruction of body and soul. If for just one man, for one day.
Sozhenitsy’s story still informs: though a person may physically limp to freedom, his/her spirit can not only survive, but revive and surmount the experience.
Critic Tvardovsky notes, “The author’s greatest achievement […] is that (the) bitterness and pain do not convey a feeling of utter despair. On the contrary. The effect of this novel, which is so unusual for its honesty and harrowing truth, is to unburden our minds of things thus far unspoken, but which had to be said. It thereby strengthens and ennobles us” (Tvardovsky 39).
Of those “things unspoken,” one that cuts to the core of survival, the topic of perhaps far greater significance than practical tools and tips is raised here: But why do some survive and others, paralyzed by the hope-crushing weight of oppression, sink?
Commitment to truth.
Evil conspires best in silence, behind closed doors, in dark corners of heart and mind. It divides, thus conquers; separates, thus overcomes. As long as no one talks and no light is shed lies proliferate and lives perish. Exposure is evil’s demise; truth, the antidote to its power.
Through a window of political opportunity and determination, Solzhenitsyn—made stronger by his own adversity, no doubt—at considerable risk, stepped up to expose the reality of Stalin’s prison camp. Critics agree he was one of the first to detail the life of compatriots snared in Stalin’s web by detailing their lives through one, ordinary camp day full of extraordinary cruelty. Through the vehicle of literature, his story, Solzhenitsyn broke the conspiracy of silence.
Through Ivan Denisovich and the other characters in his novel, Solzhenitsyn informed the world not only of camp realities but also, more importantly, of the ability of an ordinary person to keep his head up and his soul intact. Through the little acts of survival and heroism embedded in Solzhenitsyn’s tale of tragedy on the steppe, we read of the strength of the mind and the resiliency of the soul though the body may be weak.
The result of his efforts? On the world stage, Stalin’s empty promises and deadly pogroms were bared. On the personal stage, yours and mine and others’, a reminder—with tips—that survival is possible. We are equipped as human beings with the raw materials to out-maneuver the enemy, if we are willing to learn and disciplined to act.
But in addition to Solzhenitsyn’s worldly wisdom, for believers of another kind, and those curious about people who “cling to religion,” as the unaware are wont to put it, there is another source of “survival information,” another source of hope, strength, and redemption from evil, this one, a spiritual cache, known from antiquity.
TOOLS OF THE SPIRIT
Any observer of human nature knows despots hound the race. It’s only a matter of time until one will surface in even the most “free” society. Solzhenitsyn raked back the iron curtain of one such in his day and exposed the drama of the dissidents there while juxtaposing best survival practices.
But although he only touched on the “survival of the spirit” through his observation of “those praying Baptists,” he alluded to a whole new genre of help very familiar to Christians who understand that there is an enemy who is not the product of political fortune or social favor, who does not merely detain those with whom he disagrees, and who prowls about not just to steal and destroy but to kill (John 10:10).
This “despot,” if you will, is the very impetus of evil, surfacing through fissures of human nature in the minds of those who trade their humanity for greed, lust, and power. And “it” is dealt with extensively in the survival primer called the Bible.
Non-believers know this enemy, too, as the devil of myth and lore, come to wreak havoc on both the suspecting and the unsuspecting, to frighten children, and to entrap the naive. But to the Christian, the devil, who we call Satan, is real. And here is why we cling to faith: despite the havoc he wields chronicled in both scripture and in the everyday, we also believe we have been given spiritual tools, so to speak, with which to overcome him, and we know his end.
HERE THERE BE DRAGONS
The old cartographers used to scribe the phrase, “here there be dragons” over undiscovered territories, imitating medieval map makers who illustrated their incomplete charts with creatures drawn from mythology. A description of such a creature, the “Kraken,” of Scandinavian origin, appears in a nineteenth century poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. It goes like this:
Below the thunders of the upper deep,
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides; above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
Battening upon huge sea worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.
In these few lines, Tennyson illustrates a legend that sums up mankind’s worst fear about such monsters; they are huge—and growing at “others’” expense; they hail from hell or regions near; and at some appointed time, as a result of a fiery cataclysm that shakes them loose from the deep, they will surface to the view of “man and angels” and die.
No telling what evil might befall us, unsuspecting, in the meantime, as the monster slumbers—an ominous “sleep” indeed, in such sickly light.
Map readers of yore understood: travel at your own risk, or stay away completely.
And one can’t help but consider the allusion to another ancient one who abides beneath, breeds fear, feeds on our weaknesses, and faces doom in a fiery end.
But the way of modern man, unfortunately, is to de-horn him: Satan, Beelzebub—the Devil of a thousand incarnations.
Surely, some imagine, he is all myth and no menace, restrained by reason and not the danger God warned us of—the beast that snakes into the race and “battens,” or feeds and grows, on our baser nature if we allow.
In this “post-Christian era,” as some label the times, Satan is yesterday’s fashion. Guilt is the devil of the day. We’re “okay” is the new mantra. The “enemy” is not the Father of Darkness, but anyone who frets over “antiquated” concepts such as sin and judgment. Repentance and redemption find no place in the apologia of this belief system; no sacrifice saves—save the sacrifice of inconvenient “old” notions for any appealing “new” ones.
(And the beast fattens on more of the unwary…)
But as suggested in the tale of “The Kraken,” and in folklore over eons describing battles between good and evil, the monster is routed and finally revealed before being vanquished forever.
Some, slumbering, as it were, perish with him like those in Stalin’s camps who did not attend to the lessons of survival and succumbed. Others who observe and obey prevail.
In the Christian’s survival primer, the Bible, we learn that God wins over evil, no matter what its name. And we learn that those submitted to the Father of Truth are given power to not only “tread on (such) serpents and scorpions” (Luke 10:19), or, if you will, Kraken, but to overcome the Father of Lies “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (Revelation 12:11).
And the core question here: Whence the power?
In a word: Jesus.
The wise survive with rhetoric, the beautiful with charm, the fit with strength and skill. But all who turn to Jesus Christ and follow Him survive because He shouldered evil for us who deserve the punishment for our part in allowing the monsters of evil in. Jesus took our jackboot, suffered our shame and did so willingly, submitting His own body on the cross as the spotless, sacrificial Lamb required to balance the scales of justice tipped askew by each of us. And there, He paid our debt in full.
We cling to faith in Jesus because He is faithful to us. And He also modeled how we can survive Satan’s advances. When tempted Himself, Jesus, the Word of God in the flesh, wielded the power of the Word of God in the text. “It is written…,” He began His responses to each of Satan’s advances (see Matthew, chapter 4), and in the declaration of the truth, overcame evil. And believers have access now to the same power. “For the word of God,” wrote Paul to the Hebrews, “is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
And to the power of God’s Word to help a believer not only survive but thrive, this: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Even in the isolation and ignominy of the gulag, Tsezar benefited by the good works of believers there even though he didn’t quite understand them. He just knew they had something of value, something he added to his cache of contraband with which to forge a way out of evil or to at least withstand it. And Solzhenitsyn speaks of it to readers now.
And in the isolation and ignominy of countless other tragedies, perhaps one of your own today, there is also benefit in God’s Words, along with encouragement, comfort, guidance, wisdom, and strength. (Not to mention a description of, warnings against, and tools with which to fight our real adversary, Satan, who broods “beneath” still—far more deadly than any man-made version.)
Stay in the Word.
(Later that same day.)
It occurs to me post script that for those who through no fault of their own have yet to tap the mine of God’s Word for advice, I could add my recommendations.
For practical survival tips, awareness of the pitfalls of human nature, the nature of the enemy, and so on, explore the Book of Proverbs.
For the length, depth, and breadth of the Good News in story and in the Flesh–Jesus, Who alone is our “righteousness” referenced continually in Proverbs and elsewhere, and Whose Spirit is available to us at “second birth”–I invite you to read the Gospel of John.
i “Article 58” dealt with what were described as counter revolutionary crimes against the state. Offenders of this Article were not considered “political” offenders, however. There were fourteen sub-sections, all of them formulated so broadly that practically any action (or even non-action) could be, and was, interpreted as a “crime against the state” (Blaha 9). (Do elements of this sound familiar today?)
Works Cited, One Day:
Blaha, Franz G. “One Day in The Life of Ivan Denisovich.” Notes. Lincoln: Cliff’s Notes, Inc., 1986.
Kodjak, Andrej. Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.
Licko, Pavel. “One Day With Solzhenitsyn–An Interview.” Solzhenitsyn. Ed. Leopold Labedz. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973. 32-38.
Solzhenitsyn, Alexander. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. New York: Signet Classic, Penguin Group, 1998.
Tvardovsky, Alexander. “Preface to One Day.” Solzhenitsyn. Ed. Leopold Labedz. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973. 38-40.
Yevtushenko, Yevgeny. Introduction. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. New York: Signet Classic, Penguin Group, 1998. ix-xvii.
Photos and images from the public domain.