What I am Trying to Remember This Year

Prisoners working in the Gulag.

*Sensitive material

*“Our Russian pens write only in large letters. We have lived through so very much and almost none of it has been described and called by its right name. But, for Western authors, peering through a microscope at the living cells of everyday life, shaking a test tube in the beam of a strong light, this is after all a whole epic, another ten volumes of Remembrance of Things Past: to describe the perturbation of a human soul placed in a cell filled to twenty times its capacity and with no latrine bucket, where prisoners are taken out to the toilet only once a day! Of course, much of the texture of this life is bound to be quite unknown to Western writers; they wouldn’t realize that in this situation one solution was to urinate in your canvas hood, nor would they at all understand one prisoner’s advice to urinate in his boot! And yet that advice was the fruit of wisdom derived from vast experience, and it didn’t involve spoiling the boot and it didn’t reduce the boot to the status of a pail…”- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago.

A friend and I attended the Marxist club at the U of A’s Response to Jordan Peterson discussion last winter where these communists, who gathered regularly, aired their grievances against the author and his book 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos.

They picked out Peterson because he argues that western culture, fundamentally, is grounded in the sovereignty of the individual, and social hierarchies are based on competence, and not tyrannical by nature. So, he’s no friend of communists.

It was an eye-opening evening.

After all, it’s not every day you’re privileged enough to hear the pathos and logic that grounds the modern-day Marxist. We both felt obliged to take a walk on the wild side and hear out their claims, out of curiosity and perhaps morbid civic duty.

They had grievances with how society was functioning. You know, the rich are getting richer. Life is a zero-sum game of suffering where the elite exploit the weak. The health care system is trash. Education is crumbling. The works.

One quip of note from the evening was the club president’s response to a perplexing question from the gallery.

What will you guys (the Marxists) do to the people who don’t agree that a communist revolution will solve these problems?

The president said, rather nonchalantly, “The bottom line is…revolutions are bloody.”

That line still pings in my ear ever since attending that marketplace of ideas.

It is with this caution and courage that I chose to read The Gulag Archipelago written by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, since I had only a lazy high-school’s student understanding of what communism looked like.

The landmark document published underground in the Soviet Union in 1968 introduced the horrors of Lenin and Stalin to the west, and levelled a devastating blow to that ideology in intellectual sphere.

In the book, Solzhenitsyn details the Ukrainian famine that killed millions, the Moscow trials, the horrendous gulag work camps and transit prisons, the insidious methods of torture used on suspects, and the reign of terror the Soviets used on their citizens.

The gulags were home for millions of people. And millions never returned.

I had just finished the book yesterday when I discovered that Penguin Books has just issued a 50th anniversary abridged edition of the tome (originally three volumes and a staggering 2000 words) with a new introduction written by – what are the odds? – Jordan Peterson.

Neatly timed too with Remembrance Day.

A book like the Gulag forces a reader to imagine a life they can’t resonate with because it is unimaginable.

While it is not a Canadian story, it’s a human story – the exact type of thing that Canadians of the past would’ve fought to protect against happening here.

To try and imagine the horrors of totalitarian governments, and the tragedy of those lives in the 20th Century now as as a lucky 21st Century Canadian is impossible.

But it is with this vigor and energy of the former occupant Solzhenitsyn, that I am trying to observe Remembrance Day this year.

Because after all it wasn’t so long ago, and it’s worth remembering if those creaky back rooms in universities are still having the conversation.