Solzhenitsyn’s Politics of Repentance and Self-Limitation

Is it possible to learn from another’s experience? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn repeatedly raised this question about the Russian experience and its impact on other nations, but we Americans might also ask it about ourselves. In our increasingly polarized nation, can we learn from one another? A new volume, edited by David P. Deavel and Jessica Hooten Wilson, continues Solzhenitsyn’s inquiry, priming the reader to reexamine (or approach for the first time) his work as well as that of other Russian writers. In honor of the late Solzhenitsyn scholar Edward E. Ericson Jr., Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West approaches the study of Solzhenitsyn “not merely as an intellectual pursuit but also to learn how best to live.”

In 21 essays on different facets of Solzhenitsyn’s work, the larger Russian tradition, and the influence of both on American culture, the volume’s contributors take seriously the claim that the Russian experience can and should speak to a Western audience. America may still be a liberal regime, but we are no less immune to ideological and totalitarian impulses, as targets of today’s cancel culture can affirm. We would do well, then, to consider the lessons Solzhenitsyn and other Russian thinkers learned from life under a totalitarian regime, and this volume provides a good starting point. Indeed, its reflections on Solzhenitsyn’s understanding of human nature, his case for the centrality of repentance in political life, and his faith in the power of art to bridge cultural and political chasms challenge us to examine ourselves and our divided house in light of his thought.

Solzhenitsyn gives witness to the near indestructibility of the divine image in the human soul, and thereby demonstrates, as Daniel J. Mahoney puts it in his contribution to the volume, “that totalitarianism never truly succeeded in subjugating the human spirit.”

The Line Separating Good and Evil

It has become alarmingly commonplace, on both ends of the political spectrum, to denounce one’s political opponents as morally, even irredeemably, depraved. Solzhenitsyn knows well this kind of moral certitude and its tendency to breed terror and tyranny. Classifying one’s opponent as evil or injustice incarnate, as did the Soviet Union with its “enemies of the people,” makes it much easier to justify attempts to silence or defeat them totally.

Dividing groups of people into those battling for good versus those battling for evil is not only dangerous, moreover; Solzhenitsyn argues that it also betrays a misunderstanding of the human relationship to both good and evil. As he confesses in The Gulag Archipelago,

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there still remains…an unuprooted small corner of evil.

As Ralph C. Wood explains in his contribution to Solzhenitsyn and American Culture, Solzhenitsyn’s interpretation of human nature bears a distinctively Russian Orthodox mark. Rather than understanding man as ever wholly wicked or wholly redeemed, the Orthodox Church maintains that “[a]t every moment, human life is participating in the life of God to a greater or lesser extent.” This follows from the presentation in Genesis of God’s creation of man in his image and likeness. While the image of God in every human being is given and fixed, our likeness to God involves the “liberty to become either more or less like the image in which we are made.”

Solzhenitsyn’s own experience reflects both aspects of this dual nature. On one hand, his liberty to become more or less like the divine image within him left him free to become more evil, to use Solzhenitsyn’s own words: “In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments, I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments.” And yet, Solzhenitsyn never completely lost the small bridgehead of good within his soul. In his willingness to sacrifice his own well-being in order to dissent from the Communist Party’s ideological justification for tyranny and terror, Solzhenitsyn gives witness to the near indestructibility of the divine image in the human soul, and thereby demonstrates, as Daniel J. Mahoney puts it in his contribution to the volume, “that totalitarianism never truly succeeded in subjugating the human spirit.”


The most obvious political teaching of Solzhenitsyn’s account of human nature as fixed and mixed is his severe warning of the brutal violence to both body and soul inflicted by a regime premised on a misunderstanding of human nature as infinitely malleable. Equally as important is the theme of repentance that accompanies his dual vision of the human soul. David Walsh’s contribution to the volume illuminates this theme in Solzhenitsyn’s historic epic The Red Wheel. While the work clearly laments Russia’s “descent into revolutionary madness,” its inclusion of glimpses of goodness in the midst of evil, like the confession of an adulterous woman who has brought misery upon herself and those around her, points forward to the possibility of repentance (and forgiveness) for even the deepest betrayals.

Repentance is always possible because of the indelible divine image within us. More radically, Walsh argues that Solzhenitsyn’s vision of our mixed nature extends to our actions: “Abandonment of the great obsession that drove the [Russian] revolution will involve the acknowledgment that it was not wholly evil. It could only succeed as much as it did because it drew on what was good. That is the key to overcoming it.” Not only do repentance and forgiveness require a recognition of the good, however small or faint, that remains in every human heart, but, according to Walsh, this further requires a recognition of the love of the good, “albeit a perversion of its true form,” that drives even terrible actions.

William Jason Wallace and several other contributors to the volume highlight that, for Solzhenitsyn, repentance is the only remedy for individuals and nations—both Eastern and Western—caught in the grip of ideology. Yet, repentance is particularly difficult for modern man. Ashamed of the notion that there may be anything defective or corrupt in man, we deny the evil within us for which we need to repent. “Traditional ideas of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ become subject to cynicism and ridicule,” Wallace notes, and a moral relativism takes their place. At the same time, with nothing to check license, gross evils do indeed proliferate. We cannot help but to notice them, but whom can we blame? We direct our unlimited rage at systems, classes, and parties, producing what Wallace calls “a destitute tyranny of hatred.” Without repentance, which requires a recognition of the evil within ourselves as well as a recognition of the good within our enemies, our hatred will destroy us.

Learning Through Literature

If, as Solzhenitsyn pronounces and contributor Julianna Leachman echoes, “the habit of repentance is lost to our whole callous and chaotic age,” can it be recovered? Solzhenitsyn argues that art, and especially literature, is uniquely suited to facilitate such a recovery. One reason for this, as James F. Pontuso points out in his contribution to the volume, is that literature is limited by the human scale in a way in which a treatise on abstract ideas is not. Stories convey ideas, but they also illustrate the tangible consequences of those ideas in their characters’ lives. Whereas ideology demands that we manipulate reality to fit theory, true art subordinates theory to reality. This is one aim, Pontuso notes, of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago: “What happens to real-life human beings when Marx’s ideas are put into practice?”

Solzhenitsyn’s art debunks the lies of communism not by offering an alternative ideology, but by giving voice to competing ideas through different characters, thereby showcasing the complexity of human nature that totalitarian ideologies like communism deny. Jessica Hooten Wilson, in her contribution to the volume, makes the case that it is Solzhenitsyn’s use of polyphony in his fiction that constitutes his most effective weapon against lies. While an ideology like communism permits a single view of things, “Solzhenitsyn’s novels exhibit dozens of perspectives all in conversation with one another and not in harmonious accord.” Far from a celebration of pluralism for its own sake, Solzhenitsyn’s polyphony beckons the reader to engage the characters’ experiences as well as the merits and flaws of their arguments and to judge the characters’ as well as one’s own presuppositions.

By showing us our own vices in another character, good literature gives us the distance to condemn the disordered desires, thoughts, and actions to which we ourselves succumb, thus inviting us to take a first step towards repentance. On the other hand, by bringing us closer to the experiences of those different from us, literature also elicits our understanding and our recognition of the good in their souls, thus inviting us to take a first step towards forgiveness. As Micah Mattix explains in his contribution to the volume, this “capacity to change how we think and act” is “what Solzhenitsyn calls the ‘miracle’ of art.”

The contributors to this volume embrace Solzhenitsyn’s claim about art’s power to communicate “the experiences of [an] entire nation to another nation.” Not only do they showcase ways in which Russian literature has already instructed Americans, from Flannery O’Connor and Dorothy Day to Alain Locke and Richard Wright, but they encourage a new generation of American readers to turn to Russian writers for penetration and inspiration. Foremost among these writers, of course, is Solzhenitsyn, whose insight into human nature and the fundamental need for repentance very much speaks to our political and cultural circumstances today. May we, following Solzhenitsyn’s lead, take to heart what he identifies as Socrates’ most important moral insight: “Know thyself!”