The View from Two Prisons: The Stranger and Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag

We must tell them what we have learned here. We must tell them that there is no pit so deep that He is not deeper still. They will listen to us, Corrie, because we have been here. 1

The dying words of Betsie ten Boom to her sister Corrie in the Ravensbruck concentration camp reveal a strength and victory even in great oppression. Historically, Christianity is full of voices crying victory in the midst of the terror. Elijah and David hiding in caves, the prophets of the Babylonian captivity, St. John’s Apocalypse during the Domitian persecutions, the confessions of Foxe’s martyrs all testify to God’s power and truth even in the most severe circumstances. However, much twentieth-century writing sides with a view of God similar to that of Albert Camus—God either does not exist or is evil. The oppressive evil of our age is often used to prove divine indifference. Nevertheless, literature coming out of severe oppression often says the opposite. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn shares that for many the experience of injustice and oppression makes a person appreciate truth much more. And with truth comes a more orthodox Christian view of life.

Life’s Suffering Proves God Does Not Care

Camus wrote, "An injustice remains inextricably bound to all suffering, even the most deserved in the eyes of man."2 Suffering and injustice should demonstrate divine indifference to any "thinking person."

Knowing whether or not man is free involves knowing whether he can have a master…For in the presence of God there is less a problem of freedom than a problem of evil." You know the alternative: either we are not free and God the all-powerful is responsible for evil. Or we are free and responsible but God is not all-powerful.3

Seeing the promises of both Christianity and Socialism as offering hollow hopes, Camus opts for the "happy" state of "no hope." At least, then, the problem of suffering and injustice is understood when the thinker partakes of "the wine of the absurd and the bread of indifference."

Meursault’s Indifference

Camus illustrates this well in The Stranger. Meursault is a prisoner. He killed a man in cold blood. He is hardly a victim of twentieth-century political excesses. Nevertheless, injustices have occurred, particularly in the crude, inaccurate caricature of Meursault which the prosecutor presents at his trial. In a manner suggestive of totalitarian eugenicists, the prosecuting attorney charges the jury to decide whether Meursault is fit for society. Meursault, though, still has hope. Only after his appeal fails and he "tells off" the prison chaplain does he find himself "washed clean and emptied of hope." Then he "realizes" he had been happy with life. Then he accepts and seems to enjoy the "benign indifference of the universe."

A Hostile Reaction to an Indifferent God

Earlier, Meursault had been experiencing–perhaps experimenting with-some indifference. He appeared unmoved about his mother’s death, about killing the Arab, his promotion, or even marriage. Society, or at least French law, seemed indifferent to him. In Camus’ view, Meursault is a rebel. As rebels do, he finally gets angry. He lashes out at the priest who represents the "system" in a number of ways—a father figure, traditional religion, the justice system, French nationalism, God. He rejects the priest’s prayers. Even more, he rejects the priest’s ideas of God. His verbal rejection of God borders on blasphemy.

Meursault accuses the priest (and, by extension, his God) for trying to make something significant out of meaninglessness. Nothing has the least importance; nothing makes any difference. The priest’s problem according to Meursault was his refusal to recognize this. Life is by nature indifferent and unjust. There is no certitude. All people are a "privileged class," all are hierophants in some way, because all suffer from meaninglessness.

The Only Honest Man Is an Angry Man

Camus writes that just as no philosopher ever created several systems, so "no artist ever expressed more than one thing under different aspects." 4 Parts of The Rebel do provide a commentary on The Stranger. Insofar as Meursault is aware of injustice and indifference, he represents the burden of modern man. He seeks daylight even in prison. He seeks truth as he rereads the story in the scrap of old newspaper. But any kind of wholeness or unity cannot be attained without anger, just as the perfect sun-filled beach day was marred by murder.

The rebel obstinately confronts a world condemned to death and the impenetrable obscurity of the human condition with his demand for life and absolute clarity. He is seeking, without knowing it, a moral philosophy or a religion. Rebellion, even though it is blind, is a form of asceticism. Therefore, if the rebel blasphemes, it is in the hope of finding a new god.5

The New God Is Outrageous

Meursault does not succeed in his quest for unity until the very end, but that is when he acts out his part as rebel. As an outsider or stranger, he is separated from the world. He gazes indifferently out his apartment window. He becomes more literally ascetic in prison. Although he had some enlightening moments, such as the unity expressed as he swam with Marie, he does not reach a resolution until he can look at his death with the indifference he could not quite accept earlier. He cannot do that until he has acted out a blasphemy and rejected the certitude of the priest.

Camus wrote that the rebel "blasphemes in the name of order, denouncing God as the father of death and as the supreme outrage."6 So Meursault rails against the priest:

I hurled insults at him, I told him not to waste his rotten prayers on me; it was better to burn than to disappear…He seemed so cocksure, you see. And yet none of his certainties was worth one strand of a woman’s hair…Nothing, nothing had the least importance.7

This was after he had rejected the chaplain’s overtures to confess his sin and turn to God. All he wants, he told the priest, was "a life in which I can remember this life on earth." To the idea of God, Meursault’s answer is rebellion and blasphemy.

Camus elucidates:

The rebel defies more than he denies. Originally, at least, he does not suppress God; he merely talks to him as an equal. But it is not a polite dialogue. It is a polemic animated by a desire to conquer. The slave begins by demanding justice and ends by wanting to wear a crown.8

So Meursault begins by speaking very politely to the priest—though as an equal since he refuses to call him "Father." But the dialogue is not polite. As we have seen, he rejects the system and spiritual relief offered by the chaplain. Instead, he affirms a kind of beauty in indifference and a unity that all men share in a world of unfairness. He can justify his own indifferent attitude by the indifference of all of nature.

There was only one class of men, the privileged class. All alike would be condemned to die one day; his turn, too, would come like the others’. And what difference would it make if, after being charged with murder, he were executed because he did not weep at his mother’s funeral, since it all came to the same thing in the end?9

As he accuses the priest, Meursault experiences a catharsis:

And I, too, felt ready to start life all over again. It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.10

The Joyful Hopelessness of the Prisoner

In The Rebel Camus notes the futility of hope. "For twenty centuries the sum total of evil has not diminished in the world. Nor paradise, whether divine or revolutionary, has been realized." 11 In The Myth of Sisyphus he suggests that suicide is an intelligent option for the modern man.

Meursault and Camus both deal with the problem of injustice by embracing the absurd. Meursault’s imprisonment brings a kind of anti-spiritual experience. Instead of opening his heart to Christ as the priest might want, he opens his heart to "the benign indifference of the universe." Instead of gaining hope, he renounces hope. That is all the truth he sees. From such a frame of reference, he confesses that he has been happy.

Denisovich’s Prison

Another modern prison novel takes a different approach. In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich the prisoner Shukov comes to a feeling of contentment for different reasons. At the end of his day, Ivan Denisovich reflects, "Nothing had spoiled the day and it had been almost happy."12 There may be a tinge of irony here, but there is something else: the specific unjust treatment by the state and its agents. This kind of oppression—like that experienced by the Ten Boom sisters at Ravensbruck—may lead to something different. The God of orthodox Christianity provides hope and unity.

There are two reasons Shukov is happy. The more mundane reason has to do with physical survival. They did not have extra work that day, he got an extra bowl of mush for lunch, no one found his knife in the frisk, and so on. The second reason that Shukov is almost happy is that he has learned to survive the right way. He does not compromise what he knows to be true.

The Law of the Gulag

Shukov is no prisoner of conscience like Alyoshka the Baptist, but he has learned that some things are right and some things are wrong. As a new inmate in 1943 Shukov had learned true survival from the veteran Kuzyomin, "an old camp hand who had already been inside for twelve years."

It’s the law of the jungle here, fellows. But even here you can live. The first to go is the guy who licks out bowls, puts his faith in the infirmary, or squeals to the screws.13

In the course of the novel we learn that Shukov has been tempted to lick bowls and even did it once, but regretted it. Shukov recovers from his cold even though the infirmary had turned him away. He had made up his mind a long time ago to never be a "stoolie."

In contrast to this, everyone knows that the former party boss Fetyukov, used to luxury, cannot survive. He gets beaten up for trying to lick bowls; he will probably get sick from it, too. He does not do his share of work as he hopes to be put in the infirmary or get a trusty’s job. He complains that the guards cannot prevent the deaths of informers, suggesting to all that he himself is one.

A Transcendent Law in Spite of Injustice

Kuzyomin’s law transcends the law of the jungle. (Senka Klevshin, an ex-soldier like Shukov, has survived both German and Russian death camps. He, too, had survived because he had not compromised.) The world of Ivan Denisovich is not indifferent at the core. A clear conscience brings contentment in spite of injustice and brutality.

This does not mean that Shukov accepts injustice. Alyoshka the Baptist considers it a privilege to suffer for Christ. Hearing this, Shukov lashes out, not unlike Meursault or Camus, questioning Socialism and at least not identifying himself with Christianity:

"Look Alyoshka," Shukov said," it’s all right for you. It was Christ who told you to come here, and you are here because of Him. But why am I here? Because they didn’t get ready for the war like they should’ve in forty-one? Was that my fault?"14

Unlike Meursault, the angry Shukov does not blaspheme. Although he does not confess Christianity himself, he acknowledges the hand of Christ in a man’s life. He does not reject Alyoshka as Meursault rejects the chaplain, but he does wonder "Why me?"

Solzhenitsyn shows that even though he might not articulate it, Shukov has learned at least a partial answer to that question. He has learned to keep his honor. He also shares extra food and helps the new "kid" Gopchik even though Gopchik doesn’t share his packages from home with anyone.

Prison as a Test of Principles

Shukov learns from his wife’s letters that his commune no longer needs skilled carpenters. He would probably make more money painting cheap rugs. He says, "They might let you out but they never let you home."15 Shukov knows he has changed somehow. He has held onto his principles under pressure—principles which resemble, those of the Christian Alyoshka or the stately old man Y-81.

Y-81 seems to represent Russian Orthodoxy, an icon, unbowed and saintly, probably "on the inside" since the Revolution. Unlike the priest or even the warden in The Stranger, these men are portrayed favorably.16 They provide a frame of reference for understanding Shukov’s contentment, why he was almost happy. He had not reached the spiritual condition of Alyoshka or Y-81. If he had the assurance that Christ indeed had led him to camp like Alyoshka, he would have been more content. As it was, he was strengthened because he had not compromised the principles he had learned, the traditions of the camp disciple-maker Kuzyomin. Solzhenitsyn would write in The Gulag Archipelago, "And even if you haven’t come to love your neighbor in the Christian sense, you are at least learning to love those close to you." 17

The Gulag Archipelago provides some commentary for Ivan Denisovich the way that The Rebel does for The Stranger. It explicitly describes the moral and spiritual strength which can be found in the camps.

Let us admit the truth: At that great fork in the camp road, at that great divider of souls, it was not the majority of the prisoners that turned to the right. Alas, not the majority. But fortunately neither was it just a few. There are many of them—human beings—who made this choice. But they did not shout about themselves. You had to look closely to see them. Dozens of times this same choice had arisen before them too, but they always knew, and knew their own stand.18

This sounds a lot like Kuzyomin, Alyoshka, Y-81, and, yes, even Shukov. Solzhenitsyn begins the section on the soul of the prisoners in The Gulag Archipelago by quoting the New Testament: "Behold, I show you a mystery: we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed" (I Corinthians 15:51).

Solzhenitsyn estimates that eighty-five percent of the Gulag prisoners are prisoners of conscience. The remainder are either real criminals who commit their crimes to prove their courage or institutional criminals like black marketeers who are not victimizing anyone and only regret they got caught. How do prisoners, how did Solzhenitsyn himself, come to terms with this suffering and injustice?

A Different Response to Life’s Injustices

First, as we have seen from Ivan Denisovich, one must not become corrupted. Like the venerable Kuzyomin, "as soon as you have renounced that aim of ‘surviving at any price’ and gone where the calm and simple people go—then imprisonment begins to transform your character in an astonishing way." 19

Conscience "rests at the heart of Solzhenitsyn’s works." Conscience is the last resource in a materialistic world, the only motivation for heroism. "Those with spiritual strength survive."20 He writes, "Never, not even in my younger days, let alone as a hard-bitten zek, [Gulag prisoner] have I been able to understand those who allow attachment to prevail over duty."21

In one of his samizdat writings he exhorts, "DO NOT LIE! DO NOT TAKE PART IN THE LIE! DO NOT SUPPORT THE LIE!"22 In his Nobel Lecture he states the personal and political consequences of supporting the lie: "Nothing screens violence except lies, and the only way lies can hold out is by violence." 23 A person may have to make great sacrifices in order not to take part in the lie, but to Solzhenitsyn it is worth it. For us in the West, the Gulag represents not just Soviet Socialism but what the Bible calls "the world." Like the Gulag, like Communism, the whole Kingdom of the World is founded on lies.

An Honest Self-Appraisal—Boris Kornfeld

There is a second way that prisoners come to terms with suffering and injustice. "You have to come to realize your own weakness—and therefore you can understand the weakness of others."24 Solzhenitsyn tells the story of Boris Kornfeld, a Communist with a Jewish background who became a Christian in the Gulag. As Kornfeld considered the many injustices in his life, he said:

And on the whole, do you know, I have become convinced that there is no punishment that comes to us in this life on earth which is undeserved. Superficially it can have nothing to do with what we are guilty of in actual fact, but if you go over your life with a fine-tooth comb and ponder it deeply, you will always be able to hunt down that transgression of yours for which you have now received this blow.25

Kornfeld shared how understanding the need for forgiveness began to change his life.

Solzhenitsyn writes that he took Kornfeld’s words to heart. He began to see that evil does not pass through states, classes, or parties, but through every human heart. There is evil in the best of men, and there is need for salvation. He describes his own subsequent conversion in a poem:

Not with good judgment not with desire
Are my life’s twists and turns illumined.
But with the even glow of the Higher Meaning
Which became apparent to me only later on.
And now with measuring cup returned to me,
Scooping up the living water,
God of the Universe! I believe again!
Though I renounced You, You were with me!26

Solzhenitsyn says that Christ did call him to camp; perhaps He called Shukov, too. He is calling all the Ivans, both inside and outside of camp.

Transcending Injustice with Character

Solzhenitsyn does acknowledge that "One can get all tangled up" trying to find a cause-effect relationship for every cause of suffering. What about the innocent who get punished zealously or the torturers who prosper?

And the only solution to this would be that the meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering but…in the development of the soul. From that point of view our torturers have been punished most horribly of all: they are turning into swine, they are departing downward from humanity. From that point of view punishment is inflicted on those whose development…holds out hope.27

God is not the author of injustice and outrage here, but One who can develop our character in spite of injustice and outrage—the God of Betsie ten Boom. Throughout history God has been dealing with the question of injustice heart by heart.

Compassion: the Opposite of Indifference

This helps us understand Solzhenitsyn’s commitment to speaking the truth about the Gulag and his commitment to writing about history. It also provides a historical, experiential, and spiritual contrast to Meursault and Camus. Solzhenitsyn is a moralist. Good and evil are mutually exclusive. Guilt must be dealt with. What a person believes and does ultimately has great significance. Compassion for others partly comes from realizing that you share their moral weaknesses. Rather than rejecting divinity as Camus’ rebel does, this brings the prisoner to God personally.

The Amorphousness of Indifference

Shukov will live on because his conscience and the testimony of others give him hope. Meursault, however, is one of the "men who think clearly and have ceased to hope." 28 Meursault testifies that all people are morally and spiritually indistinguishable. Solzhenitsyn calls this "amorphous" thinking. He insists that we must talk of character, morality, and the future.29 To Meursault, the consequences of his actions were "all the same" [French–ça m’est égal]. To Solzhenitsyn a man’s deeds recreate in him either the image of God or the image of swine. (And according to Genesis 1:26,27, God’s original intent was His own image.)

A Modern Solomon

The usual way of reading the Book of Ecclesiastes is to separate what Solomon observes "under the sun" from what he sees "under heaven." Under the sun the preacher sees nothing but "vanity and vexation of spirit." Much of the book describes in detail the injustice he notes. Likewise the sun is a major image in The Stranger. What Meursault sees, he sees under the sun. It, too, is vanity. It was vexation until he learned to be a rebel, to embrace the absurd, to submit to the very vanity itself.

Solzhenitsyn’s prisoners also see injustice under the cold Siberian sun. But there is a way of overcoming this—under heaven. Spiritual and moral values do make a difference. There is a time to every purpose under heaven. Like Solomon, Solzhenitsyn notes that we should fear God and keep His commandments. God is not indifferent. Christ Himself suffered unjustly. Do you accept his reconciling forgiveness or are you, like Camus, "the contrary of the reconciled man"?30

Solzhenitsyn suggests that the world nowadays has "reached the climactic point of irreligion, and was on the threshold of "a new spiritual era."31 With spiritual values come the understanding of good and evil and the possibility of tragic and heroic literature. This means refusal to compromise—in literature and in character.

There is not a way left to us to pass from our present contemptible amorphousness into the future except through open, personal and predominantly public (to set an example) sacrifice. We all have to "rediscover our cultural treasures and values" not by erudition, not by scientific accomplishment, but by our form of spiritual conduct.32

The contrast between Meursault and the Gulag prisoners shows modern man just what Solzhenitsyn means.


1. Corrie ten Boom et al., The Hiding Place (Old Tappan NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1971) 217.

2. Albert Camus, The Rebel, trans. Anthony Bower (New York: Vintage, 1956). 303.

3. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. Justin O’Brien (New York-. Alfred A. Knopf, 1964) 56.

4. Myth of Sisyphus, 96.

5. The Rebel, 101.

6. The Rebel, 24.

7. Albert Camus, The Stranger, trans. Stuart Gilbert, Eleven Modern Short Novels, ed. Leo Hamalian and Edmond L. Volpe (New York: Putnam, 1970) 617.

8. The Rebel, 25.

9. The Stranger, 617.

10. The Stranger, 618.

11. The Rebel, 303.

12. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, trans. Max Hayward and Ronald Hingley (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1963) 210.

13. Solzhenitsyn, 2.

14. Solzhenitsyn, 206.

15. Solzhenitsyn, 206.

16. One Day is one of the few works of Solzhenitsyn which was written to pass Soviet censors. Khrushchev hated Stalin, but he surely would not have authorized One Day in the Life of Alyoshka the Baptist either!

17. Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, trans. Thomas P. Whitney (New York: Harper and Row, 1975) II, 611.

18. Gulag Archipelago, II, 603.

19. Gulag Archipelago, II, 611.

20. Andrej Kodjak, Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978), 144-45.

21. Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Oak and the Calf, trans. Harry Willets (New York: Harper and Row, 1980) 292.

22. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, "The Smatterers," in Under the Rubble, ed. Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Michael Scammell (Boston: Little Brown, 1975) 274.

23. Kodjak, 22.

24. Gulag Archipelago, II, 611.

25. Gulag Archipelago, II, 612.

26. Gulag Archipelago, II, 614,615.

27. Gulag Archipelago, II, 613, author’s ellipses and italics. Cf. Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, A World Split Apart (New York: Harper and Row, 1978) 57,58. Very similar to The teaching of Jesus in Luke 13:1-3.

28. Myth of Sisyphus, 92.

29. This was a problem, he says, of the Russian radicals in the early 1900’s. They could not see beyond the revolution.

30. Myth of Sisyphus, 59 n.2.

31. Oak and Calf, 405. In A World Split Apart he calls it a new "anthropologic age."

32. "The Smatterers," 273, author’s italics.

Given at Northeast Regional Conference on Christianity & Literature, 1988, by James Bair

Copyright © 1986-2008, James Bair. All rights reserved.

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