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Fighting Russian Social Justice Warriors

Here’s a terrific essay by Gary Saul Morson on the moral significance of Russian literature, and in particular, of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s writing. Excerpts:

Why is it, Solzhenitsyn asks, that Macbeth, Iago, and other Shakespearean evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses, while Lenin and Stalin did in millions? The answer is that Macbeth and Iago “had no ideology.” Ideology makes the killer and torturer an agent of good, “so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors.” Ideology never achieved such power and scale before the twentieth century.

Anyone can succumb to ideology. All it takes is a sense of one’s own moral superiority for being on the right side; a theory that purports to explain everything; and—this is crucial—a principled refusal to see things from the point of view of one’s opponents or victims, lest one be tainted by their evil viewpoint.

If we remember that totalitarians and terrorists think of themselves as warriors for justice, we can appreciate how good people can join them. [Emphasis mine — RD] Lev Kopelev, the model for Solzhenitsyn’s character Rubin, describes how, as a young man, he went to the countryside to help enforce the collectivization of agriculture. Bolshevik policy included the enforced starvation of several million peasants, and Kopelev describes how he was able to take morsels of food “from women and children with distended bellies, turning blue, still breathing but with vacant, lifeless eyes,” in the ardent conviction that he was building socialism. Other memoirs of this period also describe how a loyal communist at last awoke to what he (or she) did. In this way, the Soviet experience inspired a rebirth of conversion literature, and Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag, which details his own change from Bolshevik to Christian, is a prime example.


Each conversion memoir reports that change was immensely hard. For one thing, as Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon (1941) correctly divined, the Party was one’s purpose in life and constituted one’s whole family. Challenging it was as unthinkable as simultaneously renouncing one’s education and all one’s friends and relatives. For another, one was taught that Marxist theory was a hard science, and so rejecting it was like denying evolution. This science had purportedly proven that human sacrifice was as inevitable to saving humanity as surgical cutting is to an operation. To build communism for innumerable future generations of perfect people, the sacrifice of the relatively few, imperfect homunculi of the present was a small price to pay. For that matter, compared to the infinite future, every one alive would be a trivial number. In any case, as it was often phrased, the deaths were caused not by us but by History.

What is more, the people killed were class enemies, which meant that even if they had not committed counter-revolutionary crimes, they were potential criminals. Vasily Grossman, the first significant writer to report the Holocaust when he saw it unfolding on Nazi-occupied Soviet territory, was not unique in pointing out that the exact equivalent of the Nazi category of “race” was the Soviet category of “class.” Social class, like race, was inherited, not chosen, and could not be changed. In the newspaper Red Terror, Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the secret police, explained in 1918:

We are not fighting against single individuals. We are exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class. It is not necessary during the interrogation to look for evidence proving that the accused opposed the Soviets by word or action. The first question which you should ask him is what class does he belong to, what is his origin, his education and his profession. These are the questions which will determine the fate of the accused. Such is the sense and the essence of red terror.

Or, as one of Grossman’s characters observes, “the concept of innocence is a holdover from the Middle Ages.”

Morson has a brutal section in which he talks about the stone-cold evil of Bolshevik ethics. Here’s one more passage:

Thinking novelistically, Solzhenitsyn asks: how well does morality without God pass the test of Soviet experience? Every camp prisoner sooner or later faced a choice: whether or not to resolve to survive at any price. Do you take the food or shoes of a weaker prisoner? “This is the great fork of camp life. From this point the roads go to the right and to the left. . . . If you go to the right—you lose your life; and if you go to the left—you lose your conscience.” Memoirist after memoirist, including atheists like Evgeniya Ginzburg, report that those who denied anything beyond the material world were the first to choose survival. They may have insisted that high moral ideals do not require belief in God, but when it came down to it, morals grounded in nothing but one’s own conviction and reasoning, however cogent, proved woefully inadequate under experiential, rather than logical, pressure. In Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales—I regard these stories, which first became known in the late 1960s, as the greatest since Chekhov—a narrator observes: “The intellectual becomes a coward, and his own brain provides a ‘justification’ of his own actions. He can persuade himself of anything” as needed.

Among Gulag memoirists, even the atheists acknowledge that the only people who did not succumb morally were the believers. Which religion they professed did not seem to matter. Ginzburg describes how a group of semi-literate believers refused to go out to work on Easter Sunday. In the Siberian cold, they were made to stand barefoot on an ice-covered pond, where they continued to chant their prayers. Later that night, the rest of us argued about the believers’ behavior. “Was this fanaticism, or fortitude in defense of the rights of conscience? Were we to admire or regard them as mad? And, most troubling of all, should we have had the courage to act as they did?” The recognition that they would not would often transform people into believers.

Read the whole thing. It appears in New Criterion; I’m so grateful to that little magazine for publishing Morson that I’m going to buy a subscription.

I’m telling you, we have so much to learn from people who lived through godless, remorseless, utopia in power. As Morson recounts, the experience of the gulag made a religious believer out of Solzhenitsyn, such that in The Gulag Archipelago, the great man thanked prison “for being in my life.” We have to hope and pray that something like that doesn’t come to us here. But if it’s going to be stopped, it’s not going to be stopped on its own. A Catholic woman said to me the other day that a few years ago, in Boston, she and her husband were at a Latin mass, and the priest, in his homily, said days of persecution were coming. She told me, “We thought he was far out back then, but now, I can see what he was talking about.”

I was thinking as I was writing this post how we are going to help our kids form the kind of consciences that will be able to bear witness to the truth, in whatever form — soft or hard — that persecution takes. Just now, this e-mail came in from my friend Christopher Roberts, a Catholic theologian and deacon, and president of Martin Saints Classical High School, an independent Catholic school in suburban Philadelphia. With his permission, I post this excerpt of the message he sent to the parents in the school community today. The emphases below are in the original, but I would even more strongly emphasize the importance of not being sentimentalists about what’s happening today in our culture:

But there was another strand in the scriptures at Mass today, this one perhaps more squarely challenging to those of us who are adults, older folks like me and most of the people reading this email. Today’s other reading reminded us of our responsibilities.

This other reading was from the book of Maccabees. There we met Eleazar, a 90 year old Jew of great dignity, being held captive by the Seleucid empire. They torture him, trying to force him to eat pork. He resists, in large part because he did not want young people to think he had gone over to an alien religion.

Think of it: at 90 years old, he still has a mission in life. He knows that he is an elder, that the young are watching him, that the witness he gives and the things he does will shape the faith of the next generation.

Friends, as adult Catholics in this day and age, we need to hold fast like Eleazar. We need to make sure that we’re building a community of faith that can witness to young people about fidelity, even when it costs us, even when the rulers and culture of our day become more and more hostile to the faith.

Make no mistake: the beauty of Jesus is real, and his love will win. But at the same time, our culture is changing, and we cannot be sentimental about it. That is why we adults need to come together to build communities like Martin Saints, schools that are committed to fidelity, schools that are dogged and determined to shine the light of Christ in the darkness.

And as with Eleazar and Zacchaeus, if we’re honest, real fidelity is going to cost us something. When Zacchaeus came down from that tree, he changed his life, and shared his wealth with the poor.

So the question is: as with Eleazar, what is our responsibility to young people today? As with Zacchaeus, how should our encounter with Christ change us and guide us?

Perhaps you heard on the news this week about the new and diabolical television commercial by Sprite, or Chik-fil-A buckling to criticism of their Christian values. These are small things in a way – we’re not going to panic about a soda commercial with drag queens, or a fried chicken chain being cowardly about LGBT issues. 

But at the same time, we’ve got to be sober and alert. These are real indications of a changing and unfriendly culture. This is how the media tries to shape our children and their imaginations. This is how the background culture slowly tries to change what passes for normal and moral.

Friends, this is why we have Martin Saints. We need to build a community where young people encounter the beauty of Christ, in contrast to the propaganda for darkness that is vying for their attention.

We need to be as steadfast as Eleazar, laboring and sacrificing to pass the faith to the next generation. We need to seek the eyes of Christ like Zacchaeus, and it’s our job to cultivate this longing in our students and children.

Chris didn’t ask me to do this, but if you’re a Catholic who wants to direct your tithe to a Catholic organization that preaches and teaches the faith, full up, Martin Saints welcomes donations. There may well be a school like Martin Saints in your area. Please consider donating, or getting involved. At Sequitur Classical Academy, our little classical Christian school in Baton Rouge, we welcome the involvement of people in the community who don’t just want to sit back and watch things fall apart, but who want to form a generation capable of redeeming the time.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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