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How To Live Not By Lies

Solzhenitsyn's simple formula for regaining one's inner freedom

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in a 1970s essay collection called From Under The Rubble, wrote that the worst thing about the Soviet system was not its material oppression. “A man can live in such conditions without harm to his spiritual essence,” said Solzhenitsyn. Rather, the Soviet system is “unique in world history” because it compels everyone to participate “in the general, conscious lie.” He went on to say that the most essential task is not achieving political freedom, but winning one’s “inner freedom” from entanglement in the lie. Those who “voluntarily run with the hounds of falsehood” will not be able to justify themselves to the living, to history, to their friends, or to their children.

Solzhenitsyn goes on:

Which is the sacrifice? To go for years without truly breathing, gulping down stench? Or to begin to breathe, as is the prerogative of every man on this earth? What cynic would venture to object aloud to such a policy as non-participation in the lie?

Oh, people will object, at once and with ingenuity: what is a lie? Who can determine precisely where the lie ends and truth begins? In every historically concrete dialectical situation, and so on — all the evasions that liars have been using for the past half century.

But the answer could not be simpler: decide yourself, as your conscience dictates. And for a long time this will suffice. Depending upon his horizons, his life experience and his education, each person will have his own conception of the line where the public and state lie begins: some will see it as being altogether remote from him, while another will experience it as a rope already cutting into his neck. And there, at the point where you yourself in all honesty see the borderline of the lie, is where you must refuse to submit to that lie. You must shun that part of the lie that is clear and obvious to you. …

What does it mean, not to lie? It doesn’t mean going around preaching the truth at the top of your voice (perish the thought!) It doesn’t even mean muttering what you think in an undertone. It simply means: not saying what you don’t think, and that includes not whispering, not opening your mouth, not raising your hand, not casting your vote, not feigning a smile, not lending your presence, not standing up, and not cheering.

We all work in different fields and move in different walks of life. Those who work in the humanities and all who are studying find themselves much more profoundly and inextricably involved in lying and participating in the lie — they are fenced in by layer after layer of lies. [!!!!! — RD] In the technical sciences it can be more ingeniously avoided, but even so one cannot escape daily entering some door, attending some meeting, putting one’s signature to something or undertaking some obligation which is a cowardly submission to the lie. The lie surrounds us at work, on our way to work, in our leisure pursuits — in everything we see, hear and read.

And just as varied as the forms of the lie are the forms of resisting it. Whoever steels his heart and opens his eyes to the tentacles of the lie will in each situation, every day and every hour, realize what he must do.


Yes, it is a terrible thought! In the beginning the holes in the filter are so narrow, so very narrow: can a person with so many needs really squeeze through such a narrow opening? Let me reassure him: it is only that way at the entrance, at the very beginning. Very soon, not far along, the holes slacken and relax their grip, and eventually cease to grip you altogether. Yes, of course! It will cost you canceled dissertations, annulled degrees, demotions, dismissals, expulsions, sometimes even deportations. But you will not be cast into flames. Or crushed by a tank. And you will still have food and shelter.

This path is the safest and most accessible of all the paths open to us for the average man in the street. But it is also the most effective! Only we, knowing our system, can imagine what will happen when thousands and tens of thousands of people take this path — how our country will be purified and transformed without shots or bloodshed.

But this path is also the most moral: we shall be commencing this liberation and purification with our own souls. Before we purify the country we shall have purified ourselves. And this is the only correct historical order: for what is the good of purifying our country’s air if we ourselves remain dirty?

People will say: how unfair on the young! After all, if you don’t utter the obligatory lie at your social science exam, you’ll be failed and expelled from your institute, and your education and life will be disrupted. …

Unfair on the young? But whose is the future if not theirs? Who do we expect to form the sacrificial elite? For whose sake do we agonize over the future? We are already old. If they themselves do not build an honest society, they will never see it at all.

Emphases in the original. I thank the New Zealand reader who sent this along.

Part of the Benedict Option for Christians, and part of the general resistance for all of us, is training ourselves to identify the general, conscious Lie, and to steel ourselves to resist it.

Think hard about this, in your own life — how to integrate it into your own life, I mean. How to teach Solzhenitsyn’s principle to your children. If you’re a churchgoer, think about how to form your own congregation in this principle. If you don’t do it now, you will not be able to resist when you are put seriously to the test. It is quite clear where this society is headed. We will all have to live by lies, or pay a price for resisting. As Solzhenitsyn says, the price you pay by not resisting the culture of the lie is nothing less than your soul.

Here’s something I wrote back in 2015, about Solzhenitsyn’s dictum applied to a post-Obergefell world.



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