The response to truth

About the time the Planned Parenthood videos first started breaking, I was immersed in reading about one of my heroes, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. Historian Michael Nicholson's The Gulag Archipelago: A Survey of Soviet Responses allowed me to glimpse the details of how Solzhenitsyn's bombshell book on the Soviet prison camp system ripped through Soviet daily life.

Even if you haven't been seared personally by the pages of Gulag, consider here an invitation to reflect on how the prevailing "orthodoxy" of one bygone superpower confronted a jaw-dropping exposé of its own cruelty. The phases of our collective response to Planned Parenthood have yet to be seen, but six phases of Soviet response to Gulag can be discerned.


In the late '60s and early '70s, before Gulag was smuggled to the West and published, Soviet authorities were aware of Solzhenitsyn's leanings. After enjoying several years of popularity as a writer in Nikita Khrushchev's "thaw" of the early '60s, Solzhenitsyn was "internally exiled" in the village of Kok-Terek in Kazakhstan, and in 1969, he was stripped of his membership in the prestigious Soviet Union of Writers.

2. Assassination attempt

In 1971, the KGB made an attempt on Solzhenitsyn's life using an unknown biological, "gel-based" delivery agent. Already a cancer survivor, Solzhenitsyn became seriously ill, but survived.

3. Indirect attack

When Gulag was printed in Western Europe in late 1973, the Soviet propaganda organs played it cool. In early 1974, Pravda, the Politburo's premier Moscow newspaper, merely reprinted some critical reviews of Gulag from Western "progressive" and pro-Soviet publications. "The technique," Nicholson recounts, "has the advantage of allowing a critical stance to be maintained without committing the authorities to any specific course of action."

4. Ad hominem attacks

As news of Gulag went viral globally, the Politburo could not stand by. Many Soviet citizens had begun to circulate Gulag through samizdat - literally, "self-publishing" by borrowing and retyping the illegal text at great risk - and the officials were compelled to attack. In two state-sponsored articles, the "ideologically correct attitude" toward Gulag was staked out.

The Pravda PR machine framed Gulag through the lens of patriotism and loyalty: The decorated World War II veteran Solzhenitsyn was labeled a "traitor" and "Hitlerite." Pravda asserted that Solzhenitsyn was "choking with pathological hatred for the country where he was born and grew up, for the socialist system, and for Soviet people." A second editorial quipped, "By the light of day a reptile always looks repulsive."

5. Deportation

The next phase was swift. Like a tumor on the Soviet body, Solzhenitsyn required surgical removal. Just days before his impending arrest, Solzhenitsyn called on his fellow Russians "to live not by lies." On Feb. 12, 1972, Solzhenitsyn was deported to Frankfurt, Germany, and stripped of his citizenship.

6. Co-opting of friends and "religious" voices

Solzhenitsyn began a life of exile in small-town Vermont, but a new phase of Soviet response was just beginning. Bought off by the authorities, longtime friends in the Soviet Union turned on him in interviews and published accounts of his "megalomania" or "moral degeneracy." One such "lifelong friend" was awarded - soon after he denounced Solzhenitsyn - with a choice chair in chemistry at a university. A state-sponsored Orthodox priest accused Solzhenitsyn of "maniacal confidence that he is right in all matters" and that an evil spirit "not of God" animated his writings.

7. Life in our Archipelago

In a previous job I had in prison ministry, I went on a work trip to Kazakhstan in the dead of winter. On a drive to visit a prison that housed inmates with tuberculosis, my hosts pointed to a forlorn smattering of collapsing shacks on the horizon. The temperature outside our SUV was minus 15 F. "That's where Solzhenitsyn lived," the driver said.

Today's "American Archipelago" of abortion swallows nearly 1 million lives annually. As key tenets of our Catholic faith sink ever lower in popularity polls, we might take a moment to imagine whether our own lives reflect any of the icy courage, resilient (Orthodox Christian) faith and steely determination of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.

As Solzhenitsyn's village faded from my view that day, I shivered in the inhuman cold and stared out at the bleak expanse. Here, I thought, was the unlikely ground that taught one man the price of truth, the call to "live not by lies," and how light and sweet the yoke of faith can rest upon us.

Johnson, a husband and father of five, is Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde's special assistant for evangelization and media. He can be reached on Twitter @Soren_t.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015