Recruiting Solzhenitsyn to destroy “them”

by Mr. Sheehy

I am not the kind of teacher who spends the summer getting ready for the next year. Next year will come and I have other things to worry about over the summer. Plus, I have found without fail that if I make a plan three months in advance, or even two weeks in advance, I will end up trashing that plan in favor of one I’ve cooked up the day before. Long term planning of specifics is therefore not something I do.

If I speak of a more general concept of planning, however, I would then admit to spending my entire life planning for the next year or the next day or the next anything. Everything is fodder for everything else–whether a pleasurable story or a provoking point.

This summer, therefore, I have been generally and unintentionally collecting material to consider when I teach my unit on Elie Wiesel’s Night. Teaching the Holocaust is a difficult unit for me, fraught with delicate balances. One of the more interesting see-saws I set up is to place on one seat the unique horror of the Holocaust and on the other seat the present reality and possibility of it. For the horror seat, I dwell on Wiesel’s account and other historical collections to stretch students’ imaginations, encouraging them to grasp how horrible it was. But with the reality seat, I turn around and ask them to consider places like Rwanda and Sudan, that they might not be so arrogant as to categorize the Holocaust as an event done “then” by “them.”

The film “Hotel Rwanda” helped me greatly to overcome the “then” concept, and many students in their end-of-the-year letters to me remarked that the movie was the most memorable experience of their year. But as powerful as the movie was, it left the cherished “them” in place.

Next year I will likely invoke Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in my attempt to knock down the “them.” I am reading Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago for my own gratification, but as usual, I will not be able to restrain myself from sharing my own discoveries with my students–isn’t that part of what impassioned teaching is, though? Sharing the passion for knowledge and wisdom? Sharing my small portion of the depths of the world’s discoveries, in hopes that students will share theirs in return?

In a chapter called “The Bluecaps” Solzhenitsyn blows away any pride he might rightfully have carried for being a victim instead of an evildoer during Stalin’s reign in the USSR:

As the folk saying goes: If you speak for the wolf, speak against him as well.

Where did this wolf-tribe appear from among our people? Does it really stem from our own roots? Our own blood?

It is our own.

And just so we don’t go around flaunting too proudly the white mantle of the just, let everyone ask himself: “If my life had turned out differently, might I myself not have become just such an executioner?”

It is a dreadful question if one answers it honestly. (p. 160)

Solzhenitsyn later elaborates by explaining how he himself grew into a prideful and potentially dangerous creature, and therefore had lost the right to produce a political expose of the USSR’s Gulags. In his characteristically impassioned style, he explains:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? . . . From good to evil is one quaver, says the proverb. And correspondingly, from evil to good. (p. 168).

But how? my students will still ask, even when faced with these paragraphs. How could German officers have watched over the killing of so many? Part of that question is for them to answer, but Solzhenitsyn suggests a possibility for this as well, and his suggestion strikes me as powerfully accurate:

To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek a justification for his actions. (p. 173)

To overcome that justification–or at least to redirect it–Solzhenitsyn explains, true evildoing requires ideology:

Ideology–that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. (p. 174)

Ideology, it seems to me, is what the apostle Paul referred to in Romans when he stated that people practicing unrighteousness not only were performing such actions but were creating a culture where such actions were approved. Thus, Solzhenitsyn describes in evoking terms an age-old phenomenon.

This is what I hope to convey to my students when we read Wiesel and study the Holocaust–these lessons I am learning from Solzhenitsyn. I am continually moved by this account of the Russian Gulag. My heart breaks for those sent there, for those whose lives were robbed and destroyed. But this account is so humble and fully rounded in its voice, so passionate and sensibly explanatory, that I never lose track of the possibility of it. “Yes.” I keep saying to Mr. Solzhenitsyn. “Yes, I can see how this could happen. How it might even still happen here, in my own country.”

Perhaps if I share well with my students I can convey a fraction of that lesson, and perhaps Solzhenitsyn and I together can address the detached “them” that my students build when studying genocide and holocaust.

Hopefully they’ll learn the reality of the lesson secondhand.

Thanks for reading.