I read a lot of Russian literature. Sharanksy, Solzhenitsyn. Dostoevsky. As I become involved with their work a relationship develops which is helped along by learning their stories. Reading their biographies – trying to understand what shaped their visions of the world, why they would say and do what often times seems so counter-intuitive. It’s noteworthy that so many of these stories involve the Gulag. “66 million lives from 1918 to 1950” – 66 million deaths it should read. That immutable specter of Russian landscape – a genocide of thought and ideas and dreams.
The irony is that when you read this crushing fact in an author’s bio, it usually takes only a line. “Then Stalin sent him to the Gulag.”
Unlike other Americans, I’ve never been able to think antiseptically about the suffering. It’s been too much a part my life. Even if I’ve never myself been forced to flee; been arrested for writing what I see or think – I’ve known folks who have. And I’ve fought for them. I’ve fought for them because I have that privilege – yes that’s the right word. In America we’ve created a place where authors and playwrights and musicians haven’t had to think about the gulag – 250 years, a quarter millennium. That’s an amazing statement; and its more astonishing because you who read this probably don’t think it so.
And I fight for them selfishly too; because I know that this can change – if we let it. Rights are only protected through their use. Just as a muscle grows strong from labor; or a mind becomes sharp through study – so our rights are only strengthened as we exercise them. Freedom dies not in an epic explosion of violence, an assault against those who defend her, but instead with a shrug as the lazy stop caring and wander off. Free societies, we forget, are a luxury; made of free people unsupervised by a sovereign or a big brother, interacting with each other in our perfect spontaneous order which has led to great prosperity product of those liberties.
But this prosperity has made us complacent; and it has placed the gulag too far from our consciousness. Starvation, frostbite. Saying goodbye to families before they got on their train or their bus – not knowing if they would return. How would their family eat? How would their children pay for school? Would they go hungry? And the self-doubt. Wasn’t their first job to provide for their children? And didn’t their quest for the written word take them far from safe shores into infested waters, dangerous not only for them but for their charges? And isn’t that selfish? And aren’t these considerations those that the dictatorships revel in – to make people choose? To have them make a decision between their passion for ideas penned and preserved; and their duty to their family and the responsibilities that God has given them.
Alas, this is not only an ancient consideration – it is an issue faced every day even now. Salman Rushdie in hiding from the Mullahs; Abdul Rahman Munif banished from his homeland. Raif Badawi’s health destroyed by flogging. Fighting with the censors; fearing that dreaded knock on the door; worrying about the spray of assassin’s bullets on a warm afternoon. So what can we do? For those of us who know that to raise our voice is the first right of humanity, and the most fleeting, the answer is simple – we keep writing. We entreat our God and our fellow men to listen, to remember, to resist – and we continue.
“Oh, and to make sure that you understand, I’m going to send over some of my men. You know, just to take a look at things before they go into print. For your protection, of course; I’d hate to see you print something wrong and, well, and have a rough time of it.” He gestured down to the chained men who were being led from the salt fields back to their tents. “I’m not afraid of blood. It’s ink I worry about,” Machado said menacingly. – The Burning of San Porfirio, Joel D. Hirst