During his time in Stalin’s prison camps, the dissident Soviet novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn came to reject socialism altogether and eventually to embrace Orthodox Christianity. In a penetrating essay on Solzhenitsyn’s magnum opus, The Gulag Archipelago, Gary Saul Morson investigates this conversion, and also its relationship to Communist ideology itself:
Bolshevik ethics explicitly began and ended with atheism. Only someone who rejected all religious or quasi-religious morals could be a Bolshevik because, as Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and other Bolshevik leaders insisted, the only standard of right and wrong was success for the party. The bourgeoisie falsely claim we have no ethics, Lenin explained in a 1920 speech. But what we reject is any ethics based on God’s commandments or anything resembling them, such as abstract principles, timeless values, universal human rights, or any tenet of philosophical idealism.
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. [One such memoirist, Evgeniya] Ginzburg, describes how a group of semiliterate 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, [other prisoners] argued about the believers’ behavior, [asking of each other], “should we have had the courage to act as they did?” The recognition that they would not would often transform people into believers.
Read as autobiography, the key moment of Gulag may be Solzhenitsyn’s conversation with “a pale, yellowish youth, with a Jewish tenderness of face,” named Boris Gammerov. Solzhenitsyn happened to mention a prayer by President Roosevelt and “expressed what seemed to me a self-evident evaluation of it: ‘Well, that’s hypocrisy, of course.’” Gammerov replied: “Why do you not admit the possibility that a political leader might sincerely believe in God?”
“Do you believe in God?” asks the narrator of Gammerov, who “tranquilly” answers “of course.” In Solzhenitsyn’s telling, it was this conversation that led to his religious conversion.