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leksandr Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned for over a decade. He experienced the horrors of the Gulag and went on to record his experiences in The Gulag Archipelago. Within the pages of this sizeable text, the author provides several philosophical insights. And though The Gulag Archipelago is a response to the villainy of the Soviet Union, these insights are relevant to both our present and our future.

Good and evil

“Gradually, it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts.”

This is the most famous extract from The Gulag Archipelago. Solzhenitsyn dispenses with the idea of good and evil on a large scale. Instead, he believes the battle between good and evil is fought within every human being.

Expelling evil from the world is impossible. However, on an individual level, we can constrict the evil inside ourselves and encourage others to do the same.

A photograph of Joseph Stalin by an unknown photographer, 1920 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Solzhenitsyn then highlights the problem with revolutions, arguing that they dismantle societies without acknowledging good and evil on an individual level.

The kulaks (wealthier, landowning peasants), for an instance, were targeted in the 1930s during Stalin’s purges. From the Bolsheviks’ perspective, all of the kulaks were evil, as they were a threat to the communist utopia. Each kulak’s inner battle with good and evil did not matter.

The dangers of ideologies

Solzhenitsyn argues that ideologies encourage evil in the individual. It is their ideology that justifies the evil acts they carry out:

“Ideology — that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justifications 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 …”

Again, context is key here. The millions of corpses that stacked up under Stalin’s leadership were deemed acceptable because they were necessary for the greater good: a communist utopia. Of course, in reality, the Soviet Union was nothing like a utopia.

Whilst Solzhenitsyn expands the dangers of ideologies to the rest of the twentieth century as well, this concept can be applied throughout all of human history.

The villains of the past did not believe they were evil. They allowed themselves to be wicked because of an ideology.

A photograph of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn by an unknown photographer, 1998 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece is a heavy text to get through. However, it’s a fascinating read for those who want to know more about the grim reality of the Soviet Gulag. The two central ideas highlighted above are a small part of the work, but they are also amongst the most valuable. The conflict between good and evil takes place within all of us. It’s something every individual has to battle throughout their lives. Evil can easily flourish when ideologies take hold, for they allow us to justify the wicked acts we perform.

This last point has never been more relevant. With the rise of social media, political tribalism is being enforced in the online world. In order to avoid this, we should make a conscious effort to respect those opinions we do not agree with. Only then can we find common ground and avoid being fixated by a single ideology.

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