Untimely Observations

Solzhenitsyn on Totalitarianism

Together with virtues of stability, continuity, immunity from political ague, there are, needless to say, great dangers and defects in authoritarian systems of government: the danger of dishonest authorities, upheld by violence, the danger of arbitrary decisions and the difficulty of correcting them, the danger of sliding into tyranny.

But authoritarian regimes as such are not frightening - only those which are answerable to no one and nothing.

The autocrats of earlier, religious ages, though their power was ostensibly unlimited, felt themselves responsible before God and their own consciences.

The autocrats of our own time are dangerous precisely because it is difficult to find higher values which would bind them.

It would be more correct to say that in relation to the true ends of human beings here on earth (and these cannot be equated with the aims of the animal world, which amount to no more than unhindered existence) the state structure is of secondary significance. That this is so, Christ himself teaches us. 'Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's - not because every Caesar deserves it, but because Caesar's concern is not with the most important thing in our lives.


The state system which exists in our country [i.e. USSR, 1973] is terrible not because it is undemocratic, authoritarian, based on physical constraint - a man can live under such conditions without harm to his spiritual essence.

Our present system is unique in world history, because over and above its physical and economic constraints, it demands of us total surrender of our souls, continuous and active participation in the general, conscious *lie*. To this putrefaction of the soul, this spiritual enslavement, human beings who wish to be human cannot consent.

When Caesar, having extracted what is Caesar's, demands still more insistently that we render unto him what is God's - that is a sacrifice we dare not make!"

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, "As Breathing and Consciousness Returns" (1973)

It is hard for a decadent Westerner to understand what is being said here, having been brought-up in an atheist society dedicated to the pursuit of happiness via freedom of lifestyle.

Although Solzhenitsyn personally experienced some of the worst and most sustained "physical and economic constraints" imposed by an 'authoritarian' government, Solzhenitsyn's fundamental criticism was that the Soviet regime demanded total surrender of the soul.

He (I believe) was saying that a condition of surrender of the soul to 'the general conscious lie' was in itself worse than (for example) his experience of the Gulag.

He was pointing out the ultimate danger of rule by those who have no higher values to bind them -- not God, not their conscience, not even patriotism.

He is saying that freedom is a means to an end, and that the end or aim of life is more important -- but that 'happiness' is merely an aim of 'the animal world'.

He is saying that to have a Christian society with Christian rulers is more important than the organization of the political system.