The Line between Good and Evil

Excerpt froom: Gulag Archipelago
Volume II, Pag. 615-617


“In the seventh year of my imprisonment I had gone over and re-examined my life quite enough and had come to understand why everything had happened to me: both prison and, as an additional piece of ballast, my malignant tumor. And I would not have murmured even if all that punishment had been considered inadequate.
Punishment? But … whose?
Well, just think about that—whose?
I lay there a long time in that recovery room from which Kornfeld had gone forth to his death, and all alone during sleepless nights I pondered with astonishment my own life and the turns it had taken. In accordance with my established camp custom I set down my thoughts in rhymed verses—so as to remember them. And the most accurate thing is to cite them here—just as they came from the pillow of a hospital patient, when the hard-labor camp was still shuddering outside the windows in the wake of a revolt.

When was it that I completely Scattered the good seeds, one and all?
For after all I spent my boyhood In the bright singing of Thy temples.
Bookish subtleties sparkled brightly, Piercing my arrogant brain, The secrets of the world were … in my grasp, Life’s destiny … as pliable as wax.
Blood seethed—and every swirl Gleamed iridescently before me, Without a rumble the building of my faith Quietly crumbled within my heart.
But passing here between being and nothingness, Stumbling and clutching at the edge, I look behind me with a grateful tremor Upon the life that I have lived.
Not with good judgment nor with desire Are its twists and turns illumined.
But with the even glow of the Higher Meaning Which became apparent to me only later on.
And now with measuring cup returned to me, Scooping up the living water, God of the Universe! I believe again!
Though I renounced You, You were with me!

Looking back, I saw that for my whole conscious life I had not understood either myself or my strivings. What had seemed for so long to be beneficial now turned out in actuality to be fatal, and I had been striving to go in the opposite direction to that which was truly necessary to me. But just as the waves of the sea knock the inexperienced swimmer off his feet and keep tossing him back onto the shore, so also was I painfully tossed back on dry land by the blows of misfortune. And it was only because of this that I was able to travel the path which I had always really wanted to travel.
It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. 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 line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains… an unuprooted small corner of evil.”

Aleksandr Isaevič Solzhenitsyn, the man who brought the Soviet Union to its knees.


This blog post is a tribute to 1791, a YouTube channel  which remained active until November 2019.

Watch: “THE LINE“.

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