Monday, January 4, 2021


The Truth Shall Make You Free

“We know they are lying,
  they know they are lying,
  they know we know they are lying,
  we know they know we know they are lying,
  but they are still lying.”
         ~Alexandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn

Sometime during the late 1970s, while I was studying Russian at BYU, a large Russian orchestra toured America—from the East Coast to the West Coast. During their 45-day tour the orchestra members had only one day off work. That day occurred the day after their concert at BYU's DeJong Concert Hall. It was a Friday, if I remember correctly. Those of us studying Russian were given the opportunity to play host for orchestra members. We met them about 9:00 a.m. We all showed up in our cars and offered to take them wherever they wanted to go: to see downtown Salt Lake City, the ski resorts, art museums, beautiful Bridal Veil Falls, the university, whatever they wanted. But they would have none of that. With perhaps only one or two exceptions they wanted to go shopping.

"What are the best stores? Where are the most stores together in one place?" They didn't want cheap goods; they wanted quality. Though they didn't say as much, we sensed that everything in America would be a bargain by Soviet standards. They'd been saving for a long time for a once-in-a-lifetime day such as this.

You can only get so many people into one car and so we broke into 20 or 25 small groups and off University Mall we went. We were there the rest of the morning and afternoon, right up to suppertime. The women were the most enthusiastic shoppers. They reveled in trying on the latest, trendiest fashions. This didn't seem like a fun outing for them. Rather, it was serious business. The men also shopped, but not with so much stern attention to every dollar and dime spent. And so it was easier to converse with the men. 

Still, I found the two men who came with me in my small orange Opal Cadette a bit more reticent than I had hoped. Not one good word did they speak about America, and nary a bad word about Russia or the Soviet system. The most enlightening remark I got out of them was that "something is wrong with your fruits and vegetables. They look beautiful. But they don't taste right. Too artificial, not natural. In Russia our fruit isn't so beautiful but each bite is full of flavor, rich flavor, full of nutrients, very tasty." The most candid remark I got was that, "You Americans are so naive. In Russia, we never trust the news. But you Americans are fools; you believe everything, your newspapers, your televisions, your professors. Very foolish." When one of the Russians told me that we Americans are shallow, placing more value on the accumulation of things than of knowledge and culture, I responded that as an American I'd rather give up things than lose any degree of freedom. He was shocked. "Really? Do you really mean that?" (I did then; I do now.)

One elderly musician went off alone with one of my fellow students. Back in class on Monday he related that the elderly musician told him, "We don't know who we can trust. Certainly some of our fellows are KGB. Which ones? Who knows?" He also said not to believe anything good that you ever hear about communism and the Soviet system. "It's all lies. There is nothing good about communism." 

And this brings me back to the topic at hand. And to one of my favorite books, Grey is the Color of Hope by Irina Ratushinskaya. If you want to read a marvelous book—and one that's highly pertinent to what's happening in America in 2020 and 2021—buy this book. You can get a cheap second-hand copy on eBay or Amazon. In 1983, Irina was sentenced to a Soviet prison camp for writing "anti-Soviet propaganda in poetic form". Her poetry often mentioned God, you see, and was therefore "anti-Soviet". After a year of incarceration during her trials, she was finally sentenced to 7 years hard labor followed by 5 years internal exile. She continued to write poetry while in the prison camp—most often on tiny rectangular slips of cigarette paper. Other prisoners and even guards helped smuggle her poetry out of the prison and to her husband in Kiev. He in turn smuggled her poetry to publishers in the West. And so, thanks to political pressure from her fans in Western Europe and North America, the Soviet government was pressured to let her out of prison. She was freed in October of 1987. 

Of all the atrocities she and her cohorts experienced in the Soviet prison system, they said the single hardest thing to deal with was the incessant lying. For years they all endured unbelievably harsh conditions. Frequently they'd be assigned to 15-day stints in a punishment cell or "SHIZO" where they endured filth and cold and near-starvation. At night she and a fellow SHIZO mate would often sleep on the floor alongside the walls where the heating pipes ran. The pipes were often as cold as ice, but during some lucky moments heat would flow—not adequate heat—just enough to warm numb fingers and toes. Mice often crawled far up sleeves in an effort to share a bit of human warmth. And yet, besides all this, it was the lies they hated most. Here's a passage from pages 156-157 of her book:

...but it was the lies we objected to more than the punishments. It's impossible to tolerate brazen lies, told straight to your face. Human nature rebels against it.

What is the worst thing in the camps?" I asked Tatyana Mikhailovna at the end of my first week in the Small Zone. 
And she, who had already experienced SHIZO and suchlike, answered without a moment's hesitation: "The perpetual lies."
When everyone who is in any way connected with your imprisonment—from the supervising procurator through to the censor and the doctor—persists in lying day in, day out, you begin to feel as though you are in some huge lunatic asylum. The only difference is that here it is the overseers who are the psychopaths, who try to incorporate you into a hideous, contrived reality. Shalin's insistence that we do not exist is a case in point: "There are no political prisoners in this camp," he would aver. Yet at the same time, he and all his colleagues invariably referred to us as the "politicals." The pots in which our skilly was delivered from the kitchen had the words "Polit. Zone" marked on them with brown paint. And Shalin himself, in an attempt to make us see reason, would day: "Everyone in the men's political zone wears identity tags, so why can't you?"
Irina's book is actually a fascinating and inspiring read. You sometimes laugh out loud because of her wry wit in describing absurd encounters with officials and prison guards and the "regular" criminal prisoners.

Irina Ratushinskaya mentions Solzhenitsyn at least a couple times in her book. She was most grateful she had read his works before going into the prison camps. His advice was invaluable in surviving and enduring the torturous days and years, she said.

Throughout her ideal Irina's watchword was "Back to freedom with a clear conscience." A clear conscience included no lying. Though she and her fellow political prisoners often responded to badgering from officials and guards, doctors, and KGB agents with a resolute, steely, Christlike silence, Irina did, in fact, lie to officials one time—and only one time. It was a minor lie, a "white lie". And yet it caused her acute grief that she had succumbed to the temptation to lie. She felt to repent the remainder of her days while incarcerated. After four years and one month in the Soviet prison system Irina was returned to her flat in Kiev, to her husband and mother and cat. She did so with a clear conscience. 

Who could ever feel as free as Irina Ratushinskaya must have felt on that most singular and remarkable day?

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Orem, Utah—4 January 2021—©2021 Daniel Kemper Lubben




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