The Axis Of The Human Heart
How Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn can keep us from going over the brink
Here is the most famous saying of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the great-souled survivor of Soviet prison camps. It appears in The Gulag Archipelago:
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 un-uprooted small corner of evil.
I think of this every week — and since October 7, every single day. This wisdom, which came to Solzhenitsyn through many years of intense suffering, can save us from surrendering to barbarism. If we take Solzhenitsyn seriously, we will reject the insane belief that Good and Evil inhere in groups, and that we, somehow, are guilty or innocent by virtue of our group identity.
Martin Latsis, a senior officer in the Bolshevik secret police, gave this instruction to his men to carry out the Red Terror:
Do not look in the file of incriminating evidence to see whether or not the accused rose up against the Soviets with arms or words. Ask him instead to which class he belongs, what is his background, his education, his profession. These are the questions that will determine the fate of the accused. That is the meaning and essence of the Red Terror.
The Red Terror lasted from 1918 to 1922. Historians can’t determine with certainty how many so-called enemies of the regime the Soviets murdered in that period; estimates range from 50,000 to 200,000. The point to take here is that the Red Terror had nothing to do with anyone’s actual guilt or innocence. For Lenin’s henchmen, the line between Good and Evil ran between the classes. To be on the wrong side of the line was to forfeit your right to life; to be on the right side of the line was to have permission to do whatever you desired to the Other.
The Bolsheviks consciously based the Red Terror on the Reign of Terror imposed by the French revolutionaries. It began in 1793 and lasted just under a year, during which time the revolutionary government carried out mass executions. Maximilien Robespierre, the greatest monster of all the revolutionaries, serenely justified it with these words:
If the basis of popular government in peacetime is virtue, the basis of popular government during a revolution is both virtue and terror; virtue, without which terror is baneful; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing more than speedy, severe and inflexible justice; it is thus an emanation of virtue; it is less a principle in itself, than a consequence of the general principle of democracy, applied to the most pressing needs of the fatherland.
Enemies of the revolution ceased to be human. To kill them was social justice, you see. Robespierre began his public life as a human rights lawyer from the provinces, reached ultimate power in revolutionary France, and used it to commit mass murder. He was guillotined too.
One of the most notorious episodes of the Terror was the Drownings of Nantes, carried out under the orders of Jean-Baptiste Carrier, delegated to solve the problem of anti-revolution sentiment supposedly found in the area:
In fact, Carrier took something of a scorched earth approach to the area, declaring that he would leave not one enemy of the revolution alive, a policy that attracted the full support of the Committee of Public Safety.
As night fell on 16th November 1793 Carrier requested that almost 200 Catholic priests who were being held on the prison barge, La Gloire, be assembled on the dock. Here a customised barge waited for them and 90 of the priests were bound and herded onto the vessel. With the prisoners packed tight and helpless, the craft was piloted out into the Loire where it was scuppered. All but three of the prisoners on board suffered a terrifying death by drowning and for the trio that tried to swim for safety, respite was short-lived. Picked up by a naval ship that had heard the screams of the dying men, the escapees were soon tracked down and returned to custody to be killed in the second wave of executions on the following evening.
This was just the first of a series of executions by that would go on until February 1794 in which men, women and children were drowned without mercy or appeal as Carrier's regime crushed all those seen as resisting the ideals of the Revolution. Judges in the region approved mass lists of names for execution and these terrified unfortunates all perished beneath the dark waters of the Loire. Carrier's soldiers laid waste to large areas of the district in a ceaseless search for the perceived enemies, with a modified barge eventually being engineered that made use of special hatches that allowed the executions to be as efficient as possible.
As his reign continued, Carrier found the people of Nantes turning against him. They watched with increasing fear as their neighbours and friends went to their deaths, towns and farms set ablaze in the tireless search for insurgents, with some of those arrested and drowned as young as five years old.
In 1863, American troops massacred 350 Shoshone Indians in their campsite at Bear River, killing even women and children, to solve the “Indian problem.” It was the worst single slaying of American Indians in history — and that’s saying something.
Jonathan Deiss, a military historian based in Washington, compared the slaying of Native Americans in the 1800s to mass shootings in the 21st century. “People became numb to them,” Deiss said.
“People considered Indians not really humans,” Deiss added, “so it was easy to justify killing them or mistreating them.”
Yet lest you think that the line between good and evil passes between Indians and whites, you should understand that the Indians could also be extremely savage. Here’s a 2010 interview on the NPR show Fresh Air, with S.C. Gwynne, who had just published an incredible history of Quanah Parker, the last chief of the Comanches. Parker’s mother was a white child taken by the Comanches in a raid of white settlers. Her case was the basis of the John Wayne film The Searchers. From the interview:
GROSS: But, I mean, this is history. So - and I think it's very important and interesting history. So please describe what happened.
Mr. GWYNNE: Well, what happened was what happened in every plains Indian raid going back for centuries. In other words, it was - this is what Indians did to Indians, and this just happened to be Indians meeting whites.
But the automatic thing in battle is that all the adult males would be killed. That was automatic. That's one of the reasons that Indians fought to the death. The white men were astonished at it, but they were assuming - assumed that they would be killed.
The most - the small children were killed, very small children were killed. A lot of the, say, children in the, I don't know, three-to-seven or three-to-10 range were often taken as captives. The women were often raped and often killed. And so it was an extremely brutal - and it was when - all of the people in the settlements back in those years knew what it was, knew what a Comanche raid meant, which was the same as a Kiowa raid or an Arapaho raid or another kind of raid.
But they were grim. They were grisly. Captives were usually involved, you know. and it's an interesting kind of moral question that you have to - as an historian about plains Indians or about American Indians in general, you have to come to terms with this, with torture, which they did - which they practiced all across the West and, in fact, all across the East - and these kind of grisly practices that scared white people to death.
GROSS: I mean, you're talking not only about scalping. You're talking about various forms of mutilation, cutting off fingers and toes, gang...
Mr. GWYNNE: Torture by fire, torture by all sorts of different things - I mean, putting, you know, hot coals on your stomach. I mean, there were lots and lots of imaginative tortures that were, indeed, practiced by Indians all across the Americas.
GROSS: And this includes gang rape.
Mr. GWYNNE: It includes gang rape.
GROSS: And what I find provocative about this right now is that in American's attempt to reconcile the atrocities that Americans committed against Native Americans, a lot of the Indian story was maybe rewritten a little bit to leave out some of those atrocities.
Mr. GWYNNE: Oh, I think absolutely.
GROSS: I mean, after focusing so much on, like...
Mr. GWYNNE: Yes.
GROSS: ...you know, cowboys versus Indians in Western movies, I think so many Americans felt bad about that kind of, like, good-guy-versus-bad-guy description when white Americans were responsible for so much bad stuff themselves, that maybe - are you suggesting in your book that history maybe got rewritten a little too much in terms of leaving out some of the atrocities that Native Americans did commit in those wars?
Mr. GWYNNE: Oh, I think so. I think that's a good point. And there was even an attempt at some point to deny that Indians were warlike. They were - Comanches were incredibly warlike.
They swept everyone off the Southern plains. They nearly exterminated the Apaches. They were warlike by nature. And, you know, if you look at, say, the Comanches, and then you look back in history at, for example, you know, Goths and Vikings or Mongols or Celts - or old Celts are actually a very good parallel.
In a lot of ways, I think we're looking back at earlier versions of ourselves. It was we - we, being white Europeans - did all of those things. Not only that, but torture was institutionalized in things like the Counterreformation and the Spanish Inquisition. It was part of, you know, the Russian empire. I mean, torture is not the exclusive province of the Indians.
But I think you're right. I think there was a certain wave of books, a certain type of book that wanted to kind of set the record straight in a different way. But yes, it was - life was extremely brutal, and it was extremely brutal on both sides. And in my book, I don't — I try not to take sides. The whites were perpetrators of some of the most astonishing massacres in history, but so were the Indians.
You see what I’m getting at? Once you decide that other human beings are somehow less than human because they are bearers of an ethnic, political, religious, or national identity, you surrender to your own demons (“And even in the best of all hearts, there remains… an un-uprooted small corner of evil”). Here it is in another form:
More than 4000 African Americans were killed in racial terror lynchings between 1877 and 1950. Many of these extrajudicial murders were celebratory public spectacles, where thousands of white people, including elected officials and prominent citizens, gathered to witness victims being gruesomely tortured and mutilated. White newspapers advertised these carnival-like events; vendors sold food, photographers printed postcards, and victims’ clothing and body parts were given out as souvenirs.
In Newnan, Georgia, in 1899, at least 2000 whites watched as a white mob mutilated and burned alive a Black man named Sam Hose, and then sold pieces of his organs and bones. In 1916, a white mob in Waco, Texas, tortured and lynched a mentally disabled 17-year-old Black boy named Jesse Washington in front of city hall, stripping, stabbing, beating, and mutilating him before burning him alive in front of 15,000 white spectators. Charred pieces of his body were dragged through town, and his fingers and fingernails were taken as keepsakes.
Public spectacle lynchings were most frequent in the South, but also occurred in Northern and Midwestern states as Black Americans migrated during the 20th century. In 1920, 10,000 whites attended the lynchings of three Black circus workers in Duluth, Minnesota. In Springfield, Missouri, in 1906, two Black men, Horace Dunn and Fred Coker, were hanged and shot to death for a crowd of 5000 whites. White lynch mobs and spectators rarely faced consequences. Although these killings were widely attended and photographed, whites committed public spectacle lynchings with impunity.
How do you, a churchgoing small-town merchant, or farmer, bring yourself to attend these spectacles? You do it by convincing yourself that the black men are not really human, and that killing them like this might be unpleasant to some, but it is necessary to advance the Cause. On July 10, 1941, the Gentile half of the small Polish town of Jedwabne, murdered the other half, all Jews. Their neighbors. From the testimony of a survivor, published in Jan Gross’s book Neighbors:
As Hamas was on October 7, 2023, the Gentiles of Jedwabne were on July 10, 1941, the whites were throughout the South of the Jim Crow era, the Soviets were during the Red Terror, the Indians and the Americans were in the 19th century, the French revolutionaries were during the Terror … and on and on, back to Cain slaying Abel.
This is who we are. You, me, all of us. The Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien talks about how in war, you can be driven to commit atrocities:
I could feel my moral compass as a soldier, in danger of — I could feel the squeeze, the pressure of frustration and anger and fear combining on me… I felt the danger, I felt the squeeze of it. The sorrow you feel when a friend dies, and the subsequent anger when there’s no way to strike back. The frustration of who’s your friend and who’s your enemy, and you do it day after day after day after day, and people are dying and losing arms and legs and you’re— you look at your own hands and, "oh man what about tomorrow, will they be there?" Or what about your feet?
And you do that repetitively, and it’s your life day and night. You feel this sizzle happening inside of you. That’s where evil comes from. It comes from not just badness or not just from fear, it comes from a combination of these things boiling inside of you and stewing together, and that’s why, in part, I think that there’s no final definite answer for what happened on the day in March of ’68. It can’t be pinned to one thing. There’s a frustration that comes even to me — who was there in that area a year later — that I don’t understand it, I don’t know what happened that day, how could people, so many people, shoot babies in the head. How— I don’t— it’s a mystery to me.
He’s talking specifically about the My Lai massacre, in which US infantrymen massacred an entire Vietnamese village. Everybody who knows anything about My Lai knows the name of Lt. William Calley, the commander of the company and the first man indicted on criminal charges for the incident. The second man was Army Staff Sergeant David Mitchell, 29, of … St. Francisville, Louisiana. My hometown. He was a black man. Calley was the only one convicted; I don’t know what happened to Mitchell after acquittal. David Mitchell grew up in segregated Louisiana, in a part of the country where white supremacy ruled by violence. By any fair reckoning, he was oppressed. And yet, in Vietnam, in the village of My Lai, he became the oppressor — indeed, a murderer. The US soldiers back then had decided that the Vietnamese were inhuman. If you had been there, and seen your friends murdered, and all these things were boiling up inside of you, are you really sure that you wouldn’t be persuaded to shoot babies in the head if everybody else was doing it?
God knows I’m not justifying any of that. It was satanically evil. It always is. I bring all this up simply to say that the skull is always and everywhere just beneath the skin. Any of us could be persuaded, under the right circumstances, to surrender our humanity and kill, or justify killing, innocent people, simply because they are on the wrong side of where we have placed the line between good and evil. In Jedwabne, a Catholic priest emerged to tell his parishioners to knock off the pogrom, to wait till the Germans showed up to finish off the Jews. A Catholic priest. The South was full of white pastors of all kinds who either kept their silence in the face of violent white supremacy, or even justified it with their sermons. Every KKK chapter was supposed to have an ordained Protestant minister as its chaplain, called the “kludd”.
Do not ever, ever, think that you are incapable of this kind of evil. At the same time, do not ever stay silent when it manifests. It ought to shock you to the depth of your conscience that so many educated people, Muslims and otherwise, in the West have taken to the streets to proclaim solidarity with Hamas after it massacred over 1,000 civilians, and committed grotesque atrocities. This solidarity with evil can only be sustained by moving the line between good and evil, and putting Israeli Jews on the negative side of it. This is how you get left-wing Americans who fall to pieces over misgendering and other stupid “microaggressions” marching in support of those butchers who cut an unborn child out of her mother’s body, and worse. The Cause justifies it in their minds. They embrace evil within themselves, and sacralize it.
If you have ever wondered how people ever tolerated the Klan doing what it did, or the Nazis doing what they did, well, now you know. Look at the ordinary people, your neighbors, and what they not only tolerate, but celebrate, for the sake of a cause. If you imagine yourself to be innocent, and incapable of evil, you are simply rationalizing. You may, as happened to Solzhenitsyn, be in your most evil moments, and only constructing systematic arguments to justify your wickedness. We are witnessing that happen now. Indeed, so many US universities have become madrassas of evil that produce exactly these kinds of arguments.
Solzhenitsyn recognized that it is impossible to banish evil from the earth, but if we hold the line down the middle of our hearts, and understand what the line means, we might stay our own hand, and keep the world from spinning off its axis into blood-soaked madness:
Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.
Words to live by. Words that might yet save us. The kind of evil that Hamas committed on October 7 is a recurring fact of this mortal life. To keep it in check requires unceasing effort. Every single one of us must know that the moment we allow ourselves to believe that line has passed outside of our hearts, and that we have joined in this life the company of the saints — that is, those who cannot err — then we will have let go of the rope that holds us up over the unfathomable abyss of our hearts.
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