I'm just starting part II of Solzhenitsyn's account of life in the gulag, Soviet forced labor camps from 1918-1956. It's terrifying and horrible what these people endured, according to Solzhenitsyn. I recommend the book for anybody interested in history and politics. I myself enjoy reading these type of books for a few reasons. First, I am interested in understanding what could cause something so horrific to happen and how it could go on for so long. I am interested in humans. Second, I am extremely inspired by people that are forced to endure such a terrifying reality and still manage to find a meaning to it all. There is nothing more inspiring to me than this. Somebody who faces something that's unimaginable and uses their human brain to devise a method of handling it and moving through it. The following passage is taken from a piece of Solzhenitsyn's book in which he is describing the conditions of some of the ships that were used to transfer prisoners to the labor camps. It nearly brought me to tears.
"But it is better still to stop as soon as possible being a sucker-that ridiculous greenhorn, that prey, that victim. You will never return to your former world. And the sooner you get used to being without your near and dear ones, and the sooner they get used to being without you, the better it will be. And the easier!
And keep as few things as possible, so that you don't have to fear for them. Don't take a suitcase for the convoy guard to crush at the door of the car (when there are twenty-five people in a compartment, what else could he figure out to do with it?). And don't wear new boots, and don't wear fashionable oxfords, and don't wear a woolen suit: these things are going to be stolen, taken away, swept aside, or switched, either in the Stolypin car, or in the Black Maria, or in the transit prison. Give them up without a struggle-because otherwise the humiliation will poison your heart. They will take them away from you in a fight, and trying to hold onto your property will only leave you with a bloodied mouth. All those brazen snouts, those jeering manners, those two-legged dregs, are repulsive to you. But by owning things and trembling about their fate aren't you forfeiting the rare opportunity of observing and understanding? And do you think that the freebooters, the pirates, the great privateers, painted in such lively colors by Kipling and Gumilyev, were not simply these same blatnye, these same thieves? That's just what they were. Fascinating in romantic literary portraits, why are they so repulsive to you here?
Understand them too! To them prison is their native home. No matter how fondly the government treats them, no matter how it softens their punishments, no matter how often it amnesties them, their inner destiny brings them back again and again. Was not the first word in the legislation of the Archipelago for them? In our country, the right to own private property was at one time just as effectively banished out in freedom too. (And then those who had banished it began to enjoy possessing things.) So why should it be tolerated in prison? You were too slow about it; you didn't eat up your fat bacon; you didn't share your sugar and tobacco with your friends. And so now the thieves empty your bindle in order to correct your moral error. Having given you their pitiful worn-out boots in exchange for your fashionable ones, their soiled coveralls in return for your sweater, they won't keep these things for long: your boots were merely something to lose and win back five times at cards, and they'll hawk your sweater the very next day for a liter of vodka and a round of salami. They, too, will have nothing left of them in one day's time-just like you. This is the principle of the second law of thermodynamics: all differences tend to level out, to disappear....
Own nothing! Possess nothing! Buddha and Christ taught us this, and the Stoics and the Cynics. Greedy though we are, why can't we seem to grasp that simple teaching? Can't we understand that with property we destroy our soul?
Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag. Use your memory! Use your memory! It is those bitter seeds alone which might sprout and grow someday. Look around you-there are people around you. Maybe you will remember one of them all your life and later eat your heart out because you didn't make use of the opportunity to ask him questions. And the less you talk, the more you'll hear. Thin strands of human lives stretch from island to island of the Archipelago. They intertwine, touch one another for one night only in just such a clickety-clacking half-dark car as this and then separate once and for all. Put your ear to their quiet humming and the steady clickety-clack beneath the car. After all, it is the spinning wheel of life that is clicking and clacking away there."