Live not by lies

On the eve of his eviction from Communist Russia, in 1974, Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote the essay entitled, “Live not by lies.” It was dated 12th February, the day the Soviet secret police busted into his flat in Moscow, and arrested him; the day before they bundled him on an aeroplane for Frankfurt in West Germany. One vividly recalls such days; and the newspaper photograph of the German writer, Heinrich Böll, receiving my hero with flowers at the airport. (More than forty years have passed; I was then twenty, and a Cold Warrior, with no interest in Solzhenitsyn’s religion.)

Finding himself surrounded by newsmen, and pestered with their questions, Solzhenitsyn said that he was tired, and confused, and worried about his family. He wanted only to phone his wife in Moscow. He would not be doing interviews in the foreseeable future. Böll took him to his country retreat, where they pleaded with the newsmen to go away.

Everyone I knew thought this was great news. Solzhenitsyn was now free; he could speak freely. The man himself did not see it that way. He did not associate exile with freedom. He probably understood his situation much as the Soviet thugs who had pushed him onto the plane: as the best punishment the Soviet State could think of. His citizenship stripped, he was now a “foreigner,” no longer a Russian but a Western voice. Had they instead shot him, his voice would resound the louder within Russia.

His popularity in the West quickly diminished. In his Harvard and Nobel addresses, he began to tell the West, too, things the West did not want to hear; for instance, that we were shallow. He settled into a house in Cavendish, Vermont, which he fenced like a fortress against casual gawpers. He made no concessions to the demands of the mass media, when they were more than willing to “mike him up.” He did not appear on Johnny Carson, could not arrange his statements in sound bites, shared no chit with the chattering classes, would not perform as their dancing bear. Journalists, who imagined themselves quite well-intended, were surprised to discover that he felt for them something like contempt. Worse, it was mild contempt. Two by two, their eyeballs began to roll.

By the time he returned to post-Soviet Russia in 1994, Solzhenitsyn was “yesterday’s man” in the West. He had devoted most of his time in exile to writing and research, in rural seclusion; but the book publishers, who had sold millions of copies of The Gulag Archipelago (written in the 1950s and early ’60s), until it piled up in the remainder stores, had not the stomach to publish much more. To this day, little of the best and most mature writing of this major novelist, playwright, historian, and thinker, is available in English. For decades, old novels such as Cancer Ward continued to be sold only in their first, heavily censored versions. Neither the earlier nor the later works sell terribly well in Russia, I am told. There, too, he became “yesterday’s man,” whose writings were on topics unpleasant, and quite out-of-date. He is by now a mouldering shrine, not an author.


For the last two days I have been discussing “Benedict options.” Yesterday I provided some for grocery shopping. Today, I should like to add further ideas on “the custody of the mouth.” For in addition to eating, the human mouth can be used for speaking. We are, in that sense, marvellously designed: so many of our organs have more than one function, and an appropriate use in each. There is also the custody of the fingers, as we type, and for today’s purpose, since I can do no better myself, I will merely transcribe an excerpt from Solzhenitsyn’s “Live not by lies,” sent along by one of my crankier American correspondents, on whose backwardness I can always rely. (That was a compliment.) It arrived, as if on deadline, just when I needed it.

Several other correspondents have been asking me lately for advice on what they should do, given the gathering darkness in public life; the spread of malicious lies all around them. Should they “lead with the chin” as some (usually failed) boxers do, saying publicly things that may invite retaliation? Should they instead stay quiet and pray? How should they respond, each in his place, as the demands for “political correctness” grow, as they are now doing, incrementally towards Stalinist proportions? How to cope with those spreading lies, from small matters to large matters? What to do, when the perverse is presented as normal, and the normal is presented as perverse; and the most common, simple, ancient words are being “redefined”?

We may try, like men before us, only to avoid trouble. Keep your head down, and your thoughts to yourself. Say and do what is asked of you (not only for yourself but for your family). This is, after all, what most of the Apostles did, in the approach to Christ’s crucifixion. They arranged not to be there. Later, however, as we read in the same Scriptures, both Christ and the Devil caught up with them. In the end, there is no hiding from God.

It may be wrong, foolish, to go looking for trouble. I don’t think that was ever the command. But trouble may come looking for you: the Devil puts you on the spot, and God lets him. Like good scouts, we must be prepared.

What follows is the advice of a fine “scoutmaster”:


Our path is to talk away from the gangrenous boundary. If we did not paste together the dead bones and scales of ideology, if we did not sew together the rotting rags, we would be astonished how quickly the lies would be rendered helpless and subside.

That which should be naked would then really appear naked before the whole world.

So in our timidity, let each of us make a choice: whether consciously to remain a servant of falsehood — of course, it is not out of inclination, but to feed one’s family, that one raises his children in the spirit of lies — or to shrug off the lies and become an honest man worthy of respect both by one’s children and contemporaries.

And from that day onward he:

— Will not write, sign, or print in any way a single phrase which in his opinion distorts the truth.

— Will utter such a phrase neither in private conversation not in the presence of many people; neither on his own behalf nor at the prompting of someone else, either in the role of agitator, teacher, educator, nor in a theatrical role.

— Will not depict, foster, or broadcast a single idea which he can only see is false or a distortion of the truth, whether it be in painting, sculpture, photography, technical science, or music.

— Will not cite out of context, either orally or written, a single quotation so as to please someone, to feather his own nest, to achieve success in his work, if he does not share completely the idea which is quoted, or if it does not accurately reflect the matter at issue.

— Will not allow himself to be compelled to attend demonstrations or meetings if they are contrary to his desire or will, will neither take into hand nor raise into the air a poster or slogan which he does not completely accept.

— Will not raise his hand to vote for a proposal with which he does not sincerely sympathize, will vote neither openly nor secretly for a person whom he considers unworthy or of doubtful abilities.

— Will not allow himself to be dragged to a meeting where there can be expected a forced or distorted discussion of a question.

— Will immediately walk out of a meeting, session, lecture, performance, or film showing if he hears a speaker tell lies, or purvey ideological nonsense or shameless propaganda.

— Will not subscribe to or buy a newspaper or magazine in which information is distorted and primary facts are concealed.

Of course we have not listed all of the possible and necessary deviations from falsehood. But a person who purifies himself will easily distinguish other instances with his purified outlook.

No, it will not be the same for everybody at first. Some, at first, will lose their jobs. For young people who want to live with truth, this will, in the beginning, complicate their young lives very much, because the required recitations are stuffed with lies, and it is necessary to make a choice.

But there are no loopholes for anybody who wants to be honest. On any given day any one of us will be confronted with at least one of the above-mentioned choices even in the most secure of the technical sciences. Either truth or falsehood: towards spiritual independence, or towards spiritual servitude.