Early Works > Poems: Prison, Camp, and Exile

Poems: Prison, Camp, and Exile

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The first of the three poems in this section, “Prisoner’s Right,” was written in the labor camp at Ekibastuz in 1951. It summarizes some general thoughts about camp arguments that Solzhenitsyn heard and participated in. This poem is Solzhenitsyn’s own contribution to these arguments about Russia’s future. The voice is recognizably that of the “mature” Solzhenitsyn. He rejects the claim that prisoners have any special “rights” as victims or any special claim on the attention of others. Instead, he calls on them to cultivate the “illumined interior suffering core” that allows for spiritual growth and moral self-development. Solzhenitsyn does not lose sight of the “endlessly long” number of Russians and Chinese who have perished at the hands of Communist totalitarianism. His poem beautifully evokes the one “right” that belongs to every zek: the right to be “rancorless sons / Of our luckless and sad Russian land.” 

“Acathistus” was written in February 1952, when Solzhenitsyn lay in the camp clinic at Ekibastuz, recovering from surgery. The operation appeared to be successful (although a biopsy was sent to Omsk for routine examination), and this poem expresses Solzhenitsyn’s gratitude for his new lease on life. Only much later, in response to a written query, did Omsk reply that the tests showed a seminoma. This deeply moving poem describes Solzhenitsyn’s loss of faith under the influence of “bookish wisdom” (primarily Marxist-Leninist dogma) and his ultimate return to the faith of his fathers as a result of “purpose-from-High’s steady fire.” This “song of praise” concludes with Solzhenitsyn’s magnificent proclamation of his faith in the Providence of the living God. “Acathistus” first appeared as part of The Gulag Archipelago, part IV, chapter 1, “The Ascent,” perhaps the richest and most studied chapter of that magisterial work.

The last poem in this section, “Death—not as chasm,” was written on December 2, 1953, in Dzhambul, a regional center in southern Kazakhstan. Solzhenitsyn’s doctors had just told him that he had two weeks to live. Leaving the clinic, he composed this poem as he walked down the street. The poem conveys the pathos of a dying man grieving less for himself than for a still “crucified” Russia. The Russian writer approaches death stoically but with deep love of country informing his “otherworldly gaze.” Although he would live for another fifty years and more, this would turn out to be the final poem which he would write.

– by Edward E. Ericson, Jr. and Daniel J. Mahoney, The Solzhenitsyn Reader


Selections from Solzhenitsyn's Poems

"Prisoner's Right"

Yoke of years that we lived in a prison
Grants no rights: we’re entitled to naught.
Not to pulpits. Nor lecterns. Nor glory.
Nor power. Nor halos of saints.
Nor in memoirs to mix with fatigue
Our colorless ashen complaints,
Nor: that armies of youths should now run astride life
By the path that we treaded for them.
All will go as ’t will go. There’s no point
To pound out the wheel’s rut in advance.
An illumined interior suffering core:
May, for everything, this be our one recompense.
It’s the loftiest gem of all earthly gemstones.
And, to carry it home undefiled,
Let of our phantom rights, then, the very least be:
Our secreted right to an equal revenge.
There’s a number. So endlessly long,
Comprehensible just to Chinese and to Russians,
All those fallen, extinguished, without guilt or trace:
In that number we’re nil upon nil upon nil. . . .
Our right is but one:
To be rancorless sons
Of our luckless and sad Russian land.
Let our grievances burn, rot, decay deep inside
To the outside we’ll spring living shoots: only then,
Looking up, will our Russia’s fatigued countryside
See the Sun it awaited so long.

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Translation by Ignat Solzhenitsyn

"Acathistus" [1]

When, oh when did I scatter so madly
All the goodness, the God-given grains?
Was my youth not spent with those who gladly
Sang to You in the glow of Your shrines?

Bookish wisdom, though, sparkled and beckoned,
And it rushed through my arrogant mind,
The world’s mysteries seemed within reckon,
My life’s lot like warm wax in the hand.

My blood seethed, and it spilled and it trickled,
Gleamed ahead with a multihued trace,
Without clamor there quietly crumbled
In my breast the great building of faith.

Then I passed betwixt being and dying,
I fell off and now cling to the edge,
And I gaze back with gratitude, trembling,
On the meaningless life I have led.

Not my reason, nor will, nor desire
Blazed the twists and the turns of its road,
It was purpose-from-High’s steady fire
Not made plain to me till afterward.

Now regaining the measure that’s true,
Having drawn with it water of being,
Oh great God! I believe now anew!
Though denied, You were always with me. . . .

[1] Acathistus: in the Orthodox Church, a reading or song of praise.

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Translation by Ignat Solzhenitsyn

[“Death—not as chasm”]

Death—not as chasm, but death as a crest,
A ridge onto which has ascended the road.
Up in the black sky that shrouds my deathbed
Gleams the White Sun of God.

Turning about I see in its white rays
Russia, my Russia, to her polar wreaths;
View her with that otherworldly gaze
Carved out on stelae1 by wise ancient Greeks.

I see you clearly, no rancor or spite:
Your lows. And your glory. And daily life’s fight.

No more shall I see you thus: crucified;
No more shall call Resurrection t’your side. . . .

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Translation by Ignat Solzhenitsyn

Available Formats

Russian Download
Solzhenitsyn's camp poems can be downloaded in the original Russian in PDF format at solzhenitsyn.ru

"Prisoner's Right"
▹ Appeared in The New Yorker, 21 August 2006 | Download PDF

The Solzhenitsyn Reader
Includes all three poems
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