Coming to Terms with Our Past
“By an unexpected turn of our history, a bit of the truth, an insignificant part of the whole, was allowed out in the open. But those same hands which once screwed tight our handcuffs now hold out their hands in reconciliation: ‘No, don’t! Don’t dig up the past! Dwell on the past and you’ll lose an eye.’
But the proverb goes on to say: ‘Forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes.’”
~Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago.
Solzhenitsyn’s use of an old Russian proverb in the preface to his book “The Gulag Archipelago” illustrates the importance he placed on being mindful of the past. The proverb reminds us of how important understanding the past is in allowing us to move forward to a brighter future.
For those not familiar with Solzhenitsyn’s book, it sheds light on a dark period in the history of the Soviet Union – a time when millions of Soviet citizens were arrested under questionable circumstances and forced to serve lengthy terms in Soviet labour camps – a period during which millions of prisoners lost their lives.
Solzhenitsyn himself endured 11 years in these camps. His book was first published in France in 1973. He was subsequently exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974. During his exile in the West, Solzhenitsyn did not limit his critical views to that of the East, but also spoke openly of his dissatisfaction with various aspects of life in the West. This was made clear during his commencement speech at Harvard University in 1978. “We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests suffocate it.”
Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In 2009, a year after his death, “The Gulag Archipelago” was included in the Russian High School curriculum as mandatory reading material. “Forget the past and you’ll lose both eyes.”
I remember purchasing the book not long after the English translation was published in 1974. I found it intense and difficult to read as it chronicled in painstaking detail the arrests, punishments and horrific conditions experienced by so many. After reading a couple of chapters, I put it down. I guess as a teenager I had better things to do. Still, I remember that proverb from the preface.
During a later visit to my grandmother Anna Markova’s home, I noticed her reading from a thick volume. I looked closer and realized it was Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag” in the original Russian. Knowing she had spent some 15 years of her life in these camps, I asked her “Babushka, is it really true, all these horrors that he writes about?” She looked at me with sad eyes and replied “Yes, grandson. It’s true. These things really did happen.”
Although my grandmother never went into detail about her time in the “Gulag” with us, her grandchildren, I learned she shared many of her experiences with others at meetings she organized. These meetings became known as Ladies Spiritual Meetings.
When asked about these hardships, she did not cast blame on neighbours who may have betrayed her, or others who caused her much suffering. She simply replied, “those were difficult times” and that “if I expect God to forgive me, then I must forgive others.”
How we deal with the past can greatly affect our present and our future. Though most agree with this logic, there is less agreement on how to come to terms with the past, especially when it involves dealing with traumatic experiences and polarizing issues. It’s not easy to resolve and reconcile traumatic experiences. Yet, to avoid them and bury them with attitudes of indifference, indignation, or self righteousness can result in repressed feelings coming to the surface. Even worse, if the lessons these experiences offer us are not learned, we may be fated to repeat them.
Today, people continue to struggle with coming to terms with the past. Whether it be controversy over statues glorifying Confederate generals in the United States, or statues honouring individuals associated with atrocities in Canada; whether it be dealing with the legacy of residential schools, described by indigenous people as a form of “cultural genocide”, a misguided attempt to strip children of their culture, their language, their beliefs and their way of life.
As Doukhobors, we have also had to deal with a past involving considerable trauma and polarization, not only within our communities, but also within the landscape of Canadian society. Much progress was made in coming to terms with our difficult past through years of discussions involving those willing to proceed towards reconciliation. This process preceded models of Truth and Reconciliation that took place in South Africa and are currently taking place in Canada. It has resulted in much healing amongst our people. This healing, and our willingness to contribute towards it in a sensitive manner is not only important to us as individuals and as Doukhobors, but can also serve as an important example to those around us.