03 August 2008

Solzhenitsyn: An excerpt from August 1914

Looking gloomy and careworn, the commander left the staff offices and went to his quarters to rest. No one would have guessed it from his face, but he was aware of it: a layer of his soul had been shaken loose and was slowly, gradually slipping, coming adrift.

Samsonov strained to hear its inaudible movement.

His room had been cool in the afternoon, but now toward evening it was stuffy although the window was half open and the fine-wire screen in place.

Samsonov took his boots off and lay down.

In the gathering dusk he could still see from his pillow a big print mocking him from the wall: Frederick the Great surrounded by his generals, fine stalwart fellows all of them, with twirled mustaches, invincible.

How strange. It had all happened only a few hours ago, yet he no longer felt angry either with Blagoveshchensky or with Artamonov for lying and retreating. They would never have done such things if they had not been under unbearable pressure, if they had not been going through hell. His anger was misdirected. How could he be angry with them when he himself was so much at fault? Putting himself in their place, Samsonov could even find excuses for them: when the action was scattered over such a huge area a corps commander had no more hope of dominating events than his superior.

But if the mistakes of his subordinates were to be excused, where did that leave the general?

Never in his army career had Samsonov imagined that everything could go so badly wrong at once.

When sunflower oil is shaken and becomes cloudy the bottle must stand for a while so that the liquid can regain its golden transparency, as the sediment sinks to the bottom and the air bubbles rise to the surface. The Army Commander's troubled soul needed stillness to regain clarity. He knew what he must do: pray.

Perfunctory prayers, mumbled morning and evening as a matter of habit, while your thoughts stray to mundane affairs, are like washing fully dressed and with one hand: you are very slightly cleaner, but you hardly feel it. But if you pray with concentration, surrender to it completely, pray as if you were slaking your thirst, when you cannot bear not to pray and nothing else will do—prayer like that, Samsonov remembered, always transforms and strengthens.

Instead of calling his orderly, Kupchik, he rose, felt for the matches, lit the cut-glass table lamp without turning up the wick, and latched the door. He did not pull the window shut—the building opposite had no upper story.

He had a portable icon made of Britannia metal—the sort Cossacks take on campaign with them. He opened it out and arranged its panels so that it stood upright on the table. He knelt clumsily without stopping to check whether the floor was clean.

Supporting his ungainly bulk hurt his knees, but the pain gave him satisfaction as he knelt with his eyes fixed on the crucifixion and the two side panels, St. George Bringer of Victory and St. Nicholas Man of God, and began to pray.

First, two or three well-known prayers—"God shall rise again," "A speedy helper He"—then that fluid prayerful silence, a wordless, sound-less prayer put together by his unconscious, only occasionally attached to firm supports retained by his memory: ". . . the radiance of Thy countenance, 0 Giver of Life," "Mother of God, abundantly merciful"; and again prayers without words, wreathed in clouds of smoke, in mist, moving like ice floes in the spring thaw.

What most weighed on him found its truest and most helpful expression, not in ready-made prayers, or in his own words, but in kneeling on his aching knees until he ceased to feel them, in looking fixedly at the icon in oblivious muteness. For him this was the readiest way to lay his whole life, and the day's suffering, before God. God knew anyway that neither honors and awards nor the enjoyment of power were Samsonov's reasons for serving, for decking himself with medals. He was begging God now to send his armies victories, not in order to save his own name, but for the sake of Russia's might, because this opening battle could largely determine her fate.

He prayed that the casualties might not be in vain. Those whose bodies were so suddenly pierced by lead or steel that they had no time even to cross themselves as they died—let them not have perished in vain! He prayed that clarity might descend upon his exhausted mind so that at the very peak of his "highest time" he might make the correct decision, and so himself embody God's will that these sacrifices should not be in vain.

He knelt there, his whole weight pressing into the floor, gazing on the icon at eye level before him, whispering, praying, and the weight of his hand seemed to grow less each time he crossed himself, his body less cumbersome, his soul less dark: all the weight and darkness soundlessly and invisibly fell away from him, evaporated, were drawn heavenward. God who could assume all burdens was taking this burden to Himself.


Matt said...
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Matt said...

Thank you for that.
I read "Gulag Archipelago" in college (like many poli sci majors) and it blew me away. I have since read only pieces of his other writings.

Only in the past year or so (since I myself became interested in Orthodoxy) did I realize that he was an Orthodox Christian.

"Through intense suffering our country has now achieved a spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive."

So true.