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'A piece of his own heart' - Daniel Silliman

There is nothing in central California to make you think of Gulags, ideology and evil.

In the spring, the oranges are ripe and immigrant pickers push through orchards. The snows are still melting into the irrigation system, and the water's really cold. The grass starts to turn brown for the summer and nothing looks like Russia, there's nothing to remind you of prisons or totalitarian empires. But in the spring of 1996, when I was 14, I was in central California, reading about the Soviet prison system, the lives of the zeks imprisoned there, and the inhumanity of ideology.

There was something unnatural about it, but I read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's three-part, 300,000-word work of "literary investigation" into the Soviet prisons, "The Gulag Archipelago." I had the fat paperbacks, they were 600-something pages each, printed in tiny print and crammed into binding that barely opened. I know I found them misshelved in the literature section of a used bookstore, but I don't know why I picked them up, bought them, brought them home and read them. I had never heard of Solzhenitsyn, this Russian with a scraggly beard and a bad haircut. No one told me to read him. I didn't know how to say his name, and probably still don't.

There was something about him, though, something about the weight of the pain in his voice that spoke to me. I remember the opening lines, the dedication, of the first book, and the way they shocked me with the acceptance of the impossible responsibility of a witness: "I dedicate this to all those who did not live to tell it. And may they forgive me for not having seen it all nor remembered it all, for not having divined all of it."

Solzhenitsyn's work -- the massive and thorough "Gulag Achipelago" and the concise, eloquent "Day in the Life the Ivan Denisovich" -- indicted Communism and attacked all the defenses of the ideology. According to his right wing champions in America, Solzhenitsyn demolished the leftist's explanations and justifications, showing communism for the politically illegitimate, vicious and violent thing it was.

But he did more than that.

In a move American conservatives once embraced but have now forgotten, Solzhenitsyn assaulted ideology, all conceptions of the world seeing people partitioned into righteous and unrighteous, right-thinkers and those who should be destroyed, the faithful and the blasphemous.

In his 300,000-word process, Solzhenitsyn finds evil lives in each human heart, finds faith is the answer to iedological politics.

It's not communism that's the core of evil. It's not an empire, not an axis, not someone else's politics. It is each of us.

"The line between good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either," Solzhenitsyn wrote. "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"

That move made a mark on me. I don't know why I read the Russian, but I know that message about evil and ideology struck me, stuck with me, and has shaped the way I try to think.

Sometimes Solzhenitsyn was shrill, scolding, anti-modernist and disturbingly Slavophilic, but at his best he was someone who tried to destroy the evil in his own heart, who tried to take the responsibility of a witness.

He died on Sunday at the age of 89. I am grateful for his life and work.

Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.