The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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Last Things: Judge For Yourselves
James V. Schall, S.J. - 08/08/08

Last Things is the regular column of James V. Schall, S. J.

Whether the death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn or the Olympics in China is more important for understanding our times, or even the games, one can speculate. A couple of times in my reading of Solzhenitsyn, I came across the name “Yagoda.” I was not familiar with him, Genrikh Yagoda. He turns out to have been by birth a Jew, who joined the party in 1907. He rose through the ranks to become the assistant head of the secret police. He ran Stalin’s first show trials in which Zinoviev and Kamenev were killed. He is said to have poisoned Kirov and to have plotted to murder his boss, Menzhinski. Evidently, he was one of the founders of the Gulag system, a terrible system of death, as Solzhenitsyn records in his great book.

Finally, Yagoda fell out with Stalin, though he trusted him to save him to the end. His final days are somewhat eerie. Alexander Orlov tells us of a conversation of Yagoda, now in the infamous Lubyanka prison, just before his execution. He was asked if he believed in God. He answered: “From Stalin I deserved nothing but gratitude for my faithful service; from God I deserved the most severe punishment for having violated his commandments thousands of times. Now look where I am and judge for yourself: is there a God, or not?” Yagoda was shot shortly after his trial which was held in March, 1938. The answer to his question remains. It is the central question of our times.

In his Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn brings up Yagoda a couple of times. We read this startling passage: “When one learns, for example, the nature of Yagods’s striving toward the sacred. . . . An eyewitness from the group around Groky, who was close to Yagoda at the time, reports that in the vestibule of the bathhouse on Yagoda’s estate near Moscow, icons were placed so that Yagoda and his comrades, after undressing, could use them as targets for revolver practice before going to take the baths.” Such target practice is innocent, unless, as perhaps Yagoda believed, icons mean something.

At this point, Solzhenitsyn reflects on the nature of such evil persons. We would like to think they did not exist.

But when the great world literature of the past—Shakespeare, Schiller, Dickens—inflates and inflates images of evildoers of the blackest shades, it seems somewhat farcical and clumsy to our contemporary perception. The trouble lies in the way these classic evildoers are pictured. They recognize themselves as evildoers, and they know their souls are black. And they reason: “I cannot live unless I do evil. So I’ll set my father against my brother! I’ll drink the victim’s sufferings until I’m drunk with them!” Iago very precisely identifies his purposes and his motives as being black and born of hate (Solzhenitsyn Reader, 233).

We see signs of Dostoyevsky here and Shakespeare. Their evildoers know they are doing evil. But Solzhenitsyn does not think this is the real problem with our modern evildoers. Evil for them is not a product of hate or revenge or spite or jealousy. Its origin is in ideology, in the purist of motives.

Solzhenitsyn goes on with his reflection. It seems that no real, classical evildoers of this type have been found in Russia. These modern types who do evil greater than any Iago ever thought of are, if you will, more Aristotelian. “But that’s not the way it is. To do evil, a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is the nature of the human being to seek justification for his actions.” The difference between what Solzhenitsyn has experienced and Shakespeare’s evil characters is that the latter had no “ideology.” This is why modernity is different from what we read in the classics, Greek, Roman, or Christian.

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