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Sabbath Day – Russia II

March 31, 2016

OK. First of all, apologies for the title of my post last evening. I was bidding adieu to my trusty hiking shoes. Apparently, it sounded like I was depressed and checking out. I just really loved these shoes and all the places we have been together.

Second, an admission that I spent the first five hours of this day at church, and carried work with me through the afternoon. I promise, I will make up this Sabbath time tomorrow. My church bulletin is finished, my sermon is done. I’m ready for the weekend.

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The combination of reading multi-national literature as well as my current focus on prison literature gave me chance to read this week rich selections from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. The book narrates his own experience of incarceration  and living under surveillance in the Soviet Union, but is mostly compiled from interviews with thousands of prisoners in the forced labor camps of the era. Actually, I began reading the book as I was preparing my sermon on The Criminal Jesus, and was profoundly moved by the opening chapter on “The Arrest.” It obviously worked its was into my Sunday reflections. Solzhenitsyn worked on this book for over a decade between 1958 and 1968, publishing it in the west as a multi-volume work beginning in 1973. Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1971 for his truly powerful writing, particularly A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. His acceptance speech, “Written in Secret,” had to be smuggled out and read to the committee. In it, he introduced the term Gulag Archipelago, which immediately became synonymous with the secret Soviet prison system from 1918-1956. The book is subtitled “An Experiment in Literary Investigation” but was published in abridged form in 2007 as a Harper Perennial Modern Classic.

It is a large work, and I will read the rest slowly. At the same time, it has led me to search out Russian poets of the era – and lo and behold, the prisons are everywhere. Today I read poems by Anna Akhmatova, including her famous “Requiem 1935-40” about the Stalinist terror. Akhmatova’s first husband was shot as a counter-revolutionary in 1921, while her second husband and her son spent time in the Gulag. Throughout, she remained in the Soviet Union, “a land not mine,” and stood in the lines to care for her loved ones in prison and “the regiments of the condemned.” “Requiem” begins with a description of the author’s purpose:

No foreign sky protected me,
no stranger’s wing shielded my face.
I stand as witness to the common lot,
survivor of that time and place.

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Comparing her role as a poet, wife and mother, “Requiem” ends with a reflection on the crucifixion of Jesus, branded a criminal:

Mary Magdalene beat her breasts and sobbed
His dear disciple, stone-facaed, stared.
His mother stood apart. No other looked
into her secret eyes. Nobody dared.

The restful part of my day consisted of a short nap and a visit, with August, to the goats. It was a beautiful day in White Plains, nearly 70 degrees, with more of the same tomorrow.

Now, once my new hiking shoes arrive, let the hiking season begin.

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