Solzhenitsyn and Where the Battle Begins

A short but insightful quote from Solzhenitsyn. It came to him during his time in the Gulag:

…. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.

…. 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?”

The spiritual battle which confronts us all is to be found in the human heart – our own human heart. This insight, not unique to Solzhenitsyn, but characteristic of Orthodoxy in general, can be news to those who have not heard the faith spoken of in this manner. All too easily the battle between good and evil is externalized and one side settles for a legally defined morality while the other sets for a legally defined immorality and neither side understands anything. Even the debate on Abortion gets completely obscured by the externalization of its legal/illegal status, and fail to see, too often, the great battle that is waged inwardly to bring a life other than my own into the world. What is the state of the heart in this great moral debate?

The same can be said of any number of public issues – and even of issues within the Church. The Church necessarily raises the “level of the playing field” allowing everyone involved to speak in the most absolute terms and to judge quickly and with assurance. Easily lost is the state of the heart throughout all of our battles – both public and ecclesiastical.

Part of the genius of Solzhenitsyn, similar to the genius of Dostoevsky in the century before, was to move issues away from the abstract and bring them to the existential level of the human heart. Nothing was exempt from this requirement. There is no moral “free-ride.” Thus Raskolnikov discovered in Crime and Punishment that there was no greater good that could justify the murder of some “meaningless soul.”

This, of course, is simply the gospel. “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and to lose his soul?” And none of us should doubt that every moment of our life, every decision of the day is a matter there bears on our soul. The line between good and evil runs through every human heart.

It means that every moment we walk on the edge of an abyss – not that Christ has not entered the abyss to bring us out – forgiveness is real. But having once been rescued from the abyss we need to learn all the more how to tread the narrow path and to pray for all who have fallen. Some brave souls, in their great love of mankind, even enter through prayer into the abyss with Christ, to pray for those who have fallen and to bring them home again. It is certainly the case that those who bore the suffering of Stalin’s Gulag, and yet prayed for us all, had entered the abyss and learned there, union with the Crucified Christ, to Whom belongs all glory!

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





15 responses to “Solzhenitsyn and Where the Battle Begins”

  1. alyssasophia Avatar


    As you say, these thoughts are not uncommon to Orthodox and yet, as I read this multiple times today it dawned on me that Solzhenitsyn’s comments are remarkably similar to the St. Macarius quote you have posted on your site:

    “The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there.”

    ALL things ARE there.

    Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

  2. Justin Farr Avatar


    With your recent postings on Solzhenitsyn, and especially with this post, I have discovered what a wise man he is! Truly, I will have to try and get a hold of some of his work!

  3. Nora Bee Avatar

    I read this at exactly the right time for me to get a message that I needed. Thanks…

  4. […] One of the great quotes of Solzehnitsyn in context. […]

  5. […] One of the great quotes of Solzehnitsyn in context. […]

  6. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    Wow! Shortly before I became Orthodox, a discussion about salvation vs. damnation and what makes the difference came up in my evangelical small group women’s Bible study. The leader (a wonderful woman who loves God) handled it in the characteristic way using the typical “legal” categories arising from Reformation thought. I wrote to her later about my objections to this way of viewing salvation based on my increasing awareness of the demands and implications of God’s mercy revealed in the Gospels and also my increasing awareness of my own heart and told her that I felt deeply convicted that the line between chaff and grain went not just between “believer” and “unbeliever,” but right through the middle of my own heart!

  7. Stephen W. Avatar
    Stephen W.

    Fr. Stephen, I believe that this quote relates very well to some of the topics that you have been discussing lately, especially suffering. Here is another example of truth being revealed through suffering and a personal crucible. Choices become severely limited in times of extreme trial. Christ or not Christ? Of course everything in Orthodoxy relates to everything else and it all comes back to our own hearts.

  8. […] of Saint Simeon the New Theologian. We dedicate this preach, designed from the outset in English, to Father Stephen Freeman and to all Orthodox Christians and to Non-Christians speakers and English language knowledge, because the joy […]

  9. Rebecca Avatar

    Father bless,

    I just found out at Liturgy on this Blessed Feast morning, that you are not well. The entire parish (St. Athanasius, KY) offered our prayers for your swift recovery.

    Sorry to put this note after the memorial message for the Servant of God, Alexander. May his memory be eternal!

    In Christ,

    P.S. Keep hydrating! I think that means (in laymen’s terms), drinking liquids.

  10. kay Avatar

    Father bless,
    My husband and will make it a point to pray for you while singing this evening’s Office of Supplication. Please take care and get better soon –
    your blog site has literally changed our lives.

  11. Helena Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen, thank you so much for sharing the quote above. From which book by the author was it taken? I would like to read it.

  12. Marie Avatar

    A personal example, I belonged to a prayer group and a young girl late teens, or maybe early twenties had a friend she grew up with became pregnant out of wedlock and was going to abort her baby. This young girl was beside herself and work hard to change her friends mind. Her own mother offered to adopt the baby and I thought if I was pro life could I make such an offer? Could I embrace life that others throw away? What would I loose, my comfort zone?

  13. Burning Hearts Avatar
    Burning Hearts

    I love everything about Eastern Orthodoxy.

    The line between paradise and the abyss is only the vainglory of man. When Christ returns and reveals the glory he has always shared with the Father, everyone will know the difference.

    Christ is Truly Risen!

  14. […] drawn between nations – and by extension religions – rather than through the middle of every human heart.  So, suggests the logic, the United Kingdom is good, hence our prosperity is good, hence our […]

  15. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    I keep coming back to this. Thank you, Father.

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