When prison memoirs and novels answer to totalitarian politics

Exploring the intersection between a Soviet dissident’s harrowing novel and a powerful memoir from a Native American activist claiming unjust imprisonment

Solzhenitsyn’s fictional vision of gulag life was inspired by the nightmare lived by the author

hat the Soviet state pronounced Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn a political dissident was nothing short of totalitarian “justice”; a one-sided due process that begins and ends with the state’s absolute authority, no questions asked. For many, “Soviet” and “totalitarian” are synonymous; by contrast, who would dare to label the American government or any of its political transactions “totalitarian”? Solzhenitsyn was a Soviet prisoner whose criticism of Stalinism landed him in the gulag. Native American activist Leonard Peltier, on the other hand, is a Chippewa Native American whose complicated murder case reveals major shortcomings in the American judicial system — guilty or not; moreover, his sufferings convey that the residue of colonialism continues to disenfranchise Native Americans’ rights today. Although “totalitarian” and the American government might inspire blaring, cognitive dissonance in anyone’s minds, Leonard Peltier’s compelling memoir earnestly questions the legitimacy of the American government’s relationship with Native Americans — who are arguably among the most disenfranchised people in America. Solzhenitsyn and Peltier may be worlds apart, but their writings both serve as a vehicle through which their muffled voices can be heard. Solzhenitsyn, under duress of intense scrutiny, opted for fiction in order to criticize Soviet totalitarianism; on the other hand, Peltier’s memoir represents one last tactic for freedom of speech -it is a moving spiritual confession which unites a prisoner’s sufferings with his people’s.

Although he was a fascist, Ezra Pound lucidly defined literature as “news that stays news.” To this end, Solzhenitsyn’s work may be fictional, but it pulls from the author’s own experiences as an imprisoned dissident. Barring any allegory or the fabulism of Animal Farm, as work of fiction, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich plunges us into the inferno of the gulag with all too gritty realism. A Day in the Life is a literary portrait that parallels Solzhenitsyn’s lived experience in the hellish landscape of the Soviet gulag where brutalism and privation of citizens’ rights lives. In the gulag, zeks (convicts) must daily perform grueling hard labor tasks while surviving the deadly winter on the steppes. Furthermore, food is rationed — frequently thought of in grams by Shukhov (the antihero of our story)— even when his meals amount to nothing more than a few extra crusts that he hides in his coat. Shukhov and his comrades subsist on skilly, or a type of gruel— poor nourishment for already under-clad convicts exposed to unforgiving, Siberian winters. The narrator tells us that “[t]he frost was cruel… The air temperature was twenty-seven below (Solzhenitsyn 18). Reduced to the indignity of trying to survive the hard sentence, Shukhov lays little store in writing to the outside world. He is forgotten, abandoned to society. It is a futile task, to write letters, one that he likens to “throwing stones into a bottomless pool.” Profoundly, this passage functions as a meta-commentary to the novel itself. Beyond the fictional world, Shukhov survives — one which accurately distills the horrors of the gulag, no less — Solzhenitsyn gives utterance to a reality that might not have reached a broad audience — much less see the light of day if it were presented purely as a memoir.

Solzhenitsyn, West Germany 1974

Anyone is a citizen of Soviet Russia — that is until he or she is sentenced to the gulags — a reality that underpins the whole Soviet system (Klimoff v). But what if one were denied lesser rights because of his or her ethnicity? Leonard Peltier challenges the reader with this existential question often throughout his memoir, Prison Writings: My Life Is My Sun Dance. Peltier’s memoir is part confessional; partly a very sober expository of a man’s innocence; and a desperate cry for political reform where Native American rights are concerned.

Undergirding this powerful memoir is a deep sense of Ojibwe spirituality, accomplished in two main ways. Firstly, Peltier’s free-style poems which invoke spiritual matters, and serve as vignettes between passages. Secondly, the tone that Peltier assumes throughout, reminding us that the memoir’s title references a sacred Ojibwe ceremony. If the state pronounced Shukhov a dissident just because they could, then Peltier’s crime, he repeatedly contends, is simply because he is a Native American. This is a metaphysical response on Peltier’s part. Yet his opinion is unshakable — it runs like a living wire beneath the physical abuse he endures in prisons; what he believes to be his wrongful incrimination; his denial of a proper trial — and more. By the same token, Peltier’s philosophical perspective extends to all Native American people. Peltier often talks in terms of “we” in order to intimately tie himself to his people. Like the Christian, his sufferings are one with his kin. Peltier writes that “within [the] greater struggle, we must turn and help ourselves and our people, one by one” (Peltier, Chapter 8). He fears that within his struggle, and the struggle of all Native Americans, there is the real threat that “nonexistence will succeed” once the American government gains more reservation land (Peltier, Chapter 8).

Leonard Peltier Mural. Photo by Gary Stevens

Further playing on a Christian teaching, Peltier likens his “Indian-ness” to something that all Native Americans are born into and cannot escape: the “original sin” of American identity — that as a Native American. In his poem-vignette, “aboriginal sin” [Sic] Peltier writes: “We each begin in innocence. / We all become guilty. / In this life you find yourself guilty / of being who you are. / Being yourself, that’s Aboriginal Sin” (Peltier). Peltier’s moving, non-fictional story proceeds beyond his imprisonment, which he consistently maintains as wrongful and unjustified. Although it is really outside the scope of this essay, there yet remains evidence to corroborate his alleged murder of two FBI agents on a Dakota reservation.

In November 1972, Peltier, an activist member of AIM, participated in a mass demonstration in D.C. for Indian rights called the “Trail of Broken Treaties.” Following his arrest, Peltier bitterly writes that the Native Americans like himself are the victims of government profiling. He writes, they “[t]arget us, set us up, arrest us, beat the shit out of us…[and] hang a phony rap on us” (Peltier Chapter 23). Whether one agrees with Peltier or not, there is no doubting the earnestness of his life’s story. If this is the reality of being a Native American, then like Solzhenitsyn, Peltier uses his narrative as a means for giving testimony and encouraging all people to fight for social justice — not just Native Americans. Similarly, Solzhenitsyn’s devastating novel uses fiction to communicate not abstract but concrete, gut-wrenching conditions in a system that depended on gulags to legitimize its authority. Shukhov’s gulag could have been any political dissident’s story. Both the novel and the memoir are story-telling tools that both authors use to radically challenge the social and political narratives that worked to suppress their voices.

Peltier has been in prison for over four decades and continues to keep active on Native American rights

Bibliography

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch (1962)

Leonard Peltier, Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance (1999) [eBook]

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Allen Bauman

Raconteur and essayist with a funny bone. Educator by profession.