God Keep Me From Growing Mad

By Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

There never was, nor will be, a world of brightness!

A frozen foot cloth is the scarf that binds my face.

Fights over porridge, the ganger`s constant griping

And day, follows day, follows day, and no end to this dreary fate.

          My feeble pick strikes sparks from the frozen earth.

          And the sun stares down unblinking from the sky.

          But the world is here! And will be! The daily round

          Suffices. But man is not to be prisoned in the day.

          To write! To write now, without delay,

          Not in heated wrath, but with cool and clear understanding.

          The millstones of my thoughts can hardly turn,

          Too rare the flicker of light in my aching soul.

          Yes, tight is the circle around us tautly drawn,

          But my verses will burst their bonds and freely roam

          And I can guard, perhaps, beyond their reach,

          In rhythmic harmony this hard–won gift of speech.

And then they can grope my body in vain–

“Here I am. All yours. Look hard. Not a line…

Our indestructible memory, by wonder divine,

Is beyond the reach of your butcher`s hands!”

          My labour of love! Year after year with me you will grow,

          Year after year you will tread the prisoner`s path.

          The day will come when you warm not me alone,

          Nor me alone embrace with a shiver of wrath.

          Let the stanzas throb–but no whisper let slip,

          Let them hammer away–not a twitch of the lip,

          Let your eyes not gleam in another`s presence

          And let no one see, let no one see

          You put pencil to paper.

          From every corner I am stalked by prison–

          God keep me from going mad!

I do not write my verses for idle pleasure,

Nor from a sense of energy to burn.

Nor out of mischief, to evade their searches,

Do I carry them past my captors in my brain.

The free flow of my verse is dearly bought,

I have paid a cruel price for my poet`s rights:

The barren sacrifice of all her youth

And ten cold solitary years for my wife–

          The unuttered cries of children still unborn,

          My mother`s death, toiling in gaunt starvation,

          The madness of prison cells, midnight interrogations,

          Autumn`s sticky red clay in an open cast mine,

          The secret, slow and silent erosive force

          Of winters laying bricks, of summers feeding the furnace–

          Oh, if this were but the sum of the price paid for my verse!

          But those others paid the price with their lives,

          Immured in the silence of Solovki, drowned in thunder of waves,

          Or shot without trial in Vorkuta`s polar night.

Love and warmth and their executed cries

Have combined in my breast to carve

The receptive metre of this sorrowful tale,

These few poor incapacious lines.

Oh, hopeless labour! Can you really pay the price?

Do you think to redeem the pledge with a single life?

For what an age has my country been so poor

In women`s happy laughter, so very rich

In poets` lamentations!

Verse verse–for all that we have lost,

 A drop of scented resin in the razed forest!

But this is all I live for! On it`s wings

I transport my feeble body through the prison walls

And one day, in distant exile dim,

Biding my time, I will free my tortured memory from it`s thrall:

On paper, birchbark, in a blackened bottle rolled,

I will consign my tale to the forest leaves,

Or to a drift of shifting snow.

          But what if beforehand they give me poisoned bread?

          Or if darkness beclouds my mind at last?

          Oh, let me die there! let it not be here!

          God keep me from going mad!


Prophets, it is said, are without honour in their own land. Behold the virtual state funeral of Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 2008, attended by the then, prime minister, Vladimir Putin and all the political establishment apparatchiks surrounding this so very modern reinvention of Russia`s grand imperial past.

The once great dissident against Soviet abuse of power had travelled the way of all relevant artists and their art in Russia, as the state, yet again, did a volte face to reinforce the narcissism of it`s power and control over history.

Solzhenitsyn, the one time political maverick and outcast, sent to die in the Gulags, had risen from the ashes smouldering at the bottom of history`s dustbin, to be raised like a phoenix by the post-soviet thaw, and eat his old political enemies of the past like fire.

For Putin, he was just the right material to be held in front of the people as an honoured, and potent symbol of modern Russian Nationalism. Art has always been used, and abused in Russia by the state to legitimize it`s existence: is not art the purest form and expression of the human heart? The propaganda power of art is without limit, because so many are emotionally affected and manipulated by it. Solzhenitsyn had come full circle: raised up, and then crushed by the soviet state, he had undergone a political and artistic rebirth. It was a re-imagining of history on a grand scale.


God Keep Me From Going Mad was written while he was left to rot in the Gulags: more often than not, the inmates were left to police themselves as long as they didn`t trouble the camp authorities. This led to extreme abuse by some inmates on the rest: the system was divided into two parts– those who survived, and those who died. Survival was the only priority; some were even prepared to cut one of their own hands off for the sadistic pleasure of guards, or other inmates who ran internal protection rackets and maintained their control by dishing out arbitrary violent punishment, simply to live another day– another day lived before they bled to death was another day survived in hell.

It was truly ironic that Solzhenitsyn, a survivor of a gulag system enforced by the KGB, was showered with praise and warm words by ex-KGB man Putin; a gentleman who once said that there was no such thing as an ex-KGB man, and who saw the collapse of the Soviet empire as one of history`s great disasters. Putin`s rampant nationalism re-tooled a willing Solzhenitsyn as a potent symbol of the legitimacy and embodiment of the nationalist destiny of Mother Russia.

Solzhenitsyn played a mighty and incorruptible part in the liberation of Russia from totalitarianism, only for his viewpoint to be left on the back–burner by most Russians because his views had become too strict and conservative. Russia was looking for their own Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel, someone who would liberate them from the past, and propel them into a new future of social, political and economic freedom. Instead, they heard an old man who had nothing to say to ordinary Russians, except to chastise them for their moral imperfections.

Maybe one day the Solzhenitsyn of old, the incorruptible, indefatigable furnace of light will burn bright and true again……….

The dismal situation waste and wild:

A dungeon horrible on all sides round

As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames

No light, but rather darkness visible…….

~~ John Milton, Paradise Lost ~~

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