Sixty years ago, Joseph Stalin was the most powerful man in the world: not only was he the absolute ruler of one of the world’s two superpowers; he led a movement that seemed about to take the world by storm. Sixty years ago, China was falling; the next year, Mao would proclaim the People’s Republic. Sixty years ago, Jan Masaryk fell—or was pushed—from a bathroom window in Prague, and Czechs’ freedom died with him. Individual freedom seemed a small idea; it was the age of the powerful state. Orwell saw that, and described the future that beckoned in “1984,” published sixty years ago: a future of Big Brothers ruling over billions of drones.
Sixty years ago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was one of those drones: one more inmate in one more camp lost in the middle of the world’s largest empire, ruler of its largest prison system. To the state that punished him for an inopportune comment about its leader, Solzhenitsyn must have seemed a surpassingly trivial creature: not even important enough to kill, in a time and place where killing was routine.
Yet it was this solitary man at the bottom of the world’s most brutal pecking order who shaped the future. Stalin’s world is as dead as the dictator himself. Solzhenitsyn’s lives, because Solzhenitsyn lived. Freedom won, because this one man decided to write the truth. One free mind proved more powerful than Stalin’s massive state, more powerful than any state. States, armies, even gulags are temporary things. Individual souls endure. Thanks be to God for this one.