Hoping against Hope: The Example of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

SolzhenitsynatHarvard,1978
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Attitudinal Values

“Attitudinal values” is a term psychiatrist Viktor Frankl uses to describe a person who is confronting some kind of difficulty or hardship in life. The attitude with which the individual approaches a problem can make him or her bitter or better. In other words, a physical mental or spiritual challenge can be viewed either negatively or positively, thus affecting a person’s psyche.

Taking a Stand against Injustice

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian historian and novelist, was a courageous, outspoken critic of Communism. He was even willing to risk his life in taking a stand against it. He found something for which to live and, if necessary, to die. He was arrested for writing a letter to a friend in which he criticized Josef Stalin, the leader of Russia or the former Soviet Union. Ultimately, Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years in Soviet concentration camps.

Finding New Reasons for Hope

He had written extensively about the horrors of the Soviet prison camps in the three volume series The Gulag Archipelago. For instance, when he  was on the verge of despair, when everything seemed hopeless in the camps, when being tempted to commit suicide, Solzhenitsyn chose to hope against hope and go on living. His struggles had made him stronger or, as he wrote,

“The fighters’ spiritual strength rises to the greatest height and to a supreme degree of tension when their situation is most helpless.”1

Solzhenitsyn’s experience confirmed Frankl’s concept of “attitudinal values.” For example, Solzhenitsyn said,

“All that the downtrodden can do is go on hoping. After every disappointment they must find fresh reason for hope.”2

Solzhenitsyn often had to find new reasons for hope in order to stay alive in prison. For him, then, hope was a choice, not merely a feeling. He had made a choice to find reasons to live. Thus, hope was absolutely necessary for his survival.

Becoming Better, Not Bitter, from Suffering

As negative or horrible as his prison experiences were, Solzhenitsyn also had chosen to allow his sufferings to make him into a better person. For example, he wrote,

“All the writers who wrote about prison but did not themselves serve time there considered it their duty to express sympathy for prisoners and to curse prison. I … have served enough time there. I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation: ‘ Bless you, prison, for having been in my life’!”3

In itself, suffering is not good. But good can come out of suffering, depending on one’s attitude. As Frankl says, a human being “continuously decides what he is: a being who equally harbors the potential to descend to the level of an animal or to ascend to the life of a saint.”4

Solzhenitsyn decided to become better, not bitter, from his suffering. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. In 1974, the Soviet Union expelled Solzhenitsyn from the country, stripping him of his citizenship. In 1994, he was vindicated for his stand against Communism, returning to Russia and being restored to citizenship. He died in his beloved country in 2008. Indeed, he was, and still is, an example of attitudinal values, specifically, choosing to hope against hope and overcome adversity.

Endnotes

1. Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, Vol. 3: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Parts V – VII, trans. Harry Willetts (New York, N.Y.: Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., 1978), p. ix.

2. Ibid., p. 298.

3. ———-, The Gulag Archipelago, Volume 2: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Parts III – IV, trans. Thomas P. Whitney (New York, N.Y.: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc., 1975), pp. 616-617.

4. Viktor E. Frankl, Psychotherapy and Existentialism (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1967), p. 110.

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