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Toward their destination before they drown
~ Robert Pinsky
September 2021
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Monday, 3. July 2006

Solzhenitsyn’s Rosary

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago” is one of those works of witnessing that speaks to the reader as powerfully in the present, when the Archipelago is no more, as it must have done in the 1960-70s when the Soviets kicked him out of the Soviet Union for writing it. Two days ago I had finally managed to lay my hands on the third volume (Parts V-VII) of this monumental work, and since then it has become the reading material for my moments of reprieve (which, by the way, is also the title of one of Primo Levi’s powerful memoirs of witnessing, in his case, of the Nazi death camps).

In Chapter 5 of Part V, titled “Poetry Under a Tombstone, Truth Under a Stone”, Solzhenitsyn recalls the time from his sixth year of his imprisonment, when he was sent to a remote camp in the Kazakhstan steppe, when the desire to write became all consuming. But since he was forced to burn up the drafts of anything he wrote, as soon as it was put on paper (since a prisoner was not allowed to keep anything he wrote unless it is a poem in praise of Stalin), he describes the method that he came up with to keep the lines from vanishing in this fashion:

“In prisons the composition and polishing of verses had to be done in my head. Then I started breaking matches into little pieces and arranging them on my cigarette case in two rows (of ten each, one representing units and the others tens). As I recited the verses to myself, I displaced one bit of broken match from the units row for every line. When I shifted ten units I displaced one of the “tens.” (Even this work had to be done circumspectly: such innocent match games, accompanied by whispering movements of the lips or an unusual facial expression, would have aroused the suspicion of the stool pigeons. I tried to look as if I was switching the matches around quite absent mindedly.) Every fiftieth and every hundredth line I memorized with special care, to help me keep count. Once a month I recited all that I had written. If the wrong line came out in place of one of the hundreds and fifties, I went over it all again and again until I caught the slippery fugitives.

In the Kuibyshev Transit Prison I saw Catholics (Lithuanians) busy making themselves rosaries for prison use. They made them by soaking bread, kneading beads from it, coloring them (black ones with burnt rubber, white ones with tooh powder, red ones with red germicide), stringing them while still moist on several strands of thread twisted together and thoroughly soaped, and letting them dry on the window ledge. I joined them and said that I, too, wanted to say my prayers with a rosary but that in my particular religion I needed hundred beads in a ring (later, when I realized that twenty would suffice, and indeed more convenient, I made them myself out of cork), that every tenth bead must be cubic, not spherical, and that the fiftieth and the hundredth beads must be distinguishable at a touch. The Lithuanians were amazed at my religious zeal (the most devout among them had no more than forty beads), but with true brotherly love helped me put together a rosary such as I had described, making the hundredth bead in the form of a dark red heart. I never afterward parted with the marvelous present of theirs; I fingered and counted my beads inside my wide mittens – at work line-up, on the march to and fro from work, at all waiting times; I could do it standing up, and freezing cold was no hindrance. I carried it safely through the search points, in the padding of my mittens, where it could not be felt. The warders found it on various occasions, but supposed that it was for praying and let me keep it. Until the end of my sentence (by which time I had accumulated 12,000 lines) and after that in my places of banishment, this necklace helped me write and remember.”

I wish I can type this whole chapter up, but nevertheless this beautiful passage (and also a timely reminder to self) shows that if one wants to really write (or create, in general), one must come up with one’s own rosary.

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