The World Renowned Soviet Refugee Who Made Me Christian (Solzhenitsyn)

"I was undergoing a deep struggle about faith in God . . . I started to hear rumblings at sixteen years old about a writer, a Soviet dissident . . . and in learning more about Solzhenitsyn I discovered Orthodox Christianity"

Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1974

During my recent trip to Russia, I had the opportunity to visit Alexander Solzhenitsyn's grave. This was a particularly poignant part of the trip because of what I owe to this man.

Many years ago when I was a college student, I was undergoing a deep struggle about faith in God and Christianity. I had several false starts and avoided going to church altogether for four years or so. I never gave up faith in Christ, but I was done with church.

I knew however, that the conflict had to be resolved one way or another. It reached a crisis point, not as great as the crisis that brought me to Christ, but close. One late afternoon — I remember this distinctly — I was leaving class on a cold fall day. It was raining. I walked out of the building (Fowell Hall for University of Minnesota grads) and it came to me that I had two choices: leave Christ, or stay with Him and start over completely.

Leaving Christ meant embracing nihilistic despair. Did I want that? No. A deep crisis of meaning is what had driven me to Christ when I was about twenty. Once you have tasted hell you don’t want to go back. That left only one other option: Stay with Christ and start over.

Now, before I move on to the rest of the story, I have to go back to when I was sixteen years old. I have always been interested in history and culture, especially politics and ideology. I remember looking at a swastika in third or forth grade and perceiving, as best a boy could, that this symbol was different than the flags of other nations. It didn’t represent people, but an idea. That young, I had no idea what ideology was, but I remember experiencing an inner recoiling at the realization.

Some of this is family history, and perhaps even genetics. My father had been a resistance fighter in WWII and was caught by the Nazis and sentenced to a concentration camp. He escaped, and he spent months hiding in the woods and walking from Germany back to his home in Holland (the place where he had been arrested). He told me that what gave him hope were the leaflets dropped by American planes, which  promised that liberation was coming. That’s why I am a patriot. American men died so that my father could live.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn's grave —
photo taken by Fr. Johannes Jacobse

My mother had her home confiscated by the Nazis during the occupation of Holland. My grandfather, mother, and uncle were relegated to life in the attic. They feared for their life. My mother witnessed numerous executions of her friends and neighbors suspected of collaboration with the underground, and she thought that they might be next.

My mom, grandmother, and uncle decided to go to Friesland, where my mother's family is from. So one day she told the Germans that she and her family were going to the store, but they never came back. They were able to leave Amsterdam undetected, and they spent a month walking through beet fields at night until they reached their village.

I never knew this until I asked my mom why we never ate beets. All my friends had beets for supper, but I had never even seen a beet in our home. She told me this story, and added that they survived by digging up beets from the field and eating them raw.

I grew up with this knowledge. I also grew up aware of the larger world around me; immigrants often do because the change from one country to another is so pronounced, even for a child. I was seven years old when we immigrated.

So when I started to hear rumblings at sixteen years old about a writer, a Soviet dissident, who would soon publish a book and play, I took notice. I can’t say I understood the ramifications of what I heard, but I sensed that this was important. When I read that the play would first be performed in Minneapolis, Minnesota at the Guthrie Theater (I always read the newspaper from beginning to end — no internet then), I knew I had to go.

The play was “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denysovich” and it was written by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I asked my dad for the car and he let me go. Again, I can’t say I understood all the ramifications, but I knew something very important was happening. I wanted to be part of it.

That began a relationship with Solzhenitsyn that prepared me to listen when I encountered him again in college.

It was Solzhenitsyn’s work that, by God’s providence, came to me a week after my decision in the middle of my soul wrenching crisis. I was roaming around in the periodical stacks of the library and came across Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard Address, "A World Split Apart". I picked it up, read it, and saw immediately the deep penetration into Western American culture written with a spiritual clarity I had never encountered. “This is it," I remember thinking. "This is what I am looking for.”

I started my search in earnest. And in learning more about Solzhenitsyn, I discovered Orthodox Christianity, and I read whatever I could about it. I knew almost nothing, and soon collected a hodge-podge of ideas I had gleaned from here and there. Then I met a girl and told her about my great discovery, and she responded, “Well, I’m Orthodox.” I was floored. I didn’t know what to think. I thought Orthodox Churches existed only in Russia. I started going to her church, she started going back to church, and two years later we married.

My conversion was slow, however. I had some false starts. I had been burned, so I was very cautious about making any more religious commitments. Besides, I knew that becoming Orthodox was like getting married. It’s not something you do lightly. Still, God is faithful, and about three years later I was Chrismated.

Standing at Solzhenitsyn’s grave, I was able to pay my respects to the man who gave me so much, whose suffering brought light into the world, some of which enlightened my path in a very profound way. It is not overstating it to say that the man changed my life.

May His memory be eternal. May I reach at least a small measure of his faithfulness in my own life.

— Fr. Johannes Jacobse

Fr. Johannes Jacobse

Fr. Johannes (Hans) Jacobse, a native of Holland, is priest at St. Peter Orthodox Church in Bonita Springs, Florida. He is also a cultural critic and independent scholar. He edits the website Orthodoxy Today, discussing social and moral issues from an Orthodox Christian perspective. The success of Orthodoxy Today led to the founding of the American Orthodox Institute, a research and educational organization that engages the cultural issues of the day within the Orthodox Christian moral tradition. He is also editor of the website Another City along with Dr. Seraphim Bruce Foltz.

Fr. Hans is an expert and recognized authority on the impact of ideology and narrative on culture. His editorials and essays have been published by the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Duluth News Tribune, International Herald Tribune, Hellenic Voice, Breakpoint, Front Page Magazine, Institute for Religion and Democracy, Acton Institute, Discovery Institute, Town Hall, and more. 

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