Tuesday, June 05, 2007


While reading Slavomir Rawicz’s account of his long walk (The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom, Lyons Press, 1997), I was struck with certain similarities between his life and that of the fictional hero, Dr. Zhivago, from Boris Pasternak’s novel of the same name. Let me briefly describe Rawicz’s life as he relates it in his book.

The author was a young Polish army officer in 1939, and while on leave at his home near the Russian border, he was arrested by Russian Communists. The Russians, in their infinite wisdom, knew that all Polish army officers living on the border were spies, so Rawicz was taken to prison and tortured for a year and then sentenced to serve twenty-five years in Siberia.

But Rawicz did not want, for some inexplicable reason, to spend twenty-five years in Siberia, so he and six companions escaped and walked through Siberia, Mongolia, the Gobi Desert, and the Himalayan Mountains to freedom.

The critics hailed Rawicz’s odyssey as a triumph of the human spirit, which it certainly is, but I would label it a triumph of the Christian spirit. It isn’t the fact that Rawicz and the other men survive that matters most, it is the fact that they survive while maintaining their human dignity that counts. For instance, when a young, attractive Polish girl joins the seven men early in their escape (she had escaped from another camp), all the men treat her in a protective, fatherly fashion. She is not made into a company whore but is instead treated as a Madonna figure.

In addition, when a person falls and cannot continue, the others refuse to go on without him. That kind of deep blood Christianity demonstrated by the seven men and the girl is what makes this book special. (Alas, three men and the girl do not make it.) Incredible survival stories are interesting, but it is the way these men and the girl conduct themselves that sets this survival story apart from other such stories.

One of my favorite sections of the book is the white moment when one of the men, a gentle giant from Latvia, performs a Herculean feat of strength and a supernatural act of charity. After going countless days and nights without food or water, he still manages to carry the young Polish girl through the desert.
“Stick beside me, Slav,” said Kolemenos. “I am going to carry her.” And he lifted her into his arms, swayed for a moment as he adjusted himself to the weight, and staggered off. He carried her for fully two hundred yards and I was there to ease her down when he paused for a rest.

“Please leave me, Anastazi,” she begged. “You are wasting your strength.” He looked at her but could not bring himself to speak.

We made a shelter there and stayed for perhaps three hours through the worst heat of the day. She lay still—I do not think she could move. The ugly swelling was past the knees and heavy with water. Kolemenos was flat on his back, restoring his strength. He knew what he was going to do.

The sun began to decline. Kolemenos bent down and swung her into his arms and trudged off. I stayed with him and the rest were all about us. He covered fully a quarter of a mile before he put her down that first time. He picked her up again and walked, her head pillowed on his great shoulder. I can never in my life see anything so magnificent as the blond-bearded giant Kolemenos carrying Kristina, hour after hour, towards darkness of that awful sixth day. His ordeal lasted some four hours. Then she touched his cheek.

“Put me on the ground, Anastazi. Just lay me down on the ground.”

I took her weight from him and together we eased her down. We gathered round her. A wisp of a smile hovered about the corners of her mouth. She looked very steadily at each one of us in turn and I thought she was going to speak. Her eyes were clear and very blue. There was a great tranquility about her. She closed her eyes.
Rawicz never returned to Poland to see the young bride that he had married only months before his imprisonment. He does not make it clear whether his first wife was killed by the Communists or whether he was simply unable to get back to her. He merely says she was lost to him. He also never saw his mother and father or his friends in Poland again. He lived in exile in England, and married an English woman who gave him four children. At the time of the book’s publication, he was in his eighties.

In comparison, Dr. Zhivago’s life spans the last years of the Czars and the early years of the Bolshevik’s regime. He is married and working as a medical doctor at the time of Russia’s entry into World War I and is conscripted into the Czar’s army to work in a hospital near the front. After finishing his work for the Czarist forces, he attempts to return to private life, but after a few years of family life he is forcibly abducted into the Bolshevik army. He eventually escapes by taking a long walk across Russia but never sees his wife and children again. He is also, eventually, separated from his second common-law wife and daughter through the exigencies of the Communist Revolution.

What the fictional character Zhivago and the author Rawicz have in common is that they both are uprooted from a traditional way of life by the new materialist, Communist system. They could not hide themselves in the new system as one could hide in less totalitarian systems. “Is there no escape for him? Couldn’t he run away?” “Where could he run, Larisa Feodorovna? You could do that in the old days, under the Tsars. But just you try nowadays.”

I suppose one could read Rawicz’s book or Pasternak’s novel and come up with the American response, “Thank God we are a free country and not a Communist one.” But such a response would be off the mark. The essence of Communism is its materialism. When individuals are no longer seen as members of communities, churches, and families, but as consumers, workers, and producers, they have ceased to be human in the eyes of those who rule and have become inhuman cogs in an inhuman machine of government. Dislocated lives such as those lived by Zhivago and Rawicz are the result of such materialism. But we must realize that our own materialistic economic system has perpetuated the same type of dislocation that materialistic Communism has. The methods of coercion differ but the goal of both the Russian Communists and the U. S. capitalists is the same: a Utopian, machine-based society governed by an elect few and peopled by robot-like human beings. The Russian Communists tried the masculine method of coercion: “Do what we say or go to the Gulag.” The American capitalists took the feminine approach and seduced their victims first. The seduction has been more successful than the closed fist. In America we do willingly what the Communists had to force their people to do. We send our children to state schools, treat men and women as economic units only, and sever all ties with kith, kin, and place in order to “go where the jobs are.”

The question, “Who are you?”, used to be answered in the Old Country with an answer like, “I am Michael, son of Jonathan, the blacksmith in the village of Avoca.” Now, one answers the question with, “I am Mike, super computer whiz and a child of cyber space.” Economic systems can bear a certain amount of dissection and reorganization, but human souls cannot. They are made for the “the tilled field and hedgerow, linked to the ploughed furrow, the frequented pasture, the lane of evening lingerings, the cultivated garden plot.” They are not made for the dynamo.

The two great Utopian states, Communist Russia and the United States, have denied the one thing that is necessary for mankind to breath: the human soul. And yet the U.S., having consumed the Russian heresy, has tottered into the 21st century with no signs of repentance. Dislocation, so long as it is not accompanied by the harsh physical suffering of Rawicz and Zhivago, will be looked upon as normal, and those who resist will be labeled as psychologically unstable or even criminally insane. Thus sickness will be health, and health, sickness, and the deaf will shout warnings to the deaf.

“Then he made John sit in the machine and he himself sat beside him. Then he began pulling the levers about and for a long time nothing happened: but at last there came a flash and a roar and the machine bounded into the air and then dashed forward. Before John had got his breath they had flashed across a broad thoroughfare which he recognized as the main road, and were racing through the country to the north of it—a flat country of square stony fields divided by barbed wire fences. A moment later they were standing still in a city where all the houses were built of steel.”

-- from The Pilgrim’s Regress by C. S. Lewis

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