Boris had lost hope. All hope. Unjustly imprisoned in a filthy prison camp far from home, he had all but given up. Life wasn’t worth living anymore.
Having grown up in Stalinist Russia, Boris was a dedicated Communist. He was also a Jew. He had no love for the Czar and the Christian Orthodox believers who had persecuted his family and faith. Good riddance. Salvation through socialism sounded far more beneficial to people like himself. But in the 1940s or early 1950s, Boris committed a political sin against the State and was condemned to spend years in a faraway penal colony better known as a gulag.
A few years in a gulag prison camp will cure anyone infected by Communist ideology. Dr. Boris Kornfeld soon abandoned his socialist worldview despite having few other choices. Disillusionment soaked his soul. However, his skills as a doctor kept him busy at a camp where brutality and death were a daily occurrence. It was here he met a well-educated prisoner who spoke of a Jewish Messiah. This new friend shared his faith, often praying aloud the Lord’s Prayer. For some strange reason, this message resonated with Boris. Only in the gulag, where his pride and false beliefs had been stripped away, could he finally deal with his despair as he surprised himself by embracing a faith he once loathed. Dr. Boris Kornfeld had become a Christian.
Boris pondered the improbability of encountering one of the few Christian believers in the camp. Stranger still that his heart was open to praying for forgiveness to a Jew named Jesus. Slowly, his life began to change. He was still trapped in a remote, isolated Siberian camp where cruelty and abuse were commonplace. Possessing a new sense of freedom without fear, he no longer agreed to sign forms that condemned men to death. He no longer turned a blind eye to the abuse he observed. Reporting a cruel act by one of the orderlies took courage, even though such behavior would, in all likelihood, result in a fatal retaliation. Nevertheless, Boris found peace in doing what was right. The anger and hatred in his soul had vanished.
And for the first time, Dr. Boris Kornfeld wanted to tell someone about his new faith in Christ. One afternoon, he found such an opportunity as he operated on a young patient who had already spent years in the gulag. Sympathetic to the misery and emptiness he saw in the poor soul lying before him, Boris started talking as he worked. And he kept talking and talking. He poured out his entire story to this young man shaking with fever. For hours the doctor described his conversion. Knowing his own death was likely at any time, Boris needed at least one person on earth to know that he was a Christian.
Despite being in enormous pain from the surgery, the young patient listened intently before falling asleep. The following day, the patient awoke to the news that Dr. Boris Kornfeld had been murdered during the night. Kornfeld’s life as a Communist had lasted decades. His life as a Christian had lasted months, if not weeks. And he had only shared his faith with one man, that young patient.
We know this story because that young man himself became a Christian after pondering the testimony of Dr. Kornfeld. That man survived the gulag. He went on to become a novelist winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970.
His name — Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.
Is it any wonder that Solzhenitsyn would later write these words in his classic three-volume non-fiction work, The Gulag Archipelago, “Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.”
In his 1978 Commencement Address at Harvard, Solzhenitsyn spoke of the spiritual exhaustion of the West, its decadence of art, and lack of great statesmen. Solzhenitsyn accused the West of failing to recognize the intrinsic evil in Man and focusing solely on attaining happiness on earth. He observed how the materialistic West sought to enforce human rights while turning away from God.
In 1983, Solzhenitsyn won the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, considered the most prestigious award in religion. In his acceptance speech, he recalled, “More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’”
He continued, “Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our Revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’”
Not exactly the words that 20th-century Western culture wanted to hear.
Some consider the most insightful words ever written by this Russian novelist are these taken from The Gulag Archipelago, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart.” He recognized that the conflict between good and evil resides within us all. He didn’t blame race, class, or political parties as the source of evils in the world. He realized that we are all sinners.
I suspect, and it is only my supposition, that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in all his writings and speeches, never forgot what he learned lying on an operating table under the surgical knife and confessing lips of Dr. Boris Kornfeld.
Sadly, our culture seems to have forgotten the words of Solzhenitsyn.
Note: This story was inspired by the writer’s reading of Chapter Two of Charles Colson’s book, Loving God, 1983 edition, and articles on the life of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.