LEFT ALONE momentarily to work in the warden’s office, prisoner Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins in the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption), plots a surprise treat for his fellow inmates. He activates the warden’s PA system, flips on a record player, and spreads the sweet sound of opera music throughout the jail. Initially frozen with shock, the prison guards rush toward the office to silence Dufresne’s act of defiance. After they finally break through the locked door, the infuriated warden sentences Dufresne to two weeks of solitary confinement. Dufresne later boasts to his inmate friends that the time alone wasn’t too hard: He listened to Mozart in his head. “That’s the beauty of music,” he explains. “They can’t get that from you.”
The Shawshank Redemption, based on a short story by Stephen King, expresses the spiritual longing for freedom. In this instance, music represents Dufresne’s struggle to retain hope amid a corrupt prison culture. The movie borrows freely from a rich genre of prison narratives, which Christian writers have pioneered and bolstered for centuries. For some of Christianity’s most powerful teachers, including Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and John Bunyan, internment has been God’s agent for redemption and a stirring source of literary inspiration.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881)
The Russian czar’s guards dispatched Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Siberia—bound sled on Christmas Eve, 1849. Earlier that year, he had been arrested for participating in a socialist discussion group, whose members desired to end serfdom in Russia. After awaiting their fate for more than eight months in a Saint Petersburg jail, they learned the bad news: They had been sentenced to death.
But on December 22, at the last possible moment, a guard rode in with the urgent news of their reprieve. The execution had been staged—one last measure of psychological torture before the czar doomed them to years of hard labor in Siberia.
As the sled made its way toward Siberia, Dostoyevsky was moved by the compassion of peasant women who trailed behind the prisoners. One of the women offered him a copy of the New Testament—the only book he was allowed to read in the labor camp. Thus far in his adult life, he hadn’t had much use for Christian faith. His first novel, Poor Folk, had earned him high praise as Russia’s next great author, but his growing love for humanity suffered from the socialist shortcoming he would later critique in The Brothers Karamazov: “The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular.”
This paradox crippled most political prisoners in the labor camps. Thrown together with petty thieves and hardened killers, intellectual dissidents often struggled to adapt to the merciless system imposed by their captors and aggravated by their fellow captives. Not long after he finally returned home in 1859, Dostoyevsky published a fictionalized account of his time in Siberia. But Memoirs from the House of the Dead briefly got him in trouble once more with the government. The czar’s censors deemed his novel’s depiction of Russian prisons to be too favorable. Given the novel’s content, it’s hard to imagine what would have appeased the government. House of the Dead ponders the prisoners’ pathetic attempts to exercise freedom despite restraints and repercussions. Even normal convicts who toiled in obscurity sometimes exploded in drunken, murderous frenzies.
To avoid succumbing to this destructive jail culture, Dostoyevsky drew strength from two unlikely sources. First, despite never spending a moment alone during his four years of incarceration, he grew to love and sympathize with his fellow inmates. In his youth, Dostoyevsky had been a champion of moral causes and had trusted in the human capacity to overcome problems like serfdom. But in prison he encountered men far removed from any pretense of moral capability, and he observed how the cruel prison system only trampled them further. He wrote of his surprising compassion for these rough characters, “It thrills the heart to realize that the most downtrodden man, the lowest of the low, is also a human being and is called your brother.”
But mere empathy would not enable the prisoners to overcome their condition. He also embraced the New Testament’s powerful redemptive possibility. In Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky reveals something of his own conversion from morality to redemption. The murderer, Raskolnikov, nearly grieves himself to death trying to rationalize and justify his crime. So he seeks comfort from Sonia, a faithful woman driven to prostitution in order to support her family. As she reads him the story of Lazarus’s resurrection, “Raskolnikov turned and looked at her with emotion. Yes, he had known it! She was trembling in a real physical fever. . . . She was getting near the story of the greatest miracle, and a feeling of immense triumph came over her. Her voice rang out like a bell; triumph and joy gave it power. . . . ‘And he, he too, who is blinded and unbelieving, he too will hear, he too will believe.’”
The Russian government robbed Dostoyevsky of political freedom for nearly a decade. But they couldn’t touch what he later called the “regeneration of my convictions.”
Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918— )
The story was all too common for Stalin’s Soviet Union. A devoted communist, decorated for his service in defense of Mother Russia, dares to question the paranoid despot and thereby becomes an enemy of the state he so loves. Alexander Solzhenitsyn suffered for eight years in the Russian gulags, whose conditions had improved only slightly in the century since Dostoyevsky languished there. As with Dostoyevsky, however, that which did not kill Solzhenitsyn made him immeasurably stronger.
The trouble began while Solzhenitsyn was fighting on the front against Germany in the summer of 1943. Camped and awaiting battle, he met up with an old friend who shared his passion for communism’s utopian possibilities. Yet they also shared a Leninist critique of Stalin’s draconian style. Together they secretly composed “Resolution No. 1,” which compared Stalin’s communism to feudalism.
In early 1945, Captain Solzhenitsyn was preparing his soldiers for their final assault on Berlin. But on February 9, he received an unexpected summons to brigade headquarters. With one telling question from the commanding officer—"Have you a friend on the first Ukrainian Front?"—Solzhenitsyn learned his fate. Soviet political operatives had seized “Resolution No. 1” from his friend and now charged him with conspiring to overthrow Stalin’s government.
Three months later, while Muscovites danced in Red Square to celebrate the war’s end, Solzhenitsyn watched the fireworks from prison. The fall from Red Army officer to political captive had been crushing. Even life’s most basic pleasures—sleep, human contact—had been denied him. When he was transferred from solitary confinement to a cell with three other prisoners, his spirits soared.
This simple companionship became a tremendous source of strength as he learned to cope with prison. From those who became dead to the world in order to endure, he learned that we must never surrender our humanity. “If in order to live it is necessary not to live,” he wrote in The Gulag Archipelago Volume One, “then what’s it all for?” This realization, in turn, led him to believe that his imprisonment might have purpose. He wrote to his first wife, “Years go by, yes, but if the heart grows warmer from the misfortunes suffered, if it is cleansed therein—the years are not going by in vain.”
Solzhenitsyn was still far from being a Christian. Imprisonment had greatly tarnished his reverence for the Soviet Union he had once dreamed of commemorating in literature, but there remained serious anti-Christian dogmas to hurdle. He was a true child of the 1917 Revolution, torn from his family’s Orthodox faith and indoctrinated in dialectical materialism.
Solzhenitsyn was surprised, therefore, to meet Russians who still believed in God. After undergoing urgent surgery for cancer in February 1952, he was comforted one evening by a doctor who related his conversion from Judaism to Christianity. The next morning Solzhenitsyn awoke to commotion: the doctor had suffered eight blows to the head. He soon died on the operating table. No one knows why the doctor was brutally murdered, but his open Christian faith did not help his cause in the atheistic Soviet Union. In any event, the incident was no coincidence to Solzhenitsyn. He wrote in The Gulag Archipelago, “And so it happened that [the doctor’s] prophetic words were his last words on earth. And, directed to me, they lay upon me as an inheritance. You cannot brush off that kind of inheritance by shrugging your shoulders.”
By this time, Solzhenitsyn felt hunted by the Almighty. He recovered from cancer and embraced Christ. “When at the end of jail, on top of everything else, I was placed with cancer,” he recounted for biographer Joseph Pearce, “then I was fully cleansed and came back to deep awareness of God and a deep understanding of life.” Neither Solzhenitsyn nor the world would ever be the same. He was released from prison in 1953, the same year Stalin died. Nine years later, he published One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which miraculously cleared Soviet censors due to Nikita Khrushchev’s efforts to de-Stalinize Russia. This chilling novel, based on his gulag experience, exposed Russians and the world to everyday life as an enemy of Stalin’s communism.
Along with The Gulag Archipelago, which incited the Soviet government to send him into exile, One Day dealt a crippling blow to communism’s credibility. And it wouldn’t have been possible without a resolute faith nourished inside the walls of Stalin’s prisons.
John Bunyan (1628—1688)
Unlike Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn, John Bunyan was thrown into prison precisely because of his Christian faith. twenty-one years old when forces loyal to the Puritans beheaded the deposed King Charles I in 1649, Bunyan suffered the sting of Anglican retribution in 1660. The mere act of meeting together became unlawful for “Nonconformists” like Bunyan under the restored King Charles II. And Bunyan was a prime target. Despite his humble “tinker” background and unordained leadership, Bunyan’s sermons attracted tremendous crowds. The government jailed him in 1660 when he refused to quit preaching in exchange for freedom.
The separation from his family proved nearly unbearable. “The parting with my wife and poor children hath oft been to me in this place as the pulling the flesh from my bones,” Bunyan wrote in his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.
With fresh understanding of the apostle Paul’s experiences, Bunyan ministered to his family and church from jail through letters. Suffering gave his teaching new strength. “I never had in all my life so great an inlet into the Word of God as [in prison],” he later recalled. “Those scriptures that I saw nothing in before were made in this place and state to shine upon me. . . . I never knew what it was for God to stand by me at all times and at every offer of Satan to afflict me, as I have found him since I came in hither.”
In 1672, after 12 long but beneficial years in prison, Bunyan was released thanks to the “Declaration of Religious Indulgence.” The declaration also enabled him to become the official pastor of his church. Tensions remained high, however, and he was again jailed, this time for six months, in 1677. Once again, what the authorities intended for evil, God used for good. During this prison stint, Bunyan authored The Pilgrim’s Progress. Born amid strife and sacrifice, The Pilgrim’s Progress gives a remarkably honest and rich allegorical account of the Christian life.
In one memorable scene, Christian and Hopeful have been captured by Giant and are being held in his Doubting-Castle dungeon. “Now, a little before it was Day, good Christian, as one half amazed, brake out in this passionate speech: What a Fool, quoth he, am I, thus to lie in a stinking dungeon, when I may as well walk at liberty? I have a key in my bosom, called Promise, that will I am persuaded open any lock in Doubting-Castle. . . . Then Christian pulled it out of his bosom, and began to try at the dungeon door, whose bolt (as he turned the Key) gave back, and the door flew open with ease.” It is the same key to heavenly escape treasured for so many years by Bunyan himself, along with Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn.
By Collin Hansen
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #86 in 2005]
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