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The Gulag Archipelago

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

I just finished reading an excellent author: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I had read him before --

In the First Circle -- in the early to mid-1970s, not too long after it first came out in English. The book I just finished reading is The Gulag Archipelago, which is a non-fiction account of the gulag prison system in the former USSR which Solzhenitsyn experienced first-hand as a prisoner from 1945 -1953 for privately criticizing Stalin in a letter. In the First Circle was a semi-autobiographical novel based on his experiences in one of the camps. From this book I knew he was a good writer that I thoroughly enjoyed. Hence, a couple years ago when I was looking for something serious to read, I thought of him again. The Gulag Archipelago was not only an account of some of Solzhenitsyn’s experiences in the camps, but he tried to give, as far as possible, an account of the gulag prison system under the USSR. The book was based on the experiences of other prisoners (many got in touch with him after his first novel, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, was published), interviews with those Soviet officials with whom he was able to talk, his own research in the Moscow libraries, and other accounts of the Soviet gulag system as well as prison life under the Tsars. Impressions after reading this book are many, but the overriding one is the degree of cruelty and inhumanity that people are capable of visiting upon one another. Another shocking element is how small the number of people is who actually survived the camps. In fact, Solzhenitsyn’s experience convinced him that the purpose of the camps was to kill off “undesirable” members of the population. Solzhenitsyn was not able to definitively say how many people died, but I researched it a bit and found an article in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society (Series C: Applied Statistics), by Stephen Blyth. In this article, statistically constructed estimates found a credible range with 95% certainty of from 9.7 to 16.7 million deaths.

Solzhenitsyn says there were other people in the camps who were trying to write about them. Of course, in the camps you were lucky if the shoes you wore were not stolen while you slept at night, so it was nearly impossible to keep things like pencil and paper, even if writing were allowed. Solzhenitsyn does mention two other authors who were able to eventually publish books about the camps -- S. Karavansky and Anatoly Marchenko. Of course, he wrote this in 1968, so I don’t know if other writings from that era have been made available since then or not, but those two authors and Solzhenitsyn’s three volume book are the only testimonies by former prisoners to which his book refers. (There are undoubtedly others because Solzhenitsyn himself said in the book, “And they will float to the surface in great numbers, because soon, very soon, the era of publicity will arrive in Russia!”) So, that lack of testimony, given the large populations that these camps housed, is another astonishing thing about this book.

Then, there is the information in Volume 1, as well as the later volumes, on the frequency with which high ranking Party officials, especially chief prosecutors and chief interrogators, were later themselves given “quarters” (25 years) or “9 grams” (a bullet in the back of the head).

Solzhenitsyn states near the end of Volume 3 that he wanted other prisoners and former prisoners to write some of the book, with some of them writing entire chapters. No one would agree to this. It seems to me that less than half of the book is based on Solzhenitsyn’s personal experience, and the rest comes from second-hand accounts of innumerable prisoners and former prisoners. It is hard to comprehend outside that situation, but for prisoners in the camps or on transit trains, one vital aspect of emotional survival was to get to know one another by sharing their stories – their backgrounds, how they came to be in the camps, what had happened to them in the camps. Writing was forbidden. The composition Solzhenitsyn was able to do in camps he managed to preserve by turning it into rhymed verse so that he could remember it.

The book is long – 3 volumes – I started it about two-and-a-half years ago. At the time I was reading a lot of spy novels from the library, and whenever I didn’t have one of those or was tired of reading those, I would dip into The Gulag. It was usually hard to read more than a few pages at a time. This is probably because it is non-fiction, and I usually read fiction, but I feel it is also because of the oppressive harshness of life that the book portrays.

Perhaps the most painful aspect of the book for me is that the “zeks” (prisoners), after they were released, were still shunned. Family, friends, everyone avoided them. In fact, many were sent into exile when they were released. Many lived in the forests away from the towns. In other words, the damage of the gulag was ongoing and permanent.

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