The Gulag Archipelago

The Gulag Archipelago: an Experiment in Literary Investigation, Abridged Edition, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

A while ago I said that Bloodlands was the most unremittingly grim and tragic book I'd ever read, but now I have to say that the Gulag Archipelago is just as grim--and I only read the abridged edition.  This is also a completely amazing book, when you know about how Solzhenitsyn did it.  He was himself a zek (as you know already), and during his time in the gulag he talked with many other people and remembered their cases.  This gigantic three-volume work is a history of the gulag, compiled from these first-hand narratives and from things people wrote to him.  He could not do much other research, of course, and his writing had to be completely secret.  In fact, he mentions once or twice that he never really expects anyone else to see his book at all.

In the foreword, Anne Applebaum (author of Iron Curtain, which is also on my pile) says that Solzhenitsyn's information is practically all correct, which is a pretty impressive feat in my opinion.  This is a strange kind of a history book, but a history it is.

Solzhenitsyn endeavors to tell the entire history of the gulag system, and he does it in two ways.  At first he writes a factual description of the arrest, questioning, and sentencing process.  The many ways of getting arrested are listed, as well as the myriad ways that were used to intimidate and torture prisoners in the Lubyanka.  He points out that the vast majority of people were arrested because of incredibly minor things, or for nothing at all--there were quotas to be met, after all, or resentful neighbors willing to fabricate offenses--and therefore nearly everyone cooperated meekly because they assumed that there was a mistake somewhere and it would all get ironed out soon, or at least that cooperation would help the case.  But once arrested, everyone was assumed guilty; there was no way to escape.

He also writes about the gulag system in a more historical manner, starting with the days right after the Bolshevik revolution.  One of Solzhenitsyn's major goals was to show people that the gulag was not a Stalin problem that really only existed during the Terror of the late 30s.  I think even to this day, people kind of think that Lenin wasn't so bad and he had a great vision until Stalin came along to ruin it with his special brutality.   But no: Lenin developed the gulag, with Trotsky's special help.  It was an integral part of the Soviet system and started immediately.  Solzhenitsyn gives us quotations directly from Lenin to prove that he always and openly planned to punish any dissent as harshly as he could: was altogether impermissible to delay in the matter of prisons, whether old or new.  In the first months after the October Revolution  Lenin was already demanding "the most decisive, draconic measures to tighten up discipline...confiscation of all property...confinement in prison, dispatch to the front and forced labor..."
Solzhenitsyn in 1953, in prison uniform
Solzhenitsyn describes an incredible array of draconian punishments.  Zeks were dumped into frozen wastelands and ordered to build camps with primitive tools, if there were any.  They were forced to work 16-hour days with impossible quotas, and if the quotas weren't met they kept going until they were.  They were ordered to remove trees--without saws (they shook them down by rocking them back and forth).  They were killed at random and through starvation and work.  There seems to be no end to the methods of tormenting prisoners--at one point Solzenitsyn wryly observes that Western writers always seem to be obsessed with the latrine bucket as a symbol of the degradation of the concentration camp/gulag, but that they don't realize latrine buckets were very often not provided at all.

There is a whole section on children.  The population of the gulag was shockingly young, and there were crowds of children, often sentenced for offenses like picking spilled grain out of the road to eat or accidentally knocking a poster of Lenin down from a wall while playing.  Children could be sentenced as adults at twelve.  (Ten years was the minimum sentence from the start, and before long just about everyone was getting 25 years.)

Having religious beliefs was a guaranteed ticket to the gulag, especially in the 1920s.  Entire communities were emptied, as well as monasteries and nunneries, and the buildings often converted to prisons.

Not to mention the collective punishment and relocation of entire ethnic groups.  They would just decide that some village of a particular ethnicity was no good, go in and grab everyone, and haul them off to a desolate swamp somewhere, telling them to get started surviving.  The homes and possessions would be taken over. 

De-kulakization is also covered a bit, and he points out that by punishing and starving farmers for being hard-working, thrifty, prudent, and good at farming, the Soviets (who were urban-minded and suspicious of country people) broke the back of the Russian peasantry.  There could be entire books written on any one of these topics.

Near the end, Solzhenitsyn tackles the economics of the gulag system.  The Soviet Union, after all, wanted it to be profitable; all these prisoners were supposed to be building railways and roads and towns for the future, and forced labor doesn't cost anything (right?) and they figured it would be a good deal.  It turns out, however, that you can't count on getting good work out of starving slaves.  So the whole system was a gigantic money pit.

He also compares the gulag system to the prison/exile system under the Tsars.  After all, Lenin suffered in prison himself, did he not?  All those Bolsheviks, suffering under the repressive regime!  It's hard for Solzhenitsyn to rein in his sarcasm here, because under the old system there were relatively few radicals sent to prison, and when they were...well, it looks pretty good next to the system they invented when they got the chance.

I had a hard time picking out quotations; there are an awful lot I'd like to share.  Here are some:
We have to condemn publicly the very idea that some people have the right to repress others. 
According to the estimates of emigre Professor of Statistics Kurganov, this "comparatively easy" internal repression cost us, from the beginning of the October Revolution up to 1959, a total of...66,000,000 lives. 
And thus it is that I am writing this book solely from a sense of obligation--because too many stories and recollections have accumulated in my hands and I cannot allow them to perish.  I do not expect to see it in print anywhere with my own eyes; and I have little hope that those who managed to drag their bones out of the Archipelago will ever read it; and I do not at all believe that it will explain the truth of our history in time for anything to be corrected.
It is a good thing to think in prison, but it is not bad in camp [i. e. the gulag] either.  Because, and this is the main thing, there are no meetings.  For ten years you are free from all kinds of meetings!  Is that not mountain air?  While they openly claim your labor and your body, to the point of exhaustion and even death, the camp keepers do not encroach at all on your thoughts.  They do not try to screw down your brains and to fasten them in place.
Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either--but right through every human heart--and through all human hearts.  This line shifts.  Inside us, it oscillates with the years.  And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.  And even in the best of all hearts, there unuprooted small corner of evil.
The Tsars persecuted revolutionaries just sufficiently to broaden their circle of acquaintance in prisons, toughen them, and ring their heads with haloes.  We now have an accurate yardstick to establish the scale of these phenomena--and we can safely say that the Tsarist government did not persecute revolutionaries but tenderly nurtured them, for its own destruction.  The uncertainty, half-heartedness, and feebleness of the Tsarist government are obvious to all who have experienced an infallible judicial system.
 This is another book that everyone should read.  I can't come close to telling you about it.  Now, I only read the abridged version, and I'm going to consider that to be a preliminary; someday I'll read the whole thing.  But this is a quite sufficient amount for everyone to read if they don't want to deal with all three volumes.


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