Book review – The Gulag Archipelago – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn [pub. 1974]
The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is an account of the Soviet Union’s forced labour camp system. Apart from the prominence of ice and snow you probably think that it wouldn’t make ideal Christmas reading. But let me give you three reasons why you might want to read it. Reason one: it will be one of the most memorable books that you’ve ever read. Reason two: it is told by a natural story teller. Yes, it’s a long journey, but it won’t be the unrelenting humourless grind that you imagine. Reason three: it may re-wire your brain; or at least you might not be the same person by the time you finish it. After reading this remarkable history it will be harder to take whatever blessings you have for granted, and you may worry over trivialities less frequently. Not a bad way to start 2018.
The Gulag Archipelago is actually three books, I chose to read volume three only. The last volume is often said to be readable as a standalone and it is the portion that most allows room for optimism as it includes accounts of resistance and escapes.
What is the Gulag? The Gulag was a government agency created under Vladimir Lenin to administer a forced labour camp system. The Gulag had roots in Tsarist Russia, but it was first established in it’s more deadly form in 1919. Please note the camps were set up under Lenin, not Stalin. Researching Lenin’s views on the use of “mass terror” was quite an eye opener for me. It appears to have been a favourite theme. Always justified by ideology, of course. Stalin merely “improved” and greatly extended an existing system. Under the Gulag, millions of prisoners were detained for decades, with vast numbers perishing in hardship and obscurity. For political prisoners the end of a sentence often meant exile to a remote part of the USSR and struggle as a ‘persona non grata’ (non person).
The convicts ranged from petty criminals to political prisoners. Apart from official law breaking, the reality was that it was possible to be sent away for “ideological errors” (e.g. being a Baptist), making an enemy of someone with influence, being informed on by a person trying to avoid the Gulag themselves – and even because a bureaucrat needed to fill their quota for the week. Have you upset someone? Maybe you should inform on them before they do it to you?
Perhaps I should briefly tell you something about Solzhenitsyn’s history. His father was killed in a hunting accident, and the son was raised by his educated mother. The clever young Aleksandr studied mathematics at the local university and simultaneously took heavily ideological correspondence courses from the Moscow Institute. In 1945 he was arrested for distributing disparaging material, via postcards to a friend, and sentenced to the (then) standard 8 years in a labour camp. He was lucky, the usual stretch for such offences was later extended to a “tenner” or a “quarter” (10 or 25 years). After his release he received “perpetual exile” in the desert region of central Kazakhstan. Aleksandr tells us that he did not question the state’s ideology until he was sent to the labour camps. Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970.
I first approached The Gulag Archipelago with some skepticism, could this extraordinary and detailed account be trusted? We know how the human memory can play tricks on us, and it is not as if Solzhenitsyn could consult official files or write anything down while in prison. Pencil and paper were sometimes allowed, but it would be extremely dangerous if what was written looked suspicious. His writing, editing and polishing had to be done in the head. Solzhenitsyn used an excessively long set of rosary prayer beads (permitted) as an aide-memoire. The book is essentially a one person account, although he admits to soaking up other inmates experiences as if that person’s life had been his own.
After the publication of The Gulag Archipelago in the West (1974), the KGB sponsored a series of anti-Solzhenitsyn books, including a memoir published under the name of his ex-wife, describing The Gulag Archipelago as “mere folk history”. However, from the mid-1970s onwards, and especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there have been a great many other writers confirming details or giving parallel accounts. In the early 1990s the KGB archives were briefly opened for inspection, providing further support. More recently the Russian state has released additional information backing up Solzhenitsyn’s work. Since 2009, The Gulag Archipelago has been included in the high school curriculum in the Russian Federation as mandatory reading.
I’m not sure that I need to summarise all that Solzhenitsyn describes taking place in the labour camps. I’m sure your imagination is more than capable of filling in any blanks that I leave. Life for prisoners varied depending on which camps they were sent to, and how lucky (or not) an individual prisoner was. You could usually rely on there being much chaos, corruption, casual violence and deprivation. Solzhenitsyn briefly makes reference to a camp that lost all it’s 16,000 inhabitants in one year. His surprise, though, was that so many prisoners were able to survive more than one month in such diabolical conditions, it showed how strong the human sprit could be and how tough homo sapiens are physically. Another reference made was a camp commander who rejected new safety masks for his prisoners working in toxic conditions, the reasoning being that if the death toll was reduced where would he put next month’s batch of inmates? Indeed, a tricky bureaucratic problem. It should be said that not all camps were as immediately hazardous. And many harsh rules were ignored by the local authorities through inefficiency, laziness, or because they were deemed wildly impractical: “After all, Russians are not Germans”.
Solzhenitsyn describes Russian history as a catalogue of despots. He then asks the simple question, why was treatment for subversives and the uncooperative (or the simply unlucky) so much harsher after the 1917 Russian Revolution, than under Tsardom? Many of the revolutionaries (including Trotsky) wrote significant pieces of work whilst in Tsarist prisons, often able to send work out for publication. Quite different from the crushing oppression of the Gulag. When there was an assassination attempt on a Tsar (a regular occurrence) only the assassin was rounded up, not entire families, friends and neighbours, plus those who happened to be standing closest to the accused in a photograph.
Solzhenitsyn’s main explanation is that, though the Tsars would happily have ruled by terror if they thought they could get away with it, they had to restrain themselves because they lived in constant fear of public opinion. According to Solzhenitsyn the best protection against totalitarianism is diverse public opinion. But this is something that can only be created, and express itself, in a climate of freedom – something that was snuffed out by the communists through censorship, fear, propaganda and informers. Commonly heard conversations amongst the Soviet public when a fellow student, professor or a neighbour disappeared in the night would be:
“Oh, he must have done something or they wouldn’t have taken him”.
“Oh, it’s all because of the war” – This was in 1951!
But if someone was brave enough to voice concern over what happened, whoever listened to their complaint would often inform on them to avoid being arrested themselves. After all, there was always the possibility that the conversation had been over-heard or that complainant was an undercover police officer testing their reaction. Not to forget that we all have friends and family to protect, best to inform and be on the safe side.
In the event of a rare, successful labour camp escape, few would ever get to hear of it outside the local area and even fewer would speak about it. So there was little opportunity for an escapee to reveal the horrors that were taking place and thereby influence public opinion (as far as it existed at all). In any case, in a delightful piece of “Catch 22”, the view put about was that trying to escape from a state re-education facility was a reactionary act. Therefore it was impossible for an escapee to claim that they were innocent. If a political prisoner did not escape they were accepting their guilt as a counter revolutionary, but if they tried to escape they were proving they were a counter revolutionary. Voilà! The prisoner is always guilty, and the state is always right. Unanswerable logic for the ideological mind. And perhaps Solzhenitsyn’s greatest anger is for ideology and it’s power to dehumanise and empower monstrousness by ordinary people.
To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good … Ideology – That is what gives evil-doing its long sought justification and gives the evil-doer the necessary steadfastness and determination.” – “Thanks to ideology the twentieth century was fated to experience evil-doing calculated on a scale in the millions.
My own meagre experience hardly compares to that of Solzhenitsyn, but I have had some contact with a several ideological groups and will make a few observations. An ideological mindset can provide internally consistent reason and purpose in an otherwise confusing world. How wonderful to be one of “awake” and to “know”, rather than have to live with doubt. Ideology usually divides fellow humans into trusted co-believers and “others” whose views are seen as toxic or dangerous, and this justifies all sorts of “approved” behaviour that would otherwise not be contemplated. There is always an explanation as to why the “others” don’t believe (ignorance, self-interest, wickedness etc). At some point the most intense or fanatical followers fuse their ideology with their own identity. The ideology acts as the blinkers through which they experience the world, and also their comfort blanket. Once this fusion has taken place it is almost impossible to clear someone’s head by dismantling their belief system rationally, it would be an attack not just on their core beliefs, but on their essential being and destroy a large part of their world. If you’ve ever met someone who has left a cult, you’ll know they are never truly healed. It’s a constant battle, with good times and bad times.
As I suggested in the last book review, there is a sense in which we live within our stories, so it is wise to choose our grandest stories carefully. If they are anything more than playful, let the stories allow for gentleness, forgiveness and doubt – as well as truth. Solzhenitsyn describes the practical application of a grand ideology that did not allow for these things. And it didn’t end well.
If you want to get a feel for The Gulag Archipelago without reading 1600+ pages (or even the mere 500 pages in volume 3) consider picking up a copy of Solzhenitsyn’s brilliant short novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I first read it as a teenager and, astonishingly, amongst the horror, I found things in it that could be called optimistic, or even inspirational. Two quotes spring to mind:
“That bowl of soup—it was dearer than freedom, dearer than life itself, past, present, and future.”
“It’s warmed up a bit,” Shukhov decided. “Eighteen below, no more. Good weather for bricklaying.”
I’m sure there is the beginnings of a life philosophy in there somewhere.
Below are a few quotes from The Gulag Archipelago that caught my attention.
Unlimited power in the hands of limited people always leads to cruelty.
If it were possible for any nation to fathom another people’s bitter experience through a book, how much easier its future fate would become and how many calamities and mistakes it could avoid. But it is very difficult. There always is this fallacious belief: ‘It would not be the same here; here such things are impossible.’ Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth.
And even in the fever of epidemic arrests, when people leaving for work said farewell to their families every day, because they could not be certain they would return at night, even then almost no one tried to run away and only in rare cases did people commit suicide. And that was exactly what was required. A submissive sheep is a find for a wolf.
In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good.
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
Thus it is that no cruelty whatsoever passes by without impact. Thus it is that we always pay dearly for chasing after what is cheap.
In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand fold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers … we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.
Every man always has handy a dozen glib little reasons why he is right not to sacrifice himself.
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.
At what point, then, should one resist? When one’s belt is taken away? When one is ordered to face into a corner? When one crosses the threshold of one’s home? An arrest consists of a series of incidental irrelevancies, of a multitude of things that do not matter, and there seems no point in arguing about one of them individually … and yet all these incidental irrelevancies taken together implacably constitute the arrest.
Socrates taught us: ‘Know thyself!”
Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions. This cannot be denied, nor passed over, nor suppressed.
The imagination and spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Ideology—that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honours. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonisers, by civilisation; the Nazis, by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations…. Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago.
BELOW: Photographs and inmate sketches from the Gulag (slideshow). Be aware that you might find some of the images distressing. Rightly or wrongly I have chosen not to show the worst.
Brief note on numbers held in the Gulag:
The Gulag had a total inmate population of about 100,000 in the late 1920s, when it underwent an enormous expansion coinciding with the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s collectivisation of agriculture. By 1936 the Gulag held a total of 5,000,000 prisoners, a number that was probably equalled or exceeded every subsequent year until Stalin died in 1953. [Source: https://www.britannica.com/place/Gulag]
Notice that the percentage increased between 1936 and 1953. But let us work just on that 1930s figure. In 1937, the USSR had a population of 162,500,000. So if the above 5m figure is correct it means that approximately 3% of the USSR population were serving time in the Gulag at any one time.
Apply that percentage to other countries and you will have a rough sense of the numbers involved (rounded figs.)
If the Gulag existed in other countries today (with 3% of the pop. incarcerated):
Brazil: [209m] would have 6.25m prisoners. (Actual prison pop: 664,000)
Canada: [36.6m] would have 1m prisoners. (Actual prison pop: 41,145)
China/HK: [1.4 billion] would have 42m prisoners. (Actual prison pop: 1.73m)
India: [1.34 billion] would have 40m prisoners. (Actual prison pop: 420,000)
UK: [66.3m] would have 2m prisoners. (Actual prison pop: 95,000)
[Prison numbers, via http://www.prisonstudies.org]
And those 5m prisoners in the USSR Gulag is only the “snapshot” figure at any one time, many more passed through (i.e. got released or died). And consider that after a sentence had been served most political prisoners were given “perpetual exile” in remote parts of the USSR on pain of 20 years more Gulag.