Book Review: The Gulag Archipelago: Volume I

The Gulag Archipelago:  An Experiment In Literary Investigation:  Volume I, by Alexsandr I. Solzhenitsyn

This book is without a doubt a classic, and it is one that I have been familiar with for a long time, but which I only recently started reading.  Having heard some of the quotes from this author before and having read them, it was quite interesting to see the context in which they appear, and to see this work as an example of a man trying to come to grips with his own humanity and the inhumanity of his place and time.  Few books are as damning a statement about the immorality of ideologies, especially on the left, as this one is, as the author over and over again points out that as bad as the Nazis were, the Communists were far worse and far more pervasive in their inhumanity to their own citizenry.  This is the sort of book that is likely to give readers nightmares, and understandably so, but at the same time this is a work well worth reading anyway, because it is worthwhile for us to understand how evil men can be and how regimes can see their fellow human beings as simply being fuel for the fire or things to be manipulated for their own lust and greed and desire to implement their own bestial ideologies.  If you are as fond of reading about prison culture as I am [1], this is a necessary book to read.

This sizable work of more than 600 pages is merely the first volume of three in the complete series, which I hope to read before too long.  This particular volume, though, contains the first two books (of seven) in Solhenitsyn’s lengthy discussion of the history and nature of the gulag system in Soviet Russia.  After a preface, the first part of this book consists of twelve chapters that discuss the gulag as a prison industry (I).  We look at the author’s comments on arrest (1), the history of the gulag as the sewage disposal system of Russia (2), as well as the interrogation (3) and the corrupt bluecaps who work as the interrogators (4).  There are discussions of the feeling of first love that comes from being in a cell for the first time (5), the wholeness that Russia is missing because of its combination of emigre culture and corrupt leadership (6), the legal framework that allowed extralegal trials from the beginning of Soviet rule (7), and the Soviet law as a child (8), becoming a man (9), and maturing still further (10).  The author then looks at the death penalty as “the supreme measure” (11) and imprisonment (12).  The second, and much briefer, part of the book then examines the prison system of the Soviet Union as one in perpetual motion (II), with a look at the logistics of transporting prisoners (1), the ports of the prison archipelago (2), the relationship of prisoner transportation to the internal slave trade of the antebellum United States (3), and the way that communication and transportation goes on from island to island in the Gulag archipelago (4).

When reading a book like this, it is easy to understand why it was written.  Solzhenitsyn seems himself as being responsible for putting as much as he can of the memories of himself and other prisoners down, so that their lives and deaths may not be forgotten and fall into oblivion.  He does not portray himself as a perfect person–indeed, he seems to go out of his way to point out his own cowardice and his own stupidity in getting himself involved in the system through making fun of Stalin in letters to another officer.  He also does not romanticize his experiences or that of others.  Rather, he appears to be interested in conveying the truth as best as he understands it, in showing how the most inhumane of experiences can result in becoming a better human, how it is that Russia as a whole coped with its experiences, how the Soviets were worse than the Nazis, far worse than Tzarist Russia, far worse indeed than most human beings can imagine other human beings being, and the failure of Russia’s leaders to provide an atmosphere where ugly truths can be faced squarely and openly and acknowledged.

Ultimately, this is a book about memory.  If some recent writers view this work as being less than a scholarly discussion of the Gulag archipelago, it at least presents the reader with a clear moral demand that we remember those who have suffered and died.  Reading this book in many ways is like reading the writings of an intelligent and articulate survivor of Nazi Germany (someone like the late Elie Wiesel, for for example), demanding that people remember those who suffered and died whose lives were snuffed out, writing the stories of themselves and others in a way that allows the lives to be treasured, for honor to be recognized and appreciated, for loss and waste to be lamented, and for the wickedness of corrupt leaders to be lambasted and condemned.  Even if we do not have the power to bring the dead back to life who were snuffed out so wickedly by the Soviet leadership, we can at least remember the stories of those who lived and died in those barbarous circumstances, and we can thank Solzhenitsyn for recording them as best as they are able.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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