Book Review: The Gulag Archipelago: Volume II

The Gulag Archipelago:  Volume II, by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

Like its predecessor, this volume contains two parts of the author’s sprawling saga about life in the Soviet gulags.  And while this book does not make for enjoyable reading in the sense of sheer pleasure, it is the sort of reading that one can freely choose as a way of better understanding the ways that wicked societies make everyone a prisoner long before someone becomes a prisoner in one of the ubiquitous prison systems in such unjust societies–let us think of Soviet Russia along with Nazi Germany and Communist China in that vein.  This volume demonstrates Solzhenitsyn in a somewhat darkly humorous and frequently dialectical mood as he writes aware that he is doing so in a conversation with other survivors of the gulag, many of whom were Communist loyalists as well as thieves.  The author’s perspective as someone who entered the gulag as a naive officer and exited as a committed Christian allows him to see in the prison camp a source of potential spiritual elevation even in an atmosphere of general degradation.  Those who view the author’s writing as merely dark fail to note that he is in fact an accurate observer of the follies of humanity as well as of the potential for redemption in humanity, even in the worst circumstances.

This book consists of two parts, with the third part of the book being much longer than the fourth.  The third part, on the Destructive Labor Camps (a pun on its Russian name as Corrective Labor Camps), contains 22 chapters.  The first four of these look at a historical perspective of the development of the gulag system from its beginnings during the Civil War (1) to its rise to visibility (2), to its massive growth in the late 20’s and early 30’s (3), to its hardening in the late thirties (4) and beyond.  After this the author discusses the principles of the gulag system (5), the arrival of various “politicals” (6), and the ways of life and customs of the natives of the gulag (7).  After this the author discusses different segments of the gulag population, including women (8), the trusties (9), the “politicals” (10), and the Communist loyalists (11).  There is a discussion of stool pigeons (12), prison cells (13), escapes (14), punishments (15), the socially friendly professional criminals (16), children (17), the creative arts (18), the zeks as a nation (19), the service of the guards (20), as well as a look at campside life (21) and the question of what the people in the gulags were building (22).  The fourth part of the book looks at the state of the soul behind barbed wire, with questions about the ascent of the soul (1), corruption (2), the muzzled freedom that existed in Russia as a whole (3), and some individual stories about exemplary people in the gulag (4).

What is it that makes this book a great book?  For one, the author writes both from personal experience as well as with the eye of a chronicler who wants to capture the truth of events so that it may be recorded and hopefully learned from.  The author clearly has a different perspective from both the criminal population that was courted by the gulag establishment as a trusted element and from those Communist loyalists who were unable to conceive how it was that so many innocent (relatively speaking) people were put into prison.  The book gives a rather clear-eyed and unsentimental picture of the brutality of the gulag and how it was that human beings were able to maintain their humanity despite being treated in such a barbarous manner.  Indeed, the author even points out how it was that the gulag was able to create great literature like his own by bringing those of aristocratic and elite education in touch with the suffering and brutality that the common people have often suffered, thus providing a way for the elevated discussion of brutality in a way that had not been possible before.  To that unfortunate fact we owe the existence of the great prison camp literature of the 20th century (and beyond), with writers like Solzhenitsyn, Wiesel, Levi, and others, whose elevated and refined sensibilities and high degree of education and literacy were combined with an experience of the worst that totalitarian evil has to offer.

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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