Book Review: The Gulag Archipelago: Volume III

The Gulag Archipelago:  Volume III, by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

This third volume closes the massive and sprawling work by Solzhenitsyn on the gulag, and brings with it a certain melancholy sense of frustration and futility on the part of both the writer and the reader.  Despite the fact that there is something like 2000 pages in this particular work, the author is aware that his work is fragmentary and incomplete, because there are many camps and many stories and even parts of the story (like the experience of those in the Gulag after Stalin’s death) that the author has limited knowledge of.  In reading this book, one can see why many leftist writers hate it so much, not least because of the author’s chilling insight that authoritarian and socialist regimes require gulags or something like them in order to deal with the large number of people who seek freedom and who are out of step with the whims of those who are in control.  And since regimes like Soviet Russia, Communist China, Cuba, North Korea, and other similar regimes cannot do without such camps, whatever they are called, those who are apologists for such wicked regimes are forced to attack those who, like the author, were survivors of the regime and the moral superiors to those who had imprisoned them.

This particular book is the shortest volume of three, at a bit more than 500 pages, and is divided into three parts, starting from the biggest part and then getting progressively smaller.  Part V of the three-volume series is Katorga, and it examines the camps that were made especially for political prisoners in twelve chapters, including the increasingly revolutionary feeling among political prisoners that translated itself eventually into resistance to the Soviets at places like Kengir, as well as in the persistent attempts by some prisoners, like George Tenno, to escape despite the difficulties involved.  After that the author spends seven chapters and about 140 pages discussing the life of the zek in exile after “freedom” from the Gulag, examining the many people(s) caught up in exile, how one could live a relatively good life in exile, and how zeks felt in liberty.  Finally, the book closes with a melancholy and short third section about the death of Stalin, which points out to the reader that despite the death of Stalin, the gulag system continued much as before, and that there were many people who wanted to deny the existence or the cruelty of the gulags because it threatened their own view of the goodness of the Soviet state and its rulers.

One of the key strengths of Solzhenitsyn’s writing is his ability to reflect on his own folly and his own struggles to understand and chronicle what he saw, experienced, and heard from others.  He writes about having divided up his massive book on the Gulag and saving some of it with some people and others with other people in a variety of places, fearing at any time that the authorities would try to come and imprison him and destroy his masterpiece.  He writes about the correspondence he had with others, including the anonymous people who wanted to troll him without letting their identities be known and others who shared their own experiences of life in the gulag and encouraged him to keep writing and to write even more.  He writes about his frustration getting other people to write sections of the book and feeling burdened to write about it himself despite knowing it was a partial account and despite knowing that he did not have the sort of sources or information that would allow him to write about everything.  Still, what is written is more than enough to demonstrate the moral bankruptcy of the Soviet Union, that graveyard of peoples, and to delegitimize any efforts at socialism in other countries as well.  Perhaps that is why the book is hated so much, because it does such a good job at showing the horrors that are necessary to enforce such an unjust government on any nation.

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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