Monday, July 18, 2016

The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

The Gulag Archipelago
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Published 1973

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born in Russia, 1918, after the Russian Revolution had begun.  In his youth, he supported the Communist regime, and during WWII, after he graduated from the University, he joined the Russian army and spent three years in combat.  Before the end of WWII, he was arrested by the Soviet spy agency for disrespecting the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, in a letter to a friend.  He was sentenced to a labor camp for eight years, which he called the Gulag Archipelago. The historical and biographical book he wrote (titled by the same name) is about his life during those years he was in prison.

Since my pages are defaced with notes, stars, underlining, circles, and arrows - making it impossible to focus on any one topic or point - I am just going to write what comes to mind, as opposed to a synopsis.  I know this will be one of the more enduring books I have read in my life, and I will remember Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn for a long, long time.

Solzhenitsyn experienced first hand what it was to have his freedom stolen from him; hence I appreciate how he values freedom and liberty.  He wrote about it and talked about it, like it is one of the most important human struggles.  His story is direct and grim, and at times told with bitter sarcasm.  He wrote extensively on his experience in the labor camp, but I have only captured a few points here.  For example:

The goal of the prison and labor camp was to retrain the people.
[The State] find[s] in forced labor one of the highest forms of blazing, conscientious creativity.  Here is the theoretical basis of re-education; "Criminals are the result of the repulsive condition of former times, and our country is beautiful, powerful and generous, and it needs to be beautified."
Thanks to Marx's and Engels' socialist philosophy, Stalin believed that forced human labor was the key to human correction.
Engels discovered that the human being had arisen not through the perception of a moral idea and not through the process of thought, but out of happenstance and meaningless work.  Marx . . . declared with equal conviction that the one and only means of correcting offenders was not solitary contemplation, not moral soul-searching, not repentance, and not languishing - but productive labor.
To compel a prisoner to labor every day (sometimes fourteen hours . . .) was humane and would lead to his correction.  
And so, for this correction, families were divided, marriages dissolved, people starved and exposed to the elements and sickness, and women were raped, not only by soldiers but also other prisoners.   Solzhenitsyn claims a quarter of a million lives were affected, for what?

Since WWII, Nazis were arrested and convicted of their crimes against humanity; however, Russians were discouraged from talking about their government's past sins.  According to Solzhenitsyn, sixty million lives were murdered, and "no one was to blame for it," for fear of opening up old wounds.

Have you ever noticed that there are no movie blockbusters or major books about Stalin (like there are about Hitler)?  Why?
Hitler was a mere disciple, but he had all the luck: his murder camps have made him famous, whereas no one has any interest in ours at all.
Solzhenitsyn also claims that the U.S. and its allies abandoned the Russians after WWII.  They liberated the Jews from the Nazis, as if the West were only concerned for its own freedom, but would not help deliver the Russians from Communism.

The most memorable part for me was a female prisoner who was interrogated about her Christian faith.  Why would a nation destroy its own citizens? After reading her arrest file she broke out into a sermon.  She spoke about her religious faith and religious believers:
Formerly, unbridled passions were the basis for everything - "Steal the stolen good" - and, in that state of affairs, religious believers were naturally a hindrance to you.  But now, when you want to build and prosper in this world, why do you persecute your best citizens?  They represent your most precious material: after all, believers don't need to be watched, they do not steal, and they do not shirk.  Do you think you can build a just society on a foundation of self-serving and envious people?  Everything in the country is falling apart.  Why do you spit in the heart of your best people?  Separate church and state properly and do not touch the church; you will not lose a thing thereby.  

After release, 1953

If Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn seemed like an angry man, maybe he had a right to be.  He loved his native Russia, but Communism was destroying her people.  After his release from prison, he began a career in writing literature, and in 1970, he won a Nobel Prize.  He continued writing and speaking in defense of liberty, self-government, democracy, and peace.  Eventually he was expelled from Russia in 1974 because of his opinions against the Soviet Union.  After the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Solzhenitsyn returned to his homeland in 1994, and died of heart failure in 2008.

A smiling Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
1918 - 2008
All you freedom-loving "left-wing" thinkers in the West! You left laborites! You progressive American, German, and French students! As far as you are concerned, none of this amounts to much.  As far as you are concerned, this whole book of mine is a waste of effort.  You may suddenly understand it all someday - but only when you yourselves hear "hands behind your backs there!" and step ashore on our Archipelago.


  1. Really interesting thoughts, Ruth. I know next to nothing about Russia, so it's really good to hear a perspective on the Russian experience after the second World War. Appreciate you sharing!

    1. Thanks, Jillian. I don't know very much either, but I read a great book about Stalin (by Albert Marrin) and I was shocked. The people of Russia suffered much under Stalin and Lenin and their civil wars. I think their suffering comes out in their literature.

  2. Fascinating excerpts and review! I definitely want to read this book at some point. I've met older people who experienced life in the Eastern Bloc, and they can attest to the persecution that occurred in the post-Stalin years. It's incredible to think that anyone would deny or justify these horrific crimes, yet once the Soviets got rid of dissidents, they were effectively able to write textbooks to suit them. I'm grateful there are survivors like Solzhenitsyn to give the other side of the history.

    1. Wow, what an opportunity to speak to people who were there. My heart breaks for the Russian people. And they still suffer today. : (

  3. I'm a huge admirer of Solzhenitsyn. Someday I'll read the *unabridged* version! :)

    1. That's what this was. It was just right.

    2. You mean, you read all three volumes? Or you read the same one I did, which is the image above and abridged? I can't tell from what you said....

    3. Sorry. I meant I read the abridged version, which was just right for me.

    4. Yep, I agree that it was just right for me too. It's very compelling and hard to put down!