book review

The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956:
An Experiment in Literary Investigation
Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn
Harper, 2007, Three volumes, 1948 pages
Reviewed By

B efore Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn revealed to the world the cruelty of the Soviet gulags (labor camps) in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch and The Gulag Archipelago, it was still possible for educated people to argue that communism was, at its basis, an idealistic and egalitarian system. Solzhenitsyn revealed that the Soviet Union had a fundamentally non-Western, utilitarian view of humanity: to the Communists, people were not human beings, but carriers of specific ideas. When the government decided to eliminate a certain idea from public discourse, the proponents of that idea were exterminated mercilessly, with no more concern than that of a gardener killing weeds in a garden. And in the Soviet Union, as in virtually all communist societies that followed it, extermination of inconvenient groups--intellectuals, property owners, the middle class, political dissidents, and uncooperative peasants--was state policy.

This state policy of mass murder, which surpassed in scope even the Nazis', cost Russia the most productive and creative members of society. It is very likely that this loss was as important a factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union as the inefficiencies of their primitive collectivist economic system. Why should scientists and engineers make new discoveries and build new machines, or writers and artists come up with new ideas, when doing so might get one tortured and shot like their former colleagues? The leadership of the Soviet Union, having inherited a country overflowing with human talent and a rich culture, had convinced itself on ideological grounds that intelligence was an acquired trait, and so they squandered it. This explains why they had to steal so much of their technology from the West, and why, 19 years after the collapse, Russia still has not recovered economically or demographically from its 74 years of totalitarian socialism. The cruelty of the gulags and the communist system had crushed the spirit of the Russian people, unraveled social cohesion, and killed many of their potential leaders.

What surprises many is that the Russian people tolerated communism and even, apparently, supported it enthusiastically. Or so we have been told. We now recognize, thanks in large part to Solzhenitsyn, that those Russians who praised communism did so because honesty would have meant months of brutal torture and imprisonment in Siberian gulags, where the death rate from freezing, starvation, beatings, and exhaustion was nearly as high as in the Nazi death camps.

Why, Solzhenitsyn asks, did ordinary Russians not rise up and use their force of numbers to throw overthrow the totalitarian system? No doubt the reason was the same as everywhere else: those who have not yet been flattened like pennies on a track by the iron wheels of the state lead relatively normal lives. They are indoctrinated from childhood in the superiority of the system they live under and which they crave to believe is good, just as abused children crave to believe their parents truly love them and have their best interest at heart. Those who learn the truth are killed before they can spread their knowledge. This explains why the Soviet Union sent a million returning WWII refugees to the gulags (Vol. 1, p.85), and likewise rejected and slaughtered its own returning prisoners of war. They had seen the real world, been contaminated by exposure to democratic ideas, and had to be silenced. Solzhenitsyn also describes, in his bitter, sarcastic prose, the Stalinist show trials in which the Soviet system twisted itself into permanent political paralysis.

Some prisoners did try to rise up, as Solzhenitsyn describes in Vol.3. They paid a heavy price. When the prisoners took over one camp, the Soviets moved in with tanks and machine guns, killing over 600 of them.

Solzhenitsyn starts out in Gulag as a patriotic military officer and loyal supporter of Marxism and communism. He is surprised when he is arrested and sent to Lubyanka for criticizing the socialist regime in his private letters, and shocked when, instead of being released, he is sentenced to eight years in the gulag. Only gradually does he realize that his country is run by ideologues who consider the rule of law to be an outmoded bourgeois concept. All that is important is personal connections: your status, your lifestyle, and your very survival depend almost entirely on who you know, and whether your continued survival benefits those in power.

But even while trapped in the vast Russian prison system, Solzhenitsyn found intelligence and dignity, as well as cruelty, selfishness, and violence, among its residents. It was as if the country had put its soul into a deep freeze for three quarters of a century. Solzhenitsyn makes the reader feel his grief at the loss of so many great minds. To a Westerner, the cruelty and degradation depicted here is profoundly depressing, not just from empathy with the tragic souls who perished, but also because each of us knows how shallow our civilized world is, and how easily it could collapse. Only a fool could believe the gulags could never happen again.

Young people wishing to learn what it was like to live in the 20th century--and what their future in the 21st might be--should especially read this book. It is not the dull, exhaustively-documented and footnoted history text that people demand nowadays, but the autobiography of one man who listened and talked to hundreds of other Russians unjustly imprisoned by a society that called itself egalitarian, but was in fact built on injustice. It is the only type of book that could have been written in a world where the penalty for accidentally dropping a piece of soap on a newspaper containing a picture of Stalin was punishable by ten years, and a person could get five years for smiling while reading Pravda. (Admittedly, not easy to do in those days. Pravda is now quite amusing to read--but there is still no news in it.)

Solzhenitsyn's advice to the rest of us is this: “Do not pursue what is illusory--property and position: all that is gained ... is confiscated in one fell night.” “Don't be afraid of misfortune,” he says, “and don't yearn after happiness: it is, after all, the same.” (Vol. 1, p. 591). Like most wisdom, this only makes sense to those who already understand it. In Vol. 2, Solzhenitsyn describes his spiritual and philosophical awakening that led to this outlook. But the reader still wonders: Is his Buddhist-style enlightenment anything more than traditional Russian fatalism magnified by the fact that, for ten years, caring about anything or anyone would get him killed? By the end of Volume 3, Solzhenitsyn's heart has grown cold from the suffering he has experienced, and he seems no longer to care about his own ruined life or even to be affected much by the deaths of his fellow prisoners.

It would be a grave mistake to believe that the gulags were an aberration, a part of the horrors of a barbaric era that we have progressed beyond in our new, enlightened age of iPads and microchips. Even today, despite confirmation of most of Solzhenitsyn's claims from multiple sources (including the Soviet archives), there are people who deny that the events recounted by this death camp survivor really happened. They accuse Solzhenitsyn of exaggerating, and speculate that he must have committed some horrible crime. These people would welcome a return of totalitarianism: as cogs in its machine of death, they would be able to reshape humanity to their liking and exterminate those who resist them. If we forget the gulags, totalitarianism could return and, having learned from its mistakes, and equipped with modern technology, it could be with us for good.