61 pages • 2 hours readAleksandr Solzhenitsyn
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The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is a three-volume nonfiction series written between 1958 and 1968. Over the course of three books, Solzhenitsyn describes the Gulag system of forced labor camps in the Soviet Union, a subject that was highly politically taboo at the time of the text’s writing. The Gulag Archipelago was well-received on publication and has been praised by critics for its depiction of the horrific conditions in the labor camps, though Solzhenitsyn received criticism for his lack of rigorous verification and occasional exaggeration. Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970, for what the Nobel Prize Organization described as “the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.” The Gulag Archipelago was first published in 1973 in France, to evade Soviet censorship.
This guide uses the 2002 First Perennial Classics abridged edition, translated by Thomas P. Whitney and Harry Willetts.
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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn draws on his own experiences as a Russian citizen and eight-year Gulag prisoner to describe the Gulag system in place in the Soviet Union in the middle of the 20th century. Military Police arrested and imprisoned Solzhenitsyn for remarks in his private correspondences that criticized Joseph Stalin. Like many others, Solzhenitsyn was considered a political prisoner and was subjected to awful conditions. Many people suffered and died in the labor camps which were scattered—like the islands of an archipelago—across the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn writes the book in the hope that people will take notice of the horrors committed under Stalin and other Soviet leaders, thereby bringing an end to the systemic violence which he believes is endemic to the Soviet state and ideology.
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Solzhenitsyn describes the arrest and interrogation of Russian citizens whose charges were often insubstantial and compelled by a state-issued incarceration quota. The wave of arrests in the late 1920s, the early 1930s, and the mid-1940s was particularly intense. Additionally, the purges through 1937 and 1938 would have amassed an imprisoned Gulag population in the millions, though Solzhenitsyn lacks the exact figures. The police would arrest people on various ostensible charges, interrogate them, and send them to the Gulag. Though the first days in prison seemed terrible enough, Solzhenitsyn assures the reader that the Gulag was much worse.
Solzhenitsyn details interrogation as a form of torture. After the interrogators extracted some semblance of confession, the inmate was sent by train or truck to the Gulag. The vehicles were cramped and filthy, and to Solzhenitsyn, even these transportation methods were a form of torture and show how little value the state places on human life. The guards who ran the prisons and trains were referred to as Bluecaps, while the prisoners of the Gulag were commonly known as zeks. Solzhenitsyn blames the level of systemic violence on Soviet ideology; though the secret police and prison camps existed under the Tsarist regime, they were not as intense, as violent, or as deadly as the Gulag under Josef Stalin.
The inmates were taken on trains to the Gulag, a series of labor camps filled with political prisoners and criminals. The imprisoned men, women, and children were assigned tough physical labor. The camps were well-guarded and located in isolated parts of Russia. They grew out of one labor camp and spread across the country, supplying the nascent Soviet state with abundant cheap labor. Forbidden from outside communication and often starved to emaciation, the inmates endured grueling overexertion and beatings. They worked on large infrastructure projects, such as building roads or canals. As the Russian army began to beat back the German army in 1944, a new wave of military and foreign inmates flooded the Gulag.
Solzhenitsyn discusses how the criminal codes of the Soviet Union legally enshrined the Gulag. Capital punishment was supposedly outlawed after the Russian Revolution, but it existed in the Gulag. Solzhenitsyn describes the torture and execution of many prisoners, as well as the assorted daily methods of fatal overexertion. The inmates occasionally tried to fight back, but only later did they realize the strength they had in numbers. Entire camps of thousands of people tried to rebel against their guards, but these uprisings were eventually crushed. People tried to escape, but they were often caught.
Solzhenitsyn describes his release from the Gulag. Returning to society was difficult and he—like many former inmates of the Gulag—was forced into exile. In exile in Kazakhstan, he learned about Stalin’s death and resolved to document the history of the Gulags to let the world know the horror that he and others experienced. Solzhenitsyn blames Soviet society for allowing the Gulag’s existence, which continues despite Stalin’s death. Solzhenitsyn also criticizes those in the West who excuse or dismiss the Gulag.
By Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn