on 3 October 2005
This is unquestionably the best non fiction book I have ever read. It is at once profound, intelligent, affecting, exquisitely readable (excepting some of the more factual chapters, perhaps), terrifying, uplifting and occaionally - unexpectedly - very humourous. Solzhenitsyn manages to convey the details of the most outrageous atrocities without ever losing a sense of what is good about the human race and without ever losing an acutely righteous anger about what is bad about it.
Personally I have spent the last two months since reading this book all but beating everyone I know into reading it; some books, after all, should be reccomended highly, but this book should be mandatory, a rite of passage for anyone who has any opinion on history or morality - hell, for anyone who has the ability to read.
This book was published at a point of crisis in Solzhenitsyn's life. He completed the manuscript in 1968 and succeeded in getting it typed, copied and hidden in several different places. In 1973, on being tortured, his typist revealed to the KGB where one of the copies was hidden. Such was her remorse that shortly after her release she hanged herself. Solzhenitsyn's response to the knowledge that the authorities had obtained a copy of the work was to authorise its immediate publication in the West. Until that time he had intended to withhold the work until it could be published in the Soviet Union. First publication was achieved in Paris in early 1974. Six weeks later, Solzhenitsyn was deported from the Soviet Union to begin a 20 year exile in Western Europe and America.
This was not, of course, the first crisis, or series of crises, in Solzhenitsyn's life. Neither was it the most threatening to his continued existence, alarming as the situation seemed between his arrest and totally unexpected arrival in Frankfurt. The Gulag Archipelago describes many of the yet more shattering crises imposed on him by the Soviet state between his admission to the Gulag prison system in 1945 and eventual release (initially to internal exile) in 1953.
Not that the book is primarily autobiographical. Solzhenitsyn's aspiration was to provide a comprehensive account of the entire Gulag system - his metaphor of an archipelago of small islands, distributed throughout the Soviet Union, is very apt. He begins with his own arrest for criticising Stalin in a private letter. This whilst he was serving in East Prussia as an officer in the Red Army. From there he takes us to the Lubyanka prison in Moscow, through the process of interrogation, transit prisons, prison transport and ultimate deposit at a labour camp. And there volume 1 ends. After almost 230,000 words, we have still to learn anything substantial about the camps themselves. That is for Volumes 2 and 3 of this literally monumental work.
Besides Solzhenitsyn's own experience, the book is crammed with stories and details of places and events gleaned from other prisoners he encountered. He also researched - it seems exhaustively - such printed sources as were available during the decade when he was writing (1958-68), and recalls reading reports of Show Trials in the Soviet press when he was as young as nine years old. There is a whole chapter on The Bluecaps (officers of the Soviet secret police); another on the various forms of prisoner transport - by road, rail, river, sea and on foot; aspects that in a less ambitious work might be briefly described in passing. And long paragraphs of reflection on matters such as the motivation for the various players to behave as they did - how, for instance, the interrogators reconciled their knowledge that virtually all arrested and brought before them on political charges were totally innocent with working diligently to obtain signed confessions.
The Gulag is closely associated with Stalin. It reached its peak during his time and was quickly run down following his death. However, Solzhenitsyn is at pains to demonstrate not only that the camps, prisons, torture and shootings began under the active direction of Lenin, but that such a system is an inevitable adjunct of a soviet political structure. He readily concedes that many of the prisons used after 1917 were built under the Tsars, also that in Tsarist times exile to Siberia was a common punishment, but in light of the post-revolutionary experience Solzhenitsyn thinks the numbers punished very restrained, sentences lenient, and the conditions of prison and exile almost laughably humane.
This book played an important part in informing Western readers of the cruelties of the Soviet Union, and the book and its author became propaganda weapons in the Cold War, albeit that Solzhenitsyn himself had, at best, mixed feelings about that. On publication, the first volume was a best seller. Nowadays, the work is less than essential, and for the general reader Solzhenitsyn's fiction is likely to be more immediately rewarding. However, those who wish to be fully informed about the Gulag, about Solzhenitsyn and his writing, and/or the Cold War as it developed in the 1970's, should definitely take it up.
on 29 September 2009
This is a Monumental work by a Monumental Writer. With a Surgeons meticulousness of dissection, Solzhenitsyn lays bare the entire anatomy of the Oppressive apparatus, laying bare the workings at an Ideological, state and individual level. He uses hundreds of examples of individuals and groups of individuals experiences of the Soviet oppressive 'Organs' to create a vast network of suffering interlinked by time, place and person.
It is an unrelenting and heavy read. It demands by the nature of its grave subject deliberation and slow digestion.
The Soviet process of arrest, interrogation charge and sentencing are each painstakingly laid out. The Politicohistorical background of the (in)justice system is similarly dissected apart with reference to historical events.
It is dry writing, blisteringly sarcastic with an understanding sympathy for the forces of oppression that is unrelentingly ironic.
It is an extraordinary piece of work, immense in scope, rich in ironic understatement that can leave the reader exhausted. Stunningly detailed, and essential reading for any serious student of the Soviet era.
It is a marvel to flip through this book again, though the abridged version is nothing compared to the original 3-volume trilogy. Though it is very difficult to get into - in the original v1 there is a long abstract section on gulags as a sewage system in turbid prose - once the reader gets swept into thos narrative of suffering there is no other reading experience like it.
Solzhenitsyn spent his youth as a gulag prisoner for having criticized Stalin on a postcard. V1 covers his arrest and interrogation and transport into despair and disillusionment. What he experienced, from his start as a strong and idealistic young war leader, can only be described as hell on earth. Only Hitler's death factories could compare, and yet Stalin's slave labor camps were being held up as marvels of social policy and redemption. The cruelty of treatment, the insights into the astonishing characters around him, and the compilation of other people's stories - Solzhenitsyn describes his experience as only one gulp from an ocean of bitterness and shattered lives - are unequalled in the modern literature on totalitarianism. My experience was to be utterly transported into this realm, to look at my life and values and think about what mattered most to develop within myself. No other book ever had a deeper impact on me. That makes this, in my opinion, essential reading to understand the last century at its very very worst.
The second volume follows Solzhenitsyn as he becomes a hardened and grief-stricken prison slave, indifferent to whether he is killed by a stray bullet during riots and abandoning his faith in communism. A central pert of the book is his religious conversion - the only one I ever read about that I truly understood on an emotional level - at the deathbed of perhaps his greatest freind. V3 covers his relesase from prison and his attempts to rebuild his life.
All three volumes offered to me the experience of living totally outside of myself and in the reality of a totalitarian state. I first read these in EUrope when they appeared, and the debates on the merits of the communist sytem were very much alive at the time. Now they are only of historical interest, but I still think they are must reading for anyone who wants to understand the worst of one of the most tumultuous centuries in the history of mankind.
on 30 May 2010
While Solzhenitsyn has been heavily criticised in recent decades, for a number of sound reasons, The Gulag Archipelago is a classic in a Russian tradition, known for it's maintainence of a moral perspective and sense of humour in it's description of the Soviet Gulag prison camp system. At the same time, it's systematic approach to it's subject makes it valuable as a reference source for researchers of Soviet/Russian history.
The Gulag Archipelago consists of seven parts. Volume 1 contains part I, The Prison Industry, which covers the development of the Soviet legal and criminal justice system, or system of social and political repression if you prefer, and part II, Perpetual Motion, which deals with the means by which prisoners were transported from place to place, often under horrific conditions. Consistently readable, the book transcends it's subject matter. Comparisons could be made with House of Dolls or My Happy Days in Hell by Gyorgy Faludy.
Volume 2 of The Gulag Archipelago contains part III, The Destructive Labor Camps, and part IV, The Soul and Barbed Wire, which explores the effect of the camp system on Russian values and morality, at both the individual and social levels.
In addition to describing conditions inside the camps, Solzhenitsyn puts the system of prison camps in a social context, relating how, for example, the system of "tukhta"- the fiddling of work and production norms- spread from the camps through the rest of the Soviet economy. Also interesting are his descriptions of how individual camp chiefs, given virtually unlimited power and autonomy within their camps, became wealthy by exploiting the labour of the prisoners in their charge, sometimes even ordering them to steal materials and equipment from nearby industrial concerns for use in their own camp workshops. In this there is a clear similarity to the Nazi concentration camp system. This is a book which contains many useful pointers to the state of Russia today, and which deserves it's reputation as a classic of Russian literature.
Volume 3 begins with part V, Katorga, in which Solzhenitsyn describes the special camps that were set up for political prisoners (or Katorzhane) from the Second World War onwards, drawing extensively on his own experience as a prisoner in the Ekibastuz camp during the early 1950s. He describes the resistance of the political prisoners to the camp authorities, which began with the murdering of informers and escalated into open rebellions, such as that in the Kengir camp in 1954, which lasted 40 days and ended when troops with T34 tanks overran the camp compound, killing 700 prisoners in the process. After the deaths of Stalin and Beria, most of the Special camps were dismantled and political and religious prisoners either released or dispersed to small sub-camps located within the Corrective Labour Camps, as described by Irina Ratushinskaya in her well known book Grey is the Colour of Hope.
In part VI, Exile, Solzhenitsyn describes the mass deportation of peasants during the 1920s and 1930s, using examples such as the Vasyugan tragedy (in 1930, 10,000 peasant families were taken to an area near the Vasyugan river in northern Russia, and left there in winter without any tools or food; they all died) to illustrate the genocidal nature of this policy. He goes on to describe the deportations of the Chechens, Ingush, Tatars and other nationalities before discussing his own experience of trying to find work as a teacher following his release after eight years in prisons and Special Camps.
The final part VII, Stalin Is No More, discusses in further detail the changes to Soviet law and the prison camp system that occurred after Stalin's death. In general, he dismisses these as window dressing, citing as an example the publication in a Soviet legal journal of a detailed account of the trial of a group of Estonian war criminals, describing the questioning of witnesses, the cross-examination of defendants, and the passing of death sentences, which appeared in print some two weeks before the events took place as descibed (the trial had been postponed, but no-one had thought to inform the journal. The journalist who wrote the article got a year's forced labour for bringing Soviet journalism into disrepute.) Solzhenitsyn also gives a detailed account of the 1962 Novocherkassk massacre and it's causes, citing figures of 70 people killed outright by gunfire and hundreds wounded and subsequently "disappeared" after they were taken in buses to military hospitals by the army. These figures are significantly higher than those given in the Russian government's official version of events, suggesting that the systematic falsification of history is still taking place in Russia today, much as it did in the Soviet period.
on 28 October 2009
I can't really do this book justice, I'd love to spend hours pouring over it, but I think I'd be serving myself more than Alexander's. So I'll approach this brief review from my key motivator for picking up the book, morbid fasination, and explain how it gave we so much more.
The observant probably noticed I refered to the author by first name, this isn't casual but instead meant as the highest show of respect. Quite ignorantly I hadn't really appreciated that a foreign author would have so much to offer, that he could speak to me so directly. I'd expected a flat tome sprinkled with the odd insight to life at that time in Russia. Instead I found a friend who spoke to me with passion and humor in an unguarded manor, about the attrocious treatment he and others recieved from paranoid communism and the evil of justified cruelty. The fact that this outstanding work was produced after experiences that would leave the typical anglo-american as a psychological wreck is awe inspiring.
This book will teach you how to torture a stranger (in great detail, or, a working knowledge!) even someone from your life, it will show you how to improve methods by highlighting the benefits of bouncing ideas off your colleagues. You will learn how a man can commit such acts, how he can justify himself and sleep with a mind as clear as someone who's spent their work day planting flowers. You will learn that politics and ideology mean very little. Your holding an apple from the tree of truth, and with another bite, Alexander has provided the tools to realise and question yourself. I too could suffer his fate, but also, I too could be mobalized as a blue cap.
If you read with an open mind and a strong stomach, this book has so much to offer, many times you'll share a laugh with tears in your eyes. This should be expected reading for all citizens and especially our military services.
Of course fewer people will read this review, as it comes under 'hard-cover', both this work and you deserve it to be a hard-back version.
on 1 May 2001
Recently i went into a large and well known bookstore in Glasgow because I wanted to buy this truly great book as a gift. The store was overrun by children and their parents who were buying the "new Harry Potter" When I asked an assisstant to find out if I could still buy this book in the original three volume edition she was unable to tell me. She had heard neither of The Gulag nor of Solzhenitsyn. She had to leave our conversation here as she had more Harry Potters' to attend to. Somehow this difficulty acted as a spur and made me more determined than ever to find the three volume set as a gift for my friend.... This truly great and historic book should be required reading. It is a matter of National Importance tha works like this are always available in print and always there when required. Totalatarianism has not gone away. It has changed it's clothes, hired some PR and now wears a little tasteful jewellery but it is still with us, still very much alive. The weight of Solzhenitsyns' experience and his extraordinary ability to wite seriously, in a way that is now qite uncommon in the west, makes these volumes vital literature and a compelling vision of a past coming to life again in Central Europe and elsewhere. One of the truly great artistic achievements of the 20th Century and one of the most powerful episodes of defiance and courage in the face of terror you will ever read. `it's true greatness, however, might lie in it's warmth and it's love for fellow prisoners. An essential life affirming testament to courage and decency.
on 3 April 2013
I am still reading this 630 page book and ordered it after reading a shorter book entitled Gulag Boss which was rather biased towards the State.
The Gulag Archipelago is interesting in parts and a bit boring in others. Russia after the Revolution in 1917 became a difficult place to live if you had even the slightest doubts about how the country was being run and you certainly had to keep your thoughts to yourself. Informers were everywhere and it was very easy to earn yourself a 10 rouble note or more (their term for 10 years in the Gulag and probably another 5 years living outside the Gulag before you were allowed home).
I am half way through the book and Sozhenitsyn is still in the Lubyanka being interrogated but not yet tortured (if he was). The Gulag and subsequent release is yet to come. His crime, by the way, was to comment on aspects of how the army was performing towards the end of the second world war whilst a captain in the army at the front.
on 22 August 2008
Sometimes horrible, sometimes funny, mostly just unbelievable that a nation could plunge to such depths. Sadly it has to be believed. What shrines through, and makes even the stories of people's deaths almost funny is Solzhenitsyn's black sense of humour and sarcasm that's there on every page. He writes about how the guards didn't feed prisoners for sometimes days at a time, but talks about the hapless guard's with so much sarcasm and of how they were poorly paid and what a thankless task it was that you almost end up feeling sorry for the evil devils.
It's this sarcasm I think that allowed him to survive his eight years and made him from a little cog in a giant faceless machine to a man who stood tall over the entire country.
What ever your view of Stalin and Russia, this book needs to be read,....must be read.
on 6 February 2001
Solzenhitsyn ensures that the reader feels the full weight of Stalin's Soviet Union bearing down; from the chilling to the farcical. On the surface it is the true story of Solzenitsyn's arrest and incarceration for his political beliefs, but through this is weaved a political and social history of the early 20th Century Soviet Union. He captures both the sweep of the nation's history and the stories of real people; the latter illustrated by vignettes passed on to him by other inmates.
This book is a must for anyone who wants to gain a first hand glimpse of the horrors of Stalinism.