Monday, October 9, 2017

The Gulag Archipelago: Volume II

Archipeleg GULag / The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation
Volume II (of III)
© 1973, 1974 Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
679 pages

In the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn used his own experience being arrested, interrogated, and sentenced to a work camp to review the origins of the Soviet police state, delving into its underpinnings of detention centers,  secret police, and transportation networks.  In volume two,  after a brief history of the Gulag system, he focuses on camp life – or rather, the slow death of Gulag existence, the death of both spirit and soul.  Particular sets of the damned have their own sections within the book – women, children, Communist diehards,  even the guards themselves. 

Like books written on the Nazi concentration camps,  Gulag Archipelago is a catalogue of misery, one that lasted for decade after decade.  The monstrous architecture of oppression and humanity began not with the butcher Stalin, but with Lenin himself, as the first instances of forced labor occurred in the early 1920s. The seeds were sown by Marx, who urged that labor was the best response to criminality – ensuring that laggards and reactionaries earned their keep.   That keep was very little; Solzhenitsyn reports meager meals of gruel, largely, with an occasional feast in a roll of black bread.             Official Soviet ideology, which the prisoners were expected to express their conviction in, was that forced labor was also a corrective measure, making the condemned into good soviet citizens.  (The Soviets’ near coreligionists, the National Socialists, expressed that conviction in three words:  Arbeit Macht Frei.)

The easiest summation of Gulag life was that it was miserable in every way. Rations were meager and dismal;  physical shelter was poor, and the authorities denied their wards warm clothing. Those being punished for infractions inside the prison (for voicing dissent, making jokes about the authorities,  making neutral or positive remarks about capitalism or German equipment ) were even worse off. They might be stripped of clothing entirely and made to ‘rest’ in a damp earthen cell, even in the Siberian winter)   The guards were not the only enemies, as the authorities used prisoners against one another. Echoing his remark in volume I that the line between good and evil runs through every human heart,  Solzhenitsyn notes that “informers” were not a separate, malicious category of men, craven weasels who would do anything for a leg up.   Most were ordinary prisoners being manipulated by the guards,  either by the stick (families threatened) or by the carrot. Prisoners could be coaxed into complicity by being asked for more excusable tips, and then later, once their self-respect had been compromised already  they would be grilled for information on what prisoners were saying about Stalin, the guards, the Communist state, etc.  Solzhenitsyn wryly notes midway that while the Soviets had condemned imperial coercion by force, and capitalist coercion by hunger, in their Gulag system they used and perfected both. (One section early in the book compares 19th century serfdom favorably to the plight of the 'new' serfs of communist Russia.)

Although the  Gulag camps were officially designed for labor, not death – there were no Zyklon-B showers --  they were no less efficient at destroying life. In the winter,  the mortal remains of prisoners would be stacked up along buildings, the ground too hard for them to be buried in.  Not only were most of the prisoners on a near-starvation diet, but they were tasked with brutal work – digging canals and logging.  Solzhenitsyn estimated that the death toll in building the White Sea-Baltic canal to have been a quarter of a million people – and for no purpose at all, for the ‘canal’ was too shallow for most ships to transit. It had been done almost for the show of it, a charade of productivity to fulfill the claims of the Five Year Plan.   It is for this reason that we might borrow from the Bible: Hitler has killed his millions, but Stalin has killed his tens of millions.

Solzhenitsyn notes throughout the book that the best way to survive the camps was simply to vanish: don’t talk and don’t work when they’re not looking - -both because working hard for extra rations was counterproductive, and because if a prisoner finished their work they were rewarded with…more work.  Many people did seize what little pleasures they could: Solzhenitsyn records love affairs blooming in the camps before men and women were segregated, as people grasped at whatever affection they could find.  And there were a few guards, he admits, who would look the other way—even if for the most part they acted like dogs, watchful and servile.  Perhaps the most interesting set of characters to consider are the Communist prisoners – diehards and loyalists who were arrested because their zeal stepped on the authorities’ toes.  The system was a kleptocracy, Solzhenitsyn writes, corrupt from toe to head:  anyone placed in a position where they could clip off rations or resources from the unsuspecting (prisoners inside or Soviet subjects outside) would.  Those who believed in something earnestly, be they Orthodox Christians or orthodox communists,  kept disrupting the cozy pool of corruption.   Even in prison, however, the communist ‘loyalists’ insisted that the Party was still good: they had simply made an error, or perhaps local authorities had been compromised by the Germans.  One memorable section includes a mock conversation with a die-hard, who has a pat response to every probing question Solzhenitsyn puts to him about the State and its ideology.

As with the first volume, this book is more daunting for its size and contents than its writing. Solzhenitsyn's mood as a writer mocks the authorities and looks for the best he can find in his fellow prisoners, and the translation is perfectly simple. The third volume promises chronicles of escapes, and the death of Stalin. 


  1. [Just stands back in awe that you're still reading this.....]

  2. Hey, the battle is almost won! Volume 3 isn't nearly as fat. (The books appear much more intimidating than they are, I should note...and each volume has proved to be a page-turner. I intended to be reading about Germany, not Russia!)

  3. Here I've finished my America reading (next book to be reviewed on Thursday) so will be moving on to my Russia reads reasonably soon - likely to be this year at least! China next year now and probably something from Spain.... Plus Afghanistan (and Arabia) are on my reading radar.... So many places to read about..... [grin]

  4. I've got few from Spain -- a book on the empire, another on Moorish Spain -- and might do a three-book set some time or another. Not soon, of course...right now I am focused on fulfilling my Discovery of Asia goals and getting a little ahead in Classics Club.

  5. prof premraj pushpakaran writes -- 2018 marks the 100th birth year of Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn!!!


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