Thursday, April 27, 2023

Review of The Gulag Archipelago [Volume 1]: An Experiment in Literary Investigation by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

This book review was written by Eugene Kernes   

Book can be found in: 
Genre = History
Collection = The Gulag Archipelago
Book Club Event = Book List (10/07/2023)
Intriguing Connections = 1) The Persecuted and The Persecutors

Watch Short Review


“During a daylight arrest there is always that brief and unique moment when they are leading you, either inconspicuously, on the basis of a cowardly deal you have made, or else quite openly, their pistols unholstered, through a crowd of hundreds of just such doomed innocents as yourself.  You aren’t gagged.  You really can and you really ought to cry out – to cry out that you are being arrested!  That villains in disguise are trapping people!  That arrests are being made on the strength of false denunciations!  That millions are being subjected to silent reprisals!” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Part I: The Prison Industry: Chapter 1: Arrest, Page 29

“However, sending these officers to the Archipelago did not end the problem but only set it in motion.  After all, their mothers, wives, and children were still at liberty.  With the help of unerring social analysis it was easy to see what kind of mood they were in after the heads of their households had been arrested.  And thus they simply compelled their own arrest too!  And one more wave was set rolling.” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Part I: The Prison Industry: Chapter 2: The History of Our Sewage Disposal System, Page 52

“I could have told tales too.  I would even have liked to.  But no, I didn’t really want to any more.  Like a cow, the war had licked away four of my years.  I no longer believed that it had all actually happened and I didn’t want to remember it.  Two years here, two years in the Archipelago, had dimmed in my mind all the roads of the front, all the comradeship of the front line, had totally darkened them.” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Part II: Perpetual Motion: Chapter 4: From Island to Island, Page 577



The Soviet Russian authorities were brutal persecutors of their people.  Those who fall into the gaze of the authority, are persecuted.  None are spared.  The arrested innocent cannot do anything except remain silent.  Not even a pregnant woman’s life was spared when found to have committed criminal behavior.  Even religious sites were plundered to hasten cultural change.   When political plans conflicted with each other, any type of behavior, or work effort did not meet expectations, they quickly discovered people to blame.  People were shot dead when they did not have enough faith in socialist physical structures, for the authorities refused to consider that enthusiasm of the personal was not enough.  Persecuting people to destroy their power. 

Fear and betrayal were ubiquitous.  Death or the Gulag are the outcomes of anyone who the authorities choose as their enemy.  As problems kept arising, they kept expanding the people who were to be blamed for the problems.  The authorities were trained, to persecute and torture defenseless victims.    The persecutors were not some fictitious evil people who know that they are evil.  In reality, these people believe they were doing good.  Justified in their actions by ideology that makes their acts appear beyond reproach.  Terrible acts that are rewarded, supported by the silence of their opponents.  Silence perpetuates evil, as people learn that the terrible acts are not going to be punished. 


More Details On Persecutions:

Interrogators were able to game the system that they supported.  Interrogators tortured people during the night, because they would be paid more.  They even claimed more torture hours than they actually did.  Confessors were rewarded with cigarettes. 

The persecutions were happening during wars. During wars, the Red Army was not allowed to surrender.  The soldier was meant to die, while those who asked them to die keep living.  Should the soldier come back alive, no matter their state, they will be convicted.  The only legal option for the soldier was to die. 

There was a famine, in which people would think only about getting more food, no matter the source.  Willing to have just a little bit of food, even if it meant death shortly after. 

Truth and history are being forgotten.  Overridden with lies repeated by public announcements.  War and the Gulag dispel any joy of telling stories.  No longer wanting to remember the stories, to not think about the trauma associated with the times. 


History Of The Book:

The Gulag Archipelago was a famous and infamous book.  It was the first and last book about the Gulag to be published by official Russian authorities.  Popularity of the book rose, with its official ban.  The book gained international fame after the author was expelled from the USSR.

Unlike other books which hide the repressions, Solzhenitsyn’s books directly relate the ways that the people have been repressed.  This book represents the 1st attempt to put together the history of Gulag, using various sources.  Even autobiographical details of the Gulag. 



The book can be very difficult to read.  Topics change quickly, and with poor transitions.  Organized around various examples, without much systematic analysis.

The experiences during this era were traumatic.  The author does not avoid or find ways to dampen the traumatic experiences.  The reader needs to come emotionally prepared to handle the experiences.

There is a history of the USSR erasing and manipulating data, making this book a valuable source of information.  This book brings with it a diverse set of sources, but not many official reports because they could not be accessed or were destroyed.  Sources include law, history, interviews, and an autobiographical account. 

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•To whom would you suggest this book?
•What is a Gulag?
•Why were people persecuted?
•How were people tortured?
•Why betray other people?
•How were terrible acts thought about by the persecutors?
•How does silence impact society?
•How did the law change as the law matured?
•Who are the kulaks?  
•What is the cult of personality?   
•How are the prisoners transported? 

Book Details
Ancillary Author: Anne Applebaum
Translator:            Thomas P. Whitney
Edition:                 Digital Edition
Publisher:             Name
Edition ISBN:      9780062941633
Pages to read:       673
Publication:          2020
1st Edition:           1973
Format:                 eBook 

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    2
Content          2
Overall          2