Saturday, May 13, 2023

Review of The Gulag Archipelago [Volume 2]: 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


“In regard to penal policy, it was admitted that it was inadequate.  And it was decreed that harsh measures of repression should be applied to class enemies and hostile-class elements, that the camp regimen should be made severe (and that socially unstable elements should not be given terms at all).  And in addition: forced labor should be set up in such a way that the prisoner should not earn anything from his work but that the state should derive economic profit from it.” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Chapter 3: The Archipelago Metastasizes, Page 71

“And it goes without saying that our contemporary politicals need incomparably greater steadfastness and heroism than the earlier revolutionaries.  In those days the punishments given for far more serious actions were quite light and revolutionaries didn’t have to be so very bold: in case of failure they risked only themselves (not their families!), and not even their heads – but a short term only.” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Chapter 10: In Place of Politicals, Page 307

“The labor of the zeks was needed for degrading and particularly heavy work, which no one, under socialism, would wish to perform.  For work in remote and primitive localities where it would not be possible to construct housing, schools, hospitals, and stores for many years to come.  For work with pick and spade – in the flowering of the twentieth century.  For the erection of the great construction projects of socialism, when the economic means for them did not yet exist.” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Chapter 22: We Are Building, Page 567



The Gulag, as a concentration camp, began shortly after the rise of Soviet Russian power.  Initially for POW’s and undesirable foreigners, that quickly expanded for citizens.  The Gulag was used to develop the nation.  A system designed to obtain free labor.  The prisoners would not earn anything, while the state profited from their labor.  This was a reintroduction of slavery in Russia.  The work was degrading, carried out under harsh conditions, and without appropriate tools.  Under socialism, no one else but slaves would have performed the work.  The prisoners were barely fed, with the little food they did receive being of a very poor quality.  The guards stole a lot of food.  Guards even made the prisoners compete and fight to get the food.

To get labor for the Gulag, there was a low tolerance for deviating thoughts.  Anyone who was overheard to speak anything against the socialist system, no matter the significance of what was said or even the privacy of the claim, were heavily punished with major charges against them with long sentences.  The Soviet system was much harsher against dissenters than previous regimes.  Under the Soviet system, it was not just the dissenters who were punished, but their entire family.  Even children were given the full measure of punishment, without exception if their crimes were unintentional.  The children were trained to hate. 

The way the authorities themselves complied with the laws, was to use a language that prevented them from thinking about the consequences of their actions.  Defending oneself against this system was impossible, and going on a strike was useless.  What was left was to change fate, to break out.  Some tried to invent something useful for the state, which would have given them a release.



This book is very difficult to read.  Contains poor organizational structure, as related content can be found sporadically in the book.  Most of the book is composed of examples, without much systematic analysis. 

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?
•When did the Gulag system form?
•Why did the Soviet’s want to use Gulag prisoners for labor?
•Why is Gulag work considered slavery?
•How were the Gulag working conditions?
•How were the prisoners fed? 
•Who was punishable? 
•What was punishable and what were the sentences? 
•How did the authorities think about what they were doing?
•What options were there for the prisoners to get released? 
•What is the role of women in the Gulag? 
•How were the animals treated? 
•How were people reeducated? 

Book Details
Ancillary Author: Anne Applebaum
Translator:            Thomas P. Whitney
Edition:                 Digital Edition
Publisher:             HarperPerennial [HarperCollins Publishers]
Edition ISBN:      9780062941664
Pages to read:       673
Publication:          2020
1st Edition:           1973
Format:                 eBook 

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    2
Content          2
Overall          2