The Gulag Archipelago, published in 1971, is a massive and exhaustively detailed work, published in two enormous volumes. In it, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn tracks the development and nature of the gulag system, and of Soviet state terror in general, from its origins under Lenin to the horror of Stalin's reign and beyond. He meticulously details the experiences of typical prisoners, and presents many exceptional cases, including his own journey from World War 2 hero to slave prisoner. Solzhenitsyn makes the amazing assertion that in the 1950s, half of the citizens of the Soviet Union had been somehow involved in the gulag system, either as prisoners or employees! Reading this book will leave you profoundly disturbed and likely unable to sleep. It is so remarkable, in fact, that such an exhaustive resource could have been assembled, especially given that none of this was a matter of public record, that some had suggested that Solzhenitsyn must have fabricated at least some of his information.
The name Gulag Archipelago was meant to communicate the idea that the barren reaches of Siberia, and metaphorically the Soviet State, had become nothing more than a chain of forced labor prisons, like an archipelago in the middle of the ocean. The victims of the gulag system were political prisoners only - Russia had a separate system to deal with criminals. Of course most of the gulag's victims weren't even political. The state terror networks gulaged people for any reason - owning certain writings, looking at someone the wrong way, being related to other gulaged people, being friends with them, or for no reason at all.
First Solzhenitsyn takes the reader through a typical arrest and interrogation, detailing how the agents always came in the dead of the night for maximum surprise and terror - and yet it was never a surprise, since everyone's neighbors, friends, and family were all being visited at night in the same way every night. The detainees were denied sleep, clothes, food, and restrooms for days on end before more acute torture began to extract confessions. Not that confessions were even necessary, what with the secret trials being a mere formality. As an example of the extent to which the terror network was part and parcel of the Soviet state, scientists had actually been put to work designing a system that would prevent detainees from sleeping. One apparatus they came up with was a device that measured movement. If someone didn't move within a given period, they would be dumped into a vat of cold water.
After conviction it was onto a train and off to a gulag. The train was a bit of a 'seasoning' process where the prisoners were starved and made to sleep one on top of another in tiny filthy rooms. There is a vivid image of prisoners being unloaded from the trains as elderly Russian peasants throw them bread out of sympathy. Everyone knew what was going on.
People knew which gulags were 'good' assignments and which were 'bad' ones. The worst were the ones farthest North. In all, however, the prisoners did back breaking and dangerous labor in the swamps, tundra, and mines of Siberia with little food, little clothing, and often no shelter. This in a region where winter temperatures hover around -60 degrees. Every day people succumbed to disease, starvation, hypothermia, frost bite, accidents, and the whims of the guards, and were dumped in mass graves.
The guards and employees of the gulag system were thugs who Solzhenitsyn calls 'thieves,' because they were usually petty criminals themselves. They had free reign to beat and torture the prisoners just for fun, which they did. In the second volume, this topic is explored in detail and this is where some of the most disturbing details emerge.
We are then given a general history of Soviet state terror, and contrary to many people's perception, it actually began in earnest under Lenin. Solzhenitsyn tells how prisoners in the early days were buried in muddy swamps up to their necks and literally eaten alive by mosquitos. It was under Stalin, however, that the gulag system acquired its industrial efficiency.
One of the most fascinating sections of the second volume deals with the escapes, of which there were many. Despite being so broken down, some of the prisoners carried out amazing feats of daring and survival. Often getting away would mean dodging bullets, overpowering armed guards, fighting attack dogs, living off the land with your bare hands for months or years, taking on an assumed identity, forging papers, and ultimately sneaking to the West. Solzhenitsyn himself escaped by sneaking to the Ukraine where guerillas took him to the West.
The most notable flaw in The Gulag Archipelago is Solzhenitsyn's 'Slavophilia.' The extent to which he attributes the survival of the Russian people in the face of this terror to their racial heritage is somewhat disturbing. He only briefly mentions the fact that other nationalities of the Soviet Union, and even foreigners who found themselves on the wrong side of an armistice line, were also victims of the system. Also, it would be nice if there were an abridged version, although individual parts of the two volumes can be read in isolation with little problem.
The Gulag Archipelago should not be taken as just a condemnation of the Communist system, but of any system where power is entrenched in too few hands and propaganda systems are effective in squelching dissent and information-ahem. It should be required reading for anyone enamored of prisons and chain gangs in any country at any time. The thing we finally realize about the gulag system was that it was not only a means of terror and control - with the cheap labor it carried out and jobs it provided to the 'thieves' it was integral to the Soviet economy.