The Gulag Archipelago

“For years I have with reluctant heart withheld from publication this already completed book: my obligation to those still alive outweighed my obligation to the dead. But now that State Security has seized the book anyway, I have no alternative but to publish it immediately.”
- Alexander Solzhenitsyn
taken from author’s note

I bought a copy first published in Great Britain in 1974 which is copyrighted to Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn since 1973. There below it also says that portions have appeared in The New York Times and The Observer (not necessarily in that order). It was translated from Russian by Thomas P. Whitney who in my opinion, especially having read the translator’s notes afterwards, did a jolly good job. The single thing that might be changed for the better would be if the above mentioned translator’s notes would be moved to the front of the book and rechristened as Introduction or Preface or some such. It explains why in fact Solzhenitsyn decided to publish the book, which is pretty amazing. This pithy epilogue gives much needed context to the virtual journey the unprepared reader is about to embark on. Those who haven't received via cultural heritage the honest history of the inner workings of U.S.S.R. are going to be astonished by the many accounts told.

As it is with the texts of all authors they reflect their characteristics both in relation to the subject material but also with regard to humor, depth of understanding of popular subjects and so on and so forth. To me it is apparent that Alexander was without doubt rather intelligent and a prolific and skilled author. On the other hand he had serious contempt for what he had to endure shines through the whole time, the sheer indignation of this chapter in world history. It is sometimes very bitter. More often than not he can spice it with humorous comments though. He is also of a patriarchal generation and doesn't equal women with men. He more or less disregards their stories.

Inhabitants of the Archipelago were multinational, the variety was such that in between surface cases of doubtful credibility. I shy away from spoiling the pleasure of nonbiased reading and therefore won't describe any examples. But to name a few of the nationalities thrown together, brothers and sisters in camp by then, all the neighboring countries of the U.S.S.R. (including former U.S.S.R. countries today ofcourse), European countries from Sweden in Scandinavia over to West-European France and finally the Balkans. A few hundred kilometers away groups of Koreans and other asian ethnicities (immigrants or settlers) were likewise assimmilated.

I am a little sceptical of Purvis' statement in an earlier node that Solzhenitsyn made “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!”. I recently finished the book and recollect no such thing. On the other hand on page 595 he writes that “the Gulag Archipelago, although it extended across the entire Soviet Union as a whole. How many there were actually in the Archipelago one cannot know for certain. We can assume that at any one time there were not more than twelve million in the camps.” If we interpret this extract literally, meaning the whole life span of the Archipelago, between 1918-1956, that’s almost half a century. Imagine, the wake of the iron curtain (including high points such as the McCarthy hearings and the nuclear arms race). While America slowly developed its free market based economy and raised the bar of living standards, a great number of slaves laboured without the least recognition.

Since a fairly large portion of the citizens of Soviet Russia (the ones without any human rights), were involuntarily slaves of the state for half a century. One might wonder why a social movement for basic human rights did not voice its demands for a better world.

Maybe the fact that industrialization had been a slow process in Soviet Russia is significant in any society vies for more right for its individuals.

I think it more likely that the governments under Lenin and Stalin were totalitarian and employed measures such as the Gulag (state labor penal system) with wide berth for convictions under articles with subjects like “anti-Soviet agitation” or “state property sabotage”. Much feared Soviet security forces never spent much time idle. I won't even go into the topic of media censorship; it should be obvious how the state of things was. Nothing akin to romantic Communism certainly.

In short, an extremely curious read.