Gulag Archipelago, Vol. 1 ★★★★☆

gulagarchipelago (Custom)This review is written with a GPL 4.0 license and the rights contained therein shall supersede all TOS by any and all websites in regards to copying and sharing without proper authorization and permissions. Crossposted at WordPress, Blogspot & Librarything by Bookstooge’s Exalted Permission
Title: Gulag Archipelago, Vol. 1
Series: Gulag Archipelago
Author: Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Rating: 4 of 5 Stars
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 626
Words: 265.5K



Containing Parts I & II of Solzhenitsyn’s book, The Gulag Archipelago.


Structurally, the text comprises seven sections divided (in most printed editions) into three volumes: parts 1–2, parts 3–4, and parts 5–7. At one level, the Gulag Archipelago traces the history of the system of forced labor camps that existed in the Soviet Union from 1918 to 1956. Solzhenitsyn begins with V. I. Lenin’s original decrees which were made shortly after the October Revolution; they established the legal and practical framework for a series of camps where political prisoners and ordinary criminals would be sentenced to forced labor. The book then describes and discusses the waves of purges and the assembling of show trials in the context of the development of the greater Gulag system; Solzhenitsyn gives particular attention to its purposive legal and bureaucratic development.

The narrative ends in 1956 at the time of Nikita Khrushchev’s Secret Speech (“On the Personality Cult and its Consequences”). Khrushchev gave the speech at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, denouncing Stalin’s personality cult, his autocratic power, and the surveillance that pervaded the Stalin era. Although Khrushchev’s speech was not published in the Soviet Union for a long time, it was a break with the most atrocious practices of the Gulag system.

Despite the efforts by Solzhenitsyn and others to confront the legacy of the Gulag, the realities of the camps remained a taboo subject until the 1980s. Solzhenitsyn was also aware that although many practices had been stopped, the basic structure of the system had survived and it could be revived and expanded by future leaders. While Khrushchev, the Communist Party, and the Soviet Union’s supporters in the West viewed the Gulag as a deviation of Stalin, Solzhenitsyn and many among the opposition tended to view it as a systemic fault of Soviet political culture – an inevitable outcome of the Bolshevik political project.

Parallel to this historical and legal narrative, Solzhenitsyn follows the typical course of a zek (a slang term for an inmate), derived from the widely used abbreviation “z/k” for “zakliuchennyi” (prisoner) through the Gulag, starting with arrest, show trial, and initial internment; transport to the “archipelago”; the treatment of prisoners and their general living conditions; slave labor gangs and the technical prison camp system; camp rebellions and strikes (see Kengir uprising); the practice of internal exile following the completion of the original prison sentence; and the ultimate (but not guaranteed) release of the prisoner. Along the way, Solzhenitsyn’s examination details the trivial and commonplace events of an average prisoner’s life, as well as specific and noteworthy events during the history of the Gulag system, including revolts and uprisings.

Solzhenitsyn also states:

Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb, too. The imagination and spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology. Ideology – that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes…. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis, by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations… Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago.

— The Gulag Archipelago, Chapter 4, p. 173

There had been works about the Soviet prison/camp system before, and its existence had been known to the Western public since the 1930s. However, never before had the general reading public been brought face to face with the horrors of the Gulag in this way. The controversy surrounding this text, in particular, was largely due to the way Solzhenitsyn definitively and painstakingly laid the theoretical, legal, and practical origins of the Gulag system at Lenin’s feet, not Stalin’s. According to Solzhenitsyn’s testimony, Stalin merely amplified a concentration camp system that was already in place. This is significant, as many Western intellectuals viewed the Soviet concentration camp system as a “Stalinist aberration”


My Thoughts:

I started reading this book on March 13th. It took me until June 5th to finish. At under 700 pages I figured I could easily knock this out in a month, even if I only read it on the weekends. “Ha” and agains I say “ha!”

This was a dense book and mind you, it is the first of three. It is also dealing with very heavy material (not literally, it’s paper after all) but my spirit was weighed down after reading it, every single time. By the time I got to the end I could only read 5 or 6 percent each weekend. While nothing is graphic, if you’ve been reading any of my Quote posts from the last couple of months, you’ll know just how horrifying some of the stuff discussed in this book is.

Solzhenitsyn, thankfully, writes in a very dry, sardonic and sarcastic manner, which allowed me to distance myself from the words I was reading. That being said, he also writes in the most rambling form I have ever run across. I eventually just stopped trying to connect the dots and let him tell the tale in his own way.

He tells of his own arrest, his time in the sorting prisons and the time getting to the official Gulag camps. He also tells a lot of other peoples’ stories as well. It is horrible, sad and disheartening that people today want a form of government that leads to Communism that inevitably leads to places like the Gulag.

I am going to take a break of 2 months and read some other non-fiction, preferably of the theological bent, before I dive back into Vol. 2.



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26 thoughts on “Gulag Archipelago, Vol. 1 ★★★★☆

  1. We have no quarrel, really, about Solzhenitsyn himself, although I would recommend Anne Applebaum as a supplementary reading for GULAG facts, if one wants to go deeper into history.

    I’ll only point out that, in the quote you included here, certain other ideologies are listed that, according to him, may also lead to unhappy conclusions…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Keep that Applebaum in mind. Once I’m done Gulag in a year or so, if you could remind me again, I might just have to check her out.

      And that is why Wikipedia is a resource, not an authority 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely. I don’t plan to read Vol 2 until the beginning of September, so I’m guessing I’ll be done with that volume by years end, then another break until the final volume. Definiteley not something to race through.

      Liked by 1 person

          1. Gotta disagree Bormgans. Communism itself made it hard to talk about. When it wouldn’t/doesn’t allow free speech and public discourse, THAT is the problem.


        1. Just remember, whatever Bormgans may say, Communism has killed tens, if not hundreds, of millions of people. Let that speak for itself.

          And this is why it is important for people to educate themselves. Dont take my word OR his word for it 😀

          Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ll just let History speak for itself. But I will say this, Communism allows the corrupt and broken nature of man to flourish much easier than other ideologies. And THAT definitely leads to gulags.

        And looking at America today, McCarthy wasn’t wrong. We’re one step from becoming damned commies ourselves…


  2. Glad you are slogging through this and bringing it to our attention. My copy should arrive in the mail at some point. Meanwhile, today I received Thomas Sowell’s The Quest for Cosmic Justice, which I believe tackles the same problem from another angle.

    Of course any ideology can lead to horrors. It doesn’t matter what particular system they are using, it happens whenever people set themselves up as the moral authority apart from God. This is exactly why we should never give too much authority and power to any one person, group, or ideology … and why, as soon as someone promises utopia, we should run!!! “Cursed is the one who trusts in man.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Indeed. Nothing here on earth is ever going to bring Utopia. we just have to find the least heinous system that has the most checks on itself. It doesn’t help, of course, that there are people actively agitating for worse systems 😦

      Liked by 1 person

  3. From the quites you shared this already seemed like a grim book, to me and I revel in 40K where everything is grime dark… hats of for getting to the end though. You’ll be in my thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m waiting on my copy of volume 1 now and will definitely try to read this before 2021. I like how it really sucks out the daylight out of you and now you need a 2-month break from it. Or maybe you’ll crawl back to it soon from some kind of addiction you’ve developed. I can’t imagine you reading this on a grumpy day though. That must be scary. Hahahahaha

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thankfully, I’ve got enough other non-fiction to keep me occupied 🙂

      The odd thing is, while I’m reading the book itself, I’m just fine. It is when I stop and digest what I’ve read that it hits me so hard.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Yeah I definitely agree that this is a dense book addressing difficult topics (and can’t be read quickly because of that). I do hear you about it being rambly as well. And I think it’s a good idea to take a break before diving into the second volume!

    Liked by 1 person

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