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Title: Gulag Archipelago, Vol 2
Series: Gulag Archipelago
Author: Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Rating: 4 of 5 Stars
Containing Parts III & IV 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”
Where Volume 1 seemed mainly to be about the process of how the (fictional) legalities came into being that led to arrests and about the arrests and early detainment, this volume was all about the camps and the various kinds of people in the Gulag. The first 65% dealt exclusively with the camps, what went on in them, how the prisoners existed, how they lived (and died) what uses the camps were put too.
This was grueling. I started this particular volume back in August of last year and am just now finishing it up. So 5 months?
I wish I had profound things to write here but I don’t. Solzhenitsyn simply chronicles what has gone on and shows how some of it happened (people turning a blind eye, people letting it happen because it was happening to someone else, people letting it happen because they were afraid of it happening to them, people letting it happen because it was happening to a group they didn’t like) and the absolutely horrific costs of the camps. Make no mistake, the Gulags were death camps as sure as the Nazi camps were.
Solzhenitsyn also lets his own personality and biases show through quite a bit when he talks about the various kinds of people in the last part of the book. Any time a “thief” is mentioned (ie, a non-political offender for some actual crime), he really goes off against them. He makes no bones about how he survived his time (becoming an informer in the camps) and describes the very few kind of people who would refuse that (Christians being the main group).
Besides the weighty content, what also slowed me down was the references to things or people that I simply had no idea about or anyway to put them into context. Many times whole passages held almost no meaning for me because I didn’t know the people being talked about or the brand of Russian humor went winging its way over my head. Solzhenitsyn did have a dry, sarcastic kind of humor and I appreciated what I could understand. Whenever he talked about the language and how particular words grew out of the Gulag, he lost me there too.
I won’t go into the politics beyond to say that what we are seeing now in terms of our media organizations in lockstep with the current administration will be very familiar to anyone who has read this.
I am going to be taking an extended break before attempting Volume 3. I’ve got a bunch of other non-fiction books that have been just sitting on my kindle so it’s time to pay them some attention. And I can’t face another volume like this for awhile, it’s just too much.