Drawing on his own experiences before, during, and after his 11 years of incarceration and exile, Solzhenitsyn reveals with torrential narrative and dramatic power the entire apparatus of Soviet repression. Through truly Shakespearean portraits of its victims, we encounter the secret police operations, the labor camps and prisons, the uprooting or extermination of whole populations. Yet we also witness astounding moral courage, the incorruptibility with which the occasional individual or a few scattered groups, all defenseless, endured brutality and degradation. Solzhenitsyn's genius has transmuted this grisly indictment into a literary miracle.
He really takes us deep into the heart of what it means to hear a knock on the door in the middle of the night, knowing that they have come to get you. From there, Solzhenitsyn takes us to the processing, the interrogation, the presentation of charges, the "trial", and finally sentencing. He sprinkles his narrative liberally with his own experiences, but even more the stories of others--people who would have long been forgotten, meaningless numbers on a page in some bureaucrats file, were it not for this book, where their stories are preserved.
Solzhenitsyn writes with a more deliberate tone of anger than what one finds in his other works on the prison system (One day in the Life of Ivan Densovitch and The First Circle.) This is a much more depressing book than either of those two.
This book is the Dachau of the Soviet Union. The camps are not preserved like many concentration camps were, and so this is the only memorial. And it is a damn good one.
This is hard to read, partially because of Solzhenitsyn's style (this is neither history nor literature, but attains to be both, and does not always succeed), but also because the subject matter is dark and depressing. But it is a fine memorial, and should be read, just as people should visit Dachau or Auschwitz if they ever have the chance, just to remind themselves that evil is alive and well in the world.
Here is the amazing part; here is the part that shoots this into the upper stratosphere of great writing. It would be very easy for this book to sink into its own detail – to leave the reader mired in the minutia. However, Solzhenitsyn is a writer of incomparable skill, and his interweaving of human stories within all this detail keeps the reader intrigued. And just about the time you are tempted to skim, another story surfaces which brings you back into the book and brings the book to life.
I cannot imagine trying to absorb more than this first edition without some break. So, I will move on to something else for a while to refresh myself. But, even if I were to never return to the rest of this “trilogy” (and, believe me, I will be back), I could never escape the image Solzhenitsyn has so artfully seared into my mind.
The Gulag Archipelago details the suffering faced by countless millions in the U.S.S.R.'s prison and labor camp system. It is a book beyond review - Solzhenitsyn has profound insight, devastating wit, and a staggering memory.
From page 590:
"What about the main thing in life, all its riddles? If you want, I'll spell it out for you right now. Do no pursue what is illusory - property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life - don't be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn't last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don't freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don't claw at your insides. If your back isn't broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes see, and if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of other devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart - a prize above all else in the world those who love you and wish you well. Do no hurt them or scold them, and never part from any of them in anger; after all, you simply do not know: it might be your last act before your arrest, and that will be how you are imprinted in their memory!"
This isn't anyone's favorite book and what literary qualities there are you don't discuss with your book club. More than anything it is a monument. A monolith of document whose sole purpose is to record the Soviet government's secret holocaust . At least tens of millions were swept up off the streets, from their homes, their jobs and disappeared forever into the grist mill that was the archipelago. Ostensibly these were political arrests, know as 58s. It used to be under the tzars there was pride in being a political prisoner and they commanded a certain amount of respect in prison. Not so under the Soviets. The highest crime was individual thought and if they had even the slightest thought that you may only be 99.99% in step with the regime you were arrested, your dangerous ideas quarantined from the public.
I say ostensibly because this is only part true. It is true that people had only to let off even the barest hint of individual political thought to be swept up. But this was not necessary. The first World War was ending and the distribution of power had changed. Country folk now might be crossing country lines to visit family they had always visited. The Soviet government treated such indifference to the new border as espionage. Russians that returned home from living in Europe were arrested for the crime of being able to notice that The U.S.S.R. was rather shit compared to the west. Russians living abroad that chose to remain rather than return to the new Soviet Union were branded spies, kidnapped and dumped into the archipelago. There were also the Russian POWs, Russian soldiers that had the audacity to live rather than die for their country. They were considered traitors simply by virtue of their continued existence. And in greater numbers were people that were probably just a poor combination of unlucky and naive, people swept up simply because the gulags needed to be fed. You see, as much as the gulags were about political suppression they were even more an economic fact. The country could not support itself on honest labor (if there even was such a thing in the Soviet Union) and thus became dependent on slave labor in the gulags. This is why there were arrest quotas. The gulags required a steady diet of new prisoners as it shat out emaciated corpses that had never had a chance to finish the 5, 10, 15 or 20 year sentences that had been hung on them.
And that's assuming they survived long enough to die in the gulag. The physical book I just completed contained only the first two volumes of Gulag. In all there are seven. In the first two parts Solzhenitsyn doesn't even get to the gulag. Solzhenitsyn you see isn't just writing a memorial, he is documenting a suppressed history as it happens. He knows that no matter how many millions disappear the government is doing it's damnedest to make sure no one finds out what happened to them, to simply make them disappear. And so Gulag attempts to record every facet of the Gulag system including the road to it. He explains the way arrests are carried out, how interrogations are conducted and the role of torture, via both active and passive means. Active torture would be things like beating or staging fake executions (like in Argo) which require action on the part of the torturer, passive torture includes things like starvation, sleep deprivation, prolonged exposure to extreme cold and shoving you in a box full of bedbugs to suck you till you can't stand while they eat lunch (the guards I mean, but I guess the bed bugs are having lunch too). Use of passive techniques by far surpassed active torture as it cost nothing and required no energy on the part of the torturer. There is a limit to just how many prisoners one person can beat. You can only beat one at a time and eventually you have to rest your arm and even the most efficient beater is eventually looking at a repetitive stress injury. On the other hand there is no limit to how many prisoners you can freeze, starve or turn into typhoid fodder all at once. Solzhenitsyn scoffs at reports of people being released unbroken after 4 days of torture by Nazis. Clearly, he says, the Nazis gave up too soon. Everyone breaks under Soviet torture.
On the other hand Solzhenitsyn celebrates every small mercy and the slightest joy that prisoners may enjoy on their way to the gulag. A piss pot, even when it is overflowing, is better than no piss pot. And a bowl is a luxury when you've been eating your gruel out of your coat pockets. And a trip to the latrine, sheer bliss. And then there are the truly unique privileges of the prisoners. In the Butyrki political prisoners awaiting sentencing could request any book from the library. There was no telling when it would turn up but they did turn up and they were books unavailable anywhere else in the U.S.S.R.. They were by in large confiscated from personal collections and the prisoners overwhelmingly indulged in books forbidden in the Soviet Union. Maybe the prison staff didn't know the contents of the books they dutifully delivered to the 58s or maybe they just didn't care about enforcing censorship among a group of people that had already been deemed politically tainted and quarantined. Solzhenitsyn goes so far as to say, "The cell was constricted, but wasn't freedom even more constricted?". You see, outside, where bodies were free minds and mouths were caged by fear of the government, but once in prison you could say whatever you wanted within the intellectual safe zone of the quarantine. And they did. You get the impression that the communal cells housing 58s were full of vibrant and passionate debate on politics and philosophy. Only here were intellectual pariahs free to state their minds, make their cases and change the minds of each other.
There really is no hope of me detailing even a fraction of Solzhenitsyn's work here (and it would only be a fraction of his work if I even attempted it), but I can say with complete conviction that he achieved what he set out to do. He told us what happened to them. How it was done and what it was to live it. And he did it while himself a prisoner. This is what a hero looks like.
"Even the most broad-minded of us can embrace only that part of the truth into which our own snout has blundered."
"The machine stamped out sentences. The prisoner had already been deprived of all rights when they cut off his buttons on the threshold of State Security, and he wouldn't avoid a stretch. The members of the legal profession were so used to this that they fell of their faces in 1958 and caused a big scandal. The text of the projected new 'Fundamental Principles of Criminal Prosecution of the U.S.S.R.' was published in the newspapers, and they'd forgotten to include any reference to possible grounds for acquittal. The government newspaper issued a mild rebuke: 'The impression might be created that our courts only bring in convictions.'"
"If you live in a graveyard, you can't weep for everyone."
"But wasn't everything foredoomed anyway, from the moment of arrest? Yet all the arrested crawled along the path of hope on their knees, as if their legs had been amputated."
"At Novosibirsk Transit Prison in 1945 they greeted the prisoners with a roll call based on cases. 'So and so! Article 58-1a, twenty-five years.' The chief of the convoy was curious: 'What did you get that for?' 'For nothing at all.' 'You are lying. The sentence for nothing at all is ten years.'"
"The OSO enjoyed another important advantage in that its penalty could not be appealed. There was nowhere to appeal to. There was no appeals jurisdiction above it, and no jurisdiction beneath it. It was subordinate only to the Minister of Internal Affairs, to Stalin, and to Satan."
"What the eye doesn't see, the heart doesn't grieve for."