The Gulag Archipelago

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Posted on 28 December 2020

I learned about The Gulag Archipelago from Jordan Peterson’s The 12 Rules of Life, but it is a vastly more famous book, and rightly so. Written by a gulag survivor, it broke the horrors of the gulags and the soviet state to the rest of the world. Solzhenitsyn had to write in secret, and parts of the manuscript would be hidden by friends or smuggled out of the country bit by bit. Given that at no moment in time was the whole manuscript in the same place, the coherence and sense of direction Solzhenitsyn achieves is remarkable, as is his courage in writing it in the first place.

Over 40 million people died in Stalin’s concentration camps or gulags, more than 6 times the number who died in Hitler’s. While Hitler was concerned with racial purity, Stalin was concerned with ideological purity, which meant interning anyone who didn’t agree with him. This leads inevitably to interning anyone who you think might not agree with you, then to anyone who might have been around someone who might disagree with you, and then to more or less anyone. Solzhenitsyn himself fought for Russia against the Germans in a tank. On returning home after the war, instead of a hero’s welcome he was given 10 years in the gulags for having been too close to Western capitalist ideas (whilst shooting from his tank at the soldiers defending them). His case was typical.

The book is conversational, part documentary and part anecdotal. Although he includes a lot of his own experiences, the book is by no means autobiographical. Solzhenitsyn mixes his own experiences with those of others and by following a thread of discussing first the arrests, then the trials, then the journeys, then the camps and finally release, there is a continual sense of direction throughout the book, and through the unique stories of individual prisoners and camps we gain a feel of the universal experience shared by all the prisoners of the gulags.

First are the arrests. You could be arrested for having a two-storey house when your neighbours all had bungalows, for being the only person in your village to own a cow or other such proofs of your bourgeois and decadent nature. You could be arrested for questioning the state, the economy, or critiquing soviet writers, artists etc. While the people were starving as a result of Stalin’s failing policies, children would get 10 years in the gulags for sneaking into the state-owned corn field and snipping an ear of corn to share with their family. This reminded me of a Red Dwarf episode where the fascist cop wants to shoot the little girl for “Stealing an apple of the people”.

There is one story that a new factory was built and a celebratory banquet was held for everyone involved. After the meal it was announced that there would now be an ovation for Stalin (who was not present). Everyone stood and applauded but realised they were now in a predicament – who wants to be the first person to stop clapping Stalin and risk a charge of anti-state activity? The applause continued awkwardly for five minutes, eight minutes, 10 minutes, before the new factory manager decided that 10 minutes applause was plenty and it was for him to take the lead. He stopped clapping and sat down, to the relief of everyone else present who immediately followed suit. For this revolutionary and anti-Stalinist act, he was arrested and sent to the gulags the same evening. 

Once arrested you would be tortured until you confessed to something (anything, it doesn’t matter what), tortured some more, and then sent to your gulag by train. All train stations had a separate area, away from the public eye, for loading and unloading prisoner carriages, which were then hitched on to the ordinary public trains in full view of the regular passengers, who would be told it was a regular baggage car. Inside, up to 30 prisoners would be crammed into spaces intended for four people. The guards avoided the problem of prisoners needing the toilet by giving them nothing to drink (thirst was also used as a torture method in interrogations). On the rare occasions the prisoners could get a little water, to avoid spreading illness the healthy drank first, then those with tuberculosis, and lastly those with syphilis.

Mixed in with every group of ‘political’ prisoners were professional thieves, who had no morality and would have spent much of their lives in jail anyway. With these people perfectly prepared to steal from or sacrifice their fellow prisoners to get an advantage (their motto was ‘you today, me tomorrow’, meaning if I can get you killed today, that will delay it happening to me for today at least). Many prisoners also agreed to spy on the others, meaning there was at least one ‘stool pigeon’ in every group and nothing could be said in confidence. Once such a race to the bottom starts, you have a choice of either joining in the dog-eat-dog survival culture or being exploited by someone who is prepared to sink to levels you will not. As Solzhenitsyn puts it, you can keep either your integrity or your life.

One of the most sinister sections is about what becomes of children in the camps. Children will copy adults, the ones they consider to be most successful becoming idols and role models. The most successful and powerful adults in the camp were the ones with the least morality, the ones who were prepared to inflict further suffering on their fellow prisoners to get an advantage. The children turned feral and became feared among the other prisoners. Children ambush elderly and frail prisoners for their rations, beat them and leave them in the snow. In another story, 40 boys lure the camp nurse into their cell by telling her someone was sick, and then gang rape her. As the guards couldn’t shoot the children (who had barricaded the door), they had to wait until they were all finished with her and decided to let her go of their own accord.

Solzhenitsyn is philosophical about the effects of the gulags on their prisoners, saying that for all the horrors of it, this kind of ordeal changes you deeply as a person, making you deeper and more sympathetic and forgiving both to yourself and to your fellow people. Small acts of kindness and friendship become all the more pure and inspiring given the setting. 

Having spent years bearing up to inhuman pressure to stay alive in the gulags, many prisoners on their release would become ill, or even feel heartbroken at leaving the place that gave their life meaning, unable to deal with the sudden ease of life, and all the physical effects of their imprisonment catching up with them at once.

Even this abridged edition is 600 pages long and there is no way the few little parts I’ve chosen to mention can ever do justice to such a titanic and horrifying work. It deserves to be read and is required reading in Russian schools under Putin. Despite its length the style is conversational and the sheer horror and disbelief you experience whilst reading keeps you engaged and turning pages. The Gulag Archipelago was written for people with a reasonable understanding of Russian culture and recent history, so if like me these aren’t areas you are familiar with you will probably find yourself reaching for Google quite often, and your understanding of the book will be all the better for it.