The Gulag Archipelago (A review and a reflection)

“Unlimited power in the hands of limited people always leads to cruelty.”

― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


Where do I even start with this book? First, I will say that I’ll try not to ramble on too long about it and I will try not to provide too many spoilers. I’m not entirely convinced that you can even have spoilers in a non fiction historical book but I guess this is your warning. There will be some spoilers.

This book was recommended to me last summer by an old family friend after he had learned of my stint in Estonia and my interest in learning more about what life may have been like on the other side of the iron curtain. I know the gist of it but I am by no means an expert.

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn was born in 1918 and fought in the Red Army in WWII. He was arrested for criticizing Stalin in a private letter and sentenced to 8 years in a labour camp and then internal exile. He was an author, historian and philosopher.

This book is an account of his time and the time of his fellow prisoners in these labour camps in the Gulag. And I must admit, this was a hard read. It seemed like every chapter that I read through would have me gritting my teeth and my stomach in knots.

For those that don’t know, the a gulag was a forced hard labour camp that Lenin had originally set up for prisoners but they really kicked in to gear under Joseph Stalin. This is where millions of Russian citizens and political prisoners. You could be sent there for any reason (whim). There was a story that is recounted in the book about the Red army taking Tallinn in 1941. They rounded up some older intellectuals who imagined how they might free themselves from the occupiers; and charged them under Article 58-2 with the criminal desire for self-determination. They were sent to the Moscow Lubyanka. Imagine, being arrested for dreaming of such a thing.

One thing I also learned from this book is that the western nations, after WWII, in all of our ignorance, were sending Russian nationals back to the USSR. We figured that well they are Russian so they must be communist. These nationals that where sent back to the USSR where immediately arrested and sent to these labour camps. Why? They have seen what it’s like to live in a free, western, capitalist society.

Aleksandr’s account of this time spent in these prisons is chilling. There were such things that were brought about that were outlawed even in many Tsarist periods. There was wide spread torture during interrogations, prisoners were transported in the dead of winter in unheated cattle cars, fed what could barely be considered food (if they were fed at all) and generally reduced from a human being to something that would barely pass for an animal.

This book is beautifully written and it flows very well. He has a way with words that makes you feel as though you yourself, actually may have known these poor souls. He manages to make you feel as though you are there in the cell, in the cattle cars, marching through the dead of winter, and cutting down trees in a logging camp beside them as well.

“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. 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, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. 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…

Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions. This cannot be denied, nor passed over, nor suppressed. How, then, do we dare insist that evildoers do not exist? And who was it that destroyed these millions? Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago.

There was a rumor going the rounds between 1918 and 1920 that the Petrograd Cheka, headed by Uritsky, and the Odessa Cheka, headed by Deich, did not shoot all those condemned to death but fed some of them alive to the animals in the city zoos. I do not know whether this is truth or calumny, or, if there were any such cases, how many were there. But I wouldn’t set out to look for proof, either. Following the practice of the bluecaps, I would propose that they prove to us that this was impossible. How else could they get food for the zoos in those famine years? Take it away from the working class? Those enemies were going to die anyway, so why couldn’t their deaths support the zoo economy of the Republic and thereby assist our march into the future? Wasn’t it expedient?

That is the precise line the Shakespearean evildoer could not cross. But the evildoer with ideology does cross it, and his eyes remain dry and clear.” ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956

Now for the reflection…

There are so many moments in this book that made me sit back and have to think for a while, but this one in particular stood out to me. It follows along the same lines as another quote that I can remember that goes: “As soon as you dehumanize someone it allows you to do terrible things to them”.

Now, ideology is not the sole cause of someone being dehumanized, but it is something that very much lends a helping hand to a lot of it. We are also not immune from this here in North America either. Any belief to the extreme is dangerous. You can see this happening in the US and also to a lesser degree here in Canada. Ideology is not just fascism or communism either. Nationalism, like what we are seeing whispers of here is dangerous too. It allows us to see other people from other cultures or beliefs as less than us. Once that happens it allows us to think it’s okay to say, shoot them based on their skin color or religion in his place of worship, or drive through a crowd of peaceful protesters.

Looking at current events as well, we really are truly lucky here. Even with a country that is reasonably shut down, the worst thing most of us have to worry about right now is whether or not we will run out of Doritos by the end of the week. Yes I know there are exceptions to this. But most of us, are in fact pretty well off all things considered.

We’ve had the opportunity to grow up in a free, and stable country. There has been personal turmoil in all of our lives however our country has, for the most part, continued to chug forward. I am allowed to go where I please, work where I please, speak to who I please as well as say what I please. I have a home and freedoms that most people around the world, even today can only dream of. It’s really not that much of a mystery as to why someone would try to make this country their home.

Still with me? That ran on a lot longer than anticipated but it usually does with a good book like this. This is one of those books that I really, really wish I could have shared with my dad to be honest. It left me feeling very raw and venerable in a lot of ways. Throughout every chapter I found myself wishing I could share this book with him. But I guess internet strangers will have to be a substitute.

It is available on Amazon if you want to pick up a copy for yourself here.

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