Book Review: The Gulag Archipelago by Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

His scream is a vivisectionist’s scalpel, and the bloated, poisonous trunk of the Soviet state is his living subject.

The magnitude of the part played by The Gulag Archipelago in the unfolding of twentieth century is already well known, and I cannot add to the sense of that greatness here. It is well acknowledged as being one the axe blows that felled the mighty tyranny of the USSR. It has been on my TBR pile for some time, and the release of the recent abridged version, complete with new foreword by psychologist Jordan Peterson, seemed like a good time to dive into it.

The Archipelago of Soviet gulags (forced labour camps) was so-called by Solzhenitsyn because the hundreds of gulags that punctuated the huge country were like islands, essentially cut off from the “mainland” from the rest of the state, invisible and unseen. Solzhenitsyn himself writes from experience: he was sentenced under the monstrous catch-all Article 58 to a tenner (ten-year sentence) after battling on the western front for the Red Army in World War II, ostensibly for criticising Stalin in private letters (though of the concept of such a thing as “privacy” had all but evaporated by that point in Soviet Russia).

The Gulag Archipelago is taught in its entirety on the syllabus at Russian schools, despite it being a 2100-page roar of pain, frustration and horror at a life completely devoid of individual thought and expression, at the behest of the state. To study that requires a substantial degree of self-awareness, especially given that in today’s Russia there is some sense of a tentative nostalgia for Stalinism (this is interesting in itself and hints at a psychological truth that exists at an individual level but also at an extremely high level; that of the state itself, when faced with the difficulty of picking up the pieces after some sort of trauma: the chaos is so great that the trauma may actually seem favourable to re-establishing some sense of healthy order. But I digress).

So, onto the book itself. The book charts the lifecycle of a typical prisoner who happens to be sucked up, minced up and squeezed through the hellish digestive tract of the prison archipelago, from the crunching of jackboots on floorboards in the night that was the soundtrack to one’s arrest, through one’s dispossession, then violent and torturous (yet sometimes ghoulishly imaginative) interrogation, transportation like cattle to the camp, work (usually of the interminably pointless variety), immurement, degradation, humiliation, and ultimately either death (either from exhaustion, exposure (workers were forced to undertake exhausting physical tasks – such as logging – in Siberian winters with no thermal clothing), starvation, a bullet in the back of the head, disease (scurvy, dysentery, cancers and a myriad other diseases were common), or simply walking into an open grave (which the prisoners would have dug themselves of course) as this was easier for the prison guards than moving corpses. Those who made it to the end of their sentences are shown to be vomited out into a cautious freedom that is anything but free. The book also catalogues uprisings and strikes which sometimes start with surprising victories for the prisoners but usually end in the most appalling violence.

As such, the book could have easily become merely a journal of grot and despair, a grim catalogue of the limitless and ingenious methods human beings can devise in order to humiliate and torture their fellow citizens, but Solzhenitsyn’s indignant rage and disbelieving terror is not deployed in a scattergun approach; his scream is a vivisectionist’s scalpel, and the bloated, poisonous trunk of the Soviet state is his living subject; he cuts away at the rancid fat enveloping its rotten work, and targets the very cancerous heart of the state. The book is clear from the outset that the obscenities committed in the second quarter of the twentieth century cannot be laid solely at the door of the butcher, Uncle Joe. They were directly enabled by Lenin himself and were an unavoidable consequence of Bolshevik revolution. Witness this press clipping from The Red Terror in 1918:

We are not fighting against single individuals. We are exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class. Do not look in materials you have gathered for evidence that a suspect acted or spoke against the Soviet authorities. The first question you should ask him is what class he belongs to, what is his origin, education, profession. These questions should determine his fate. This is the essence of the Red Terror.”

This was not written by some no-name pamphleteer activist, but by Latsis, the chairman of the Red Army Cheka! In any case, in one of the unending examples that prove that loyalty to Marxism does in no way protect you from its own fangs, Latsis was shot in 1938 after allegations of counter-revolutionary activity. Solzhenitsyn devotes a chapter to the particular sufferings of devout Communists who are nonetheless arrested and shipped off to the gulag, all the while spouting the same, predictable, dreary platitudes about being on the right side. It does not avail them, and they are left in a unique type of hell, a forlorn pit of cognitive dissonance that is filled with the stench of the lie that has infected every aspect of their life. Those political prisoners who are not Communists find the burden of slavery that much easier to bear, for they possess the light of knowledge of the truth, and are freed from the yoke of the lie.

The chapters on arrest and interrogation make it clear that any faults (bad harvests, engineering failures, etc etc) had to be shouldered by the individual, who became the fall guy for the state, which was immune to critique or fault. At the same time, Solzhenitsyn is clear to state that this is an accurate presupposition to make in one sense; evil cannot be committed without the willing participation of normal men and women. That apocryphal line of Burke’s about evil only triumphing if good men do nothing seems amusingly quaint in the face of Solzhenitsyn’s more experienced proposition: we are all evil, and we are all good; the capacity for extremes in both phenomena are hardwired into us, and how those things manifest in the world is down to the action of the individual.

So the reader who expects this book to be a political exposé slam its covers shut right now.

If only its were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere doing evil insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

And so he traces the origins and the justification of the hideous acts committed in the name of the Soviet state not back to Stalin but Lenin, the romanticised hero who soaked up the generous welfare payments of the Tsarist state even as he plotted its demise during his exile.

“To do evil a human being must first believe that what he is doing is good, or else that it’s a well-constructed act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek justification for his actions.

Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped at short of 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, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honours. That is how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills; by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the virtue 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.”

And Lenin believed in the ideology, as devotedly as any holy man’s belief in his God. Bertrand Russel said that Lenin exhibited “unwavering faith – religious faith in the Marxian gospel.” Later, it would be the writings of Lenin himself who would be treated as Scripture within the USSR. As such, events such as the Holodomor, and the Great Purge of 1937-38, the imprisonment of Red Army soldiers who bravely defended the eastern front against the Nazis, are the direct endgame of Leninist philosophy, even though they were Stalin’s policy implementations.

But the book, dark as it is, is not without flickers of the closely guarded lamplight of the human soul. In the very darkest reaches of hell there are signs of spiritual strength – the orthodoxy of Solzhenitsyn and some of his fellow Christians ring throughout the text like bells, their sound sometimes the only aegis available to them, and a surprisingly powerful one. The necessarily atheistic regime of the USSR did not know what to do about believers, as their unshakeable belief in something that transcended the state could neither be rationalised nor dismantled by guards and interrogators. Light is also provided by humour – of the bleakest, blackest gallows type, of course – especially in the uprising section, where the stupidity of the guards is demonstrated through their willingness to believe that the zeks (prisoners) are willing to do extra backbreaking work during their cigarette break (of course, it is a ruse to escape, which is then foiled).

For all its horror it’s surprisingly readable. Solzhenitsyn’s prose is unsentimental, wry, and forthright. As a book it is riveting, as a denunciation it is staggering, and as a historical document it is, in its scope, birthing (the fact that it was published at all is astonishing, but that’s another story) and impact, surely unsurpassed.

Historical document? Yes, of course, but perhaps not solely. It seems that the relevance of this book is no longer framed solely by the twentieth century events that initially contextualised it; the proliferation of increasingly Marxist influence over today’s cultural exchanges in the West means The Gulag Archipelago becomes not merely historical document, but one that is increasingly relevant and – although one hopes to God that this is not the case – prophetic.

And yet, if Marxist thought, be it economic or cultural (and in any case the two are inextricably linked, for economics are driven by the prevailing culture; culture is predicated by older and more archaic value systems than the mere movement of money, which is only a reflection thereof) is on the rise, The Gulag Archipelago becomes more than just a prophecy, but it becomes one of the most important bulwarks that we possess to use against the prevalence of that ideology.

History tells us that when either political wing – right and left – are allowed to (or through brute force) venture too far into pursuing their philosophies with untrammelled ardour then the consequences are catastrophic. When the right sweeps itself into the riptides of extremism we end up with commodified slavery and racially-driven atrocities. When the left propels itself to revolution the consequences are nationalised slavery and class-driven atrocities. And the horror of class-based atrocities is that they are endlessly mutable, sucking different groups of people into the mincer as mood and trends allow. As Latsis found out to his cost, there is no protection – for either individual or group – to be found in Marxism. While this seems obvious in itself, it seems strange that while Marxism-Leninism is fairly well taught and understood in the schooling system, the empirical evidence that amounts to its denunciation are not (which is, incidentally, something that cannot be said about rebuttals and exposés of the wrongdoings of the right). Maybe that’s because after reading The Gulag Archipelago there can be no recourse to Marxism, for this book surely is the most comprehensive, damning, incisive and gut-wrenching deconstruction, evisceration and dismissal of that ideology imaginable.

Published by Dan Jones

I'm a science fiction writer and podcaster. My debut novel Man O’War was published in 2018 by Snowbooks, and I’ve had a few short stories published here and there. I also host Chronscast, the official podcast of SFF Chronicles, the world's largest science-fiction and fantasy community. Away from writing I work for the UK Space Agency on a programme of space robotics for advanced satellite and planetary exploration technologies. All of which comes in rather handy when coming up with new ideas for science fiction stories.

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