The Gulag Archipelago
Review by Hieromonk Seraphim
by Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn; in 3 volumes; Harper & Row, 1974, 1973 and 1978;
The discovery of one manuscript of this book in 1973 by the Soviet Secret Police, and its subsequent publication abroad by the author, were the immediate causes of the expulsion of Solzhenitsyn from the Soviet Union the following year. The subject of the book is the Soviet slave-labor system from 1918 to 1936 (the system, of course continues to exist today), based on the author's own 11- year experience of it as well as on information carefully recorded from others who have lived through it. "Gulag" is an acronym for "Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps," which is in charge of most of this system, and it is conceived by the author as an "archipelago'' or series of "islands" (camps, prisons, detention centers, etc) which are spread through the whole of the Russian land like a country within a country. Basically there is nothing new here for any- one who is familiar with the literature on this subject in the free world. The distinction of The Gulag Archipelago is to have presented for the first time the whole panorama and history of this phenomenon, complete with many actual names, dates, and places-and with such literary skill that it is brought to life before the reader in all its hideous reality. Although it is strictly "non-fiction," it is perhaps the most powerful literary work of the 20th century; but even more than this, the book is a major spiritual document of our times.
No human being can read this book without being shocked. But this is no ordinary expose of "man's inhumanity to man." It is not merely the story of one nation's tragedy. It is not an account of some monstrous "accident" of history, of the "mistakes of the past." Solzhenitsyn writes: "Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions" (Vol.1, p.174).
But what monstrous ideology can be responsible for such an historical "experiment" as the Soviet slave-labor system, the likes of which has not been seen in all the world1s history of terrorism?
One of the 19th-century thinkers most in tune with the spirit of modern times, Friedrich Nietzche, proclaimed himself the prophet of Nihilism, which he defined as the belief that "God is dead," that "there is no truth; the highest values are losing their value. There is no goal. There is no answer to the question: 'why?"' And he accurately described the consequences of this belief: "We have killed God, you and I! We are all His murderers! Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to create gods, merely to seem worthy of it?" And again: "If there is no truth, everything is permitted." He declared:
"What I am describing is the history of the 20th century, the triumph of Nihilism."This is the "ideology" of 2Oth-centurv man, the self-made god, and The Gulag Archipelago is the history of this 'triumph of Nihilism' by one who has lived through it. Given the spiritual state of the contemporary world, it is inevitable that a Soviet-type Nihilism sooner or later will swallow up the whole world; where is there a power to oppose it?...
Anyone who is aware of what is happening spiritually in the free world today, and reads this book with an open mind and heart, will find that it is not merely a description of something that has happened and is happening far away and to others. Solzhenitsyn himself, after being banished and finding that his brutally frank revelation of an "internal affair" of the Soviet Union was interfering with the progress of "world peace," and in particular with the "detente" between the USSR and the USA, has written in a letter to a German newspaper:
“The suppression of those who think differently in the Soviet Union is not an ‘internal affair’ of the Soviet Union, and it is not simply a far-away manifestation of cruelty against which noble sensitive souls protest in the West. The unhindered suppression of those who think differently in Eastern Europe creates a deadly, real threat to peace everywhere, prepares the possibility of a new world war much more surely than trade pushes this possibility away… Today they are crunching our bones – this is a sure pledge that tomorrow they will be crunching yours.”
The first volume gives a complete description of the preliminaries to the concentration camps themselves, from arrest and interrogation and sentencing to transit prisons and “slave caravans” (by cattle car and worse means of transportation). Volume Two examines the camps and the human beings who inhabit them (political prisoners, the “religious”, simple thieves, jailors, guards and hangers-on), with special chapters on children’s camps, “amusements” in the camps, the fate of women there, and the like. The final volume describes the phenomenon of exile (usually added to the end of a camp term) and tells something of the stirring of freedom which infected the camps after Stalin’s death, and has not died yet – a secret which, as Solzhenitsyn says, “is kept by the Soviet regime even more zealously than that of the torments and annihilation it inflicted upon millions of its victims.”
No civilized man in the West can afford not to read at least part of this great work on life in the 20th century. It has already achieved, in fact, a certain fame in the free world. But how many can dare to look for long at the stark and bitter reality it describes? The free and easy life of the West is more conducive to sleep than to awareness… until the time comes when we too must face something like Gulag. Solzhenitsyn has told us in advance.