Book Review: The Gulag Archipelago

Have you ever had someone tell you that Vladimir Lenin was a pretty decent fellow and that the great Soviet experiment had gone fairly well until Stalin took over the reins. The best antidote to this dangerous misconception is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago 1918 – 1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation. In this three volume work, Solzhenitsyn tells the story of the Soviet prison camps from their beginnings under Lenin, their heydays under Stalin, and their continuation under Krushchev. In addition to his own experiences as a former Gulag inmate, The Gulag Archipelago is based on hundreds of testimonies of former inmates and tells the harrowing story of their arrest, interrogation, transportation, prison life, and release into exile.

The Universe has as many centers as there are living beings in it. Each of us is a center of the Universe, and that Universe is shattered when they hiss at you: “You are under arrest.”

When people get arrested by “the organs”, they usually think that some sort of mistake has been made. After all, they are innocent, so surely someone down the line will notice the error and correct it. What they fail to understand is that, as Solzhenitsyn explains, being arrested need not have anything to do with guilt. The organs care nothing about punishing the guilty or sparing the innocent, they simply have to meet a quota. And if they haven’t been able to arrest enough people, they seize on any opportunity and any pretense to arrest someone, anyone. Solzhenitsyn tells the story of a woman who came to the authorities to inquire what was to be done about the hungry infant of her neighbour after the neighbour had been arrested. This woman, whose only crime was showing some human decency and concern for the suffering of an innocent child, was promptly arrested. After all, the quota had to be fulfilled, so why go out to look for someone to arrest when this woman was right there?

After someone has been arrested, they are manipulated, pressured, and tortured into confessing their crimes, real or imagined. And ideally to implicate some friends or other relatives (those quotas need to be filled somehow). Solzhenitsyn describes a great variety of methods used in interrogation. What is both fascinating and horrifying is how creative the organs are in their torture. Even though simple beatings might easily do the job, they came up with a whole array of unorthodox and ingenious ways of breaking a prisoner. Evidently they were making a kind of sadistic game out of the whole process.

After a detailed discussion of the history of criminal law tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, Solthenitsyn turns to the process of transporting prisoners to the various prison camps. Since Russia is such a vast country, the distances which need to be covered are immense. The trainride typically takes several days and all this time the prisoners are locked up in tiny compartments: it is not unusual to have as many as 22 prisoners crammed into a compartment which, under normal circumstances, feels quite crowded with just four people sitting in it. Often they aren’t even given anything to drink during lengthy journey. Solzhenitsyn sarcastically adopts an understanding tone to explain:

And, of course, it is not for the purpose of intentionally torturing the prisoner that (…) he is given neither hot water (and he never gets that here in any case) nor even plain, unboiled water. One has to understand the situation: The convoy staff is limited; some of them have to be on watch in the corridor; (…) And the third shift is sleeping. They insist on their full eight hours – for, after all, the war is over. And then, to go carry water in pails – it has to be hauled a long way, too, and it’s insulting: why should a Soviet soldier carry water like a donkey for the enemies of the people? (…)

But the convoy could have borne with all that, hauled the water and doled it out, if only those pigs, after slurping up the water, didn’t ask to go to the toilet. So here’s the way it all works out: if you don’t give them water for the day, then they don’t ask to go to the toilet. Give them water once, and the go to the toilet once; take pity on them and give them water twice – and they just go to the toilet twice. So it’s pure and simple common sense: just don’t give them anything to drink.

After all, the guards are already working hard enough. Expecting them to guard the prisoners twice a day while they line up in a long procession to use one little toilet is really asking too much.

And in spite of that, you still couldn’t make [the prisoners] happy. In spite of that, some old sandpiper or other would begin to cry half an hour later and ask to go to the toilet, and, of course, he wouldn’t be allowed to go, and then he would soil himself right there in the compartment, and once again that meant trouble for the private first class: the prisoner had to be forced to pick it up in his hands and carry it away.

Naturally, conditions didn’t exactly improve once the prisoners had arrived at their destination. In the camps, prisoners were forced to work such long hours that they frequently didn’t even have enough time to sleep. The pitiful food rations might have been barely sufficient for people living a sedentery life, but were totally inadequate for people who spent all day doing hard physical labour. In the harsh Siberian winter, they often had to make do with thin, threadbare jackets.

The death-toll was enormous, but that was all right with the Soviet officials. After all, what does it matter if some enemies of the people and some common criminals die? What does matter is getting all you can from their labour power. As Naftaly Frenkel, one of the chief architects of the Gulag system put it: “We have to squeeze everything out of a prisoner in the first three months – after that we don’t need him any more.” The goal was not to reform prisoner, but merely to exploit them as slave labour. And in the process, they were far crueller than any supposed capitalist exploiter, or even the slavemasters of old. An ordinary slavemaster would at least treat his slaves well enough to preserve their capital value for many years, but the Gulag system had no such compunctions.

What makes this all the more tragic is that the Gulag system never managed to operate cost-effectively. Although many projects and products we accomplished with this great force of slave labourers, the costs of transporting, guarding, supervising, housing, and feeding the prisoners greatly exceeded the value of what they produced. It would have been cheaper – and perhaps less inhumane – to just put a bullet through the heads of those suspected of ideological dissension.

The Gulag Archipelago is not a fun book. Reading it is a tour de force of the ugliest aspects of human society. At the same time, it is a compelling read and I found myself driven to read on, both by Solzhenitsyn lively prose (he didn’t win a Nobel Prize in Literature for nothing) and the weight of the subject matter. Unlike when Solzhenitsyn was writing, the Gulag system no longer exists today, but that doesn’t mean that something like it – or something even worse – can’t arise in the future. The Gulag Archipelago is not just a document about the past, it is also a warning to the future. And if keeping alive the memory of this book makes the return of a Gulag-like system even slightly less likely, reading The Gulag Archipelago will have been worth it.

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