The Gulag Archipelago

The Gulag Archipelago

"The Gulag Archipelago" ( _ru. Архипелаг ГУЛАГ) is a book by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn based on the Soviet forced labor and concentration camp system. The three-volume book is a massive narrative relying on eyewitness testimony and primary research material, as well as the author's own experiences as a prisoner in a Gulag labor camp. Written between 1958 and 1968 (dates given at the end of the book) it was published in the West in 1973, thereafter circulating in samizdat (underground publication) form in the Soviet Union until its official publication in 1989.

"GULag" is an acronym for the Russian term "Gulág", "G"lavnoye "U"pravleniye ispravitelno-trudovyh "Lag"erey, Russian for "Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps" ("Главное Управление Исправительно Трудовых Лагерей"), the bureaucratic name of the Soviet concentration camp main governing board, and by metonymy, the camp system itself. The original Russian title of the book is "Arkhipelag GULag", the rhyme supporting the underlying metaphor deployed throughout the work. The word archipelago compares the system of labor camps spread across the Soviet Union with a vast "chain of islands", known only to those who were fated to visit them.

Structure and factual basis

Structurally, the text is made up of seven sections divided (in most printed editions) into three volumes: parts 1-2, parts 3-4, and parts 5-7. At one level, the "Gulag Archipelago" traces the history of the Soviet concentration camp and forced labour system from 1918 to 1956, starting with V.I. Lenin's original decrees shortly after the October Revolution establishing the legal and practical frame for a slave labor economy, and a punitive concentration camp system. It describes and discusses the waves of purges, assembling the show trials in context of the development of the greater GULag system with particular attention to the legal and bureaucratic development.

The legal and historical narrative ends in 1956, the time of Nikita Khrushchev's Secret Speech at the 20th Party Congress of 1956 denouncing Stalin's personality cult, his autocratic power, and the surveillance that pervaded the Stalin era. Though the speech was not published in the USSR for a long time, it was a break with the most atrocious practices of the concentration camp system; Solzhenitsyn was aware, however, that the outlines of the GULag system had survived and could be revived and expanded by future leaders.

Despite the efforts by Solzhenitsyn and others to confront this shameful Soviet system, the realities of the camps remained taboo into the 1980s. While Khrushchev, the Communist Party, and the Soviet Union's supporters in the West viewed the GULag as a deviation of Stalin, Solzhenitsyn and the opposition tended to view it as a systemic fault of Soviet political culture — an inevitable outcome of the Bolshevik political project. This view, politically unpopular inside and outside the USSR during the Cold War, because it ascribed to Lenin the theoretical and practical origins of the concentration camp system, has become the prevalent view of informed writers and scholars since the USSR's demise.

Parallel to this historical and legal narrative, Solzhenitsyn follows the typical course of a "zek" (political prisoner) through the concentration camp system, starting with arrest, show trial and initial internment; transport to the "archipelago"; treatment of prisoners and general living conditions; slave labor gangs and the technical prison camp system (where Andrei Sakharov and his team of prisoner-scientists developed the hydrogen bomb, among other Soviet scientific breakthroughs); camp rebellions and strikes (see Kengir uprising); the practice of internal exile following completion of the original prison sentence; and ultimate (but not guaranteed) release of the prisoner. Along the way, Solzhenitsyn's examination details the trivial and commonplace events of an average "zek"'s life, as well as specific and noteworthy events during the history of the Gulag system, including revolts and uprisings.

Aside from using his experiences as a "zek" at a scientific prison (a "sharashka"), the basis of the novel "The First Circle" (1968), Solzhenitsyn draws from the testimony of 227 fellow "zek"s, the first-hand accounts which base the work. One chapter of the third volume of the book is written by a prisoner named Georgi Tenno, whose exploits enraptured Solzhenitsyn to the extent that he offered Tenno a position as co-author of the book; Tenno declined.

The sheer volume of firsthand testimony and primary documentation that Solzhenitsyn managed to assemble in "The Gulag Archipelago" made all subsequent Soviet and KGB attempts to discredit the work useless. Much of the impact of the treatise stems from the closely detailed stories of interrogation routines, prison indignities and (especially in section 3) camp massacres and inhuman practices.

There had been works about the Soviet prison/camp system before, and its existence was known to the Western public since the 1930s. However, never before had the wide reading public been brought face to face with the horrors of the Soviet system in this way. The controversy surrounding this text in particular was largely due to the way Solzhenitsyn definitively and painstakingly laid the theoretical, legal and practical origins of the GULag system at Lenin's feet, not Stalin's. According to Solzhenitsyn's testimony, Stalin merely amplified a concentration camp system that was already in place. This is significant, as many Western Communist or Socialist parties in the seventies tended to view the Soviet concentration camp system as a "Stalinist aberration", rather than as an intrinsic component of the Soviet system. [cite book| last= Thomas |first = Donald Michael | authorlink = D. M. Thomas|title = Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: A Century in his Life| publisher = Abacus|year = 1998|location = London|pages = 439|url =| ]

Historical impact of the text

Solzhenitsyn argued that the Soviet government in fact could not govern without the very real threat of imprisonment, and that the Soviet economy depended on the productivity of the forced labor camps, especially insofar as the development and construction of public works and infrastructure were concerned.

This put into doubt the entire moral standing of the Soviet system. In Western Europe the book came, in time, to force a rethinking of the historical role of Lenin. With "The Gulag Archipelago", Lenin's political and historical legacy became problematic, and the fractions of Western communist parties who still based their economic and political ideology on Lenin were left with a heavy burden of proof against them. George F. Kennan, perhaps the most influential of U.S. diplomats, called "The Gulag Archipelago", "the most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be levied in modern times." [ [ "Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Speaking truth to power"] , "The Economist", 7 August 2008]

In an Interview with German weekly Die Zeit British historican Orlando Figes claims that many Gulag inmates he interviewed for his research identified so strongly with the book's contents that they became unable to distinguish between their own experiences and what they read. Thus, he clames "The Gulag Archipelago" spoke for a whole nation was the voice of all those who suffered". [Held des Westens, Die Zeit, 7 August 2008]

Additional remarks

Though the scope of the text ends in 1956, the last prisoners sentenced according to the political paragraphs of the criminal code were quietly released in 1989. The exact number of Soviet citizens who went through the camp system will never be known, especially as key documentation was deliberately destroyed as the USSR was collapsing. Figures apparently compiled by the Gulag administration itself, and released by Soviet historians in 1989, show that a total of 10 million people were sent to the camps in the period from 1934 to 1947. The true figures remain unknown. Western estimates of the total number of deaths in the Gulag in the period from 1918 to 1956 range from 15 to 30 million. [Gulag. (2008). Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica 2007 Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica.]

One of the noteworthy elements of Solzhenitsyn's analysis are the seemingly outlandish claims of Soviet brutality, which subsequently turned out to be true - or which in some cases turned out to be more outrageous than Solzhenitsyn had originally stated. For instance, Solzhenitsyn claimed that the Gulag system was so voracious that between 1930 and 1939, a quarter of the population of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) was shipped to the Gulag. Post-Soviet scholarship has confirmed that the figure was even higher. [ [ The Great Terror in Leningrad: A Quantitative Analysis] ] This one, seemingly unbelievable event, was reported by Solzhenitsyn in "The Gulag Archipelago", to skepticism in the West. The collapse of the USSR and subsequent availability of heretofore secret documents (including the secret 1937 Soviet census, which was suppressed because it reflected the negative impact of the Gulag system on the population) have confirmed that Solzhenitsyn's claims and estimates were either true, or even understated.

One of the surprising and noteworthy elements is the powerful humor Solzhenitsyn employs throughout the text. It is one of the reasons the book has remained so popular. Rather than a grim rendering of crimes and atrocities, "The Gulag Archipelago" is often sarcastic and ironic, quite possibly the darkest gallows humor ever written. Precisely because of this dark humor, the prose often turns human and profoundly moving without ever falling into sentimentality or self-pity.

The work is also a powerful testament to Solzhenitsyn's multi-layered, rhythmic and precise prose art. In interviews he has often stated his wish to use all the resources of the language, old and new, proverbs, prison slang, legal style and poetic images; this variety is masterfully used in "The Gulag Archipelago," and carries over even in translation.


The KGB seized one of only three extant copies of the text still on Soviet soil - this was achieved by torturing a dissident Elizaveta Voronyanskaya, Solzhenitsyn's typist [ [ Solzhenitsyn, Literary Giant Who Defied Soviets Dies at 89] ] who knew where the typed copy was hidden; within days after she was released by the KGB, she hanged herself on 3 August 1973. [Thomas, 1998, p. 398.]

The English and the French translations of the Volume I appeared in the spring and summer of 1974. Solzhenitsyn had been in touch with them about the upcoming publication, which he knew he could not put off much longer, but the final decision was taken by the YMCA Press themselves with the author's implicit approval (two years previously, they had published "August 1914").

Solzhenitsyn had wanted the manuscript to be published in Russia first, but he knew this was impossible under conditions then extant. The international impact of the work was profound; not only did it provoke a very vivid debate in the West, a mere six weeks after the work had left Parisian presses Solzhenitsyn himself was forced into exile.

Because the Gulag might obviously render anyone who came into contact with it a long prison sentence for 'anti-Soviet activities', Solzhenitsyn never worked on the manuscript in complete form. Due to the KGB's constant surveillance of him, Solzhenitsyn only worked on parts of the manuscript at any one time, so as not to put the book as a whole into jeopardy if he happened to be arrested. For this reason, he secreted the various parts of the work throughout Moscow and the surrounding suburbs, in the care of trusted friends, and sometimes purportedly visiting them on social calls, but actually working on the manuscript in their homes. During much of this time, Solzhenitsyn lived at the dacha of the world-famous cellist Rostropovich, and due to the reputation and standing of the musician, even with Soviet authorities, he was reasonably safe from KGB searches there.

Solzhenitsyn did not think this series would be his defining work, as he considered it journalism and history rather than high literature (the distance between those two poles is shorter, anyway, in Russian tradition than in many Western European literatures, although an analogy might be drawn between Russian and French-Enlightened publishing traditions by public intellectuals). However, with the possible exception of "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich", it is his best-known and most popular work, at least in the West.

Finished in 1968, "The Gulag Archipelago" was microfilmed and smuggled out to Solzhenitsyn's main legal representative, Dr Kurt Heeb of Zürich, to await publication (a later paper copy, also smuggled out, was signed by Heinrich Böll at the foot of each page to prove against possible accusations of a falsified work).

Solzhenitsyn was aware that there was a wealth of material and perspectives that merited to be continued in the future, but he considered the book finished for his part. The royalties and sales income for the novel were transferred to the Solzhenitsyn Foundation for aid to former camp prisoners, and this fund, which had to work in secret in its native country, managed to transfer substantial amounts of money to those ends in the 1970s and 1980s.

In the winter of 1974, unbound and mimeographed samizdat copies of "The Gulag Archipelago" began being surreptitiously passed between Soviet citizens. These initial readers were normally given 24 hours to finish the work before passing it on to the next person, requiring the reader to spend an uninterrupted day and night to get through the work. Years later, this initial generation of Soviet readers could still recall who had given them their copy, to whom they had passed it on, and who they had trusted enough to discuss their thoughts about the book. [ [ "Stronger Than the Gulag"] by Anne Applebaum, "The Washington Post", August 5, 2008]

ee also

*"The Black Book of Communism"
*Julius Margolin
*Anne Applebaum


External links

* "The Gulag Archipelago" in original Russian, [ parts 1 and 2] , [ parts 3 and 4] , and [ parts 5, 6, and 7] .
* [ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: "Saving the Nation Is the Utmost Priority for the State"] "Moscow News" (2006-05-02)

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