A strange title, won’t you say?
And yet – one that shook the world to its very core when it was first published a few days after the Christmas of 1973 in Paris.
And some six weeks before its author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, was exiled from the Soviet Union.
So, you know that it’s one of those books which actually changed the world.
Who Should Read “The Gulag Archipelago”? And Why?
The Soviet authorities did their best to prevent Solzhenitsyn from publishing “The Gulag Archipelago” – even managing to seize one of its three existing copies – but they failed in their attempt, as the book had already been microfilmed and smuggled out of the USSR.
It was published to high acclaim in Paris in the last days of 1973, but it first appeared in Russia only decade and a half later.
Irony isn’t always bitter: in 2009, the book became mandatory reading for Russian children.
In our opinion, it should be mandatory reading for every person in the world in the same way, say, “The Diary of a Young Girl” probably is.
So that it never happens again.
About Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a Russian novelist, short story writer, and historian.
An outspoken critic of communism and the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn published only one book in his home country – “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” in 1962 – but by the end of the decade, he was widely revered as one of the best writers in the world, winning the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1970.
Four years later, after publishing “The Gulag Archipelago,” Solzhenitsyn was exiled from Russia, where he returned in 1994, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
He passed away in 2008.
“The Gulag Archipelago PDF Summary”
In 1970, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize in Literature “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature.”
Today, however, he is mostly remembered as the author of “The Gulag Archipelago,” a gargantuan non-fiction work in three volumes on which he worked for more than a decade and which resulted in his exile from the Soviet Union once it was published in Paris in 1973.
How could it not?
The book – which is extremely difficult to summarize – chronicles the legal and political history of the gulag, i.e., the Soviet forced labor camp system, and is based on his personal experience, the testimony of as many as 256 former prisoners, and all-encompassing research.
Parallel to this general historical account – which, for the first time, pointed the finger of blame for the gulags in the direction of Lenin in addition to the many pointed at Stalin – Solzhenitsyn describes the particular experience of a zek (short for “zakliuchennyi”, a Russian term for “prisoner”), depicting his typical route from the arrest and the show trial to his inhumane treatment and eventual release.
Usually, the torment started in the middle of the night when the future prisoners were at their most disoriented.
Sometimes – such as right before and after the war or during the years of 1929-30 – the government didn’t hold anything back, arresting thousands of people on a daily basis.
For example, during the Great Purge of 1936-8, modern studies estimate that as many as 1,000,000 people lost their lives on suspicion of being saboteurs and counter-revolutionaries.
Of course, many more were arrested and put in the gulags after a brief interrogation based on a presumption of guilt – and it was almost impossible to prove yourself otherwise.
Either way, you were in for a treat!
And these Bluecapse surely knew their business: as if a modern Inquisition, they were capable of subjecting one of at least 31 different (documented) types of serious mental and physical brutalization.
Since even admitting guilt affected their behavior not one bit, it was basically for the sheer fun of it!
Now, “first love” is a phrase you are used to hearing in somewhat more positive contexts, but back in the pre-war Soviet Union, you could hear it uttered by the gulag guards as they introduced the zeks to their first cells.
The zeks really hoped that something would change once the Red Army won the Second World War, but their hope was in vain.
The only thing that changed was the number of prisoners, which suddenly included numerous émigrés and POWs.
And, in a very short time, almost all of Stalin’s numerous real or imagined enemies.
The procedure was the same for everybody: an arrest performed through the use of massive force, a show trial for the people to learn of the guilt of the prisoner, and then either a 25-year sentence or a capital punishment.
In time, the number of capital punishments – which surged during the pre-war Great Purge – is reduced, which means that the number of gulag inmates has steadily risen.
Since some of these are wicked thieves – as opposed to the more intellectually-oriented political prisoners of before – the life in the gulags for many becomes even less bearable than before.
And this leads to some fairly unexpected developments, such as the 1953 Vorkuta and the 1954 Kengir uprising, the latter of which lasted for an unprecedented period of two whole months and resulted in the creation of a mock government and a blooming cultural activity.
Things get better after the death of Stalin and Khrushchev’s secret speech denouncing his cult, but, even so, Solzhenitsyn felt a moral obligation to write this book.
Now we know that it contributed to the fall of the Soviet empire possibly more than any other.
Key Lessons from “The Gulag Archipelago”
1. The Soviets Had Their Own Concentration Camps
2. Ideology Gives Evil the Necessary Determination
3. Evil Is Buried Deep Inside the Human Heart
The Soviets Had Their Own Concentration Camps
You probably know a lot about Nazi concentration camps, but not that much about the gulags operated by the Soviet Union for the four decades between 1918 and 1956.
“The Gulag Archipelago” is the defining book on the subject.
And it boils down to: most gulags were just as bad as Auschwitz.
But, unfortunately, much less known.
Ideology Gives Evil the Necessary Determination
At one famous point in the book, Solzhenitsyn explains why Macbeth and Iago were little lambs compared to Hitler and Stalin.
The former two didn’t have one; whether Nazism or communism, the latter two rooted their evil firmly within it:
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…
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… Without evildoers, there would have been no Archipelago.
Evil Is Buried Deep Inside the Human Heart
However, it’s wrong to say that Hitler and Stalin were evil people and that the rest of us are good.
Things would have been a lot easier that way:
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds,” exclaims Solzhenitsyn, “and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them!
The truth is – the painful truth – that
the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains… an un-uprooted small corner of evil.
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“The Gulag Archipelago Quotes”
Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
“The Gulag Archipelago” is a unique book: it reads as if a great Russian novel, and yet, it’s a memoiristic work of historical analysis, weaving together testimonies and personal experiences, philosophical insights, journalistic investigations, and a lot of heart and poignancy.
An “unrelenting indictment” of communism and Soviet political practice, “The Gulag Archipelago” is certainly one of the most important and most influential books of the 20th century.
Not our favorite Solzhenitsyn book – but a masterpiece, nevertheless.