The Gulag Archipelago
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn
1974-78

Published in the west beginning in 1974, Solzhenitsyn’s massive discussion of forced labour in the USSR was widely circulated underground in that country until 1989, and is now part of Russia’s standard high school curriculum. The Gulag – an acronym for Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps – was a network of forced labour facilities most notable for its punitive use against political prisoners and critics of the state, which was largely downplayed if not outright denied in the Soviet bloc and came to represent to critical socialists the very worst of Stalinist totalitarianism and to pro-Western advocates the natural outcome of the socialist project. Solzhenitsyn described a vast penal apparatus that functioned both politically and economically – to isolate ‘anti-social’ and anti-state elements while serving as quiet deterrent to the general population and provide a massive pool of effectively-slave labour for the construction of infrastructure and public works.

The Gulag Archipelago traces the development and increased bureaucratization of the Soviet labour camp from its origins in the immediate aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution through its official establishment in 1930 to Nikita Kruschev’s acknowledgement of Stalin’s police state in 1956 and the dissolution of the Gulag a few years later. For him, the system was not a Stalinist aberration, but a logical consequence of Leninism, pervasive and ever-threatening-re-emergence so long as the Communist Party State remained intact. The book’s three volumes cover history, political theory, sociological analysis and narrative, and became instrumental in ramping up the political discourse of the Cold War in the 1980s. Solzhenitsyn became the darling of the west – a reknowned writer, whose books had actually been taught in Soviet schools during the brief thaw of the Kruschev era; a former inmate of the Gulag himself; an exile. Expelled from the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s, he campaigned tirelessly for the United States and its allies to pursue an aggressive anti-Soviet strategy and had the intellectual and rhetorical chops to shape popular western conceptions of the socialist state. Where this led and the wider political implications of the picture he painted were not so clear – no one doubted the truth of what he described, the very real and very brutal conditions of the camps. But as he found an eager ear in Ronald Reagan and the anti-Russian rhetoric ramped up through the 80s, some began to wonder whether Solzhenitsyn’s fondness for Russian nationalists and his appeals to traditional orthodox values might pose their own significant political risks – indeed, in the post-Soviet era he answered the difficult transition to something called democracy not with calls for greater decentralization or direct popular governance, but with a yearning instead for restoration of the Russian monarchy.

Still, there is no question about the importance of Solshenitsyn as writer, as political activist, as the intellectual and literary voice of the struggle against Stalinism. And The Gulag Archipelago so captured the experience and trauma of a people that later research showed former Gulag inmates had difficulty at times distinguishing their own lived experiences and those described in the book – precisely because it so profoundly captured the emotional and psychological impact of the prison camp system. “The most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be levied in modern times,” it has been called; a book that “spoke for a whole nation and was the voice of all those who suffered.” The Gulag… is tough reading, dense and difficult and taxing on the soul. But so, so significant, politically, psychologically. It’s not Solzhenitsyn’s best work by any literary standard – his Nobel Prize was earned before this came out, on the basis of Cancer Ward and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, among others. But it’s certainly his most important in real-world impact.

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