The Gulag Archipelago: The Book That Shook the Soviet Union and Why You Need to Read It

“Hate begets hate! The black water of hate flows easily and quickly along the horizontal. That was easier than for it to erupt upward through a crater against those who conundrum both the old and the young to a slave’s fate.”

Gulag Archipelago, 3 volumes

It’s hard to talk about such a monumental book. Scratch that: it’s nigh on impossible. A thorough, detailed work drawing on Solzhenitsyn’s own experience and the accounts of 200+ fellow prisoners and Soviet archives, this book revealed the true nature of the Stalin’s tyrannical regime and decimated the claim of communism’s moral superiority.

“like eyes seeing through badly prescribed eyeglasses could in no wise read with exactitude the phrases of the cruel teaching. Not long before, apparently, proclaimed terror- yet it was still impossible to believe!”

Credited with exposing the Stalinist regime, this book stands as an historical landmark. Yet it has also had remarkable implications for political philosophy and literature.

“It was a second Civil War- this time against the peasants. It was indeed the Great Turning Point, or as the phrase had it, the Great Break. Only we are never told what broke.

It was the backbone of Russia.”

One notable aspect I found in the opening chapter, “Arrest”, was the Kafkaesque feel and how remarkably reminiscent it was of The Trial. However, as I continued reading, I soon realised how it proved the prophetic nature of more than one book. Time and time again, as I’ve mentioned on this blog, I found myself reminded of 1984– a book written long before Gulag’s publication in 1973. From descriptions of censorship to the police state (with its informers, spies, and interrogators), the correlation was simply uncanny.

 “Nothing more horrible!” exclaimed Tolstoi. It is, however, very easy to imagine things more horrible. It is more horrible when executions take place not from time to time, and in one particular city of which everybody knows, but everywhere and every day and not twenty but two hundred at a time, with the newspapers saying nothing about it in print big or small, but saying instead that “life has become more cheerful””

More even than this, the book was a cry for freedom from beneath the oppressive heel of the Soviet government. As discussed in the chapter “Our Muzzled Freedom”, the constant fear, servitude, corruption, secrecy and mistrust all played their part in keeping people in line.

“And what the devil is the point of talking about the any kind of struggle? Struggle against whom? Against our own people? Struggle- for what? For personal release? For that you don’t need to struggle, you have to ask according to rules. A struggle for the overthrow of the Soviet Union government? Shut your mouth.”

Yet the truths of the Gulag do not end there. It is, frankly, impossible to read this and not draw parallels with the Communist Manifesto, with other communist regimes or with present day societies like North Korea. Gulag is the actualisation of a far left ideology which breeds on the fury of resentment, facilitates theft, and is fundamentally anti-freedom after all. Crucially, this is the book that dispels the myth that “communism has never really been tried”- here is  documented the outcome of that failed experiment.

 “Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology”

“Ideology that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination.”

And that really was my primary interest in reading it. Not to include a diatribe about my own political journey, but I felt like my education on this subject was severely lacking. There’s this generic phrase toted about when it comes to communism: “it’s a nice idea, but it really doesn’t really work.” No. It’s not a “nice idea”. Not even kind of close.

“To do evil human being must first believe what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek a justification for his actions.”

As this book exemplifies, there’s nothing nice about the deliberate breakdown of the family, with children forced into an endless cycle of camps and accusations (ie relating to the aim in the Communist Manifesto titled  “Abolition of the family”). There’s nothing nice about the “abolition of bourgeois individuality, bourgeois independence, and bourgeois freedom”-  which is a fancy way to say the enslavement of large swathes of the population based on group identity (an identity defined as and when needed). There’s nothing nice about all the power “in the hands of the State” and the consequential torture, secret police, or kangaroo courts that inevitably entails.

“Some children cannot adjust to artificial feeding without their mothers and die. The survivors are sent after a year to a general orphanage. And thus it is that the son of two natives may depart from the Archipelago for the time being though not without hope of returning as a juvenile offender”

Now I will be honest: it’s not an easy book to read. The Peasant Plague chapter, for instance, begins: “This chapter will deal with a small matter. Fifteen million lives”. Gulag is more harrowing than a cry from the depths of an authoritarian regime- it is the echoing silence of people who never had the opportunity to speak.  It’s something you’ll be in for the long haul, it’s graphically harrowing and it’s a hard slog- but it is essential reading if you care about concepts of freedom, democracy, and humanity itself.

“they quite blatantly borrowed from the Nazis the practice which had proved valuable to them- the substitution of a number for the prisoner’s name, his “I”, his human individuality, so that the difference between one and another was a digit more or less in an otherwise identical row of figures.”

Above all, though, you should read it because you can. Returning to the beginning of my journey, one of the first things I wrote in my notes was the story of how this was smuggled into the West, how the author was censored in Russia, and how the preface addresses the fact that names are often left out to protect identities. I am reminded how Solzhenitsyn writes “the very reading and handing on of this book will be very dangerous, so that I am bound to salute future readers”- which is why I now say over to you.

“Is it not more dreadful that we were being told thirty years later “Don’t talk about it!” If we start to recall the sufferings of millions, we are told it will distort the historical perspective! If we doggedly seek out the essence of our morality, we are told it will darken our material progress.”

Naturally, I’m not including a rating or anything like that here, but do let me know if you plan to read it.

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41 thoughts on “The Gulag Archipelago: The Book That Shook the Soviet Union and Why You Need to Read It

  1. sorryless says:

    I’m always interested in reading history, seeing as how too many people wish to reconfigure it for the purposes of comfort and a re-directed narrative. This is dangerous, and it’s why books like this need to be read. No matter where you live in the world, you need to understand atrocities such as this so that we can learn from it and hopefully never revisit such places.

    Thank you for sharing this.

    Liked by 2 people

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Yes I definitely agree with you there and couldn’t have said it better. I absolutely agree. I think it’s so important to learn about the darkest times in history, so (sorry to use the cliche) we’re not doomed to repeat them.

      Thank you for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Bookstooge says:

    Whoa, this felt like a gut punch. Which means it was a good review, btw.

    My brother read this many years ago and I don’t remember him talking about it much. If I wasn’t just starting a saturday theological book with lots of note taking, I’d definitely be tempted to do that with these. Maybe next year or so.

    The whole communism thing is pretty real for me at the moment because of my recent review of The Monster Hunter Files and some fallout from that. I made a joke, or not so much a joke really, about shooting a hippy and communist. I posted that that review in a group on another website and the group has a very strict no politics or religion policy, which I agree with because they want things to stay friendly. Anyway, someone shot me an private message saying they thought the whole shooting communists was political. They were very nice about it and so I took it before the mods of the group and it was agreed that yes, it was political. So I took it down. No big deal right? Then I get a private message from the head mod telling me that the group has no tolerance for violence against anything, no matter how we feel personally about it.
    I just let it go but I felt like writing back and quoting one of the verified numbers of how many people Stalin’s regime had killed. Communism is evil. Plain and simple.

    So thank you for putting up this post. It’s good to reminded that Evil exists and isn’t just some silly “You don’t like me, so I won’t like you” schoolyard thing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Thank you so much for that- that means a lot!

      Yeah I can see why- it’s a pretty hard thing to talk about (at least, I found it that way). That said, I think that’s a really good idea and I would love to read about it if you did it and posted it.

      Ah yes, I remember that review. I personally wouldn’t want to be on a no politics site (just a bit tricky given where my interests tend to go 😉 ) but I can understand why they have it- a bit like the dinner party rule “no religion, no politics” 😉 And yeah, I think it’s pretty tough for me when people praise communism in general and I’m just thinking “you realise 100+ million people died globally under communism?” I find it hard to compute that people don’t see that as evil. I know that some people don’t want to believe evil exists- but turning a blind eye to it doesn’t make a person good.

      And thank you very much for your comment.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Matthew Wright says:

    I haven’t read this – and should. The story of the Soviet gulags, as one of the outcomes of Stalin’s totalitarianism, is something we need to know because any human-created society or system can go that way if we’re not alert to it.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. raistlin0903 says:

    Well you managed to pull of a terrific review for a book that definitely doesn’t sound like an easy read. I hardly ever read books such as these if I am being quite honest, but your post has definitely made me interested for it, despite the hard subject matter. So…..job wel done I would say 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Winged Cynic says:

    What a beautiful review! The things you speak of in this post reminds me of my European history class I’d once took, and as I just watched Schindler’s List yesterday (another story of persecution of course), I’m suddenly in the mood to pick this up. Definitely putting this on my Goodreads TBR!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hillary says:

    This was the first truly “hard” book I ever read. In Deaf schools, they tend to stick with books waaay below grade level cause Deaf people have issues with reading RIGHT?!?! Well, i arrived at Gallaudet ( a Deaf college) and got into the honors program and was told to read this book for a philosophy class. The honors professors had a take no prisoners attitude and expected slightly better than what we could give them and this book stretched us. It was a mind-bending exercise to read this. I and my classmates got through it and while we had a deep appreciation that as Deaf Intellectuals we would not have to face imprisonment, we also were left with the feeling that we could and would be able to compete with our hearing peers. Every time I see this book I still feel ten feet tall and bulletproof.

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      I think it’s probably the hardest book I’ve read, so I get that. (gosh what you said about deaf schools is actually shocking) I do think it’s amazing that your professor made you read this- I wish it had been on any of my reading lists- and I definitely think this is a book that stretches the mind. I think that’s an amazing story- and I think it’s testament to how strong reading literature like this can make you. Thank you so much for sharing- that was really inspirational!

      Like

  7. Lashaan (Bookidote) says:

    Honestly, if it weren’t for you, I don’t think I would’ve even juggled with the idea of reading these. I do love a good solid book that gives it to you raw and gives us a nice detailed and in-depth look at things that we just absorb as if they were just theory and had no real impact in real life. These sound absolutely insightful and I’d definitely want to give them a shot someday in my life. It’s good to know that they exist, what they were and the context in which they were written. Absolutely awesome review and I’m glad you shared it with us. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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