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.

AWESOME Authors I Discovered in 2017 *and* Am Looking Forward to Reading More From

Technically this was a Top Ten Tuesday topic… buuut it’s not this week’s, so this is a fail 😉 Ah well, pish posh, who cares about rules when it comes to sharing great books? I certainly don’t. And I really wanted to do this topic, because there’s nothing I like more than talking about AWESOMENESS (aside from griping about suckfests… moving on…). Besides, it was this or talk about *nothing* for Nothing Day (yes that’s a thing to, happy Nothing Day everybody!)

Anyhoo enough rambling- gonna try to not repeat myself too much from my best of 2017 post, although it can’t be entirely avoided 😉 Here’s some amazing authors I discovered in 2017:


Solzhenitsyn– I’m beginning to sound a lot like a broken record when it comes to the Gulag, but that’s not the only book I read by Solzhenitsyn last year. I started off my journey into the Siberian wastes with One Day in the Life of Ivan Densovitch and that motivated me to continue reading. Speaking of Siberia…

ruta sepetys

Ruta Sepetys– WOW what a writer. Of the two books I read by her last year, I preferred Salt to the Sea to Between Shades of Grey, but either way her stories pulled me in and were impossible to forget. There’s no question that I want to read more by this author.


Agatha Christie– two things happened on my blog last year relating to Christie: 1) I announced that I had zero intention of reading her work and… 2) I actually read her work. I have since seen the error of my ways and plan to read more soon 😉

ice twins

S. K. Tremayne– gosh Tremayne reminded me reignited my zest for thrillers… I have to read MORE!

alan partridge

“Alan Partridge”– I read two books by “Alan Partridge” last year- I don’t think I’ve ever laughed at a book so much. It’s easy for me to say, considering that there are hilarious (yet totally mundane) asides on getting a car into gear in these books, that Steve Coogan could literally put out *anything* for this character and I’ll read it.

robin hobb.png

Robin Hobb– it took me long enough but I finally read Assassin’s Apprentice last year! And as some of you may know, I was so blown away it that I ended up going a little crazy, reading both the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies in one go… Yeah, it’s no wonder I got a bit Hobbed out by the end of my massive binge. Still, though my appetite may have been dampened temporarily, I want to *jump right back up on that horse* and continue reading in 2018!


Mark Lawrence– I read a very respectable 4 books by Lawrence last year and they were all fantastic fantasies- now I want MORE… Lucky for me Grey Sister is out this year 😉


Ed McDonald– Blackwing was certainly one of the best debuts I’ve ever read- WOWEE- you can make a safe bet that I want to read the next one!

bear and the nightingale

Katherine Arden– what list about 2017 would be complete without Arden? You all know by now how much I loved Bear and the Nightingale (if not, hi nice to meet you, I’m the Orangutan Librarian and I loved this book). So naturally I’ll be reading and reviewing Girl in the Tower soon- watch this space.

snow child

Eowyn Ivey– gorgeously atmospheric and beautifully written- I adored how this was a fairytale retelling woven together with a historical setting. I will definitely have an eye out for her other books!

Phew- managed to only repeat 3 from my top ten! Have you read any of these? What’s the best author you discovered in 2017? Let me know in the comments!

5 for 5 – May Mini Reviews

Hello all! It’s the first Friday of the month- and for me that’s become synonymous with “time for my monthly mini reviews”. Basically this is my way of catching up on my increasing backlog of unreviewed books.

piles of books.jpeg

It’s heating up now that it’s May and I’m finally paying some lip service to books I read wayyy back at the beginning of the year. So with that said, I should really just get on with it!

ender's game

Ender’s Game– okay, let’s start with the book I read the longest time ago (January *cough cough*). I didn’t review at the time, not because I didn’t enjoy it, but because I just didn’t have all that much to say about it. Bearing in mind how little I know about the sci fi genre, was that it felt pretty unique to me and was very enjoyable, with plenty of drama, solid world building and intriguing characters. I recommend it for everyone just getting into the genre (like me) and everyone that’s been a fan for years (though let’s face it, you’ve probably read it by now). I will be honest and say that surprisingly for such a good book, it didn’t leave me with a burning desire to read more in the series. Let me know in the comments if you think the rest of the series will change my life or something and I’ll bump it up my tbr- otherwise this is going to be a “maybe one day” sort of thing.

Rating: 4/5 bananas



The Romanovs– annnd this book reminded me of the times when I thought non-fiction wasn’t for me. I did not enjoy this in the slightest. I was promised intrigue and drama and extreme characters… what I got was an endless stream of wars, hardly fleshed out historical figures and very, very dry commentary. If you like the kind of books that send you to sleep, then this is for you!

Rating: 2/5 bananas


bluest eye


The Bluest Eye– so this book is a realllly really long time coming for me- fun fact I met the author back when I was still at school and have been wanting to read this ever since. Finally, finally I picked it up and I get why this is a big deal now. It’s cleverly written, has intriguing characterisation and a powerful commentary on race. Furthermore, the mixture of the slow reveal coupled with knowing the end result at the start builds up the layers of revulsion and horror as the book progresses. I can also seriously recommend the audio book for this one, because Morrison’s voice is gloriously rhythmic and beautiful to listen to.

Rating: 4½/5 bananas


killing fields

Killing Fields– I didn’t know much about the Cambodian genocide, so it was worth reading for that purpose alone. Some of the characters (or I should say people since this is non-fiction) stood out to me, such as Pran, however I didn’t connect much with anyone else and found the journalistic writing style a little dry.

Rating: 3/5 bananas



One Day in the Life of Ivan Densovitch– so I have mentioned this, briefly, on my blog before, but I totally failed to review it. It’s a quick, but absorbing read, gives an full insight into daily life in a communist gulag. Despite its length, I would say this is one of the most impactful books I’ve read so far this year. Plus, together with The Killing Fields, this should fill most people’s daily quota of reminders why communism is bad 😉

Rating: 4½/5 bananas


So that was a very different array of books. Have you read any of these? Did you like them? And which non-fiction books have you read lately that didn’t make you excited? Let me know in the comments?

Also, I’ve finally done that thing where the book covers link up to goodread synopses- so click away 😉