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.