The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956 Essay - Critical Context

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Critical Context

In a certain sense Solzhenitsyn’s writings may be classified as of several sorts; The Gulag Archipelago is important for its relationship with each type of work the author has undertaken, and thus it could be considered as central to his literary endeavors. Explicitly political pronouncements also may be comprehensible largely within the context of his study of the Soviet forced labor system. Solzhenitsyn’s early novels, notably Odin den Ivana Denisovicha (1962; One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1963) and V kruge pervom (1968; The First Circle, 1968), were meant to recapture the peculiar ethos of prison camp life, drawing from his observations and experiences to create unsettling vignettes of moral degeneration and heroism in captivity. Many of his stories and plays also provide glimpses of historical episodes that illustrate the moral insensitivity and obtuseness of Soviet officials. The counterparts in real life of such incidents are discussed in Solzhenitsyn’s historical study. His struggles with those in positions of authority, both in the secret police and in the publishing world, are set forth in the autobiographical work Bodalsya telyonok s dubom (1975; The Oak and the Calf, 1980), which deals with his literary activity in the Soviet Union after he returned from exile; difficulties he encountered in writing The Gulag Archipelago and other important works are discussed at length.

In many ways, Solzhenitsyn’s political and religious beliefs were shaped by his labor camp experiences; it would appear that his work of documenting the treatment of Soviet prisoners was important in the formation of his views on Soviet intentions with respect to the outside world. His contention that even many years after Stalin the Soviet government owed its strength to its institutions of organized repression was stated in publications such as Pismo vozhdyam Sovetskogo Soyuza (1974; Letter to the Soviet Leaders, 1974) and Raskolotyy mir (1978; A World Split Apart, 1978). While The Gulag Archipelago has been subject to challenge and criticism on certain particular points, its overall significance as an exposition of Soviet political terrorism has been repeatedly acknowledged.