Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The three bulky volumes which constitute Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s indictment of Soviet Marxism and its excesses may be characterized as part autobiography, part history, and part political interpretation. The arrangement of materials is essentially topical. The first volume deals with the formalities of arrest and incarceration, as well as historical developments; the second volume depicts varieties of forced labor and the circumstances of camp life; the final volume is concerned with problems of escape, resistance, and eventual release.

In his acknowledgments Solzhenitsyn refers to 227 witnesses who discussed their experiences with him. His informants included not merely those he had met during his own confinement but also others who had provided him with statements and other data during the period between 1958 and 1968, when this work was written. Some former prisoners are mentioned by name; others are given the protection of anonymity. Particularly harrowing conditions have been substantiated through direct evidence; difficult and dangerous escape attempts have been recounted largely in the words of those who were involved. Among those who were important for the work’s composition was Lev Kopelev, a former army officer and specialist on German culture who for a while was detained at the same facility where Solzhenitsyn was held. Varlam Shalamov, a writer who endured unusual travails in detention camps, is cited in many places. Apparently, Solzhenitsyn also obtained information from government sources by way of D. T. Terekhov, a sympathetic former official. To document political trials and the use of forced labor during the years immediately following the Bolshevik Revolution, Solzhenitsyn utilized published accounts.

Solzhenitsyn encountered marked antipathy among government officials toward the opening of troubled questions from the past, and indeed efforts were mounted actively to impede his inquiries. In 1965, his personal archive and other writings were seized by Soviet intelligence officials. Although subsequently Solzhenitsyn completed the work in manuscript, publication was delayed until 1973, when his typist revealed the location of one copy after prolonged interrogation by the secret police. Solzhenitsyn then authorized the appearance of a Russian-language edition, which was produced in Paris; translations followed soon thereafter. The difficult circumstances under which the work was written have perhaps left their traces on the version which eventually saw the light. On matters of organization some portions may seem repetitive or arbitrarily chosen; still, the work succeeds as a haunting and unusual fusion of history and literary narration.

The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

The Work

GULAG is the Russian abbreviation for the Chief Administration of Collective Labor Camps, which was established in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) after the Russian Revolution of 1918. An archipelago is an extensive group of islands, such as exists in the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Siberia. It is in these bitterly cold regions that collective labor camps were built to house more than ten million inmates. In 1973, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Russian novelist, began publishing a three-volume history of those camps called The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation. Though banned in his own homeland, Solzhenitsyn’s work was smuggled to the West, was translated, became a best-seller, and led to the author’s expulsion from Soviet territory in 1974. The three published volumes were based on letters, documents, and the experiences of 227 eyewitnesses, including those of the author, who spent eight years in the camps.


Soviet labor camps were first established by Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Russian Communists during the revolution, to reeducate and punish enemies of the Communist Party. After Lenin’s death in 1924, Joseph Stalin took power and sent millions of Soviet citizens to the camps for “crimes against the state.” In a chapter called “The History of Our Sewage Disposal System,” Solzhenitsyn explores Stalin’s legal and ethical motivations for carrying out a reign of terror that lasted from 1927 to the dictator’s death in 1953. Under the Soviet constitution, written by the dictator himself, any “counterrevolutionary” activity was punishable by ten years of slave labor and even death. Any actions “injurious to the military might” of the Soviet Union, any “intention” to do injury, and any “attempt to weaken state power” could get a citizen thrown into the Gulag. Other crimes included attempts at armed rebellion, providing aid to the “international bourgeoisie” or capitalist class, espionage, suspicion of espionage, and contacts “leading to suspicion to engage in espionage,” including more easily witnessed criminal acts such as “subversion of industry, transport, and trade” by failing to achieve and produce as much as was expected of loyal citizens. One could also be punished for failing to denounce people that one suspected of having committed any of these crimes. Solzhenitsyn received an eight-year sentence for violating the law against weakening the state by criticizing its leaders. He had criticized Stalin’s military leadership in a “private” letter to a fellow army officer, but since all mail was opened and read by secret police agents, nothing was truly private. The Communist judge sent Solzhenitsyn to a labor camp in Siberia. While in the Gulag, he heard many stories of suffering, death, and other horrors, and he pledged to write about those experiences so that they would never be forgotten.

Ethical Principles

Inside the camps, the most vicious criminals were in charge. According to Stalinist ethics, political prisoners had no human rights because they were inferior beings and enemies of the state. Refusal to obey orders or attempts to avoid work meant immediate death. Millions died from twenty-hour days in gold mines or in clearing forests in 60-degrees-below-zero weather. Inmates were not...

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The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

The Gulag Archipelago: Three is the conclusion of the massive work that Alexander Solzhenitsyn planned in penal servitude and wrote from 1958 to 1967. The first four parts of the work appeared in English translation as Volumes I and II in 1974 and 1975, and were chiefly concerned with the Soviet system of the Corrective Labor Camps, the means by which the Communist Party under Stalin enslaved uncounted millions of innocent people.

The person who has faithfully read through the first two volumes will nevertheless find some surprises in this conclusion to Solzhenitsyn’s epic history: despite the manifold cruelties of the slave-labor camps described in the earlier parts, the Corrective Labor system was not the worst that the Soviets could devise for their own countrymen. The penal system had still more chains it could hang on its prisoners, and especially on those unfortunates convicted under Article 58 of the Criminal Code—the political prisoners. Those chains are shown to the world in Part 5, “Katorga,” and Part 6, “Exile.”

Although history will classify the twentieth century as the most barbaric and bloody ever recorded, those who hope for the future of the human race will find a few shreds of comfort in Solzhenitsyn’s work. We find in Volume III that dictators are as fallible as democrats, and in this volume, for the first time in this epic of pain, a few beams of light break through. Katorga, the title of Part 5, means “hard labor,” and designates yet another chain of islands in the Archipelago of punishment that stretches through the Soviet Union. In 1943, Stalin decided to segregate the politicals and certain other types of prisoners, taking them out of the Corrective Labor Camps and moving them to Special Camps, institutions of hard labor where, it was thought, they could be more effectively controlled and exploited. But rather than placing still another burden on the inmates, the hard labor camps proved a means of unintentionally lightening their load.

Stalin’s plan was crushing enough in its conception: it provided for twelve hours a day of back-breaking work on an inadequate diet; it provided for locking the prisoners into their huts at night, without access to latrines; it provided for them to be held almost incommunicado from the outside world, from their friends and families; and finally, it provided as usual that their guards could shoot them down for the slightest infractions, or even for no infraction at all, without fear of punishment. In some places the plan did not work, though, with the harshness its developers desired, for two reasons.

First, the segregation of the prisoners turned out to be a great blessing. In Volumes I and II, Solzhenitsyn recounts story after story of the persecution of the political prisoners, not through the unaided efforts of the camp administrations, but through the use of prisoner informers. The administrations had a second ally in the thieves, the professional criminals in the camps, who regarded the politicals as their legitimate prey, and plundered them with the unofficial blessings of the jailors. When the politicals were removed to the hard labor camps, the numbers of the professional criminals among them were at least diminished. For the first time, the politicals could achieve something of a feeling of solidarity, a feeling of united rather than individual suffering under their oppressors.

The second reason is the more important. The katorga system began in 1943, and a different kind of political prisoner was being sent to the camps. Prior to World War II, the political prisoner was often a Communist Party member caught in one of the numerous purges, or a member of one of the several leftist, but non-Bolshevik parties. But now the camp numbers were swelled with returning military men who had been captured and imprisoned by the Germans; with whole cadres of members of nationalist movements, especially Ukrainians; with those Russians who had administered territories under the German occupation. These new convicts were frequently men with experience of resistance, or at least with experience of disciplined group behavior. For the first time there came to be organizations and lines of authority separate from those imposed by camp discipline.

Solzhenitsyn is particularly concerned in this volume to answer those critics who ask why, if life in the camps was as brutal as he depicts, no one tried to rebel. His answer is that they did try; that they rebelled singly and in groups; and that their resistance was continual, and took many forms.

He begins on the level of individuals and small groups. Thus in these pages we find the first stories of successful resistance to the ravages of the thieves; eventually this resistance, by ones and twos, leads to the forming of underground prisoner organizations who reply to the thieves in kind, visiting rough retribution as well on informers and stool pigeons. He discusses many escape attempts, some of them successful despite enormous odds against them. A prisoner contemplating escape more often than not had to plan for a trek across hundreds of miles of trackless desert, in the face of...

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The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956 Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Bond, Anatole. A Study of the English and the German Translations of Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago.” Vol. 1. New York: Peter Lang, 1983. In a work chiefly of value to the student interested in languages, Bond explains numerous inadequacies in translations available in 1982.

Bullock, Alan. Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Carter, Stephen. The Politics of Solzhenitsyn, 1977.

Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties. New York: Macmillan, 1968.


(The entire section is 531 words.)