Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 714
A string of prisons and labor camps scattered throughout the Soviet Union is called the gulag archipelago because its administrative title, the Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps, forms the acronym “gulag” in Russian and because its far-flung prisons and camps, with their own laws and their oppressed population of ...
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A string of prisons and labor camps scattered throughout the Soviet Union is called the gulag archipelago because its administrative title, the Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps, forms the acronym “gulag” in Russian and because its far-flung prisons and camps, with their own laws and their oppressed population of zeks (prisoners), resembles a separate country made up of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of islands. Vladimir Ilich Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and the first head of the Soviet state, established this extensive prison system in 1918, ostensibly to detain and “rehabilitate” Soviet citizens suspected of anti-Soviet or counterrevolutionary activity. The system was greatly expanded by Lenin’s successor, Joseph Stalin, the ironfisted ruler of the Soviet Union from 1924 until his death in 1953. Under Stalin, the secret police arrested millions of people, nearly all of whom received either the death sentence or lengthy prison terms in the gulag archipelago.
A decorated captain of artillery in the Soviet Red Army during World War II, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is arrested for anti-Soviet activity in 1945 because he criticized Stalin in letters to a friend. Solzhenitsyn’s “guilt” was already established in his letters, so the secret police interrogators try to persuade Solzhenitsyn to implicate other anti-Soviet “conspirators” rather than to confess. The interrogators use only sleep deprivation, the mildest of their thirty-one documented methods of torture. He refuses to sign the fabricated “confession” but relents when investigators threaten to begin the interrogation all over again. Sent to Butyrki prison in Moscow, he begins his eight years as a zek.
At Butyrki, Solzhenitsyn watches in horror and sadness as thousands of repatriated Soviet soldiers, liberated from German prisoner of war camps, are imprisoned as traitors by their own country. In need of scapegoats, Stalin blames them for his own enormous wartime blunders, including surrenders at Kerch (120,000 prisoners) and Kharkov (150,000 prisoners). Stalin also fears that returning prisoners of war might sow unrest among their countrymen by describing the relatively high standard of living they had seen in Europe and the greater degree of personal freedom enjoyed by the Germans, even under the wartime rule of the dictator Adolf Hitler. Reasoning that anyone who could survive a German prisoner of war camp must have collaborated with his captors, Stalin has many of the returning prisoners charged with “aiding and abetting the enemy” and given “tenners” (ten-year sentences).
In 1945, Solzhenitsyn is sent to a hard labor camp, from which he is miraculously saved in 1946 when he lies on a camp registration form; he lists his civilian occupation as nuclear physicist. He is removed to a special prison, a scientific research institute, or sharashka, near Moscow, one of the gulag archipelago’s “paradise” islands, legendary among the zeks, where prisoners are well treated because of their value to the state.
Successfully impersonating a scientist, Solzhenitsyn remains there until 1950. From this special prison, he is taken to a camp for political prisoners in Ekibastuz, Kazakhstan. At Ekibastuz, Solzhenitsyn becomes part of a team of laborers building a new disciplinary barracks, a prison within a prison. He also witnesses a number of failed escape attempts. Some of the escapees are shot, and many are imprisoned in the unfinished disciplinary barracks even while Solzhenitsyn and other prisoners are still building it.
His sentence completed, Solzhenitsyn is released from Ekibastuz in March, 1953; he is sent into permanent exile in the Kolk-Terek district, a desert region in central Kazakhstan. There he seeks work as a teacher of mathematics and physics, but he is rebuffed by the district education department, even though he is the only available teacher in the district with a university degree. On March 6, his second day in Kolk-Terek, he hears the news that Stalin—the man who had murdered millions of Soviet citizens and imprisoned millions more—is dead. Astonished by the grief of the free people around him, Solzhenitsyn realizes the extraordinary success of Stalin and his minions in keeping their barbarism secret. He begins editing what little he managed to write in the camps, and he writes what he can remember, burying his work every evening in order to hide it from the secret police. In the spring of 1956, he applies for a review of his case. The sentence of exile is lifted in 1957, and Solzhenitsyn returns to Russia as a teacher.