The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956

by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1979

Toward the beginning of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn discusses his own arrest, and at intervals thereafter he refers to his own case and events he observed while under detention. In February, 1945, while he was serving as the captain of an artillery battery, Solzhenitsyn was taken into custody after counterintelligence agents found that his personal letters contained obliquely disparaging references to Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin. Later that year, after proceedings under Article 58 of the Soviet criminal code, Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment, which commenced with work at a construction site near Moscow; from 1950 to 1953, he was held in a special camp for political prisoners in Ekibastuz, Kazakhstan, where he performed various kinds of manual labor, including bricklaying and smelting. He was involved in a prisoners’ revolt that broke out shortly before his release.

Solzhenitsyn attempts to reconstruct his own reactions to arrest and imprisonment. As Solzhenitsyn shows, arrest could be carried out in a number of ways; often the means employed displayed a certain twisted inventiveness. Hapless and unsuspecting individuals were apprehended, for example, in hospitals, at the theater, in grocery stores, or in other seemingly innocuous settings. Informers and police agents came in many guises; cabdrivers, bank tellers, meter readers, and other service personnel would sometimes reveal themselves as agents of the internal police apparatus. Solzhenitsyn himself fell victim to investigators who were attached to military units at the front.

Some of the most sweeping and elastic language ever formulated by legislators anywhere was incorporated in Soviet criminal statutes, which allowed prosecutors almost unbounded discretion in dealing with presumed enemies of the state. Failure to denounce suspects was a crime with no maximum penalty. Activities of nearly every conceivable sort could be construed as offenses against the state. Those who had any dealings at all with foreign nationals might be cited for treason and aid to the international bourgeoisie. Many spoken or written communications could be considered as containing an appeal against Soviet power; as was the case with Solzhenitsyn himself, any personal correspondence that reflected unfavorably upon Soviet leaders might well lead to criminal charges. Charges against some prisoners had a darkly comic ring to them. One might be sentenced to a labor camp for the inadvertent and minute defacement of pictures of Soviet leaders; angry chance remarks directed at no one in particular might be taken as incitement against the state. Trivial criticism of food or working conditions could be regarded as expressing anti-Soviet attitudes. For the acts of a single anonymous prankster an entire class of schoolchildren (who were then liable for criminal penalties at the age of twelve) or all members of an office staff might be sent off to prison camps. The unfavorable comparison of an established Soviet writer with classical authors could result in criminal charges. Interrogation and formal proceedings often resembled a sinister charade, in which the most ominous connotations were extracted from the slightest words and deeds.

In the effort to secure confessions, state security officials would attempt in many ways to undermine the mental equilibrium of prisoners. Because of the written evidence that was found against him, Solzhenitsyn’s own case did not require extreme measures, such as those that might be employed where proof otherwise was difficult to obtain. Threats, intimidation, and psychological ruses of various sorts sometimes could produce results; in certain instances it was effective to suggest that relatives and loved ones were in jeopardy so long as the accused remained obdurate. Prisoners sometimes were kept in a state of prolonged sleeplessness, for days at a time. Often they were deprived of water for protracted periods; another technique involved compelling them to remain in cramped, upright positions as a means of inducing docility. At times inmates suffered broken bones, crushed internal organs, or other incapacitating injuries. Cases where individuals had their skulls squeezed in iron rings, or were lowered into acid baths, are also mentioned.

Conditions in forced labor camps ranged from disagreeable to life-threatening. Prisoners were subjected to an existence which at its best was dreary, monotonous, and wearisome; the depredations of thieves and manifold insults to human dignity were commonly compounded by mounting hunger and thirst. Solzhenitsyn spent the first part of his term in a special installation for technical personnel who, in spite of their political records, were thought to have skills that would be of use to the state. Although cramped and untidy living conditions, along with innumerable restrictions on personal movement, were a source of anxiety and vexation, the situation in most other places of detention was incomparably more severe. In a fairly typical labor camp, such as that in which Solzhenitsyn spent the last part of his sentence, ten or twelve hours of labor a day were required; production quotas imposed extreme burdens upon prisoners. Prisoners were poorly clothed, even in inhospitable weather. Rations were severely limited. Hunger was one of the prisoner’s constant, seemingly inseparable, companions, eventually dimming or blotting out other sensations. Quarrels frequently broke out over small scraps of food. Scurvy and pellagra were common complaints, and other, more debilitating disorders progressively thinned the ranks of the prisoners. Indeed, from time to time guards would summarily eliminate groups of convicts the state had found it no longer needed.

Substantial portions of Solzhenitsyn’s work deal with destructive labor camps, where mortality rates were particularly high and human lives were considered more expendable than products and materials. At a particularly infamous series of installations along the Kolyma River, in eastern Siberia, many work crews were virtually annihilated. Assignment to this area was regarded by the authorities as a means for reducing the overall number of political inmates within the penal system. The disposal of corpses in mine shafts and other declivities left that region dotted with unmarked grave sites.

According to Solzhenitsyn, Soviet political repression antedated any similar activity on the part of Fascist states; in his view, the use of hard labor, concentration camps, and mass executions were an integral part of Bolshevik tactics and became an inseparable element of Soviet government. This contention, which is based upon an examination of political history since the Revolution, is possibly the most controversial of Solzhenitsyn’s arguments against official Marxist doctrines. He cites many instances of reprisals against various non-Bolshevik groups during the Russian civil war of 1918-1921, maintaining that such practices revealed a determination at the outset to impose unswerving obedience upon a recalcitrant population. Even those who do not accept official Soviet historiography have objected to Solzhenitsyn’s characterization of Vladimir Ilich Lenin; while the first Soviet premier did make certain statements in support of terrorism, it could be argued that Solzhenitsyn has been unduly concerned with issues of continuity. The distinction between political repression during periods of upheaval and much more extensive measures under outwardly quieter conditions is not really discussed. Nevertheless, Solzhenitsyn’s line of argument cannot easily be dismissed, for it is clear that once the Bolsheviks had unleashed the forces of political persecution, serious and prolonged consequences could—and did—follow.

Later and more devastating developments are traced in detail largely from the standpoint of the camps and prisoners themselves. The purge trials of 1936 to 1938, which served as the pretext for the imprisonment and execution of millions, are mentioned mainly in passing. The peculiar and essentially self-serving conceptions of legality of Soviet jurists provided theoretical foundations for the prosecution of supposed enemies of the Soviet state. In some ways it would appear that Solzhenitsyn’s material was chosen partly to rebut later arguments, put forward largely by way of official party statements, that the worst excesses were confined to a certain period during the later 1930’s and that Stalinism represented a deviation from legitimate Bolshevik practices. Indeed, Solzhenitsyn depicts Stalin as holding executive power over an inhuman system which could well move onward of its own impetus even without him. Nikolay Krylenko, a state prosecutor who served under both Lenin and Stalin, and who eventually himself was purged, is mentioned repeatedly in connection with his early memoirs, which justified the use of extreme measures in political cases. Genrikh Yagoda, a leading security official who also perished during the purge trials, is cited for his role in utilizing forced labor in construction projects, notably the White Sea Canal, in a way that led to the wholesale deaths of political prisoners. Later heads of the security organs, Nikolay Yezhov (who was purged) and Lavrenty Beriya (who was executed after Stalin’s death), are referred to occasionally, but their parts in the oppression are not stressed. A number of character sketches depict police agents and camp officials in brief, telling strokes. For the most part, functionaries of this sort appear to have existed on another moral plane; the gulf that separated them from inmates underscored the brutal disdain with which the keepers of political order regarded those who had fallen afoul of the state.

Solzhenitsyn also takes up questions concerning the ultimate origins of the forced labor system; some of his conclusions have been received with caution and misgivings among critics and specialists. He makes statements concerning punishment and exile in imperial Russia, largely in the attempt to show that conditions were less demanding during earlier periods of the nations’s history. At certain times there were relatively few executions, and for those sentenced to exile, rations were much more bountiful than those served to Soviet prisoners. In this light it would almost appear that those confined in czarist prisons were relatively well-off. Evidently this line of argument is important to Solzhenitsyn for two reasons. While official Soviet publications tend to portray czarist practices as grossly inhumane, while glossing over more recent, and more stringent, practices, Solzhenitsyn goes to some lengths to maintain that the opposite has been the case. Moreover, he seems wary in handling issues regarding national character; problems of past regimes are considered in a relatively favorable light. Western historians who have reviewed Solzhenitsyn’s work, while acknowledging that some historical data may be accepted as stated, have pointed out omissions or understatements that becloud his account of the politics of punishment under previous regimes.

Solzhenitsyn offers some poignant reflections on the reaction of the general population to Soviet political repression. Often the public at large had only a limited awareness of the horrors that were being perpetrated; ordinary citizens are likened to helpless rabbits who submitted unthinkingly to their fates once they were captured. Efforts at flight across desolate and forbidding landscapes often were unsuccessful. Even the redoubtable Georgy Tenno, an Estonian prisoner whose own narrative of an epic attempt to evade his pursuers was related to Solzhenitsyn in person, could not manage such a feat; other fugitives were apprehended and put to death as a warning to their fellow prisoners. Open defiance by groups of prisoners was possible only in limited forms, for camp guards could oppose any manifestations of discontent with overwhelming force. Still, violent outbreaks sometimes did take place, against hopeless odds; on other occasions prisoners organized hunger strikes or refused to work as directed. Solzhenitsyn himself was a witness to mass protests that erupted toward the end of Stalin’s life; later, in 1954, at Kengir in Central Asia prisoners actually took control of one compound for about forty days, before their revolt was suppressed. Such efforts were exceptional, however, and Solzhenitsyn maintains that on the whole the Soviet people accepted their lot with a passivity and fatalism that allowed the state to pursue its destructive policies with little impediment. The fortitude and patient endurance that prisoners often showed in the face of appalling adversity were remarkable. Yet Solzhenitsyn was disturbed at the ease with which the government was able to carry out its objectives, and even after the wholesale arrests and mass terrorism of Stalin’s government were curtailed, he could contend that political imprisonment and forced labor were still in evidence across the Soviet Union.

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