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...
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