Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 964

The Gulag Archipelago is a modern epic. It is not a scholarly history and it is not fiction, though it is to an extent fictionalized. Denied the tools of the historian (he was forbidden paper and pencil during his entire sentence, and he had no access to libraries or government...

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The Gulag Archipelago is a modern epic. It is not a scholarly history and it is not fiction, though it is to an extent fictionalized. Denied the tools of the historian (he was forbidden paper and pencil during his entire sentence, and he had no access to libraries or government archives), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was forced to rely on his memory to store nearly all the material that makes up this massive, eighteen-hundred-page work. Accepting Solzhenitsyn’s metaphor of the gulag as its own nation of islands within the Soviet Union, one might say that he single-handedly constructed the literature of the gulag.

Using his own experiences as a narrative thread tying together the stories he heard from other zeks, he manages to weave a tapestry depicting the cruelty and sorrow of the Soviet penal system. That tapestry is vast and filled with horrors. Few people in the West realize that Stalin’s victims, perhaps as many as thirty million, far outnumbered Hitler’s. In addition to the innocent millions murdered in the camps and in the prisons, fifteen million peasants died as a result of a single national program: the brutal resettlement that established the Soviet Union’s network of collective farms. Solzhenitsyn’s own story seems innocuous by comparison. He was but lightly tortured during interrogation; other prisoners were starved, beaten, or shot. Many women prisoners were raped. He served a single eight-year sentence; other prisoners had extra “tenners” given them for minor infractions of camp rules. He hoodwinked his captors and so spent half his sentence in the relative comfort of a sharashka; other prisoners served ten, fifteen, or even twenty years—though few survived that long—in Siberian hard labor camps. Nevertheless, his story is the thread by which the others are bound. All the political prisoners in the gulag suffered under a penal code that was administrative rather than legislative. The People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs established three-person Special Boards throughout the Soviet Union, with the power to imprison and execute “socially dangerous” people without trial. These Special Boards, abolished after Stalin’s death in 1953, applied their own criminal code containing eleven indictable offenses ranging from “anti-Soviet agitation” to “nurturing anti-Soviet feelings” to merely being a “member of the family” of an indicted person. Under such a code, no one was safe.

The evil of such a system is Solzhenitsyn’s target. Through the testimony of 227 fellow prisoners, he pieces together a comprehensive history of the gulag, explaining various methods of arrest and interrogation, the often incongruous modes of transport between prisons—zeks sometimes traveled on the public railways with unarmed escorts, mixing with free citizens who frequently had no inkling that there were “enemies of the state” among them. Solzhenitsyn describes the character of his interrogators (the blue-caps), the endless variety of brutality practiced by the guards, and the seemingly inadvertent psychological torture built in to the system. The banality of evil reveals itself in the details involved in running such a far-flung empire of prisons and labor camps. For example, arrests and interrogations nearly always took place at night, partly to heighten the terror of the victims and partly to exploit the vulnerability of arrestees deprived of sleep. Another reason for night arrests: The police and interrogators were paid extra for night work. Mixed among the horrifying statistics of death—forty thousand prisoners died from overwork, exposure, and disease at a single camp during the winter of 1941-1942—are the depressing statistics of life. Throughout the gulag, women prisoners were routinely forced into prostitution by the guards, and their tens of thousands of children were sent to state orphanages.

Solzhenitsyn observes all these horrors and more, expressing outrage at the unfeeling brutality of the system, wonder at the strength and courage of the zeks, and immense sadness for the tragedy that has befallen his country. A Marxist, Solzhenitsyn revered Vladimir Ilich Lenin, although he hated Joseph Stalin. Still, rather than blame Stalin alone for the inhuman gulag, Solzhenitsyn explores his idol’s part in its creation. Rather than make scapegoats of the thousands of policemen, interrogators, guards, and bureaucrats responsible for the day-to-day running of the gulag, Solzhenitsyn recognizes that they were not monsters; instead, they were Soviet citizens molded by his beloved Soviet state. In their arrogance and conviction, he can recognize traits he himself developed as an officer in the Red Army. Despite the pain and humiliation suffered at the hands of his captors, he retains the humanity that allows him to admit that in different circumstances he—or anyone—might have become one of them.

There are stories of courage, as well. Some zeks were never defeated by the system. G. I. Grigoryev, a soil scientist, was captured by the Germans during World War II, and he was imprisoned by the Soviets immediately upon being repatriated. Despite being offered comparatively easy camp jobs, such as supervising other workers, Grigoryev refused to cooperate with his captors, choosing, instead, the hardest of manual labor. Another zek, V. M. Yakovenko, was released after twenty years; he was exiled to Vorkuta. In 1949, the authorities in Vorkuta began arresting former zeks and handing out new sentences. Yakovenko, though he could be arrested again at any moment, fearlessly delivered packages of food to friends already in custody. Following the 1953 execution of Lavrenty Beria, head of Stalin’s secret police and of the gulag since 1938, the zeks began to rebel. In 1954, more than a thousand zeks at Kengir prison camp in Kazakhstan went on strike against armed guards with a well-deserved reputation as murderers of prisoners; the strike paralyzed the camp for forty days. Solzhenitsyn recounts numerous examples of zeks fighting back. The Gulag Archipelago is a sprawling record of inhumanity; it is also a monument to human courage and determination.

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Critical Context