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.