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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.

The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956

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The Work

GULAG is the Russian abbreviation for the Chief Administration of Collective Labor Camps, which was established in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) after the Russian Revolution of 1918. An archipelago is an extensive group of islands, such as exists in the Arctic Ocean off the coast of Siberia. It is in these bitterly cold regions that collective labor camps were built to house more than ten million inmates. In 1973, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Russian novelist, began publishing a three-volume history of those camps called The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation. Though banned in his own homeland, Solzhenitsyn’s work was smuggled to the West, was translated, became a best-seller, and led to the author’s expulsion from Soviet territory in 1974. The three published volumes were based on letters, documents, and the experiences of 227 eyewitnesses, including those of the author, who spent eight years in the camps.

History

Soviet labor camps were first established by Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Russian Communists during the revolution, to reeducate and punish enemies of the Communist Party. After Lenin’s death in 1924, Joseph Stalin took power and sent millions of Soviet citizens to the camps for “crimes against the state.” In a chapter called “The History of Our Sewage Disposal System,” Solzhenitsyn explores Stalin’s legal and ethical motivations for carrying out a reign of terror that lasted from 1927 to the dictator’s death in 1953. Under the Soviet constitution, written by the dictator himself, any “counterrevolutionary” activity was punishable by ten years of slave labor and even death. Any actions “injurious to the military might” of the Soviet Union, any “intention” to do injury, and any “attempt to weaken state power” could get a citizen thrown into the Gulag. Other crimes included attempts at armed rebellion, providing aid to the “international bourgeoisie” or capitalist class, espionage, suspicion of espionage, and contacts “leading to suspicion to engage in espionage,” including more easily witnessed criminal acts such as “subversion of industry, transport, and trade” by failing to achieve and produce as much as was expected of loyal citizens. One could also be punished for failing to denounce people that one suspected of having committed any of these crimes. Solzhenitsyn received an eight-year sentence for violating the law against weakening the state by criticizing its leaders. He had criticized Stalin’s military leadership in a “private” letter to a fellow army officer, but since all mail was opened and read by secret police agents, nothing was truly private. The Communist judge sent Solzhenitsyn to a labor camp in Siberia. While in the Gulag, he heard many stories of suffering, death, and other horrors, and he pledged to write about those experiences so that they would never be forgotten.

Ethical Principles

Inside the camps, the most vicious criminals were in charge. According to Stalinist ethics, political prisoners had no human rights because they were inferior beings and enemies of the state. Refusal to obey orders or attempts to avoid work meant immediate death. Millions died from twenty-hour days in gold mines or in clearing forests in 60-degrees-below-zero weather. Inmates were not expected to survive, so they were fed inadequate, miserable food, frequently nothing more than watery potato or “fish” soup and a moldy crust of bread once a day.

The camps were built and maintained according to the ethics of pure force. Stalin’s word became law and his only motive became increasing his own power. “To choose one’s victims, to prepare one’s plans minutely, to slake an implacable vengeance, and then to go to bed . . . there is nothing sweeter in the world,” he wrote. The methods of force that he used included torture and psychological terror. The only way to avoid immediate death at the hands of the police was to confess to everything and to submit to the absolute power of the torturers. Stalinist ethics were based on one principle: Stalin and the Party were right, and everything else was wrong. Even children as young as twelve could be executed for crimes against the state, usually upon no more proof than a confession elicited after the child had been subjected to days of continuous questioning, without sleep, in an isolated cell.

The ethics of the Gulag inmates demanded the destruction of all human feeling and trust. Survival depended upon finding meaning in circumstances that evoked only horror, hatred, and degradation. Yet, as Solzhenitsyn discovered, many inmates did survive. He attributed survival inside the camps to a prisoner’s strength of character before he entered the system. The people who surrendered and died or became informers were those who “before camp had not been enriched by any morality or by any spiritual upbringing.” Survival demanded a “steadfast faith” in the human spirit or in some religious ethic. People who had found meaning in life before becoming victims of the terrorists could put up with the worst conditions, while those without a philosophy of life surrendered to despair and died horrible deaths. For Solzhenitsyn, this was the lesson of the Gulag: Know how to live and you will survive any conditions within or without the camps.

Bibliography

Bond, Anatole. A Study of the English and the German Translations of Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago.” Vol. 1. New York: Peter Lang, 1983. In a work chiefly of value to the student interested in languages, Bond explains numerous inadequacies in translations available in 1982.

Bullock, Alan. Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Carter, Stephen. The Politics of Solzhenitsyn, 1977.

Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties. New York: Macmillan, 1968.

Conquest, Robert. Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps. New York: Viking Press, 1978.

Dunlop, John B., Richard Haugh, and Alexis Klimoff, eds. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials, 1975 (second edition).

Dunlop, John B., Richard S. Haugh, and Michael Nicholson, eds. Solzhenitsyn in Exile: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution, 1985. Includes three critical essays on The Gulag Archipelago. Susan Richards’ “The Gulag Archipelago as Literary Documentary” argues that the work transcends the genre of history by means of the voice of Solzhenitsyn the narrator. John B. Dunlop’s “The Gulag Archipelago: Alternative to Ideology” discusses the positive social implications of the many examples of Soviet citizens rebelling against the system. Elisabeth Markstein’s “Observations on the Narrative Structure of The Gulag Archipelago” argues that the interweaving of different zeks’ narratives and styles gives the work a highly complex narrative structure.

Feuer, Kathryn, ed. Solzhenitsyn: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976. Includes “On Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago,” a historian’s assessment of Solzhenitsyn’s factual accuracy by Marxist writer Roy Medvedev. “On Reading The Gulag Archipelago” is an argument for Solzhenitsyn’s literary skill, by Victor Erlich.

Fireside, Harvey. Soviet Psychoprisons. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979.

Kennan, George. “Between Earth and Hell.” The New York Review of Books, March 21, 1974, 3. Insightful review of The Gulag Archipelago (parts 1 and 2) with commentary on Solzhenitsyn’s politics and philosophy.

Kodjak, Andrej. Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978. Commentary on The Gulag Archipelago. Kodjak argues that Solzhenitsyn’s narrative style transforms the work from mere documentation to artistic investigation.

Loewen, Harry. “Solzhenitsyn’s Kafkaesque Narrative Art in The Gulag Archipelago,” in Germano-Slavica. III, no. 1 (1979), pp. 5-15.

Malia, Martin. “A War on Two Fronts: Solzhenitsyn and the Gulag Archipelago,” in The Russian Review. XXXVI, no. 1 (1977), pp. 46-63.

Matual, David. “The Gulag Archipelago: From Inferno to Paradise,” in Studies in Twentieth Century Literature. VII, no. 1 (1982), pp. 35-43.

Medvedev, Roy A. Let History Judge. Rev. and exp. ed. Edited and translated by George Shriver. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

Monas, Sidney, and John B. Dunlop. “GULag and Points West,” in Slavic Review. XL, no. 3 (1981), pp. 444-463.

Pernoud, Mary-Anne. An Investigation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago” According to Various Themes and Types Found Through Literature History, 1983.

Scammell, Michael. Solzhenitsyn: A Biography, 1984.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I. The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation. Translated by Thomas P. Whitney. 3 vols. New York: Harper & Row, 1974-1978.

Tucker, Robert C. Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928-1941. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.

Vroon, Ronald. “Literature as Litigation: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago,” in Russian History. VII, nos. 1/2 (1980), pp. 213-238.

Wood, Alan. “Solzhenitsyn on the Tsarist Exile System: A Historical Comment,” in Journal of Russian Studies. XLII (1981), pp. 39-43.

The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956

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The Gulag Archipelago: Three is the conclusion of the massive work that Alexander Solzhenitsyn planned in penal servitude and wrote from 1958 to 1967. The first four parts of the work appeared in English translation as Volumes I and II in 1974 and 1975, and were chiefly concerned with the Soviet system of the Corrective Labor Camps, the means by which the Communist Party under Stalin enslaved uncounted millions of innocent people.

The person who has faithfully read through the first two volumes will nevertheless find some surprises in this conclusion to Solzhenitsyn’s epic history: despite the manifold cruelties of the slave-labor camps described in the earlier parts, the Corrective Labor system was not the worst that the Soviets could devise for their own countrymen. The penal system had still more chains it could hang on its prisoners, and especially on those unfortunates convicted under Article 58 of the Criminal Code—the political prisoners. Those chains are shown to the world in Part 5, “Katorga,” and Part 6, “Exile.”

Although history will classify the twentieth century as the most barbaric and bloody ever recorded, those who hope for the future of the human race will find a few shreds of comfort in Solzhenitsyn’s work. We find in Volume III that dictators are as fallible as democrats, and in this volume, for the first time in this epic of pain, a few beams of light break through. Katorga, the title of Part 5, means “hard labor,” and designates yet another chain of islands in the Archipelago of punishment that stretches through the Soviet Union. In 1943, Stalin decided to segregate the politicals and certain other types of prisoners, taking them out of the Corrective Labor Camps and moving them to Special Camps, institutions of hard labor where, it was thought, they could be more effectively controlled and exploited. But rather than placing still another burden on the inmates, the hard labor camps proved a means of unintentionally lightening their load.

Stalin’s plan was crushing enough in its conception: it provided for twelve hours a day of back-breaking work on an inadequate diet; it provided for locking the prisoners into their huts at night, without access to latrines; it provided for them to be held almost incommunicado from the outside world, from their friends and families; and finally, it provided as usual that their guards could shoot them down for the slightest infractions, or even for no infraction at all, without fear of punishment. In some places the plan did not work, though, with the harshness its developers desired, for two reasons.

First, the segregation of the prisoners turned out to be a great blessing. In Volumes I and II, Solzhenitsyn recounts story after story of the persecution of the political prisoners, not through the unaided efforts of the camp administrations, but through the use of prisoner informers. The administrations had a second ally in the thieves, the professional criminals in the camps, who regarded the politicals as their legitimate prey, and plundered them with the unofficial blessings of the jailors. When the politicals were removed to the hard labor camps, the numbers of the professional criminals among them were at least diminished. For the first time, the politicals could achieve something of a feeling of solidarity, a feeling of united rather than individual suffering under their oppressors.

The second reason is the more important. The katorga system began in 1943, and a different kind of political prisoner was being sent to the camps. Prior to World War II, the political prisoner was often a Communist Party member caught in one of the numerous purges, or a member of one of the several leftist, but non-Bolshevik parties. But now the camp numbers were swelled with returning military men who had been captured and imprisoned by the Germans; with whole cadres of members of nationalist movements, especially Ukrainians; with those Russians who had administered territories under the German occupation. These new convicts were frequently men with experience of resistance, or at least with experience of disciplined group behavior. For the first time there came to be organizations and lines of authority separate from those imposed by camp discipline.

Solzhenitsyn is particularly concerned in this volume to answer those critics who ask why, if life in the camps was as brutal as he depicts, no one tried to rebel. His answer is that they did try; that they rebelled singly and in groups; and that their resistance was continual, and took many forms.

He begins on the level of individuals and small groups. Thus in these pages we find the first stories of successful resistance to the ravages of the thieves; eventually this resistance, by ones and twos, leads to the forming of underground prisoner organizations who reply to the thieves in kind, visiting rough retribution as well on informers and stool pigeons. He discusses many escape attempts, some of them successful despite enormous odds against them. A prisoner contemplating escape more often than not had to plan for a trek across hundreds of miles of trackless desert, in the face of propaganda that had made him appear a savage to the civilian population. He could expect anyone he met to hand him over to the authorities without hesitation. And there is a kind of wistfulness to these tales of escape, too; despite all their experience in the system, the prisoners tried to escape not to Japan or India or Western Europe, but often simply to return to their homes. Nevertheless, there were prisoners who mounted try after try, ending only with their freedom or their death.

Solzhenitsyn proceeds to large-scale revolts, hunger strikes, and work stop-pages, culminating in the armed rising at Kengir, which held the camp against the authorities for forty days. However, the result was the same in each case: first, some initial, limited success, then ultimate failure. And the author draws two conclusions from these histories: first, when challenged, the system would grind to a halt. The successes of the revolts depended on uncertainty in the administration of the MVD, which ran the camps. The rulers of the camps faltered, especially after the execution in 1953 of L. P. Beria, the head of internal security. Prior to his death, camp leaders knew they could murder the striking prisoners in safety; after it, they were not so sure for a time.

The second conclusion is more sobering; the final failure of the prisoner revolts resulted from their betrayal by high party officials. The word of the government, solemnly pledged, could not be trusted. And it could not be trusted because public opinion did not and does not exist in the Soviet Union. With complete control of all forms of communication, the government could prevent any word of the revolts themselves from ever reaching the attention of their own public or the attention of the West. An investigating committee from Moscow could promise whatever it liked to the prisoners, secure in the knowledge that no one would hold its members accountable for the fulfillment of those promises.

But these stories of battles against hopeless odds hold the same lesson as does the story of the rising of the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto against Hitler’s SS: no power can ever repress people in absolute security. And the stories have an additional, special lesson for Americans: the event that sparked hope among the prisoners of the Archipelago was the outbreak of the Korean War. They thought it meant the beginning of a third World War; readers of the book in America need to ponder how far a human being must be pushed before he will welcome an atomic war. And we need to reflect also whether some kinds of existence are not worse than the threat of atomic destruction. The politicals thought so.

Katorga is the subject of Part 5; Part 6 takes up exile, the third prong (after the Corrective Labor Camps and the hard-labor Special Camps) on Stalin’s pitchfork. The system of exile, like so many of the repressions detailed in the whole work, began in the 1920’s and 1930’s with the deportation of anyone branded a kulak—not only prosperous peasants, but also unsuccessful peasants—anyone who would not join a collective farm. The sweep included millers, blacksmiths (reclassified as petit bourgeois), anyone that a bureaucrat held a grudge against; and the total reached fifteen million from this source alone. The exile was not a relocation to some settled rural or urban community, but often it meant that a group of people with hardly anything but the clothes on their backs would be dumped on the barren bank of some subarctic river. In circumstances like this, it is not surprising that a sentence of exile was often indistinguishable from a sentence of death; it just took a little longer to execute.

One could be exiled for several reasons: for being of the wrong nationality, for instance, or for having served a term in the camps, or even for living in the wrong place. The first of these Solzhenitsyn discusses as a reverse migration of nations, for whole peoples were moved from the west to the barren central and eastern parts of the Soviet Union. In this way the Volga Germans were deported, and Greeks who lived in the Caucasus. The list of those removed goes on and on: the Chechens, the Ingush, and Karachai, the Balkars, the Kalmyks, the Kurds, the Crimean Tartars—all names almost unheard of in the West, and all forcibly deported from their homelands. To these must be added those who simply resided where there was a partisan movement: the Ukraine, or the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, or Estonia.

And to these, but later, are added those men and women who served their tenor twenty-five-year sentences in the camps. Solzhenitsyn himself, after serving out his sentence, is not released to resume his life in freedom, but is exiled to Kok-Terek, a miserable mud-hut village of four thousand in northern Kazakhstan. The exiles who are ex-prisoners find themselves stuck in still another Catch-22; they cannot establish a legal residence in their places of exile until they have jobs, and they cannot get jobs until they have legal residences. Therefore the lot of the more “fortunate” of them is much like slavery: if they do find work, their employers realize that they can squeeze their workers as much as they like; if the ex-prisoners quit, or are fired for complaining, they will starve.

To add to all this, there is an alternative to exile—banishment. The difference is that one can be banished (and subjected to all the disgrace and hardship of exile) without even the kangaroo trials the exiles usually undergo. One can be banished by “administrative action,” as many were for the crime of being Moslems or Baptists.

The concluding part, “Stalin Is No More,” briefly discusses the changes in the system since 1953, especially those since the Party Congress at which Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s reign as the “Cult of Personality.”

Since those events, there have been changes; thousands were released from camp or exile, and rehabilitated. But rehabilitation does not mean an admission that the government was wrong, and the prisoner was innocent, but only that his crime was not so bad. Those who were responsible for all the false imprisonments and deaths were not punished, but either remained at their posts or retired on government pensions. In 1953, the secret police, the KGB, was abolished; it was replaced six months later by the MGB with the same personnel.

Solzhenitsyn has just a single point to make in the final part, and it is this: although things have changed, they have changed only in practice, not in principle. Instead of thousands of political prisoners sentenced under Article 58 there are relatively few; there are still political prisoners, although their sentences have been camouflaged under other sections of the Criminal Code—a trumped-up charge of rape is as easy to process as a trumped-up charge of treason. If their numbers are fewer, there are still plenty of political prisoners in the camp system. And, more important, there are no safeguards that the same thing will not happen again. Solzhenitsyn demands that the guilty be punished; partly, of course, his cry rises from the yearning for an abstract justice. But there is a still more practical reason: until an open and full accounting of the Gulag system is made, and until those responsible for its erection and administration admit their guilt, it can happen again. It can happen until the Communist Party admits that it is both fallible and responsible to those it governs. Had those two obvious truths been accepted in 1917, The Gulag Archipelago would never have had to be written.

Bibliography

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 531

Bond, Anatole. A Study of the English and the German Translations of Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago.” Vol. 1. New York: Peter Lang, 1983. In a work chiefly of value to the student interested in languages, Bond explains numerous inadequacies in translations available in 1982.

Bullock, Alan. Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.

Carter, Stephen. The Politics of Solzhenitsyn, 1977.

Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties. New York: Macmillan, 1968.

Conquest, Robert. Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps. New York: Viking Press, 1978.

Dunlop, John B., Richard Haugh, and Alexis Klimoff, eds. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials, 1975 (second edition).

Dunlop, John B., Richard S. Haugh, and Michael Nicholson, eds. Solzhenitsyn in Exile: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution, 1985. Includes three critical essays on The Gulag Archipelago. Susan Richards’ “The Gulag Archipelago as Literary Documentary” argues that the work transcends the genre of history by means of the voice of Solzhenitsyn the narrator. John B. Dunlop’s “The Gulag Archipelago: Alternative to Ideology” discusses the positive social implications of the many examples of Soviet citizens rebelling against the system. Elisabeth Markstein’s “Observations on the Narrative Structure of The Gulag Archipelago” argues that the interweaving of different zeks’ narratives and styles gives the work a highly complex narrative structure.

Feuer, Kathryn, ed. Solzhenitsyn: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976. Includes “On Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago,” a historian’s assessment of Solzhenitsyn’s factual accuracy by Marxist writer Roy Medvedev. “On Reading The Gulag Archipelago” is an argument for Solzhenitsyn’s literary skill, by Victor Erlich.

Fireside, Harvey. Soviet Psychoprisons. New York: W. W. Norton, 1979.

Kennan, George. “Between Earth and Hell.” The New York Review of Books, March 21, 1974, 3. Insightful review of The Gulag Archipelago (parts 1 and 2) with commentary on Solzhenitsyn’s politics and philosophy.

Kodjak, Andrej. Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978. Commentary on The Gulag Archipelago. Kodjak argues that Solzhenitsyn’s narrative style transforms the work from mere documentation to artistic investigation.

Loewen, Harry. “Solzhenitsyn’s Kafkaesque Narrative Art in The Gulag Archipelago,” in Germano-Slavica. III, no. 1 (1979), pp. 5-15.

Malia, Martin. “A War on Two Fronts: Solzhenitsyn and the Gulag Archipelago,” in The Russian Review. XXXVI, no. 1 (1977), pp. 46-63.

Matual, David. “The Gulag Archipelago: From Inferno to Paradise,” in Studies in Twentieth Century Literature. VII, no. 1 (1982), pp. 35-43.

Medvedev, Roy A. Let History Judge. Rev. and exp. ed. Edited and translated by George Shriver. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

Monas, Sidney, and John B. Dunlop. “GULag and Points West,” in Slavic Review. XL, no. 3 (1981), pp. 444-463.

Pernoud, Mary-Anne. An Investigation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago” According to Various Themes and Types Found Through Literature History, 1983.

Scammell, Michael. Solzhenitsyn: A Biography, 1984.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I. The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation. Translated by Thomas P. Whitney. 3 vols. New York: Harper & Row, 1974-1978.

Tucker, Robert C. Stalin in Power: The Revolution from Above, 1928-1941. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.

Vroon, Ronald. “Literature as Litigation: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago,” in Russian History. VII, nos. 1/2 (1980), pp. 213-238.

Wood, Alan. “Solzhenitsyn on the Tsarist Exile System: A Historical Comment,” in Journal of Russian Studies. XLII (1981), pp. 39-43.

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