I finally finished reading the abridged version of The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The abridged version is 470 pages long, and it still gives the impression that we are only scratching the surface of all that happened with the camp system in the century since the Russian Revolution. Solzhenitsyn himself writes with regret about the fact that his account is sadly incomplete:
Those whom I asked to take on particular chapters would not do so, but instead offered stories, written or oral, for me to use as I pleased. What we really needed was a well-staffed office. [But] not only could I not spread myself like this; I had to conceal the project itself, my letters, my materials, to disperse them, to do everything in deepest secrecy. I even had to camouflage the time I spent working on the book with what looked like work on other things.
I must explain that never once did this whole book, in all its parts, lie on the same desk at the same time! In September, 1965, when work on the Archipelago was at its most intensive, I suffered a setback: my archive was raided and a novel impounded. At this point the parts of the Archipelago were already written, and the materials for the other parts, were scattered, and never reassembled: I could not take the risk, especially when all the names were given correctly.
I have stopped work on the book not because I regard it as finished, but because I cannot spend any more of my life on it. Besides begging for indulgence, I want to cry aloud: When the time and the opportunity comes, gather together, all you friends who have survived and know the story well, and write your own commentaries … Only then will the book be definitive. God bless the work!
The full list of those without whom this book could not have been written, or revised, or kept safe cannot yet be entrusted to paper. They know who they are. They have my homage.pp. 469 – 472
No Triumph Here
There are many words that could be used to describe the experience of reading this book. Horrifying, overwhelming, and in parts, inspiring. But I have chosen sobering because that is the overall impression that it left with me. No book about the systematic arrest, imprisonment, degradation, and murder of millions of people — and the suppression of their stories — can end on a triumphant note. Even when the triumph that has happened is that their stories have finally been told:
We could not foresee what it would be like: how for no visible compelling reason the earth would shudder and give, how the gates of the abyss would briefly, grudgingly part so that two or three birds of truth would fly out before they slammed to, to stay shut for a long time to come. So many of my predecessors had not been able to finish writing, or to preserve what they had written, or to crawl or scramble to safety — but I had this good fortune: to thrust the first handful of truth through the open jaws of the iron gates before they slammed shut again.
Like matter enveloped by antimatter, it exploded instantaneously!
Only too rarely do our fellow countrymen have a chance to speak their mind … and former prisoners still more rarely. Their faith had proved false, their hopes had been cheated so often — yet now they believed that the era of truth was really beginning, that at last it was possible to speak and write boldly!
And they were disappointed, of course, for the hundredth time …
When Krushchev, wiping the tear from his eye, gave permission for the publication of [my novel about the gulags] Ivan Denisovich, he was quite sure that it was about Stalin’s camps, that he had none of his own.
I myself was taken by surprise when I received a stream of letters — from present-day zeks [prisoners]. These letters, too, were a single many-throated cry. But a cry that said, “What about us!!??” And the zeks set up a howl: What do you mean, never happen again? We’re here inside now, and our conditions are just the same!
“Nothing has changed since Ivan Denisovich’s time” — the message was the same in letters from many different places. “Any zek who reads your book will feel bitterness and disgust because everything is just as it was.” “What has changed, if all the laws providing for twenty-five years’ imprisonment issued under Stalin are still in force?”
After reading all these letters, I who had been thinking myself a hero saw that I hadn’t a leg to stand on: in ten years I had lost my vital link with the Archipelago.pp. 451 – 453
Human Psychology is Universal
Though I have never lived under an oppressive socialist regime, many parts of this book felt familiar because human psychology is the same. For example, in an early chapter Solzhenitsyn describes how common it was for people to be arrested because they had been accused or betrayed by a jealous spouse. A man secretly accuses another man who he suspects is having an affair with his wife. A wife accuses her husband so she can get rid of him and live with her lover. This is the same phenomenon we now see on campuses where bitter exes will use the university’s sexual-harassment reporting system to take revenge on each other. And it’s not just about women vs. men: I recently saw a case where a lesbian used it to take down her ex, who happened to be a professor, after the relationship went sour. The problem is that when you set up a bureaucratic “justice” system that can be easily used to ruin people, the temptation to use it on your personal enemies is almost overwhelming.
Here are some other things that felt oddly familiar: When Solzhenitsyn’s book A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich came out, the Soviet newspapers grudgingly praised it: “an explosion of newspaper articles — written with gritted teeth, with ill-concealed hatred and resentment: an explosion of official praise that left a sour taste in my mouth” (p. 451). This, in turn, caused former prisoners to assume that the book was not an actual expose, but rather “controlled opposition” put out by the regime as more propaganda.
“The prolonged absence of any free exchange of information within a country opens up a gulf of incomprehension between whole groups of the population, between millions and millions. We simply cease to be a single people, for we speak, indeed, different languages.” (p. 432)
The mildest and at the same time most widespread form of betrayal was not to do anything bad directly, but just not to notice the doomed person next to one, not to help him, to turn away one’s face, to shrink back. They had arrested a neighbor, your comrade at work, or even your close friend. You kept silence. You acted as if you had not noticed. (For you could not afford to lose your current job!) And then it was announced at work, at the general meeting, that the person who had disappeared the day before was … an inveterate enemy of the people. And you, who had bent your back beside him for twenty years at the same desk, now by your noble silence (or even by your condemning speech!), had to show how hostile you were to his crimes.p. 323
May God Prepare Our Hearts
Because if we ever face anything like this, our own character will be our downfall.
Those people became corrupted in camp who had already been corrupted out in freedom or who were ready for it. Because people are corrupted in freedom too, sometimes even more effectively than in camp.
If a person went swiftly bad in camp, what it might mean was that he had not just gone bad, but that that inner foulness which had not previously been needed had disclosed itself.
Yes, camp corruption was a mass phenomenon. But not only because the camps were awful, but because in addition we Soviet people stepped upon the soil of the Archipelago spiritually disarmed …p. 319
When people express vexation, in my presence, over the West’s tendency to crumble, its political shortsightedness, its divisiveness, its confusion — I recall too: “Were we, before passing through the Archipelago, more steadfast? Firmer in our thoughts?”
And that is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: “Bless you, prison!”p. 313
8 thoughts on “Sobering”
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I read this soon after its publication–of course I did! I’m a Russian major! Amazing what people will do to try to reveal the truth. Everything Solzhenitsyn wrote was excellent, frightening, enlightening, and sobering.
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Oh yes … you read it in the original, didn’t you? What do you think of this translation? It’s Thomas P. Whitney and Harry Willets. As an English speaker, I thought it read really smoothly. And now I am getting deja vu … sorry if I’ve asked you this before.
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Overall, I am underwhelmed by translations of Russian novels. It’s very hard to get the real sense of what being Russian means. But, I am happy that the effort is made so everyone can read this amazing literature.
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I, too, read Gulag Archipelago and two other of Solzhenitsyn’s books quite a few years ago. But, I am far from being a scholar.
Reading Solzhenitsyn one can understand a bit more how advanced, civilized societies can turn barbaric – on their own people. It is, I believe, because decent people, the majority, say and do nothing to stop despots in the beginning.
The U.S. is at a crossroads. We can continue on the path of demonizing those with whom we disagree, allowing some to burn our cities with impunity while others are held without bail for “crimes” much less destructive, marginalizing the family and its central role in raising children and replacing it with bureaucrats. There are more examples, but I’m sure you get my point. It would be easy to use a cliche such as the insane are running the asylum, but that would be overlooking the core problem.We are being overrun by those that have no love…for God or their fellow man.
If this movement, and it is one, is not stopped we have nothing more to look forward to than joining a long list of other societies such as Cambodia, Uganda, China, Russia (USSR) and Germany.
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Absolutely agree, especially about the attack on the family.
I don’t want this blog to become primarily a political blog, so I didn’t go through and point out all the ideological parallels, just posted some quotes. To me, the familiarity and significance of these quotes is glaringly obvious, but I know it will not be to others … or that they will apply them in the opposite way I would expect. I really did not believe that we would see people falling for cultlike ideological, purge mentality thinking in my lifetime. I guess I underestimated the strong pull towards such thinking inherent in human nature.
Yes, I do fear for the future. That is why I think everyone who can stand to do it, should read Solzhenitsyn and meditate on it. Not just for the sake of remembering the Russian zeks, but also because there is valuable experience here. Solzhenitsyn describes how every person’s reaction when first arrested is: “Me? What for?” Then they co-operate as best they can, because they assume there’s been a misunderstanding and it will quickly get straightened out. This hope that they might yet be released if they do or say the magic thing is what the interrogators play on psychologically. I have no doubt that all of us are just as naive – or nearly – as Solzhenitsyn when he was first arrested, but perhaps we can learn from his experience, and become more cynical and fatalistic, while at the same time deepening our trust in God. We can become as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.
Too much right now. Sorry.
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I certainly understand that.