– The Gulag Archipelago

The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (Vol. 1-3) by Aleksandr Solzhenit͡syn; Harper & Row: (2,064 pages, $36.22).

The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenit͡syn

You may have not heard of it before, but the Gulag Archipelago is widely considered to be one of the 20th century’s most important works of non-fiction. It is credited for peeling back the Soviet Union’s “Iron Curtain” for the international community, exposing the horrors and genocide taking place inside of the Communist Party’s forced labor camps. Aleksandr Solzhenit͡syn won a Nobel Peace Prize for his writings in 1970, and its volumes are still mandatory reading in Russian high schools to this day.

During World War II, Aleksandr served as the commander of an artillery sound-ranging battery in the Red Army. He was involved in major action at the frontline, and was twice decorated. In February of 1945, while serving in East Prussia, Aleksandr was arrested for writing derogatory comments in private letters to a friend about the conduct of the war by Joseph Stalin. Stalin had taken his alliance with Adolf Hitler for granted, so when Nazi Germany unexpectedly turned against their Communist allies, the Red Army was caught unprepared along their western border, resulting in terrible losses for the Soviet Union. Accused of anti-Soviet propaganda, Aleksandr was taken to a Moscow prison for interrogation.

Come May 9th, 1945, it was announced that Germany had surrendered. All of Moscow broke out in celebrations with fireworks and searchlights illuminating the sky. Aleksandr famously wrote, “Above the muzzle of our window, and from all the other cells of the Lubyanka prison, and from all the windows of the Moscow prisons, we too, former prisoners of war and former front-line soldiers, watched the Moscow heavens, patterned with fireworks and crisscrossed with beams of searchlights. There was no rejoicing in our cells and no hugs and no kisses for us. That victory was not ours.” On July 7th, 1945, Aleksandr was sentenced in absence to an eight-year term in a gulag labor camp. This was the normal sentence for anti-Soviet propaganda. During his term of slave labor under the brutal Communist regime, he suffered from cancer left untreated.

As the victim of inhumane state cruelty, there is no small amount of people Aleksandr Solzhenit͡syn could have rightly blamed for the suffering he endured and all the deaths he bore witness to. Out of everyone, Aleksandr said that he blamed himself the most, for he was member to that corrupt society, and never did he take a stand or make a politically incorrect outcry about the unfair persecution of countless innocents by the party and culture in power at the time until at last that persecution came for him.

The title “The Gulag Archipelago” is derived from Aleksandr’s comparison of being an inmate of various prisons to being the inhabitant of a chain of small islands isolated from the outside world, whose experiences can only be known to other gulag inmates. At a whopping 2,064 pages, his work is no light read, and covers real life events not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. Equal parts depressing and informative, this work serves as an important record for one of our bloodier chapters in human history.

As a bit of a history buff, I enjoy books which provide firsthand account of important points in the history of our world, lending clues to how we as humans behaved in the past and what lessons we can learn from it moving forward. I’m of the opinion that the worst of humanity should be stared in the face and studied under a microscope so that we might better understand what truly went wrong in a society. Knowing historical events may not give us all the answers in that regard, but I feel it’s a step in the right direction. It’s always easy to say “I would’ve done better, were I in their shoes,” but seeing how oppressive an environment they lived in, and knowing that stepping out of line would’ve led to you being made an example of, makes me doubtful that many of us would’ve faired much better had we lived in their times.

Donavon Anderson is a reference librarian at May Memorial Library. He can be reached at danderson@alamancelibraries.org or 336-229-3588.

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