Sunday, June 06, 2010

Book Review: The Gulag Archipelago

If you are looking to blow your mind, dig into a lesser known historical epoch, explore human darkness and light, laugh out loud at death and misery, look no further than this book. The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is one of the greatest non-fiction works I have ever read. It is referred to as an experiment in literary investigation. I have completed volume 1, which is books 1 + 2, and will be looking for the later volumes. This is the epic book on the Soviet prison system, the Gulag, from a prisoner, scholar and human being who would not be destroyed by the system. Solzhenitsyn (AS) used his amazing memory, interviews and the kindness of friends to capture as many stories as possible from fellow inmates and source as much information as possible to write this history of the Gulag while still living in the Soviet police state after his release. AS's work is breathtaking in its ability to weave personal anecdotes and tales within the framework of the history of the system. While it might sound insensitive, there is great humor and sarcasm throughout the book. This is the type of work that we as humans should be proud of and spotlight whenever it emerges.

The Gulag Archipelago (GA) takes the reader along the islands of the prison system, its sewers, its methods and its dirty secrets. AS does his best to teach the reader how everything could happen even in as backward a nation as Soviet Russia. The imagery used is amazing and very engaging despite how macabre and eerie it is to envision. Some Holocaust deniers and other skeptics of the monstrosities of the Soviets, Mao's China and the Khmer Rouge love to point out how difficult it would be to pull it off in a country without others noticing. AS does a fantastic job of describing how the trains for the Gulag are right there in plain sight just covered up slightly. Black Maria prisoner transports with "Bread", "Meat" and "Drink Soviet Champagne!" painted on the side are the hidden shuttles.

"Drink Soviet Champagne!" is referred to multiple times and is part of the secret success of this book. It is filled with dark, sarcastic humor. Gallows humor is strewn throughout this book. He can joke about his own dumb actions, the naivete of new prisoners or the sheep of Soviet Russia, and the dumb rules, regulations, and norms of the Gulag. GA will make you laugh out loud right after chilling your skin with a horrible story of suffering. Your eyes will well with tears at one page, to turn to the next page and chuckle at a phrase AS inserts to poke fun at a prisoner's stupidity or the bizarre rationalizations of the Soviets in charge. AS is at his comedic best when describing the convoys, the jailers, interrogations and the bizarro 'trials'. These are not even the horrible show trials of the '37 purge but smaller show trials of the '20s. AS does a fantastic job of reminding the reader of the smallest of injustices within the big picture and how it all fits into the puzzle.

AS expresses his annoyance with the books and lamentations that all go back to the purges of 1937 as if that was an aberration withint he good old days of Soviet Russia. This book is the sledgehammer to that myth. The GA shows how the mechanism for repression and terror started back in the early days of Soviet Russia under Lenin. It is disturbing to read how the Soviets would have 'waves' as AS writes it of new types of prisoners. Church figures or even just practicing private citizens were imprisoned or executed for their beliefs. The intelligentsia, engineers, kulaks, you name it, the Soviets imprisoned or killed them. AS wants people to understand that the GA was not just a symptom of Stalin's supreme asshole-ness, but was an integral part of the Soviet system. Anyone who might show some independent thought or strength of character would be taken care of in the Mafia sense. It is a good analogy, the Mob and the Commies. Many of their methods overlap.

American children if they take a European history class get the idea that the Russians fought in WW1, the Tsar abdicated, Russia made a separate peace with Germany and then the Bolsheviks took over. It was not so simple, and the Soviets took over as a beaten and scared ruling party. They used prison, executions, and fear to keep control of such a large country. The Soviets manipulated groups to win the civil war, and then turned on those very groups that helped them (farmers especially). AS describes how the Soviets turned on the very people who helped their victory, and then turned on other political parties that allied with them for the revolution, but weren't quite Bolshevik. It is a painful betrayal, and one that peopel did not see because the Bolsheviks were the ultimate bait and switch crew. All of this from the Germans sending Lenin in a sealed train car to Russia to maybe help shut down the eastern front of WW1.

The Gulag system, which started at the USSR's infancy, was partly reponsible for the industrial advances and production of the nation. This was a slave labor system. AS refers to this often, and it will dawn on the reader how much of the infrastructure of Russia was made at the expenses of 'prisoners'. This might explain why the Soviets had such amazing growth and then saw their economic growth slow as the Gulag system was wound down. Maybe without the slave labor, they had to incur true costs for basics which created allocation of capital problems. I'd have to read up on it more, but it is sickening to read AS's words and think that some of these arrests were just because projects needed manpower. Still, the 'arrests' were a terror tactic that had the unintended benefit of manpower.

Arrests are discussed in great detail in the GA. Why, how, when, who and what, all are addressed. For the slightest offhand remark a citizen gets a tenner (10 yr sentence). Forced confessions and false statements lead to other arrests. AS describes article 58, and how it basically allowed for anyone of any suspicion to be arrested. This is pure terror. This is a true police state of terror designed for use against the very citizens it claims to represent and serve. AS does discuss the blue caps of state security, their methods and the sick world they operate in. AS even explores the possibility of working with them when he was in school considering his future. Some of the most interesting chapters are centered on the arrests and interrogations and just how a nation could submit to this in such a quiet manner.

AS mentions that some of the earlier arrests and trials were problematic for the Soviet ruling elite, and that the first wheat is the hardest to cut down. This might be part of the problem. The Soviets might have targeted the toughest opposition first, eliminated them in the '20s and then moved onto terroizing any dissent later. It might have also hurt that the Tsar used methods of imprisonment and iron fist rule at times which made compliance ingrained in the national character. Russians were used to Tsar rule, and in the end, wasn't Stalin just another Tsar? AS makes certain to show just how mild the Tsars were in contrast to the Soviets. The numbers of executions and the rate of execution are frightening in comparison. Plus you had Soviet judges who said "no they won't be executed, they'll be shot" (paraphrasing). Why didn't they fight back? They knew what an arrest meant, so why not go down fighting? This problem starts right at the night of arrest and continues to their transport when prisoners know the charges were false, the trial rigged, the sentence no shorter than 8 years, and hard labor was staring them in the face.

The Soviet Gulag system, as well as Mao's forced famines, are not addressed too closely in modern discussions of those countries. Keep in mind that anything the USA has ever done is currently being apologized for by our current POTUS, but have we as a world ever given proper 'bad dog' finger wagging at the Soviets (and other commies)? The UN and other International things don't do much more than finger wag but has this portion of Russian history been properly addressed? Wikipedia's entry for the Gulag makes a small reference to this. Germans still bear the burden of Nazism, so why not the Russians for the repression on their own people and others who are now independent? In America, I think there is a slight issue of fellow traveler cover. Even on Wikipedia's entry for GA, there is the line that the GA's take on the Gulag system being a part of Soviet life starting with lenin and not just a Stalin brainchild is the prevalent view of right wing writers and scholars. Sorry, but reading this book, seeing released USSR documents, and hearing the stories after the USSR's fall should make it the view of anyone. There might be a reluctance to admit this was the Soviet way because for years, decades even, there was that strain of Americans (referred to pinkies or pinkos back in the day) who wanted people to try to understand the commies. Maybe they spent years using the moral relativism argument to say the US was no better than the USSR. Maybe it is just too tough to admit one is wrong? Tough to talk tough on the bad Soviet Gulag system when you wore Mao shirts in college or at dinner parties labelled yourself a Marxist (I have one aunt that is a Marxist).

This book acts as a flashlight on that dark world. It is a bit of a love letter to those who died within the Gulags sewage system. There is a passage that strikes me as part of the love letter for fellow victims theme and reminds me of why the Holocaust museum was created:
"Thus many were shot, thousands at first, then hundreds of thousands. We divide,
we multiply, we sigh, we curse. But still and all, these are just numbers. They
overwhelm the mind and then are easily forgotten. And if someday the relatives
of those who had been shot were to send one publisher photographs of their
executed kin, and an album of those photographs were to be published in several
volumes, then just by leafing through them and looking into the extinguished
eyes we would learn much that would be valuable for the rest of our lives. Such
reading, almost without words, would leave a deep mark on our hearts for all
While not a collection of photos of the murdered, this book is the tapestry of their lives. They did not die as a faceless number in the Gulag system. Their stories fill this book and make it the beautiful book that it is. Near the end of the book, there is a passage that moved me as the author recounts hearing normal conversations on a train ride while he was being transported by a special transfer. It was his dip back into 'freedom' as a ghost-like figure. I'm not going to bother with suburban commentary on it. I'm just going to leave you all with it. If you do buy this book and read it, please honor the lives of these people and read their story.
"What about the main thing in life, all its riddles? If you want I'll spell
it out for you right now. Don't pursue what is illusory - property and position:
all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is
confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life - don't
be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness; it is, after all, all
the same; the bitter doesn't last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to
overflowing. It is enough if you don't freeze in the cold and if thirst and
hunger don't claw at your insides. if your back isn't broken, if your feet can
walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes can see, and if both ears can hear,
then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devous us most of all.
Rub your eyes and purify your heart - and prize above all else in the world
those who love you and wish you well. Do not hurt them or scold them, and never
part from any of them in anger; after all, you simply do not know: it might be
your last act before your arrest, and that will be how you are imprinted in
their memory!"

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