Sunday, April 17, 2011

Book Review: Gulag Archipelago Vol 2

After reading volume 1 of the Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, I had to find the 2nd volume. Solzhenitsyn picks up where he left off and this is once again a sledgehammer to the farce of Communism and to the reader's soul. The first volume ended just on the cusp of 'camp' and this 2nd volume takes you inside the camp. Solzhenitsyn's dark humor is on display here with witty and humorous comments throughout the book and even in the footnotes. How is this different than the first volume? How does Solzhenitsyn keep you hooked for another 700 pages after the onslaught of volume 1? He does it with beautiful writing and the truth.

Solzhenitsyn starts witht he history of the first work camps and from there describes all of the inhabitants and how camp culture permeated Russian culture while the archipelago was in place. It is incredibly depressing to read how camps were designed, run and staffed. You might read 75 pages and have to take a break because the subject material is so heavy. Solzhenitsyn goes through every type of camp citizen from the common thieves, the plight of women, the politicals, the 'trusties' (prisoners given better jobs), the camp keepers, and the wretched children in camps. A reader will understand daily camp life. A person might ask how does a country staff the camps for their own people, and Solzhenitsyn answers it with the camp keeper MVD selection process. I found the passages on camp 'marriages' entertaining, as even in the most shitty conditions, humans seek companionship and love. The sections about the plight of women and children are heart wrenching. One thing that I love about Solzhenitsyn is that he explains how each piece can fit intot he larger Soviet society framework and within each section he can display an example of said topic or an outlier.

In this book, he is a bit critical of the post-gulag era literature and takes to task people's memories. I really enjyoed his slaying of the rose colored reflections, the after the fact confessions, the focus on certain types of prison suffering but not others or the complete amnesia about certain things. He intends to shine the light of truth on the system so that the younger generations do not hear a filtered, sanitized version of the gulag. He is no saint as he admits int he book how the camp security came after him to be a stool pigeon, and he sort of caved partially. Solzhenitsyn had to write sections of the book in different locations out of fear certain apartments could be ransacked and the manuscripts found and destroyed, and these other fools would gloss over the horrible system or say "nothing like that could happen now".

The most beautiful and sad part of the book is the section (part 4) about the soul and barbed wire. This is the how the mind works in gulag section. How does one survive? How do you cope? How does a nation cope? How does a person not be corrupted? How does the soul progress in prison? He weaves a wonderful picture of how the mind operates in prison when it knows it is innocent, how the politicals who were innocent endured, and how the human soul can fight on. While this is a depressing book, it is also an inspiring book. The final 100 +/- pages about the soul in camp will inspire a reader. Eeven when all hope is lost, when everything is grueling and these people felt isolated, they endured and survived. His book is their testament and their story.

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