Exposes Soviet Atrocities

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago trilogy unveiled the inhumane and arbitrary nature of the Soviet police state with a wealth of compelling personal testimony and historical analysis.

Summary of Event

Like many other works by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Arkhipelag gulag, 1918-1956 (1973-1975; The Gulag Archipelago, 1974-1978) was completed years before it was published. Solzhenitsyn worked on this massive tome of “literary investigation” from 1958 to 1968, a period during which acclaimed novels such as Odin den’ Ivana Denisovicha (1962; One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1963) One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Solzhenitsyn) established his literary reputation. He had been putting off the publication of The Gulag Archipelago largely out of fear that Soviet authorities would take reprisals against some of the 227 informants with whom he had consulted while compiling the giant work. On the other hand, he believed that he had a duty to former prisoners who had died in the camps to get The Gulag Archipelago published in the near future, lest their sacrifices gradually fade away to dim memories amid the mists of time. Soviet Union;human rights abuses
Soviet Union;human rights abuses
Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr
Stalin, Joseph
Dzerzhinski, Feliks Edmundovich

During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, government harassment of Solzhenitsyn was intensifying to an intolerable point. Among other things, he was punitively ejected from the Soviet Writers’ Union in 1969 and prevented from traveling to Stockholm in 1970 to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Nobel Prize in Literature;Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn[Solzhenitsyn] Finally, a close friend named Elizaveta Voronyanskaya, Voronyanskaya, Elizaveta who had been hiding a manuscript copy of The Gulag Archipelago, broke down under five days of interrogation in September, 1973, informed the KGB where she had hidden it, and committed suicide. Once the KGB had seized a copy of his masterwork, Solzhenitsyn reasoned, no rationale for protecting the identity of informants through delay of publication existed any longer. The first part of the trilogy was published in Paris within a couple of months, and the second part was soon to follow.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

(The Nobel Foundation)

The Soviet state-controlled media quickly reacted to the release of The Gulag Archipelago with furious denunciations of Solzhenitsyn, who received a number of death threats during the winter of 1973-1974. KGB agents hauled him off to jail on February 12, 1974, and by the next day he had been stripped of his Soviet citizenship and deported to West Germany. Solzhenitsyn subsequently stayed in Zurich for a period before settling down for a protracted exile in rural Vermont. Both The Gulag Archipelago and its author would be strictly banned from entering the Soviet Union from 1974 until the late 1980’s, when the work’s officially sanctioned republication marked a new height for tolerance and glasnost under the regime of Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev, Mikhail

Solzhenitsyn characterized The Gulag Archipelago as “literary investigation,” for the work did not adequately fit the categories of either history or literature. The narrator comes across as a highly dramatized and often impassioned figure who would be out of place in a sober historical treatise. Solzhenitsyn’s narrator directly addresses the reader and historical figures such as Joseph Stalin on a number of occasions, often with overtones of indignation or querulousness that would be out of place in historical narrative. Furthermore, the extended use of such imaginative metaphors as islands for labor camps and sewer pipes as conduits for prisoners’ transit to the camps runs counter to the drier and more factual approach typically adopted by historians. On the other hand, Solzhenitsyn eschews the creation of literary characters and even refrains from adopting pseudonyms for the personages in his book: The furthest he is willing to go to protect the confidentiality of certain informants is to refer to a relatively small proportion of the total only by their initials. Moreover, the abundance of historical detail and testimonial anecdote prevents the text from straying very far in the direction of imaginative narrative.

The author draws on a range of methods to organize his voluminous materials, which bulk to nearly two thousand pages. At the book’s outset, Solzhenitsyn includes separate chapters on the phases that the new prisoner undergoes between arrest and resettlement in a prison camp, including confinement in jail cells, interrogation, transit in paddy wagons and trains, and stopovers in transit prisons along the way to the camp destination. Combining personal recollections with the experiences of 227 informants, the author evokes the pace and texture of these stages in the new prisoner’s life with verve and liveliness. At other times, he seeks to trace the origins of a relevant set of social practices, such as the implementation of Soviet counterrevolutionary suppression laws. In these sections, he draws heavily on historical source materials and imparts a chronological order to what is overall a topically organized narrative. Occasionally, he pauses to dwell at length on the stories of memorable individuals such as George Tenno, who led prison breaks on a number of occasions. Still other times, Solzhenitsyn takes on a more reflective bearing and explores the possibility of achieving something on the order of spiritual redemption through suffering the privations of camp life.

It is the redemptive side of camp life that imparts so much ambivalence to Solzhenitsyn’s view of the camp system as a whole. His voice often rings indignant while piling up incident after incident suggestive of the camp system’s brutality, and yet he repeatedly insists that he has gained something along the lines of spiritual or emotional growth from having suffered in the camps. Solzhenitsyn’s ambivalence toward the camps stands in strong contrast to the older Soviet writer Varlam Shalamov’s more thoroughgoing, if gentle, negation of the camp system’s purported redemptive function.


The publication of The Gulag Archipelago achieved one of Solzhenitsyn’s major aims: to undercut the post-Stalinist line, adopted by Marxist-Leninists both within and outside the Soviet Union, that state socialism had been on a glorious course of humanity and justice until Stalin and his “personality cult” muscled in to distort the “correct” Leninist policies. Particularly in the second part of the trilogy, Solzhenitsyn sifted through a wide array of historical records and memoirs to make the case that the repressive police state that reached its apogee of brutality under Stalin had been built up from the dawn of the October Revolution by Vladimir Ilich Lenin Lenin, Vladimir Ilich and his chief lieutenants, notably Feliks Edmundovich Dzerzhinski, the regime’s first security chief. Solzhenitsyn also included Karl Marx himself among the parties to blame for the creation of the repressive Soviet police state, noting Marx’s vehement advocacy of violence as a progressive force for social change.

Furthermore, Solzhenitsyn extended the blame for injustices in the Soviet system to post-Stalin times, noting that in spite of various measures taken to decrease the brutality of the gulag by Stalin’s successors, the basic machinery of the Soviet legal system and gulag had changed very little. Indeed, it was not until the late 1980’s that Gorbachev would oversee the dismantling of most of the gulag, and Boris Yeltsin Yeltsin, Boris had to wait until 1992 before he could announce the release of the last political prisoner in the Russian Republic.

Marxist-Leninist intellectuals in the West had long dismissed hard-hitting critiques of the Soviet record on human rights and social justice as the propagandistic outpourings of biased “bourgeois” outsiders who were ignorant of Soviet realities. The Gulag Archipelago put all but the extremist fringe of Western Marxist-Leninist apologists for the Soviet system on the defensive, for even though one might disagree with Solzhenitsyn on particular interpretations, his massive compilation of eyewitness reports from within the gulag could not be dismissed by any but the most intransigent of Communist ideologues.

The gradual decline of Marxist-Leninist philosophy as a viable intellectual force in the modern world gathered momentum and intensified; far-left political parties and individuals in the West desperately backpedaled in an effort to qualify their previous wholehearted support for Leninist doctrines that were now shown to have aided and abetted the creation of the gulag. Even for radical Western academics such as the ex-Communist Michel Foucault, Foucault, Michel who continued throughout his career to portray modern “bourgeois” Western society as terribly and insidiously repressive, Solzhenitsyn’s critique of the major alternative to the Western order could not be ignored; in his Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison (1975; Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 1977), Discipline and Punish (Foucault) Foucault attempted to dramatize the apparent repressiveness of the modern Western prison system by styling it “the carceral archipelago,” thus rhetorically putting it on par with the Soviet gulag. It is a tribute to the impact of Solzhenitsyn’s work that avant-garde intellectuals such as Foucault, who disdained the supposed primitivity of the Russian’s humanistic and pragmatic philosophy, nevertheless eagerly borrowed the moral weight of The Gulag Archipelago when it suited their rhetorical interests.

Solzhenitsyn’s influential trilogy underlined the potential impact of patient and detailed chronicling of human rights abuses. Although a secretive and repressive regime such as the Soviet government could continue to suppress the facts about many a political prisoner, the glare of international publicity inspired by The Gulag Archipelago and the acts of other dissidents would keep human rights concerns near the top of the agenda for foreign political leaders in their dealings with Soviet leaders throughout the late 1970’s and all of the 1980’s. Solzhenitsyn’s literary close-ups of suffering inmates encouraged human rights activists to focus their efforts on the pursuit of justice for individual prisoners of conscience rather than on unrealistic demands for large-scale releases. The regime would at first find it easier to make individual and small-scale concessions rather than sweeping concessions, but incremental changes would gradually gather momentum, to the point that large-scale reforms like Gorbachev’s seemed not only conceivable but even necessary. There is little doubt, therefore, that The Gulag Archipelago played a significant role in the monumental changes that swept over the Soviet Union in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Soviet Union;human rights abuses

Further Reading

  • Dolgun, Alexander, and Patrick Watson. Alexander Dolgun’s Story: An American in the Gulag. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975. A vivid and accessible autobiographical account of an American foreign-service officer who was kidnapped by the Soviet secret police and forced to spend a decade under brutal conditions in the gulag. As one of Solzhenitsyn’s 227 informants, Dolgun appears in the pages of The Gulag Archipelago as Alexander D.
  • Feuer, Kathryn, ed. Solzhenitsyn: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976. Fine background reading and interpretive essays on Solzhenitsyn’s works, including The Gulag Archipelago. In one of the book’s chapters, the dissident scholar Roy Medvedev balances his praise for The Gulag Archipelago with criticism of Solzhenitsyn’s apparent nostalgia for the repressive ancièn régime and Russian Orthodox Church. Medvedev also criticizes Solzhenitsyn’s ambivalence in describing the Bolsheviks who got caught in the maw of the very purges they had once enthusiastically supported.
  • Moody, Christopher. Solzhenitsyn. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. A solid and readable treatise that contains separate chapters on Solzhenitsyn’s biography and his compilation of The Gulag Archipelago.
  • Shalamov, Varlam. Kolyma Tales. Translated by John Glad. 2d ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1994. In spite of the fact that Varlam Shalamov endured a much longer and harsher prison stay than Solzhenitsyn, this collection of delicate, low-key short stories provides a strong contrast with the bitingly satiric narrative tone of The Gulag Archipelago.
  • Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I. The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation. Vols. 1 and 2. Translated by Thomas P. Whitney. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. This first volume in the three-volume set draws on numerous personal accounts and historical records to sketch the various stages of Soviet incarceration, including arrest, frisking, interrogation, rail transit, transit prisons, and the prison camp itself.
  • _______. The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation. Vols. 3 and 4. Translated by Thomas P. Whitney. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. The second volume of the gulag trilogy traces the origins of the Soviet labor camp system back past Stalin’s dictatorship to the beginning of Lenin’s rule and even to Marx’s polemics in favor of class warfare and dictatorship. Solzhenitsyn also discusses the prison-camp milieu, dividing it up into warders, guards, “free workers,” and categories of prisoners such as women, children, returned war prisoners, political prisoners, common thieves, and stool pigeons.
  • _______. The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation. Vols. 5-8. Translated by Harry Willetts. New York: Harper & Row, 1978. The third and concluding volume covers a broad array of topics, including large and small prison breaks, mass ethnic deportations to the camps, waves of peasant prisoners, and the difficulties facing ex-inmates returning to society.
  • _______. The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956. Translated by Thomas P. Whitney and Harry Willetts. Abridged reprint version. New York: Perennial Classics, 2002. Includes all the above volumes, with a new foreword by Edward E. Ericson, Jr.
  • _______. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Translated by Ralph Parker. Reprint. New York: Signet Classic, 1998. It required the personal intervention of Nikita Khrushchev himself to allow the journal Novy mir’s publication of this controversial novel about one day in the life of a camp prisoner. The low-key tone of understatement in the novel stands in sharp contrast with the unrestrainedly sardonic rhetoric typical of The Gulag Archipelago.
  • Wu, Hongda Harry. Laogai: The Chinese Gulag. Translated by Ted Slingerland. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1992. The first in-depth examination of the only prison-camp system to rival the Soviet gulag in both size and harshness. While this treatise lacks the literariness of The Gulag Archipelago, it explores the economic dimensions of the labor-camp system in much greater detail.

Soviet Union Expels Solzhenitsyn

Soviets Crack Down on Moscow’s Helsinki Watch Group

Gorbachev Initiates a Policy of Glasnost