Wednesday, 28 December 2016

The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago was published today in 1973 in Paris. The novel describes the torture and murder of tens of millions of Soviet citizens by the communist regime in the Soviet Union (mostly during the rule of Josef Stalin from 1929 to 1953).

The word "Gulag" refers to the far-flung system of forced labor camps run by the Soviet secret police and its institutions. The prisoner population in these camps grew from a relatively small number after the revolution of 1917 to more than 15 million during the peak of Stalinist terror.

Solzhenitsyn has relied on his own experience as a prisoner for 8-years in a gulag labor camp, and on eyewitness accounts and research material to give a comprehensive picture of the terrible methods that the Soviet police and interrogators used to mount pressure on the citizens.

The saga of the Soviet gulag experience is told in a series of vignettes.

A citizen is threatened by an interrogator that his daughter will be locked up in a cell filled with syphilitics. When a prisoner protests that when the crime for which he was being accused occurred he was only 10-years-old, he is threatened that he should not try to insult the Soviet intelligence service. A infant's coffin is searched for hours in front of the parents.

At times the prisoners are murdered in mass killings, at times deliberately frozen to death in punishment isolators, and at times shot by guards eager to claim bonuses for killing escapees. But the vast majority of the prisoners are not killed directly; they are denied food so that they slowly starve to death. Hunger is the biggest killer in the gulags.

Why did the Soviet regime destroy the lives of tens of millions of its citizens? Solzhenitsyn rejects the idea that the murderous acts of Josef Stalin were an aberration in communist history. He is of the view that the idea of attaining and maintaining political power by unleashing a reign of terror is ingrained in the Marxist-Leninist ideology, which, he points out, is devoid of moral principles.

In Part VII of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn writes: "Oh, Western freedom-loving "left-wing" thinkers! Oh, left-wing labourists! Oh, American, German and French progressive students! All of this is still not enough for you. The whole book has been useless for you. You will understand everything immediately, when you yourself — "hands behind the back" — toddle into our Archipelago."

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