The Gulag Archipelago - Parts I and III've been meaning to for years, and I finally read it. I finally read the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago. I could have put it off longer, but I found a paperback copy for a quarter at a yard sale. Then I needed something for the trip to NYC. With all the time one spends at the airport these days when one flies, a hunk of good solid reading material is a must.
This is certainly good solid reading material and it kind of blows the lid off of any thoughts anyone may have of any kind of socialist utopia where "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" is possible. And that line about "Workers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains"? Forget it. It's more like, "Fools of the world, unite. Exchange your current manageable chains for chains that will drag your body down the same way you've dragged your mind down if you still don't understand that communism is a mug's game.!"
Under the circumstances, this could have been a hideously depressing book and impossible to read. In fact, judging from the heft of the book and the number of used copies I've seen over the years, my guess is that more people bought it than read it. A lot more. I also have to surmise that even fewer people bought or read the second volume containing parts III and IV. (I picked that up yesterday at one of our better area used book stores. It's on my book shelf now, and I'll get to it eventually.) Solzhenitsyn softens the pain considerably with his constant sarcastic tone. No, the reader doesn't laugh along with him, but the reader shares the frustration and the irony of a system that some people today still worship as the greatest hope for mankind, but that arrested millions of innocent men and women in order to maintain control over citizens and to feed the gigantic slave labor pool that was needed to build projects that wouldn't have been able to be built otherwise. Let's face it: a controlled economy is no economy and that's what the Russians had under communism. For some of the true believers who were arrested on trumped up charges or on no charges at all, it was the shock of being caught in the system they supported that gave them the realization that something wasn't quite right here.
As musician, poet, and philosopher(?) Sun Ra said,
If you do wrong, you have to pay,
But if you do right, you have to pay too;
Also, if you do nothing
You have to pay.
And it didn't start under Stalin, as some of the apologists would like us to believe. It built upon the prisons and police force of the czars. The inhumanity of the system was taken light years beyond anything the czars ever imagined. And it was taken there by Lenin and his henchmen.
Solzhenitsyn doesn't settle for merely telling his own story as a prisoner of the gulags. His is only one of hundreds that he shares. He also gives a history of the system, and a tour of the system, from his arrest to his arrival at some of his work projects. In between we get others' stories of both intentional and casual cruelty. While the conditions were almost uniformly horrible throughout the system from arrest, through transport, to prisons and work camps, Solzhenitsyn talked to other prisoners. Many of them, of course are long dead, having died somewhere along the way. Some prisoners, like Solzhenitsyn got lucky and were imprisoned in places where it was possible to not be worked to death.
While describing the horrors of the system, and according to him, Soviet jailers were much worse than Nazi jailers, as he met prisoners who were unfortunate enough to experience both, he also writes of the pleasures of talking to other prisoners, intelligent men and women who had important stories to share, of being able to read the occasional great book. He looked for and reported on the positive in a man-made hell.
By the time Solzhenitsyn was arrested the system had been functioning for years and ran like a well-oiled machine. Arrests were done at night so that the befuddled victim was less likely to fight back. Very few, including the author, did. From that point on, the cruelty built. Some of it, including interrogation and torture, was to break the prisoner in order to get false confessions and names of other "conspirators". And some of it was just to keep the system running more efficiently. Prisoners died at every step. Those who lived were moved to the next step, until finally he, or she, ended up at one of the gulags to, most likely, be worked to death.
I'm not sure a lesser writer could have pulled this off. The only part where it drags is in his review of many of the more notorious show trials. Other than that, it's a fascinating look into another facet of man's inhumanity to man.
In closing, I have to share a piece of advice from Solzhenitsyn. It's on page 591 of the paperback edition:
“Do not 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 who should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart – and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who 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 and that will be how you are imprinted in their memory.”