Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Message of the Archipelago

The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation
The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: 
An Experiment in Literary Investigation 

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”  ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956

What kind of a book is The Gulag Archipelago? While it is encyclopedic in its breadth it also demonstrates the characteristics of autobiography, history, and the epic while using a novelistic literary style – and what else? In a certain sense Solzhenitsyn’s writings may be classified in many ways. The Gulag Archipelago is important for its relationship with each type of work the author has undertaken, and thus it should be considered as central to his literary endeavors. 

The abridged version is divided into Seven “Parts” (The original was three separate volumes of more than a thousand pages in total). There are many events, issues, and ideas covered in the book. Here I only mention selected topics, while there are many more that could be noted. He opens with “And those who, like you and me, dear reader, go there to die, must get there solely and compulsorily via arrest.” (p 3) Somehow I was reminded of Kafka's The Trial.

The selection process was political but there was a sort of classification process – noting such issues as quotas, the bureaucratic inconsistencies, propagandists, and the war against the bourgeoisie. He discussed the nature of Interrogations: including the inquisition, investigation, and psychological torture/games. And in most cases one could not be prepared for the departure:
“So what is the answer? How can you stand your ground when you are weak and sensitive to pain, when people you love are still alive, when you are unprepared?” (p 63)

The were the guards - the “Blue Caps” - which reminded me of “The Guardians” from Plato's The Republic. And there was a reference to Socrates: “Socrates taught us: Know thyself! Confronted by the pit into which we are about to toss those who have done us harm, we halt, stricken dumb: it is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren't.” (p 75)

Somehow it was possible for Solzhenitsyn to develop thoughts that prison “was not an abyss for me” and how it was a turning point in his life. In every person and place one would encounter Orwellian moments like trying to discern the difference between a "sentence" and "an imposed administrative penalty." From time to time the author would talk directly to the “compassionate reader”. These comments, usually personal notes, were not really significantly different than the rest of the text. The voice of the author was often personal and while the text as a whole read like history, it could have been some other type of literature?

Forgetting and remembering: “We forget everything. What we remember is not what actually happened, not history, but merely that hackneyed dotted line they have chosen to drive into our memories by incessant hammering.” (p 120) There was Stalin and the Show Trials: “Even if Stalin had killed no others, I believe he deserved to be drawn and quartered just for the lives of those six Tsarskoye Selo peasants! . . . 'The peoples of all the world remember him as a friend.' But not those on whose backs he rode, whom he slashed with his knout.” (p 132)

He wondered - does the person behind bars have a soul, or is it hidden or purged by the rigors of confinement? And yet the catalog continued: The Ports: “this is after all a whole epic, another ten volumes of Remembrance of Things Past: to describe the perturbation of a human soul placed in a cell filled to twenty times its capacity and with no latrine bucket,” (p 161)
The Caravans: “the red trains can go into emptiness: and wherever one does go, there immediately rises right next to it, out of the sea of the steppe or the sea of the taiga, a new island of the Archipelago.” (p 167)

The camps were like a malignant cancer, spreading across the steppes, forming an “Archipelago”. Yet, the story of the camps was hidden. How was that possible – and who was complicit in hiding? This was a conundrum. The Archipelago “metastasizes”, it “hardens”. And there was a comparison to Serfdom: “And we agree with that: there are more differences. But what is surprising that all the differences are to the credit of serfdom!” (p 216)

What was worse? The monotony or the deadly daily struggle and the life of work without end. Then there were the “dogs”, the “camp keepers” where he provided insight into the camp bureaucracy. Even satire appears in the book. The discussion of the profitability of the camps was one such topic; also I was moved by a comment about the beauty of the lack of meetings.
One Dostoevsky reference was fascinating: “Our teachers, who had never served time themselves, felt for prisoners only the natural sympathy of the outsider. Dostoyevsky, however, who served time himself, was a proponent of punishment! And this is something worth thinking about.” (p 304)

Yet Solzhenitsyn would go on to discuss the nature of katorga, penal servitude – as if they needed special camps for the “traitors”. Ultimately there was release, but did it have any meaning? “But there is a curse on those “released” under the joyless sky of the Archipelago, and as they move into freedom the clouds will grow darker.” (p 444)

There was even some political history when he described the connections between the camps and the changes in the political regimes from Lenin and Stalin to Beria and Khrushchev. “Nikita had only just allowed the screws of his very own system to be turned no less tight. . . Rulers change, the Archipelago remains.” (p 457)


mudpuddle said...

making sense out of inhumanity seems counter-moralistic... strange the warped forms consciousness assumes under pressure. i picked this up once but was put off by the basic brutality... courageous of you to tackle it, tho...

Brian Joseph said...

Superb commentary. I have not read Solzhenitsyn. He seems like a very important writer. The things that you describe here sound both fascinating and terrifying.

James said...

It certainly was brutal, and I'm not sure I could have read the whole of the original three volumes. However, Solzhenitsyn's prose was often quite beautiful, his metaphors memorable, and his erudition inescapable. He made it into a work of art, even though the painful moments abounded.

James said...

Thanks for your observation. This work is central to Solzhenitsyn's oeuvre. But, if you want a taste of his literary art, and if you have not already read it, start with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It is a gem of a novella with profound insights into life in the Gulag.

Stephen said...

Solzhenitsyn's opus made quite the impression on me. His ability to collect facts and compose a narrative with such wit and insight under those conditions was extraordinary.

James said...

Thanks for your observation. I had a similar reaction. Having previously read Cancer Ward and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, I plan to read more of his fiction.

Unknown said...

As do I. Those two titles are on my next Classics Club list.

Ruth said...

This is important literature right here! I definitely felt the eerie similarities to The Trial, too. What I also remember is how Solzhenitsyn declared that he knew no one would remember what happened in the Gulag. They remember the Holocaust, made movies and wrote the stories about the Jews, but even the Russians wanted to forget the Gulag. And that was the great danger he feared, which was part of why he wanted to write this, to preserve history and truth.

Great review!

James said...

Thanks for your comments. I agree wholeheartedly and Solzhenitsyn, in this book and much of his fiction, has ensured that the history of the Gulag will not be forgotten.