Returning to "The Gulag"

New Criterion, September 2012 | Go to article overview

Returning to "The Gulag"


Russia is no longer the Soviet Union, but it has a long way to go to free itself once and for all from the residues of its Communist past. If there was one book responsible for the delegitimization of the Soviet enterprise in the first place, it was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago. That work--well-described by the author's widow Natalia Solzhenitsyn as different parts historical inquest, personal reminiscence, political treatise, and philosophical mediation (without being reducible to any one of these genres)--is, in the end, an "epic poem" chronicling the evils of ideology and the prospects for good and evil within the human soul. It is a cathartic work that conveys not only "pain and anger, but an upsurge of strength and light." It is also the most powerful critique ever written of the ideological impulse to remake men and society at a stroke, and it will remain politically relevant as long as human beings are tempted, as perhaps they always will be, to put utopian schemes above a concrete engagement with politics and the human soul. While never losing sight of the prospects for "the ascent of the human spirit," even under totalitarian despotism, it shows that the grim movement from "Lenin's degrees to Stalin's edicts" was "the inevitable outcome of the System itself," an inhuman byproduct of the ideological war on human nature. The book provides an eternal indictment of Communism and all its works, even if it is much more than that.

An updated edition of The Gulag Archipelago was published in Russia in 2007 in an edition that contained detailed information on the 256 men and women who had clandestinely provided Solzhenitsyn with precious eyewitness accounts of the Soviet system of repression. After Solzhenitsyn's death in August 2008, Natalia Solzhenitsyn, who had also served as his editor and intellectual and spiritual companion, prepared an abridgement of the work (totaling about one quarter of its original 1800 pages) for adoption in Russian high schools. That abridgement, published in October 2010, now joins other works of Solzhenitsyn, such as Matryona's Home and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, as required reading in Russian high schools. Mrs. Solzhenitsyn has provided an incisive, elegantly written introduction to that new edition that describes the genesis of the book (it was written in utmost secrecy, mainly during the winters of 1965 and 1966) as well as the highlights of the work as a whole. While primarily speaking to young Russians, she makes clear the universal significance of this work. Its publication in an abridged version for young Russians makes ignorance of the Soviet tragedy more difficult, and a repeat of the past all but impossible. As Mrs. Solzhehitsyn makes clear, Solzhenitsyn has written more than an historical and political indictment, even if The Gulag Archipelago is the greatest critique of a political regime ever written. His is "an experiment in literary investigation" that brings "the living presence of the truth" to bear on the worst events of the twentieth century. Only art can fully convey the truth of the soul and expose ideology as the chimera that it is.

--Daniel J. Mahoney

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born in 1918 in Kislovodsk. (1) His parents, both of whom were of peasant stock and were the first in their families to gain an education, were married in August 1917 at the front, where the writer's father was a second lieutenant in an artillery brigade. In 1914 he had left Moscow University in order to enlist in the military in WWI, putting in three-and-a-half years of service and returning to the Kuban region in early 1918. He died as a result of a hunting accident six months before the birth of his son. The writer's mother raised the boy by herself in hardscrabble circumstances, living in drafty tumble-down shacks that had to be heated with coal and needed water to be carried in by bucket.

Sanya, as the boy was called at home, read a great deal and, strange to say, at the age of eight or nine decided that he had to become a writer, though of course he had no real understanding of what this might entail. …

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