The Gulag Archipelago

Michael LeFlem
May 12, 2008

For decades the Soviet Union threw innocent citizens into gulags in accord with the systematic terror and paranoia that characterized the totalitarian state.

The Gulag Archipelago

Those interested in the full extent of the Soviet Union's oppression of its people would do well to read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. This masterfully written work plunges readers into a world of fear, coercion, and unimaginable despair; the images described within this chilling book reveal not only the levels of depravity to which humans can sink, but the pervasive fear that was instilled in the citizens of the Soviet Union under the Bolsheviks. With the panoptic nature of the Soviet government and the ever watchful eyes of its horrid secret police network, the NKVD, no one was safe from the far-reaching tendrils of the gulag.

A World of Utter Despair

Solzhenitsyn’s strength in this work lies in his ability to create vivid and convincing images of places few would care to remember. He wastes no time in describing the brutal tortures devised to punish the gulag’s unfortunate victims: beatings, acid baths, and sleep deprivation are among the many ways in which the guards ensure maximum suffering. As he had served eight years in the gulag himself, his passion to remind the world of the unspeakable nature of the “archipelago” is stated throughout the book, often with bitter sarcasm.

A Forgotten Crime

The very notion that the hundreds of gulags scattered across the Soviet Union have been forgotten is a theme that is particularly shocking throughout the work. The fact that millions of perfectly innocent men and women were so brutally terrorized by the Soviet government is still extremely hard to grasp for one accustomed to the freedoms of a democratic society. Why were these people accused of crimes they did not commit? Certainly the guards and those in governmental positions knew very well that most, if not all of the millions in the gulags, were innocent, yet they only increased arrests as the years went on, shipping citizens off like cattle even as the Germans were at the gates of Moscow.

What Could Justify Stalin's Crimes?

Although Stalin felt that terror was necessary to bring about his socialist revolution (which seemed like a distant, unachievable goal throughout his tenure), it is still very puzzling why he felt the need to literally break the backs of innocents to achieve his goals. Although fear certainly aided the Bolsheviks in their formative years, there seemed to be little incentive to wage war on the nation’s own people for decades. Besides innocent farmers and peasants, the “islands” of the archipelago killed millions of the Soviet Union’s writers, scientists, teachers, and soldiers, and it is hard to see how this could have accomplished anything but the perpetuation of useless terror.

Resigned to their Fate

Another interesting theme is the ease in which the Bolshevik officials and their NKVD henchmen enslave and kill so many of their own people. Throughout the book, images of people calmly going into the Black Maria cars of the NKVD - knowing they will never see their family and friends again - are not uncommon. Solzhenitsyn provides a rather thorough explanation of this phenomenon, largely arguing that the entire government’s complicity with the gulag system created a sense of utter hopelessness in its victims: “They could not imagine that singly – or God forbid, collectively – they might rise up for their liberty since they saw arrayed against them the state (their own state), the NKVD, the police, the guards, and the police dogs.”[1]

Few Options

He continues to describe their desperate condition by claiming, “Even if you were fortunate enough to escape unscathed, how could you live afterward on a false passport, with a false name…when suspicious eyes followed passers-by from behind every gateway.”[2] The situation he describes seems like something from fiction, but one need only count the bodies of those who died in the meaningless labor camps and jails to know that it was all too real.

[1] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956 (New York: Harper Collins Publisher, 2002), 255.

[2] Ibid.,255.

[3] Ibid., 215.