I read ‘The Gulag Archipelago Volume I’ about six months ago. Unfortunately, I did not write a review at the time and therefore this review may not capture all my detailed thoughts on this book. I should re-read this book in the future and would like to read volume II at some point.
Despite the disclaimers, one thought about this book has been stuck in my head. In ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ Viktor Frankl emphasizes on the fact that people in Nazi Concentration Camps needed a motive to make it through the inhumane and brutal conditions. There needed to be a will to make it through the ordeal alive and a desire to return to the most loved aspects of one’s previous life. In ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ Solzhenitsyn emphasizes that when one enters the Gulags of Russia, one must consider their previous life over. There is no going back to their loved ones or any aspects of their previous life. This contrast stands out to me even after reading this book six months ago.
Reading ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ made me deeply conscious of all the privileges I have and all the basic necessities I take for granted. Solzhenitsyn gives a detailed description of the living conditions in the prison camps. He details how overcrowded cells and train compartments are. A room which we believe is adequate for 4 people houses a 100 people. The inadequate rations that are set aside for prisoners is further reduced because the prison guards take some of the rations for themselves. The prisoners are forced to work in the extremely cold tundra with minimal clothing and barebone rations. They are tortured during trials to extract confessions. Every basic aspect of life is monitored and limited by the system. Each aspect of life that we take for granted is stripped away from these prisoners.
In these circumstances there is one common thing that the citizens of the Gulag truly value. Their relationship with each other. The prison authorities treat them brusquely and without any humanity. Prisoners would share stories and unique perspectives with each other. These little experiences were what Solzhenitsyn really valued.
It’s very hard to see how a left-wing ideology can move from their present viewpoints to a totalitarian regime like the Soviet Union. Personally I believe, it is the translation of the idea of everyone being treated equally well to a society where everyone is treated equally poorly. Anyone can be arbitrarily arrested. Any kind of absurd charges can be leveled against them. Nobody in a left-wing totalitarian regime is discriminated based on race, sex, ethnicity or caste. Everyone is living in fear because everything is arbitrary, and anybody can be persecuted at any time.
This book also explains the Soviet judicial history. It details the process of arrest and interrogation by torture. The book follows the chronological events of how the trials became elaborate public performances to convict the accused. This part of the book was the most difficult to follow since I am not familiar with Russian history and a large number of trials are depicted to illustrate how the Soviet judicial system transformed into a public performance of deception.
It is a long book with over 600 pages but is worth reading. It deals with left wing authoritarian history, a domain which is underrepresented in the education we receive. It is a reminder of all the struggles that people had to undergo in recent history and how privileged we are for receiving basic comforts that were nonexistent in these people’s lives.