I read volume two of ‘The Gulag Archipelago two years after reading volume one. I believe this series is the finest literature I have read until now, demonstrating the monumentality of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s work. The book felt like the personification of the term ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. It was an attempt to show the truth in a state that shrouded itself in lies where every citizen had to lie in order to survive. It contested the very basis of the communist system in the Soviet Union, from the economic might and scientific growth, showing the stark reality of the food shortages and desperate lives of the everyday citizens. It evoked powerful imagery of people working manual labour over ten hours a day in temperatures falling below -30 degrees Celsius, with stone age tools, scant clothing and minimal food.
These three volumes were the effort of one man to tell the true history of an all-powerful state that was determined to erase it. It was one man who tried to retell all the events since the Bolshevik revolution. He showed how all the events led to the creation of a society that lived in constant fear; fear of the state, fear of their neighbours, fear that their actions could be interpreted in any fashion, fear of standing out. The penalty for trivial transgressions was so disproportionate that it made every little act of defiance incredibly courageous. The Soviet police could simply pick up any person and haul them off to labour camps for decades.
Imagine the moral courage required to write this book in such an environment. This is something I came to deeply appreciate as I read the book. But more than appreciating the height of literary truth-telling, I realized that I could not truly comprehend it simply because my privileges make my imagination fall short of the true scale of the events described. It is not a mere retelling of history. It adds analysis and opinion and hence is a vivid, lifelike account of real people and real tragedy. It is a work of history, a work of literature, a work of psychology and a work of philosophy.
Parts of the book where Solzhenitsyn narrates the origin of camps, or important events can be dry. The geography is unfamiliar, and the Russian names are difficult to remember, so it can be a little tedious. One of the unexpected things I understood by reading this series was that geography plays a vital role in understanding a country’s history and culture. Without a basic understanding of geography, the reader doesn’t understand the location of the action. They don’t know the density of the population, the harshness/comfort of the climate, the type of terrain, the distribution of natural resources and many more factors that deeply impact a society’s character and customs. I am sure that a part of the Russian’s hardiness comes from the harsh cold in which their country exists.
Reading this narration of events is essential, however, since it helped me understand the origins of the Soviet system and its fundamental character. It also sets up the individual stories of the people extremely well. The description of prison life is brutal and heart-wrenching. These stories and Solzhenitsyn’s opinions make the read extraordinarily personal and effective. Three volumes are a long read but reading two volumes has helped me appreciate the brilliance of someone’s life’s work and insight. I look forward to reading the third volume.
I will leave you with a passage from the book. It is one of the more famous passages, but it is still profound and poetic. Elegant prose and deep insight are something that a book builds up to and are not found in every passage. It’s similar to the story’s climax; in that sense, it is also a spoiler.
In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains . . . an unuprooted small corner of evil.
Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. The Gulag Archipelago [Volume 2] (p. 746). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
P.S. If you are interested in reading my thoughts on Volume 1 of this monumental series, you can click here.