Book Review: The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn: Part One: “The Prison Industry,” Chapter One: “Arrest”

Given the length and weight of Solzhenitsyn’s three-volume The Gulag Archipelago, which blew the lid off the Soviet Union’s prison camp system upon its publication in 1973 (and then in English in 1974), a conventional book review would be impracticable and inadequate. As such, I’ll be reviewing each chapter as I read them.

The Gulag Archipelago begins with a mediation on the Soviet Secret Police’s absolute skill and cruel creativity in how they arrest people.

Who do they arrest? Criminals? No, not always:

By and large, the Organs had no profound reasons for their choice of whom to arrest and whom not to arrest. They merely had over-all assignments, quotas for a specific number of arrests. These quotas might be filled on an orderly basis or wholly arbitrarily.

The force and clarity of Solzhenitsyn’s writing is striking. He conveys the psychological terror of the Soviet citizen as he gives his taxonomy of arrests: daytime or nighttime, at home or on the street, a stranger pretending to be an old acquaintance calling you over for a chat, even false courtship.

So many people were arrested from 1918 to 1956, in so many ways, that the Soviet people actually felt relief when their turn finally came. If that isn’t disgusting, I don’t know what it.

Worse, Solzhenitsyn explains how the Russian people had all semblance of resistance beaten out of them, so when their turn to be arrested finally came, all they could do was bleat helplessly, “Me? What for?”

And always in the back of your mind, the idea that it’s just a mistake the authorities will make right . . . or maybe you actually had done something worthy of arrest.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, 1974

There is little sympathy given to the average man and woman on the street who let this happen through their cowed submission:

And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security Operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive . . .

. . .

If . . . if . . . We didn’t love freedom enough. And even more–we had no awareness of the real situation . . . We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward.

This “It can’t happen here!” mentality, this “I’ll never be arrested because I have nothing to hide” illusion is alive and well in the United States and Europe. Like the Russian people Solzhenitsyn harshly criticizes, we too deserve everything we get.

By the time Solzhenitsyn gets to his own arrest on the front as he served in the Red Army against the Nazis–ostensibly for sending letters to a school friend stationed in Ukraine that may have criticized Soviet policy and leadership–you understand the capricious and malicious nature of the NKVD (a precursor to the KGB) and their dirty tricks, the psychological terror utilized to keep arrestees submissive. Before being taken from the front to Lubyanka, the secret police headquarters in Moscow, the chapter ends with Solzhenitsyn and four other captives stuffed in a small closet, and then being allowed to relieve their bowels in the snow behind a barn.

Solzhenitsyn in prison.

Solzhenitsyn’s writing puts you there, not only in time and place, but in the headspace. This first chapter was a disorienting read. And although I’m already intellectually aware of the horror show that was the USSR, and communism generally, so far The Gulag Archipelago makes me understand it at a visceral level . . . though thankfully only a distant echo of it.

Takeaways:

  • Psychological terror is perhaps more effective than physical terror.
  • Regimes are rarely as cruel to anyone as they are to their own people.
  • Oppression and tyranny must be fought early if it is to be fought at all.
  • You will he made to voluntarily accept your submission, and to feel that you deserved it. This is how tyrannical regimes break the human spirit.

6 comments

    • Nope. Definitely HEAVY, in the way most books by Russian are.

      The only thing by Solzhenitsyn I’ve read before starting this was “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” which I remember liking even though it was depressing, though I don’t remember much else.

      Man, I love me some Russian literature. Dostoevsky remains one of my top three all-time favorite authors. Have you read anything by him before?

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I’ve read this book (that exact copy actually…it’s Dad’s!) and I agree, it’s harrowing stuff. The psychological conditioning of totalitarianism is in many ways more terrifying than the physical punishments. It’s no secret or coincidence that communism and socialism have perfected it (the East German Stasi were particularly ruthless and cruel and typically German in their efficiency). The softer version of it has been happening in this country for decades, too, but unlike in the USSR, people here have also been dumbed down enough to not notice or not care.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yup it is dad’s! It’s been in my stack for months and I’ve finally gotten around to reading it.

      You make a great point that we’ve been dumbed down—or conditioned—to practically beg for totalitarianism here in the West. Solzhenitsyn was right to be so salty about the decadent West. No wonder he spent the remainder of his life in Russia! It’s not a perfect nation (what is?) but unlike us, their leaders actually seem to care about their future.

      Like

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