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

That victory was not for us. And that spring was not for us either.

Solzhenitsyn ends the previous chapter with these chilling words. After the end of the Great Patriotic War–the Soviet name for World War II–celebrations resounded outside the Lubyanka, and later the Butyrki, prisons Solzhenitsyn was detained in.

One would think there would be some celebration if returning soldiers and especially freed POWs. But this was Stalinist Russian. As described in earlier chapters, of course someone who was captured was a weak-willed traitor to the revolution! So into prison they go.

The foundation stones of a great building are destined to groan and be pressed upon; it is not for them to crown the edifice. But even the honor of being part of the foundation was denied those whose doomed heads and ribs had borne the first blows of this war and thwarted the foreigners’ victory, and who were now abandoned for no good reason.

The treachery perpetrated against the Russian people by the Soviet government is monumental. POWs who agreed to be camp polezei or spies while imprisoned by the Nazis were collaborators, of course, even though they did so just to get enough to eat to survive. Of course, those who didn’t give an inch to the Nazis and suffered privation beyond human comprehension were also suspect. So, too, were those Vlasov men, so named for captured Russian general Andrey Vlasov, captured by the Germans, who defected to lead units of captured Red Army soldiers to fight for the Third Reich. Never mind the men’s choice was “Fight or die,” and many defected back to Russia the first chance they could. The Vlasov men were doubly damned with only prison awaiting them after the war. And Vlasov, an anti-Stalinist, was, of course, executed.

It would appear that during the one thousand one hundred years of Russia’s existence as a state there have been, ah, how many foul and terrible deeds! But among them was there ever so multimillioned foul a deed as this: to betray one’s own soldiers and proclaim them traitors?

. . .

The only soldier in the world who cannot surrender is the soldier of the world’s one and only Red Army.

General Andrey Vlasov

The only option for Russian POWs, whether with the enemy or being marched back to Russia by the Red Army, was to “lie down and let oneself be trampled to death.”

Finally, even beyond Stalin’s strategic ineptitude and the ideological logic (or illogic?) treating any captured soldiers as traitors, the ultimate indignity committed by the evil Soviet regime was to encourage Russian emigres to return to the homeland . . . Russian emigres, many who were on the White Army’s side and fled after the Revolution, who never viewed themselves as citizens of their adopted lands, who kept the flame of Russian philosophy and culture alive, who longed to return to their Motherland . . . only to arrest them!

Diabolical doesn’t even begin to describe this.

But why?

Solzhenitsyn gives us an answer that is as predictable as it is frightening:

Incidentally, it is very naïve to say What for? At no time have governments been moralists. They never imprisoned people and executed them for having done something. They imprisoned and executed them to keep them from doing something. They imprisoned all these POW’s [sic], of course, not for treason to the Motherland, because it was absolutely clear even to a fool that only the Vlasov men could be accused of treason. They imprisoned all of them to keep them from telling their fellow villagers about Europe. What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve for.

No wonder Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and the rest of the North Korean communist leadership admired Stalin so.

Naturally, with the war’s end, there were rumors of a coming amnesty. But betraying Stalin’s sense of humor, most of those summoned for potential pardon, even being brought into the prison’s waiting room . . . only to be given even longer sentences.

In general, this war revealed to us that the worst thing in the world was to be a Russian.

  • Takeaways:
    • Communism relies on not only on depriving the people of material goods and private property, but, like all totalitarian regimes, by depriving them of knowledge.
      Solzhenitsyn writes with such force, clarity, passion, humor, and pathos, that it makes me jealous. But jealous in a good way.
      Culture is more than the physical border surrounding your own geographic area. And even an evil political situation isn’t enough to make people completely renounce and forget about their countrymen and women.
      Victory can be a bad thing: “. . . in war not victories are blessed but defeats. Governments need victories and the people need defeats. Victory gives rise to the desire for more victories. But after a defeat it is freedom that men desire–and usually attain. A people need defeat just as an individual needs suffering and misfortune: they compel the deepening of inner life and generate a spiritual upsurge.” This is a lesson for the United States.
      On the idea of victory, Solzhenitsyn gives the example that Sweden losing to Russia at Poltava was a disaster for Russia, leading only to more totalitarianism and war, whereas Sweden lost their appetite for war and became “the most prosperous and the freest people in Europe,” while simultaneously(and humorously) noting in a footnote that “Perhaps, only in the twentieth century, if one is to believe the stories one hears, has their stagnating well-being led to moral indigestion.” Another lesson for the United States.

    4 comments

    1. Alexander,

      And don’t forget Churchill and Roosevelt were also accomplices to one of the most shameful episodes of the immediate postwar: forced repatriation of the Vossaks and other Russians in Austria.
      It’s so sordid that it’s a big black mark on Churchill.

      And we’re seeing this totalitarian urge to suppress knowledge: the shadow banning, deplatforming etc. In Singapore the govt has arrogatedc to themselves to determine what constitutes truth while telling with a straight face it’s the courts that have ftge inal word.

      TL;DR knowledge from culture to making thing is far to valuable for anyone to arrogate the truth. It belongs to all and we those who steal it from others.

      xavier

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Alexander,

      Yup . It was so sordid that this travesty was successfully covered up until the 80s or so.
      It’s not the first time. The Czech legion which acted honourably throughout the Russian civil war sullied their reputation when they handed over the leader of the White Russians so they could go home.

      Moral of the story principles really matter.

      xavier

      Like

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