Book Review: The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn: Part Two: “Perpetual Motion,” Chapter Two, “The Ports of the Archipelago”

Just as all transit prisons are pointless, talk about transit prisons is pointless, and, in all probability, this chapter, too, will turn out to be the same . . . 

After discussing the so-called ships of the Archipelago (the Stolypin and Black Maria train cars that ferried prisoners to and fro throughout Russia), Solzhenitsyn then turns to the Archipelago’s ports, the transit prisons where captives were held before being transported to the Gulag proper.

And the movement of people was endless. Prisoners were brought in and taken away, singly and in groups, and driven off in prisoner transports. Appearing so businesslike on the surface, so planned, this movement was marked by such stupidity that one can hardly believe it.

This fits in with the title of Part Two of The Gulag Archipelago: “Perpetual Motion.” Prisoners were always being shuffled throughout the Soviet Union, and they had to be stored somewhere.

Spread out on a large table the enormous map of our Motherland. Indicate with fat black dots all provincial capitals, all railroad junctions, all transfer points where the railroad line ends in a river route, and where rivers bend and trails begin. What is this? Has the entire map been speckled by infectious flies? What it is, in fact, is precisely the majestic map of the ports of the Archipelago. These are not, to be sure, the enchanted ports to which Aleksandr Grin enticed us, where rum is drunk in taverns and men pay court to beautiful women.

It is a rare zek [prisoner] who has not known from three to five transit prisons and camps; many remember a dozen or so, and the sons of Gulag can count up to fifty of them without the slightest difficulty . . .

In practicality, these transit prisons are very similar to the Archipelago’s ships, right down to the thieves who, favored by the guards, took what they wanted from prisoners and enforced that rough form of prison justice that strikes so much terror into the hearts of those subjected to it. And these thieves make sure that anything sent to prisoners by their families and loved ones are extracted as a tax, because having possessions in a transit prison makes you a target:

Foolish relatives! They ash about in freedom, borrow money (because they never have that kind of money at home), and send you foodstuffs and things–the widow’s last mite, but also a poisoned gift, because it transforms you from a free though hungry person into one who is anxious and cowardly, and it deprives you of that newly dawning enlightenment , that toughening resolve, which are all you need for your descent into the abyss. Oh, wise Gospel saying about the camel and the eye of the needle! These material things will keep you from entering the heavenly kingdom of the liberated spirit.

Solzhenitsyn himself tells the story of how he confronted these thieves upon being interred in the Krasnaya Presnya prison, how after having his food stolen he demanded that he be allowed onto one of the bottom bunks. The thieves complied, of course, forcing the people who had been on the bottom bunk to then lie under the bunk. And Solzhenitsyn realized he had made himself just another version of those thieves, just lower on the totem pole, taking advantage of those even lower. 

The transit prisons served to harden the interred and prepare them for camp life, gradually inducting them into the hardships to come. Those in the Gulag found themselves bragging about the prisons they stayed in and bandying about tales of their hardships like badges of honor. Anything to stave off depression and insanity. Solzhenitsyn claims that the prison he was in, Moscow’s Krasnaya Presnya, was somewhere “we could somehow stretch out our legs at night, and the bedbugs were moderate, and the flies bit us all night long as we naked and sweaty under the bright lights . . .” Other transit prisons were even worse: “The deeper into the Archipelago one got, the more obviously did the concrete docks of the Archipelago become transformed into wharves made of wooden pilings.” Not transit prisons are created equal.

The former Karabas transit prison.

Neither is prison work. This chapter ends with a dire warning that “general-assignment work” is to be avoided at any cost.

There are other strange tales, such as that of the supposed Swedish noble stuck into a transit prison. This youth hadn’t even had his flaxen locks chopped off yet! No, this Westerner was a communist sympathizer who was allowed into the USSR and feted by party officials until he lost his nerve when the time came to renounce his homeland. This pseudonymous youth then became somewhat of an ultra-nationalist and refused any and all entreaties to disown the West and pledge allegiance to the East. Of course they could not let him go: his will was too great and there cannot be any tales of those who withstood the Soviet system to inspire any other prisoners, now could there?

But if you were in one of these transit prisons, you were already lost. There was only one sensible path for a prisoner to take:

Submissiveness to fate, the total abdication of your will in the shaping of your life, the recognition that it was impossible to guess the best and the worst ahead of time but that it was easy to take a step you would reproach yourself for–all this freed the prisoner from any bondage, made him calmer, and even ennobled him.

Takeaways:

  • People storage! The powers that be are always looking for places to warehouse people in, whether they be undesirable citizens or prisoners, the state has to stick them somewhere. And those places don’t always have to be nice.
  • If you don’t play ball with the state after being extended an offer, your life is likely over.
  • Having more than others makes you a target. This is a lesson for life in general and not just for those in prison.
  • It is all too easy to keep kicking the bad fortune down hill and callous over your own heart in order to eke out some comforts while ignoring those who have to face the consequences of your actions. 

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