Archipeleg GULag / The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation
Volume III (of III)
© 1973, 1974 Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
Throughout The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has taken readers on a tour of the Soviet concentration camps, where human beings were tortured, manipulated, and exploited to the hilt. Now, in volume three, the journey has come to an end. The bulk of volume three, “Katorga”, focuses on the Siberian work camps that the Soviets resurrected to punish “Nazi collaborators”, a term loose enough to include anyone who remained in western Russia during the Nazi occupation. Some two-thirds in, the monstrous Stalin finally succumbs to the fate he’d inflicted on millions of others, but little changes in the gulag system. Solzhenitsyn then reviews his own release into “exile”, and finally his return to Soviet society.
The second volume of Gulag Archipelago is a prolonged review of the architecture of brutality , both physical and political, used by the Soviet camps. Reading it was to see a human thrown on the rack and tortured, slowly, and only Solzhenitsyn’s constant mocking of the authorities, and his stubborn efforts to look for the flickers of hope and grace in his fellow prisoners, made the spectacle bearable. In “Katorga”, Solzhenitsyn also explores another avenue of relief: the constant attempts by prisoners to escape. Although Siberian camps didn’t have as much physical infrastructure inhibiting escapes (sometimes as little as a wire fence), their location – in sparsely populated wildernesses without reliable sources of food or fresh water — made a flight back to civilization nearly impossible. Although Solzhenitsyn details many escape attempts, almost all of them end in a bitter return to the camp. Typically, the escapees’ desperate attempts to obtain water or food create an increasingly chaotic trail of mistakes as they encounter more and more people. (Those who help escaped prisoners were threatened with 25 year gulag terms themselves, so only those with a bitter resentment of the government were willing to take the risk of trusting hungry strangers.)
In the final part of this third volume, Solzhenitsyn details the Soviet use of exile, which was a weapon used against ordinary civilians as well as those accused of crimes: at the Soviet bureaucracy’s whim, whole populations might be ordered to desert their homes and move across the continent to settle an area that the bureaucracy deemed in need of warm bodies. Many “exiles” were people who had been targeted for their skills or stature in smaller communities, like blacksmiths and millers – condemned as a classes for the abuses of a few. Although the shakeup after Stalin’s demise resulted in a few pardons, the Gulag system remained in place –- and books like Fear no Evil by Natan Sharansky fulfill Solzhenitsyn’s hope that future generations would continue to expose the continuing system of injustice that the Soviet state embodied, but which was expressed most transparently in its work camps. Solzhenitsyn ends with an apology that the book is not edited or expanded more properly: he was forced to rush it out of his apartment after the government caught wind that he was writing something subversive. Considering the outstanding quality of the text as-is, particularly given that it is a work in translation, one wonders what the finished product might have looked like had Solzhenitsyn had the time he desired. (If he was like some authors, we’d never see it, the desire for perfection forever pushing off the publication date.)
The Gulag Archipelago is a warning for the ages about the horrors a government with the best of intentions can inflict on its own people, and a reminder that human beings are not fit to hold power over one another.