Book review – The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Gulag ArchipelagoI have “finally” finished reading The Gulag Archiplelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn only to find out at the end of my book that it was only Part I and II and I still have two more volumes (I believe it goes up to Part VII) before the end of this epic work. I will try to find the other volumes as they seem hard to come by on amazon (and unavailable on the Kindle), but I thought I would let you know my thoughts on the first two parts of this work.

As a bit of background information, Solzhenitsyn wrote The Gulag Archipelago to document the atrocities committed by the Russian government onto its people. His approach is very methodological and he traces the history of the arrests and deportation, the evolution of the mock trials from Lenin to Stalin. He demonstrates how the abuse of the Russian people already started with Lenin, and was interwoven into Russia’s history, rather than being an aberration of Stalin.

The book is gruesome and brutal, there is no denying that. What has happened to the Russian people from around 1918 till 1956 (and later than that even) is too horrifying for words. It is amazing that a country as big as Russia could be so isolated from the world that the Western world did not see – or chose not to see – the large scale holocaust that was happening there. Although I have been aware of the fact that “terrible things happened” under Stalin in Russia, I never realised the extent and the horror and the misery. It is worse than reading about the holocaust perpetrated by Hitler. We commemorate the end of World War II each year and think about the horrible things done by Hitler – and don’t get me wrong, they were horrible – but hardly any attention is given to the millions of victims of the Russian regime. There is not even an accurate estimation of how many people suffered and died during all those years, but because it did not affect us, and we didn’t really lose any of our people, we don’t pay attention to it. I am not saying we need to commemorate every atrocity ever committed anywhere on earth, but I do think it is good to be aware of what happens elsewhere in the world, both in the past and in the present. I don’t intend on this becoming a political rant, I merely wanted to point out that reading this book has really opened my eyes.

And yet. Despite the horror of his subject, and the abject misery of the characters (i.e. real life people) in his stories, Solzhenitsyn is able to write with flair, and wit and even humour in some places. Considering Solzhenitsyn himself had experienced the mock trials, the prisons and the camps, the Russian government – the whole system of dehumanisation – was unable to take Solzhenitsyn’s humanity. It is almost disconcerting to find oneself laughing in the midst of all the misery and yet Solzhenitsyn is able to make the reader laugh, especially by way of his biting sarcasm. The book is technically non-fiction and yet it reads like a novel.

I have to say that this book was very educational (as I mentioned above). It was also gut-wrenching and it definitely made me nauseous in some places – I had to skip the parts where he described the torture. But above all, at the end of the book, I was inspired. Solzhenitsyn’s message throughout, but especially at the end of the book is a sobering one. He urges the reader not to get bogged down in petty irritations, trivial problems and material things, but to savour the simple things in life. After all, as he says (and I paraphrase as I read the book in Dutch, so I can’t really quote here): if you don’t have anything, they cannot take anything away either. And really, shouldn’t we all live like that? Enjoy and savour the things we take for granted, don’t fight with your loved ones, or at least make up with them before you go to sleep, because you never know whether you will be able to tell them you love them in the morning. Reading The Gulag Archipelago made me realise that we truly live in paradise here in England. It is easy to forget how blessed we are with a government who is willing to assist us when times are tough rather than trying to find a way to send us to some camp so they can use us as free labour in order to get railroads finished. We have enough to eat, so much even that obesity is becoming a problem, and we view a lot of material things not as a luxury, but as a basic right.

I know that in the last weeks, as my reading of this book slowly progressed, I have tried hard to remember Solzhenitsyn’s message. Whenever I want to complain about how busy I am with work and studying and the kids, I take a step back and tell myself that at least I get paid well for my job, that my studying will also be rewarded and that I can be with my kids, in freedom and health. I salute Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn for not steeping his book in hatred, horror and misery, but to be able to forge a little clump of golden inspiration out of the furnace that burnt so many innocent Russian lives.

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