on January 15, 2005
"The line between good and evil runs through the heart of every human being."
This abridged edition of Solzhenitsyn's hauntingly intimate portrait of his own arrest, interrogation, imprisonment, rebellion, and eventual release during Stalin's purges is a book like no other. This book, written by a constantly watched and persecuted dissident - bent but not broken by the brutality of Stalinist work camps, shares the author's (and his other inmates') personal experiences falling into this dark, usually fatal, abyss. Solzhenitsyn's original work was published in 1971 and produced an absolutely damning indictment of communism in Russia. Indeed, the stunning quality and importance of his writing earned him a Nobel prize.
Besides his own experiences, Solzhenitsyn collected personal stories from hundreds of his fellow inmates. The sadism of interrogators, the cruelty of guards, the indifference of neighbors, the paranoia of the public, the betrayal of stoolies, and the true comradery of innocent inmates are presented in vivid, factual detail. In addition to this, the author also presents an encyclopeadic knowledge of the entirety of the gigantic Stalinist security apparatus (normal labor camps, special labor camps, transfer camps, railroad transfers, prisons, holding cells, interrogation cells, NKVD, SMERSH, commissars, exile communities, and still more).
But at the heart of it all, the book remains an unforgettable journey through man-made hell. Stalin meant to destroy every man, woman, and child arrested, regardless of their innocence, and he largely succeeded. But survivors like Solzhenitsyn did truly 'tear down the wall' and made this world a far better place to live in. We all owe him a huge debt of gratitude!
on May 22, 2008
For any who have any nostalgia for the Soviet Union, this book should put it to rest. This book is hard to categorize; it is more than one man's opinion, but less than an objective history. It is, as Solzhenitsyn puts it, "an experiment in literary investigation": a combination memoir and dissertation on the evils of Communism and its inevitable product, the forced labor camp. Some have criticized Solzhenitsyn as an anti-Communist/pro-Western polemicist, but that is not an accurate description. He is a realist, showing not only the faults of Communists, but also those of the West and Western leaders. This should be required reading for European and world history classes. Volume 1 (of 3) describes the arrest and interrogation procedures, as well as life in the Gulag.
on February 3, 2004
How thin is the veil we call Civilization!! This book is indeed a tedious read by virtue of its length. However, Solzhenitsyn's history is written with the prosaic style of a Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a Captain in the Soviet Army as it charged through Nazi occupied Poland when he was arrested on trumped-up charges in February 1945. Thus began his odyssey through Gulag, "the country within a country". The perpetually weak economy of Communism could not survive without the forced labor of millions of is own citizens who became prisoners for one reason or another, or no reason at all. Solzhenitsyn relates his own experiences as well as those of other prisoners with whom he became acquainted while incarcerated. He relates how ordinary Russians were arrested and charged with fraudulent charges (if charged at all), interrogated, tortured and forced to confess under extreme duress, and sent off to labor for the good of the Motherland.
Throughout the book, Solzhenitsyn asks the reader incredulously, "how did we let this happen?" That is no doubt one of the most important questions posed in all of human history. If we study history in order to prevent the repetition of our mistakes, then Solzhenitsyn's work should be required reading of all residents of Planet Earth.
on July 17, 2005
It is hard to measure how profound a book like this is, because it covers such a wide range of subjects almost subtlely. The things that you are likely to remember are the descriptions of torture, the small amounts of food, and so forth. What you remember is the things that made you cringe, and realise that you probably would have given up had you been placed in the same situation.
But as Solzhenitsyn tried repeatedly to bring out, it was the so-called "little" things that really either killed you, or gave you hope. As an example, many people might recall the sticking of hot metal up certain areas of the human anatomy; but as Solzehnitsyn said, this was most often not necessary. Seemingly mundane (relatively speaking) things like sleep deprivation was enough to drive even the most stable men insane. It was not the hot flash of pain that would get most people, but the exhaustion of wakefulness. Monotony could be every bit as much your enemy as freezing temperatures; and it was just as likely to send you to your death. These are but two examples, Solzehnitsyn gives up many more.
If there is any book that can and should be read by everyone, it is this book. One need not be interested in communism, political theory, or such things for this book to have meaning. This book is above all about the human condition. It is a biograpy and autobiography about every man who has ever suffered greatly, and it is a lesson to every man who has never suffered greatly.
on August 30, 2008
I have the full three volume set of the Gulag that I read years ago. It is the greatest book ever written. In portraying Communism, as he described as man's inhumanity to man, Solzhenitsyn has an exceptional ability while depicting the excessively cruel treatment of human beings in the Gulag to demonstrate his dignity and the dignity of those who suffered at the hands of their oppressors. The entire book is full of stories of the courage of human beings in the face of such evil. In that way, while depicting the horrible conditions of the Gulag, the book ultimately provides an uplifting message that peace and kindness are enduring human traits that can and do shine through despite overwhelming attempts to erase them. Never has there been a more courageous and humane writer.
on April 6, 2008
"A stone is not a human being, and even stones get crushed."
This was an absolutely brutal, yet enlightening read. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a young, decorated Red Army officer who served bravely during the war, only to be arrested, tortured, and sent to the Gulag Archipelago (the forced labor camp system) to do a ten year sentence, followed by permanent internal exile. This book is a combination of his own personal experiences, and a general history of the gulag system which he has gathered from research as well as other personal stories sent to him by other inmates.
For privately criticizing Stalin, the author was clearly guilty of being a dangerous "enemy of the people" worthy of torture and death,(Solzhenitsyn writes with a brilliant sense of sarcasm) but the fact is, many were arrested quite arbitrarily, many simply because of a need to fill quotas. I'm reminded of a quote by Stalins right hand man Molotov, when speaking about the randomness of arrests, years after the war: "a man could have been a right-winger, and not realized he was a right-winger. We had to be sure." Or something to that effect. These enemies of the people would feed the "sewage disposal system" of the Soviet state.
In his sarcastic, metaphorical writing style, the author describes all the horrors of the system, beginning with arrest and torture, *ahem* interrogation, and all through the stages of the camp system where death and cruelty became the only certainties. Ruthlessness, Solzhenitsyn writes, was the measure of a Bolsheviks worth. The more single-mindedly cruel he was, determined his dedication to the state. Any form of kindness toward the accused was seen as a sign of weakness and lack of zeal. Most disturbing was his descriptions of the torture, he claims that there were 52 different methods at the interrogators disposal, to ensure they don't become bored of course! 14 hour work days in subzero temperatures with inadequate clothing and pitiful food rations were also the norm. People were often beaten, terrorized and shot out of hand for the smallest infractions, or occasionally for the mere amusement of the guards. Such is life in the Archipelago!
Although some have accused Solzhenitsyn of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, i.e. condemning communism as a whole because of Stalinism, he is absolutely right when he claims that the brutality and terror were started under Lenin and Trotsky. While one can split hairs and argue that things might have turned out differently without Stalin, I see no reason to believe that things would have been THAT different. He also makes a consistent point of comparing the Soviet state to that of the Tsars, claiming that whatever their faults, life in Imperial Russia was never even close to this harsh. I specifically appreciated how he pointed out how easy the Bolshevik revolutionaries had it when they were arrested under the Tsar. Two, maybe three years in lenient exile for trying to overthrow the state! Yet under the Soviets, you would get 10, maybe 25 years of hard labor for practically nothing, which you would probably not survive anyway. All in all, this is a disturbing but brilliant and essential read for understanding the Soviet state. 5 stars.
on November 20, 2003
It is a marvel to flip through this book again, though the abridged version is nothing compared to the original 3-volume trilogy. Though it is very difficult to get into - in the original v1 there is a long abstract section on gulags as a sewage system in turbid prose - once the reader gets swept into thos narrative of suffering there is no other reading experience like it.
Solzhenitsyn spent his youth as a gulag prisoner for having criticized Stalin on a postcard. V1 covers his arrest and interrogation and transport into despair and disillusionment. What he experienced, from his start as a strong and idealistic young war leader, can only be described as hell on earth. Only Hitler's death factories could compare, and yet Stalin's slave labor camps were being held up as marvels of social policy and redemption. The cruelty of treatment, the insights into the astonishing characters around him, and the compilation of other people's stories - Solzhenitsyn describes his experience as only one gulp from an ocean of bitterness and shattered lives - are unequalled in the modern literature on totalitarianism. My experience was to be utterly transported into this realm, to look at my life and values and think about what mattered most to develop within myself. No other book ever had a deeper impact on me. That makes this, in my opinion, essential reading to understand the last century at its very very worst.
The second volume follows Solzhenitsyn as he becomes a hardened and grief-stricken prison slave, indifferent to whether he is killed by a stray bullet during riots and abandoning his faith in communism. A central pert of the book is his religious conversion - the only one I ever read about that I truly understood on an emotional level - at the deathbed of perhaps his greatest freind. V3 covers his relesase from prison and his attempts to rebuild his life.
All three volumes offered to me the experience of living totally outside of myself and in the reality of a totalitarian state. I first read these in EUrope when they appeared, and the debates on the merits of the communist sytem were very much alive at the time. Now they are only of historical interest, but I still think they are must reading for anyone who wants to understand the worst of one of the most tumultuous centuries in the history of mankind.
The Archipelago refers to many great ports scattered from the
Bering Strait to Bosporus.There were thousands of small islands where people were transported for varying periods of time.
In addition, there were transit prisons at Ust-Usa and portable
confinements by rail.
Prisoners were subjected to extensive methods of interrogation
including sleep deprivation at night, persuasion, humiliation,
cursing, long periods of standing, sound effects, lighting and
general confusion. Trials were quick and often it was difficult
to access witnesses because they were scattered or in prison
People in every station of life were imprisoned for a variety
of reasons- most of them directed to criticism of the State.
Tanya Khodkevich was imprisoned for saying:
" you can pray freely,
But just so G-d alone can hear'
Students were arrested for criticism of the system.
Historians; such as, Platonov and Gotye were arrested.
The Buryat-Monguls were imprisoned in Kazakhstan. Tribal
members of the Northern Caucasus were jailed. People were
convicted by analogy, place of birth/origin or contact
with persons considered "dangerous" to the State.
The work is a testament to the implementation of power in the
Soviet State from Lenin onward. It is written in a
belles lettres style-much like a continuous story. The volume is
highly recommended for a wide audience of college students,
historians, journalists and readers of great literature.
on August 31, 2007
This is vintage Solzhenitsyn; his brilliant mind shines forth splendidly. A book that is difficult to put down, places one inside his mind to see what he describes, so much from having spent hours memorizing while in the camps so he could later give us a glimpse of the horror that millions upon millions of human beings endured.
on June 21, 2009
Probably one of the most important works I have ever read. Solzhenitsyn gives voice to the millions of voiceless victims of Stalin's Soviet Russia. Unfortunately this is one of histories lesser known crimes, and the power of this man's voice helps to rectify this. This book is powerful and brutal. Solzhenitsyn forces his readers to stare into the face of evil and see the horrors that can happen when tyrants are allowed to run roughshod over a people.
This book is so tremendously important as a warning for all people to take care that tyranny does not get the opportunity to capture a people. It illustrates the inhumanity that man is capable of, and he shows readers the terrible price that dictators impose.
This book needs to be required reading because it has the affect of so eloquently exposing readers to the reality that people all over the world face. This is why this book is so powerful. It is the universal nature of this work that shows the reader what happens to people in this situation. This book forces the reader to be empathetic to the plight of suffering people the world over. What this work shows is that this type of oppression becomes so pervasive that it is almost impossible to overcome. The people don't want this nor do they simply acquiesce to this tyranny. What happens is that a society becomes totally corrupted to the point where there is nothing left.
This is an extremely important work that needs to be read.