“The Gulag Archipelago” is not beach reading. (Although Solzhenitsyn’s searingly sarcastic style makes it anything but a dry collection of facts.) The evil that it obsessively documents is so dark that even reading about it is often difficult to bear. But anyone with pretentions of understanding the world we live in needs to go through it from first page to last.
But if you aren’t willing to make the effort, here’s the lesson boiled down for you: Totalitarianism doesn’t begin with a Stalin or a Hitler. It begins with *you*, on the day that you let a government become more powerful than the people it governs. Remember that or someday it might not be the Russians or the Jews or the Serbs that the men with guns come for. It just might be you…
June 13, 2001
Comment to Amazon’s listing of The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (Volume One).
[For many years I put off even considering these books because they were so massive. I couldn’t imagine the topic could be interesting enough to keep me going. I imagined it to be an exhaustingly long, dry, and difficult slog.
I was wrong. I was very wrong.
I’m not sure how Solzhenitsyn did it. I’m not sure I see it as “searingly sarcastic” although there is some of that. Maybe it’s that he didn’t do a chronological telling of his eight years in prison from his arrest, through interrogation, transport to the various prisons and labor camps and the conditions there. You get that in bits and pieces but you also get those same aspects from the perspective of numerous other survivors who were in different interrogation centers, on trains, and in different camps and prisons.
You learn about the economics of the slave labor. You learn how the edicts of production “norms” resulted in the falsification of records at the slave labor camp where raw materials were harvested (trees, clay for bricks, ore for metal, etc.), continuing through the transportation, storage and distribution facilities, and then finally having the nonexistent finished product “stolen” or “destroyed by weather”. At each stage the people responsible had strong incentives to continue the fraud and did.
The lies told for public relations were amazing. The canal built with hand labor in 30 months “without a single fatality”. There were 100,000 people who started on the project and there were 100,000 when they finished the project. Never mind the 250,000 replacements brought in during the course of the project.
Stalin wanted the canal built in 30 months and no one dared to fail in completing it on time. As in software on a tight schedule features were removed during the course of the project until they did meet the schedule. The canal was only 14 feet deep in places. Only the smallest of ships could traverse it and traffic was near zero when it was finished.
It is an amazing set of books and I agree with Krupin. Read them. And stop that from happening here.—Joe]