Book Review Of The
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 10/25/08
This is a great historical first hand account of the Russian Gulags, written by someone who not only lived it but can also write well. Never turgid, the narrative does not suffer the outcome of many historical texts where readers are bogged down with dates and irrelevant detail. Rather, The Gulag Archipelago is presented in a series of vignettes, all of which discuss different elements on this topic. Because this work is so large, it is impossible to cover all of them in a single review. But I will say that for anyone ever curious about reading this, the Abridged is suitable. The book was originally written in a three-volume form, but then the author released an Abridged version as a means for satisfying those Westerners who need not learn the intimate detail (he mentions this in his Introduction) regarding the all of Russian history.
Ok, so what are some of the topics covered? The prison industry, the history of it, why it was the way it was, what went on in those places? What did one need do to be arrested? The answer? Not much. (Even so much as stealing a vegetable could land someone in prison for ten years). This book transcends the mere non-fiction historical account because the author involves himself so much, speaking of his own personal experiences, as well as those around him he knew personally, and those he interviewed years later. Philosophically the book also presents interesting questions—the idea of the arrest and what it means to that individual specifically, that individual who is the center of his or her own universe, now shattered. And then, what went on in these horrible places? Torture? Yes. You can read several chapters on that. What exactly can bring a man to his breaking point? There are a number of ways for doing it, and the author delves into that.
The book finishes just over 500 pages, and there isn’t much that does not get discussed. In other words, one does not need to be a historical or Russian scholar to appreciate this great work. The Abridged is written for the layperson, but is also highly effective because nowhere does the text dumb down the material for readers.
Other questions are later asked, such as “Why did we stand for it?” And if one is lucky enough to escape, (on those very rare occasions—and the author does discuss some tales involving escape) as someone who lived through it, Solzhenitsyn’s biggest advice is to have a plan. Those prisoners who attempt escape and manage it will certainly fail if they do not have a plan for the weeks, months and years afterwards. (More often than not, without a plan, one is likely to end up back in the prison from where his hell began).
The one down side to all of this, and this is no doubt an understatement, is the dour subject matter. This book has been called, for lack of a more creative term, “depressing.” Well, I can’t say that I disagree with that, but I can say that the author approaches the subject without any sort of self-pity or sentimentality. Rather, he presents it as: these are atrocities, and here is a bit of what happened to bring people to this point. Another interesting fact is, in the end, freedom isn’t really the ultimate goal of these prisoners. Does that sound preposterous? One of the points the author mentions is that when a prisoner is ultimately granted his freedom, that it’s like the arrest happening all over again:
“But the pattern of a man’s future may be even more firmly drawn by the emotional crisis which he undergoes at the moment of release. This crisis can take very different forms. Only on the threshold of the guardhouse do you begin to feel that what you are leaving behind you is both your prison and your homeland. This was your spiritual birthplace, and a secret part of your soul will remain here forever—while your feet trudge on into the dumb and unwelcoming expanse of freedom.”
Solzhenitsyn does a great job getting into the psychology of the individual’s mind, and it is this ability that allows his writing to transcend and connect with his readers, years later. Solzhenitsyn is not a poetic writer per se, but an excellent narrator. His prose is dense is that good sort of way, not the turgid, disconnecting sort. I would rank him among the greatest of the Russian writers, and I will no doubt be pursuing some of this other works in the future. I also have to note the connections reading a book like this provides. Some of this material matches that which Dostoevsky discussed in The House of the Dead, where the Russian writer recreates the hard labor of prison life. The great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva hanged herself in 1941, as many did throughout the years, possibly to avoid arrest. I encourage everyone to read this book, and learn about these significant events. One of the reasons the author wrote it in the first place was because he did not want these events, these times to go forgotten. So do the man a favor and read his book. Thank him later. I did.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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