When I was in high school, I devoured Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Since that time, I’ve been somewhat obsessed with Russian literature, Russian history, and Russian art. If I were forced to explain why Russia fascinates me so, I’m not sure I could say. To me, it’s a place that defies logic. Even its physical size is enough to boggle the mind if you really take a moment to think about it.
I was born at the tail end of the cold war, so I suppose I have some emotional clarity when it comes to reading about 20th century Russia. After all, I’ve never had to duck and cover beneath my school desk and I never really worried about nuclear war until just recently. But in our current political climate, my emotional clarity is clouding and pretty quickly. I find myself wishing I didn’t know so much about Russia or its history.
Since Russia is on the mind these days, more so than usual, I thought I’d introduce you to the most important book I’ve ever read and perhaps one of the most important books of the 20th century. It’s stayed with me in ways no other book has. Even just thinking about it fills me with more emotions than I could ever count or describe.
The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is, like Russia itself, rather expansive. It spans three thick volumes with a total of seven parts. It’s formidable. Oh, and did I mention it’s non-fiction?
It’s filled with heartbreaking stories about those caught up in the USSR’s sprawling Gulag system of forced labor camps. Solzhenitsyn writes about his own experience as a prisoner in these camps, while also giving pertinent historical information and political details. But my description doesn’t really begin to scratch the surface.
The Gulag Archipelago delivers a continuous shock to the system that leaves an indelible mark on the reader. When I leaf through these volumes and revisit the passages I marked several years ago, I’m still struck to the bone by the potency of Solzhenitsyn’s prose and the importance of his account of the Gulag system, the conditions that lead to its creation, and its survival.
A VERY Brief Description of the Gulag Prison System
The Gulag was comprised of hundreds of forced-labor camps, which spread from one side of the USSR to the other. Millions of prisoners were held in these camps without trial or without a fair trial. Inmates included petty criminals, political prisoners, dissidents, and members of the intelligentsia.
You could be sent into the Gulag system for simply being suspected of counter-revolutionary activities, even if you were completely innocent. I recommend reading up on Article 58, which was pretty much used as a catchall to imprison anyone at anytime.
The Gulag was cruel and merciless system that fed on millions. Average estimates of those who died in the camps generally range from 1-3 million, though some experts believe more people actually died in the Gulag system than in the Holocaust.
The quotes I’ve chosen to share are ones that struck me, but ones I feel can be understood and appreciated outside of their original context. I invite you to read The Gulag Archipelago, but I know it’s quite a request! If you don’t feel like committing to three volumes of non-fiction, I recommend reading Solzhenitsyn’s In the First Circle or One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
“Thus many were shot — thousands at first, then hundreds of thousands. We divide, we multiply, we sigh, we curse. But still and all these are just numbers. They overwhelm the mind and then are easily forgotten. And if someday the relatives of those who had been shot were to send one publisher photographs of their executed kin, and an album of those photographs were to be published in several volumes, then just by leafing through them and looking into the extinguished eyes we would learn much that would be valuable for the rest of our lives. Such reading, almost without words, would leave a deep mark on our hearts for all eternity.”
“However, even the executioner doesn’t know about everything right to the very end. While a motor roars its accompaniment, he fires his pistol bullets, unheard, into the back of a head, and he is himself stupidly condemned not to understand what he has done. He doesn’t know about the very end! Only those who have been killed know it all to the very end — and that means no one.”
“Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag. Use your memory! Use your memory! It is those bitter seeds alone which might sprout and grow someday.”
“Do not pursue what is illusory — property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night.”
“No, the old proverb does not lie: Look for the brave in prison, and the stupid among the political leaders.”
“From the thirties on, everything that is called our prose is merely the foam from a lake which has vanished underground. It is foam and not prose because it detached itself from everything that was fundamental in those decades. The best of the writers suppressed the best within themselves and turned their back on truth — and only that way did they and their books survive. And those who could not renounce profundity, individuality, and directness… inevitably had to lay down their heads during those decades, most often through camp, though some lost theirs through reckless courage at the front.”
“Humanity probably invented exile first and prison later. Expulsion from the tribe was of course exile. We were quick to realize how difficult it is for men to exist, divorced from his own place, his familiar environment. Everything is wrong and awkward, everything is temporary and unreal, even if there are green woods around, not permafrost.”
“Yes, the devil is strong! Our Fatherland is like this: to shove it a yard or two along the road to tyranny, a frown, a little cough, is enough. But to drag it an inch along the road to freedom you must harness a hundred oxen and keep after each of them with a cudgel: ‘Watch where you’re pulling! Watch where you’re going!’”
“Truth, it seems, is always bashful, easily reduced to silence by the too blatant encroachment of falsehood.
The prolonged absence of any free exchange of information within a country opens up a gulf of incomprehension between whole groups of the population, between millions and millions.
We simply cease to be a single people, for we speak, indeed, different languages.”