Michael On Everything Else

The Gulag Archipelago by Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn

I just started the first of three volumes. I didn’t intentionally time it with the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution but it is interesting to see various media coverage of the revolution while reading the book. In many cases, coverage glazes over the Gulag, mass arrests, forced labor, and political oppression.

As the title suggests, the book is about the all-pervasive Gulag, or forced labor camps that were utilized to devastating effect to terrorize and politically oppress the citizens. Solzhenitsyn spent eight years in the Gulag, arrested for denouncing the government in a personal letter to a friend. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970.

He called it an archipelago because there were so many of the labor camps that opperated as a system to grind prisoners, often working them to death:

Gulag Location Map.svg
By Antonu - Собственная работа, основанная на материалах справочника «Система исправительно-трудовых лагерей в СССР», подготовленного правозащитным обществом «Мемориал»., CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The legal justification for arrests was Article 58 and at times it was so vague that it became almost a joke that when arrested, interrogators relied on prisoners to tell them why they had been arrested.

The first question asked by Yagoda [the interrogator]: "Well, what are you here for?" In other words, you tell me, and help me cook up the case! And they say absolutely the same thing about the Ryazan GPU in 1930! People all felt they were being imprisoned for no reason."

(Solzhenitsyn, 2007)

But often the reason was very clear and the prisoners came in waves based on the current focus of the government. There was a wave of all non-Bolshevik party members, a wave of religious leaders, a wave of the intelligentsia, etc.

In 1919 the groundwork was being laid for for collective farming by setting up food-collecting detachments:

From January, 1919, on, food requisitioning was organized and food-collecting detachments were set up. They encountered resistance everywhere in the rural areas, sometimes stubborn and passive, sometimes violent. The suppression of this opposition gave rise to an abundant flood of arrests during the course of the next two years, not counting those who were shot on the spot.

(Solzhenitsyn, 2007)

This was the early stages of what would eventually lead to a famine that would kill between 1.8 and 5 million people*.

  1. Solzhenitsyn, A. (2007). The Gulag Archipelago Abridged: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (P.S.). Harper Perennial Modern Classics.