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Review

The novel ‘Gulag Archipelago’ offers a frightening look at the Soviet Union

April 7, 2016

“A man is happy so long as he chooses to be happy and nothing can stop him.”

Not a quote one might expect to be written by a prisoner in one of the Soviet prison camps known as a gulag, but Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is the author of the quote and a former prisoner of several infamous gulags.

Solzhenitsyn, born in the Soviet Union in 1918 was a famous Russian novelist, famous for his novels detailing his time spent in the gulags. Solzhenitsyn was a decorated member of the Soviet military and saw action fighting the Nazis. In 1945, however, he was arrested by Soviet military police for making remarks that were seen to be anti-Stalinist.

He was moved to the infamous Lubyanka prison. Over the course of eight years, he moved from prison camp to prison camp, suffering a great many abuses at the hands of Soviet government. While it is well known now, the abuses that the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) and the KGB, at the time the novel was written, much was unknown, as the Soviets were masters of repression and censorship.

The novel, the “Gulag Archipelago” is semi-autobiographical, chronicling his time is the many different prisons, it can also be seen as historical as it tells of the events leading up to his imprisonment. Its unknown how many people were killed at the hands of the Soviets, modern estimates are as high as 60,000,000 unnatural deaths, with somewhere between 34,000,000-49,000,000 under the Stalin dictatorship.

These atrocities such as the Holodomor, a series of mismanagement of farms that caused millions of Soviet citizens to starve to death, or the purging of the Red Army, mass paranoia in the military that killed innumerable soviet military personnel were often written off as American propaganda, and the Soviet people oftentimes don’t believe they were as bad as they were. Solzhenitsyn decided to record these atrocities, despite knowing it put himself and his families in great danger.

The book itself was written from 1958-1968 but was not published in the West until 1973 after having been smuggled out of the country. The manuscript of the novel was secretly distributed in the Soviet Union through the Samizdat or secret publishings. It was of course illegal to have a copy of the Gulag Archipelago in the Soviet Union, however it is now required reading in the schools of Russian Federation.

Solzhenitsyn risked a great deal more than almost any other author and it is speculated that there was at least one assassination attempt by the KGB. The novel itself is written with a great deal of passion and anger. A reader can tell that the man who wrote the novel had suffered much at the hands of very evil men. There is a great deal to be learned from this novel, as it provides a frightening account of how a government can commit such terrible acts without reprisal of the citizens. In the United States we are fortunate to live in the land of the free, and this novel will no doubt make an American reader more appreciative of the liberties and freedoms we are afforded today. I recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in Soviet history, the Cold War or a disturbing read that shows how evil men can be. Available for request at the Chalmer Davee library.