Revisiting the Archipelago


“A district Party conference was under way in Moscow province. It was presided over by a new secretary of the District Party Committee, replacing one recently arrested. At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for…”

The hall was filled with “stormy applause”, which soon swelled to a boisterous ovation. This continued for three minutes; four, by which time people began to tire as their palms sored, and arms ached. The scene became comical, but, after all, who would be the first to stop? The new secretary, who had the power of the mob in this matter, had just replaced his freshly-arrested forebear, With the eyes and phantasmal tendrils of the Party apparatchiks watching and feeling for signs of fading ovation (as well as applauding themselves), the thundering racket continued. Six minutes passed; seven; eight; nine; ten! Soon, people began to resign themselves to their imminent deaths via heart attack, exhaustion, or strokes. Until, after eleven minutes of this farcical display, the director of the paper factory—the venue wherein the conference was being held—“assumed a business-like expression and sat down in his seat.”

A miracle had taken place. The uninhibited, frenzied enthusiasm vanished into nothingness as the crowd stopped dead and sat down. Naturally, that same night, the director who had dared to show independence of mind was arrested on some other banal pretext, and after signing away his fate, his interrogator reminded him, “Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding!”

Readers of Orwell will appreciate the parallel between Solzhenitsyn’s replication—a first-hand account—of Stalinism, and the “Two Minutes of Hate” in Nineteen-Eighty-Four. The crucial difference, admittedly, is that the nightmare of Stalinism so beautifully exposed in the pages of The Gulag Archipelago, actually happened.

People fortunate enough to have felt their way through the work of this moral and historical titan soon come to appreciate what Martin Amis described as the “terror and boredom” of totalitarianism. This cultivation of terror is a society, that, through degradation and suffocation by the state and its pitiless secret polic, becomes one devoid of life, of debate, of literature, of art, and of love.

Marx and Robespierre (the latter famous for his avocation of a régime de la terreur after the French Revolution) advocated a form of dictatorship to consolidate power against counter-revolutionaries, dissidents, subversives, and other riff-raff and preserve their newly entrenched governments. Whereas Robespierre so famously declared that terror and liberty go hand-in-hand (before, of course, such trenchant advocates of freedom decided to liberate his head from his shoulders), Marx saw the “dictatorship of the proletariat” as being something that would wither away after the proletariat revolution had been completed. This didn’t happen, of course, and the Soviet Nightmare soon evolved into a vicious and inward-obsessed bureaucracy.

While Solzhenitsyn was not the first Soviet dissident to achieve worldwide fame (one thinks immediately of Victor Serge), The Gulag Archipelago was a work that fundamentally changed the world’s perception of the Soviet Union in a width and depth then-hitherto unseen. The frenzied attempts by the Soviets to ban the book was futile, because, after all, the first-hand accounts of 227 fellow prisoners had been etched into the minds of the many Russians who had inhabited the Archipelago, which Solzhenitsyn refers to as a “waste disposal system”. The hand-typed manuscripts, passed around the Soviet Union for 24-hour periods were read in complete silence. Millions of the Soviet citizenry read their own experiences, laid down onto the page with a biting wit and fury that only a spell in the Arctic Circle could conjure.

The utter capriciousness of the Soviet Empire knew no bounds. Take the case of the half-literate stove maker, who for purposes of self-esteem and pleasure enjoyed writing his own name in his spare time. Being poor, he seldom had any paper to write on, so he wrote on newspapers. His neighbours discovered one of these marked newspapers in their communal toilet, with ink flourishes across the visage of the Father and Teacher (Stalin!). Of course, such savagery necessitated his imprisonment; 10-years for Anti-Soviet Agitation. Incidentally, possession of Solzhenitsyn’s book carried an identical penalty.

Or, take the arresting of children in pre-emption of their revenge due to their parents imprisonment; the 31 methods of torture documented by Solzhenitsyn, of physical and psychological punishment intended to break prisoners to the will of the Secret Police. My personal favourite method was the locking of a man or woman in a “punishment cell”, before filling the cell with water until it covered a person’s feet and ankles, giving the prisoner a choice between losing their feet to frostbite, or surrendering their liberty for a spell in the Gulag.

Indeed, these sadistic interrogations had ceased to be a search for the truth. It became a pastime. A way for an interrogator to earn their salary. What was important here was “expediency”, not guilt or innocence. No distinction was made in the grotesque Soviet show trials between intent and action; a joke and an assassination were one in the same.

Those that imagine that if only Leon Trotsky, say, would’ve succeeded Lenin after his death, that the world would’ve avoided the nightmare of Joseph Stalin need not delude themselves. The foundations of Stalin’s tendrils spreading across the Soviet Union in 1937 were laid immediately after the October Revolution, painstakingly curated by Solzhenitsyn in three long chapters that document the collapse of what we know as the “Rule of Law”. What took its place was the “Rule of Expediency”. As Solzhenitsyn dryly observes, “Only the first swathe cut by the scythe is difficult”.

The Gulag Archipelago takes one through arrest, interrogation, show trial, transport (of which there are many kinds), until one reaches the Archipelago. Whatever beatings, torture, rapes (for the women unfortunate enough to be thrown into a prisoner convoy populated with vicious thieves and plunderers), thirst, starvation, disease and so on that one endured, Solzhenitsyn assures us that, “Camp was worse”.

Christopher Hitchens lamented, re–reading his (actually quite good) piece on North Korea, entitled “Visit to a Small Planet”, wrote that the weakness of his piece was the inability to accurately convey what it was truly like to be a North Korean for even one day. One suspects that Solzhenitsyn’s book shares the same difficulty, especially when read by affluent Westerners who enjoy liberty and affluence that a Soviet citizen could only dream of.

Nelson Mandela passed away recently, and was rightfully honoured in the global press and by our political elites. When Solzhenitsyn passed away in 2008, one can’t help but compare the two men and their respective legacies, and the asymmetrical nature of their posthumous tributes; almost as if a man, who—as Peter Hitchens notes was armed only with a typewriter—made the most daring raids on the obelisk of Stalinist Communism since Orwell’s Animal Farm, hadn’t been all that great.

Smug apologists for the most pornographically cruel regime in the world derided Solzhenitsyn in his later year. Indeed, one of the blind spots of the book is his failure of consistency when discussing Tsarist Russia, described as a toothless tiger and fairly brutal authoritarian regime in the same book.

When speaking at Harvard University in 1978, he heavily derided America as vulgarly materialistic and lacking manliness, and before the end of his life said that he appreciated Vladimir Putin (no slouch in the authoritarian department) for his restoration of Russian national pride. He was, like Mandela, a figure of a mixed legacy that shouldn’t be obfuscated as angelic virtue. Still, The Gulag Archipelago will remain in the annals of literature as one of the key works that helped speed up the rotting foundations of Russian society, so completely wrecked by decades of Soviet totalitarianism. Read it.

Byline: Joseph Power is a freelance journalist and commentator and an intern at the Australian Institute of International Affairs. He tweets @JosephDPower and blogs at Views are his own.

Joseph Power is a freelance journalist and commentator and an intern at the Australian Institute of International Affairs. He tweets @JosephDPower and blogs at Views are his own.

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