Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago is, of course, a monumental work of history. The three formidable volumes, multitudinous in their breadth, comprise a daunting task to even the most tenacious of readers. The effort untaken by this remarkable man, to collect the material that fills his volumes, recurrently boggles the mind.
We’re intimidated by the prospect of reading it? Reflect now on the prospect of assembling and composing it.
But part of what elevates this work to the status of literary achievement of the highest order is the personal voice of Solzhenitsyn, which grounds the entire chronicle. Just when a flash of skepticism, from years of active reading, urges the internal question, “But how could he know about that?” — something in the phrasing, or something in the comparison, or something in the context, supplies the answer: “Because he was there” or “because a man he shared a cell with was there.” This is not only history, but testimony and autobiography.
Even more than the personal experience undergirding the history, there is the sheer vigor and range of the great Russian’s pen: its capacity for varied styles, for formality and intimacy, for poetic and prosaic diction, for imitative dialogue in diverse voices, for irony and subtlety as well as brute fact piled on brute fact, almost a catalogue of horror and misery. This diversity of literary form buoys the narrative and supplies it with its mark of singular genius.
Consider the following excerpt, from near the end of Volume 1. Observe literary sensibility that suffuses it, and the scorching sarcasm that drives it. A literary man uses literary references; but far from a mere academic literature, his writing presents reality: Solzhenitsyn brings our very noses right up next to the wretchedness visited upon prisoners of the Gulag.
The imagination of writers is poverty-stricken in regard to the native life and customs of the Archipelago. When they want to write about the most reprehensible and disgraceful aspect of prison, they always accuse the latrine bucket. In literature the latrine bucket has become the symbol of prison, a symbol of humiliation, of stink. Oh, how frivolous can you be? Now was the latrine bucket really an evil for the prisoner? On the contrary, it was the most merciful device of the prison administration. The actual horror began the moment there was no latrine bucket in the cell.
In 1937 there were no latrine buckets in certain Siberian prisons, or there weren't enough. Not enough of them had been made ahead of time — Siberian industry hadn't caught up with the full scope of arrests. There were no latrine barrels in the warehouses for the newly created cells. There were old latrine buckets in the cells, but they were antiquated and small, and the only reasonable thing to do at that point was to remove them, since they amounted to nothing at all for the new reinforcements of prisoners. So if long ago the Minusinsk Prison had been built for five hundred people (Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was never inside it; he moved about freely), and there were now ten thousand in it, it meant that each latrine bucket ought to have become twenty times bigger. But it had not.
Our Russian pens write only in large letters. We have lived through so very much, and almost none of it has been described and called by its right name. But, for Western authors, peering through a microscope at the living cells of everyday life, shaking a test tube in the beam of a strong light, this is after all a whole epic, another ten volumes of Remembrance of Things Past: to describe the perturbation of a human soul placed in a cell filled to twenty times its capacity and with no latrine bucket, where prisoners are taken out to the toilet only once a day! Of course, much of the texture of this life is bound to be quite unknown to Western writers; they wouldn't realize that in this situation one solution was to urinate in your canvas hood, nor would they at all understand one prisoner's advice to another to urinate in his boot! And yet that advice was the fruit of wisdom derived from vast experience, and it didn't involve spoiling the boot and it didn't reduce the boot to the status of a pail. It meant that the boot had to be taken off, turned upside down, the boot tops turned inside out and up-and thus a cylindrical vessel was formed that constituted the much-needed container. But, at the same time, with what psychological twists and turns Western writers could enrich their literature (without in the least risking any banal repetition of the famous masters) if they only knew about the scheme of things in that same Minusinsk Prison: there was only one food bowl for every four prisoners; and one mug of drinking water per day was issued to each (there were enough mugs to go around). And it could happen that one of the four contrived to use the bowl allotted to him and three others to relieve his internal pressure and then refuse to hand over his daily water ration to wash it out before lunch. What a conflict! What a clash of four personalities! What nuances! (And I am not joking. That is when the rock bottom of a human being is revealed. It is only that Russian pens are too busy to write about it, and Russian eyes don't have time to read about it. I am not joking — because only doctors can tell us how months in such a cell will ruin a human being’s health for his entire life, even if he wasn’t shot under Yezhov and was rehabilitated under Khrushchev.)
So there it is: Proust and the latrine bucket.
A few pages later, Solzhenitsyn describes the humiliation which almost invariably greeted political prisoners when they arrived at the dismal transit prisons.
Very soon these unfortunate souls will be introduced to the blatnye, the thieves or common criminals; and they will be plundered ruthlessly by them — because throughout the Gulag the common criminals, often conspiring with the guards, ruled over the “politicals.” Solzhenitsyn’s depiction of his impotent confrontation with the blatnye is unforgettable:
Getting to my feet, I turned to their senior, the pakhan, the ringleader of the thieves. All the stolen victuals were there in front of him beside the window on the second tier of bunks: the juvenile rats hadn't eaten a thing themselves. They were disciplined. Nature had sculpted the front part of the ringleader's head, in bipeds usually called a face, with nausea and hate. Or perhaps it had come to be what it was from living the life of a beast of prey. It sagged crookedly and loosely, with a low forehead, a savage scar, and modern steel crowns on the front teeth. His little eyes were exactly large enough to see all familiar objects and yet not take delight in the beauties of the world. He looked at me as a boar looks at a deer, knowing he could always knock me off my feet.
And there is also the commerce in human flesh.
During the years when the prisoners’ cases didn't carry any indication of their final destination, the transit prisons turned into slave markets. The most desired guests at the transit prisons were the buyers. This word was heard more and more often in the corridors and cells and was used without any shadow of irony. Just as it became intolerable everywhere in industry simply to sit and wait until things were sent from the center on the basis of allocations, and it was more satisfactory to send one's own “pushers” and “pullers” to get things done — the same thing happened in Gulag: the natives on the islands kept dying off; and even though they cost not one ruble, a count was kept of them, and one had to worry about getting more of them for oneself so there wouldn't be any failure in fulfilling the plan. The buyers had to be sharp, have good eyes, and look carefully to see what they were taking so that last-leggers and invalids didn't get shoved off on them. The buyers who picked a transport on the basis of case files were poor buyers. The conscientious merchants demanded that the merchandise be displayed alive and bare-skinned for them to inspect. And that was just what they used to say without smiling — merchandise. “Well, what merchandise have you brought?” asked a buyer at the Butyrki station, observing and inspecting the female attributes of seventeen-year-old Ira Kalina.
Human nature, if it changes at all, changes not much faster than the geological face of the earth. And the very same sensations of curiosity, relish, and sizing up which slave-traders felt at the slave-girl markets twenty-five centuries ago of course possessed the Gulag bigwigs in the Usman Prison in 1947, when they, a couple of dozen men in MVD uniform, sat at several desks covered with sheets (this was for their self-importance, since it would have seemed awkward otherwise), and all the women prisoners were made to undress in the box next door and to walk in front of them bare-footed and bare-skinned, turn around, stop, and answer questions. “Drop your hands,” they ordered those who had adopted the defensive pose of classic sculpture. (After all, these officers were very seriously selecting bedmates for themselves and their colleagues.)
Solzhenitsyn calls his three-volume work, “An Experiment in Literary Investigation,” which strikes a note of modesty somewhat at odds with the compendious nature of these books. But throughout the text he is at pains to underscore its emphatic want of comprehensiveness. He dedicates the work to “those who did not live to tell it,” asking forgiveness for “not having seen it all, nor remembered it all.” In the long section documenting the Revitribunals, the purges and mass trials — three solid chapters’ worth, covering a hundred and thirty odd pages — he repeatedly emphasizes the fragmentary nature of the official record, and its concentration in Moscow.
We beg the reader, throughout, to keep in mind: from 1918 on, our judicial custom determined that every Moscow trial . . . was by no means an isolated trial of an accidental. concatenation of circumstances which had converged by accident; it was a landmark of judicial policy; it was a display-window model whose specifications determined what product was good for the provinces too; it was a standard; it was like that one-and-only model solution up front in the arithmetic book for the schoolchildren to follow for themselves. Thus, when we say, “the trial of the churchmen,” this must be understood in the multiple plural ... “many trials.”
The Historical Society of Cavendish, Vermont, where the Solzhenitsyns lived for almost two decades in exile, has published a book and website to commemorate that small mountain town’s once-upon-a-time most famous reclusive resident. (The story goes that a Cavendish general store posted a sign: “To shirt, no shoes, no service, and no directions to the Solzhenitsyns.”) HBO has commissioned a biopic on the man, his life and times, written by a veteran of the brilliant Second World War productions Band of Brothers and The Pacific. These are encouraging developments. No man contributed more doggedly to the exposure of the evils of the Soviet system than Solzhenitsyn.