Between Earth and Hell

Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Parts I and II,

by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
YMCA Press, Paris, 606 pp., an English translation will be published later this year

The nineteenth-century traveler and writer, George Kennan (1848-1924), whose namesake and relative I happen to be, on arriving at the 400th page of his well-known study of Siberia and the Exile System (first published in 1888), tells of sitting “on one cold raw autumnal day, in a dirty post-station on the great Siberian road,” watching the passage of a miserable party of guarded convicts, who were making their laborious way, on foot and in leg-fetters, over the 1,040-mile stretch from Tomsk to Irkutsk. As they moved through the village they sang, by permission of the convoy, the so-called “begging song”—the miloserdnaya—in the hope of eliciting mercy, in the form of small donations of food, from the villagers. When they had passed, Kennan was overcome, he wrote, by “a strange sense of dejection, as if the day had suddenly grown colder, darker, and more dreary, and the cares and sorrows of life more burdensome and oppressive.” This was one of the rare points at which he allowed a touch of subjective feeling to burst the crust of cool restraint that covers his otherwise factual and very Victorian book.

It is with a similar feeling that the Western reader, and particularly one who has himself had some experience of Russia, lays down the 600-page volume containing the first two parts of the multi-part study which Alexander Solzhenitsyn has addressed to the judicial, penal, and forced-labor systems created and operated, over the decades, by the Tsar’s successors. True, the Western reader experiences this moment of disheartenment not, like Kennan, in the midst of a harrowing journey that has carried him thousands of miles from anything resembling European civilization, but rather in the comfort of his own living room, himself devoid of either hardship or danger. He is aware, on the other hand, that what Solzhenitsyn is here describing is a phenomenon not only much worse (Kennan would have found this hard to believe) in degree of inhumanity but also greater in scale, by a factor of several hundred times, than the comparable phenomenon that presented itself to Kennan’s view.

The initial reaction to Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s account is less indignation against the authors of these horrors and injustices, though of course there is that, too, than discouragement, great sadness, and no small measure of puzzlement over the fact that such things could have taken place in our own time in a country sharing the Christian tradition, a country that has been the source of some of the greatest literature, and the greatest moral teaching, of the modern age, a country with which we were in effect allied during the recent war, and with which we fancied ourselves to have in common at least certain standards of decency and humanity that would set us off against our common enemy.

One shrinks from the task of attempting to describe this—the most heavy and relentless book of our time. It is like no other. Part reminiscence, part history, part sociological …

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