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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 study, part folklore, it is a leisurely and exhaustive examination of that vast “other Russia”—the Russia of involuntary confinement and servitude—which, growing from small beginnings in the early 1920s, rose to monstrous dimensions in the 1930s and 1940s, developing ultimately into an empire-within-an-empire, indeed into something more than an empire: into a specific culture, complete with language, customs, legends, mythology, hierarchies of authority, overt and otherwise—everything, in fact, except hope. It is the culture of a territory populated by people of the most disparate origins, tastes, and natures, united only by their common obligation, one way or another, to live in it, and by the fact that while they have not yet been compelled—or permitted—to enter the next world, they have been obliged—most of them, at any rate—to leave behind them every hope of happiness or self-realization in this one.

Solzhenitsyn likes to think of this territory as an archipelago. He uses this term to designate the entire police empire of prisons and forced-labor camps with which he is concerned. To me, it seems more like some species of Atlantis, situated not between Heaven and Earth, but somewhere on the borders between Earth and Hell, known to the outside world only through remote and implausible rumor and knowing of the outside world almost nothing at all. But let us accept Solzhenitsyn’s image of the Archipelago as the algebraic designation.

This initial volume, written—it would seem—between 1958 and 1967, deals only with the preliminary phases of the life of a victim in the Archipelago: the experience of arrest; the first days; the “investigation,” including all the various forms of pressure and torture; the reaction to the first common cell, shared with others; the penal boxes; the death cells; then, transportation in all its forms: in Black Marias, in box cars, in barges and ocean-going vessels, the noncriminal prisoners (I hesitate to call them political) being everywhere delivered up to the savage tyranny of the criminals. But it also treats of the preliminaries in time: the origins of the system itself; the original Cheka; the development of Solovetski Island as a place of confinement; the early trials of the Socialist-Revolutionaries and the engineers and technicians; then the full flowering of the system, in the 1930s. Each subject is treated in depth, with a wealth of illustration and detail, most of it drawn from identified individual experience.

The book has its faults. Considering the circumstances under which it must have been written, the only occasion for surprise is that it does not have more of them. The historical parts are heavy. That some inaccuracies should occur, and some statements be open to challenge, was inevitable in a work of this size and nature. The treatment of the great public purge trials of the 1930s is particularly inadequate. Here, as in the First Circle, Solzhenitsyn, incomparable in his treatment of the ordinary victims of the system, shows himself curiously helpless when it comes to picturing the senior figures of the regime: they emerge as caricatures, not as real human beings.1 For many, no doubt, the book will seem too long, too detailed—too much of everything. Solzhenitsyn has seen no reason to spare the reader, any more than experience has spared him, the full burden of what he has learned and now has to say. Not only that, but the language in which it is written—intensely compact, often twisted and involved, laced with camp slang, abbreviations, initials, and words built of initials—is such as to place the heaviest of demands even on readers of the original Russian text,2 not to mention translators. Not many, I fear, will have the fortitude to read it all, from beginning to end.

The book is already being attacked in Russia, and will no doubt be attacked elsewhere, for what may be interpreted as a defense of the Vlasovites, i.e., the Russian force, under General A. A. Vlasov, that allowed itself to be armed and used by the Germans (although in the end it fought briefly against them too), eventually surrendered to the American command in Bavaria, and was finally delivered up by the latter to the Soviet authorities for such retribution as they might see fit to inflict. It is the impression of this reviewer that what Solzhenitsyn was concerned to do here was not to justify or condemn the behavior of Vlasov and his men but to reveal the cruel and hopeless dilemmas by which they were confronted, and the extremes of despair to which they had been reduced, by the senseless orders they received from the Soviet high command, by their disgust with the Stalinist regime, by the cruel circumstances of their experience as war prisoners in Germany, and, finally, by the knowledge that they would, if returned to Russia, be punished as criminals for the mere fact of having been taken prisoner, even if they had not in any way collaborated with the Germans.

The reviewer can find in these passages of the book no hint of anything resembling sympathy for the Nazis—only pity for the Russians involved, a reproach to the Western allies for the heartlessness and thoughtlessness of their handling of this problem, and a determination to raise the question: what had to be wrong with a political regime in order that “several hundred thousand young men in the ages of twenty to thirty should take up arms against their fatherland in alliance with its most bitter enemy?”

It would be wrong to view this book as a series of “revelations.” There is not much of what is told here that was not, generally speaking, already known or strongly suspected—usually assumed, in fact—by those who had followed closely the available record of Soviet realities as it has developed in recent years. Solzhenitsyn’s book will have to take its place on the shelf alongside many other fine works of Soviet origin, of which those of Nadezhda Mandelstam and Roy Medvedev are only two of the finest and most recent, not to mention a number of Western studies, devoted to the same subject.

But the book, aside from the talent with which it is written, gives confirmation to a great deal that was, heretofore, only strongly suspected or poorly documented. Even if only a fraction of what is told here were accurate, the force of the condemnation would not be diminished; whereas actually, in the opinion of this reviewer, the inaccuracies or exaggerations are of negligible dimensions and significance.3 The work thus achieves, in its massiveness, its fierce frankness, and its compelling detail, an authority no amount of counterpropaganda will ever be able to shake. And it emerges before world opinion not only as an act of immense courage and stoutness of heart on the part of its author, and not only as a political event of major importance in the development of Soviet power, but as the greatest and most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be leveled in modern times.

There are certain salient facts about this great system of punishment to which attention has indeed been called, in almost every instance, by earlier writers, but which emerge with particular force and authority from Solzhenitsyn’s work, and which deserve emphasis to the foreign reader.

The Archipelago was, in the first place, not the work of any single man. Of course, Stalin had an outstanding responsibility. Not for nothing was he the most powerful figure in the regime in the years when the system reached its greatest development. It was he who, presumably knowing well what he was doing, removed most of the rods from the infernal human reactor, during the years of the Thirties, and permitted it to burn with an intensity not known before or since. But he did not create it; its existence did not depend entirely upon him. It had existed before his autocratic power was established; and it continued, as Solzhenitsyn repeatedly points out, to burn, albeit at much reduced intensity, after his death.

  1. 1

    Particularly inadequate is the treatment, in this connection, of Bukharin. Solzhenitsyn had, of course, no possibility of seeing the recent work on Bukharin by Stephen F. Cohen (Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution, reviewed in The New York Review of Books February 7, 1974), and cannot be blamed for not knowing all that was in it; but his treatment of Bukharin would have benefited from an acquaintance with it.

  2. 2

    This review is based on the original Russian text; the reviewer has not seen a translation.

  3. 3

    In so far as the challenges to Solzhenitsyn’s integrity and veracity raised by Viktevich and others are concerned, it can only be said that anyone who would take seriously such statements by people who are effectively at the mercy of the police has not really read the book.

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