Inside the Gulag

Sistema Ispravitelno-Trudovikh Lagerei v SSSR, 1923-1960: Spravochnik (The System of Labor Camps in the USSR, 1923-1960: A Guide)

edited by N.G. Okhotin and A.B. Roginsky
Moscow: Zvenya, 598 pp.

Gulag v Komi Krai (The Gulag in the Komi Region)

by N.A. Morozov
Siktivar: Siktivkarskii Universitet, 181 pp.

Gulag v Karelii (The Gulag in Karelia)

edited by Vasily Makurov
Petrozavodsk: Karelskii Nauchni Tsentr RAN, 225 pp.

Vyatlag

by Viktor Berdinskikh
Kirov: Kirovskaya Oblastnaya Tipografia, 318 pp.

Polyansky ITL (Corrective Labor Camp) Zheleznogorska

by S.P. Kuchin
Zheleznogorsk (Krasnoyarsk-26): Museino-Vystavochny Tsentr, 256 pp.

Till My Tale Is Told: Women's Memoirs of the Gulag

edited by Vilensky Simeon
Indiana University Press, 364 pp., $35.00

To some Russians, the memory of a first encounter with Alexander Sol-zhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago is as much a physical memory—the blurry, mimeographed text, the dog-eared paper, the dim glow of the lamp switched on late at night—as it is one of reading the revelatory text itself. Although nearly three decades have passed since unbound, hand-typed samizdat manuscripts of the work began circulating around what used to be the Soviet Union, many can also still recall the emotions stirred by possessing the book, remembering who gave it to them, who else knew about it, whom they passed it on to next. In part, this was because The Gulag Archipelago, banned at home and published to great acclaim abroad, had the allure of the forbidden.

But the book’s appearance also marked the first time that anyone had tried to write a history of the Soviet concentration camps, using what information was then available, mostly the “reports, memoirs and letters by 227 witnesses,” whom Solzhenitsyn cites in his introduction. Many knew fragments of the story, from the cousin who had been there or the neighbor’s nephew who worked in the police. No one, however, had attempted to put it all together, to tell, in effect, an alternative history of the Soviet Union, without which the previous fifty years were hard to comprehend, even for those who had lived through them.

It was in acknowledgment of the contribution Solzhenitsyn made to this alternative history that the editors of Sistema Ispravitelno-Trudovikh Lagerei v SSSR, 1923-1960: Spravochnik (The System of Labor Camps in the USSR, 1923- 1960: A Guide) decided to dedicate their book to the “twenty-fifth anniversary of the appearance of A.I. Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.” The Spravochnik’s editors were themselves of the generation that had been most profoundly affected by the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s work. They are all active members of the Memorial Society—an organization dedicated, since 1987, to writing the history of the Stalinist past, and to promoting human rights in the present.

Nevertheless, their book was intended to have an effect that would be very different from Solzhenitsyn’s. This was not only because they, like others, have been critical of Solzhenitsyn’s many small errors of fact and emphasis: his general historical conclusions have in fact stood up extremely well, proving that prisoners’ gossip was not so unreliable after all. What the wider community of camp survivors and historians dislike is rather the emotions surrounding The Gulag Archipelago and the tone of it, which is that of a great sage imparting a thundering moral lesson to his people. “Only those who had been there knew the whole truth,” he writes of his fellow survivors: “But as though stricken dumb on the islands of the Archipelago, they kept their silence….”1

That Solzhenitsyn chose to put himself and his moral views at the center of the book also left it open to a particularly insidious form of attack: to discredit its substance, it was necessary only to discredit the author—to hint, as the Soviet government…


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