“The Gulag Archipelago” by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn is a non-fictional account about the Soviet forced labor camps that led to the imprisonment, brutalization and very often murder of tens of millions of innocent Soviet citizens by their own Government.
Originally released as a three-volume book, but also available in an authorized abridged version, the book won the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature. The book was also called the “Best nonfiction book of the 20th century” by Time.
Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) was a decorated captain in the Soviet Army during World War II, but in 1945, he was sent to prison for criticizing Stalin in private letters. While in prison, he observed the prisoners, guards, and everyone in between to discover how everyone played a role in contributing to the creation of Soviet prison camps.
1) Soviet Society Was Built To Fail
The NKVD was a Soviet government agency that was tasked with conducting regular police work and overseeing the country's prisons and labor camps. Although Solzhenitsyn and others did their best to refuse to go to NKVD school, this route paid double or triple what would be earned had they went to and graduated from a regular university.
Students were also told that joining the NKVD was an honorable task because it would help fight the struggle against the internal enemy. Stalin, as the leader of Soviet Russia, believed he had many enemies–even in his own country, and wanted all of his enemies to be declared guilty in the court. To incentivize officers to catch more criminal, officers were given pay bonuses, awards and promotions for processing and condemning criminals. On the other hand, officers that had low numbers of convicted criminals were fired.
This set of incentives not only resulted in officers arresting citizens for almost any crime, no matter how little but once arrested, integrators used any method possible to have the person admit they were guilty.
Through interviews with former victims and officers, Solzhenitsyn learned that the NKVD deprived people of sleep and water, undressed them, lied to them, and even tortured them with a machine that squeezed their fingernails until it fell off. And although Stalin had issued no direct instructions to use torture–he wanted his hands to be clean if anything went south–at the same time he had ensured that torture would be used.
2) Arrested For Even The Smallest Mistake
Take a moment and reread that quote. Two children and their parents were sent to jail for accidentally knocking down a poster (of Stalin or Lenin) and were sent to jail.
As mentioned in the previous lesson, because of the incentives given to officers were so strong and those who made little arrests were punished, this created a society where people could get arrested for the smallest infraction.
A deaf carpenter was sentenced to jail for ten years for hanging his jacket on a bust of Lenin. A shepherd was sent to jail for calling his cow a whore. Yes, not at a police officer, but at his own cow and got a prison term for it.
There was also Irina Tuchinskaya who was arrested while leaving a church. She was charged with having “prayed in church for the death of Stalin.” How can anyone hear a silent prayer? Apparently, Soviet officers can. She was sent to jail for 25 years.
However, the people described above were the lucky ones. Many Soviet citizens were executed for their crimes.
Six peasants who had given almost all of their hay to the communist party, had a little hay left that they wanted to give to their cows, were all given the sentence of execution for not handing everything last piece of the crop over.
In another scenario, a hungry fourteen-year-old girl named Lida was walking down the street and picked up a few grains from the dusty road that spilled from a truck. She was sentenced to jail for three years.
3) 10 Factors That Led To A Corrupt Society
According to Solzhenitsyn, there were many things that contributed to the rise of slave-labor camps and a corrupt state, but here are his main ten ideas:
1) Constant Fear: Government officers were constantly arresting and interrogating citizens to rat out their neighbors or anyone that they may believe could be an enemy of the state. This led to a state of constant fear where even innocent people could be arrested.
2) Servitude: Citizens of Soviet Russia couldn’t simply pack up their bags and leave this crazy state because houses couldn’t be sold, exchanged or rented. Property belonged to the state, not the individual. In addition, the majority of the population had little savings with most of their tied to their property.
3) Secrecy and Mistrust: Since people couldn’t leave Soviet Russia, they had to be as secretive as possible because they did not want to be arrested and didn’t know who was an informant and who was a friend. To the Soviet citizen, being secretive was necessary to their survival.
4) Universal Ignorance: Since the Soviet people didn’t trust one another, no one spoke to anyone and no one talked about the millions of arrests that were being made in the country. And since no one talked, the only new information came from government officials who rarely spoke the truth.
5) Squealing: To arrest more people, Security officers constantly recruited city dwellers to become informers. Solzhenitsyn estimates that out of every four to five city dwellers, there would almost be one who had received a proposal to become an informer.
6) Betrayal as a Form of Existence: Living in a state of constant fear (both literally and figuratively) the least dangerous form of existence, says Solzhenitsyn, was constant betrayal. If Alek’s factory co-worker, a man who had worked with him for 20 years was convicted of being an enemy of the state, the next person Officers would be investigate was Alek. Anyone who had a friendship with an enemy would also be an enemy of the state. Thus, the only way to survive would be to betray your friends and tell the government what they wanted to hear.
7) Corruption: Living in a state of constant fear, where one has to betray their friends to survive, the country swelled up with corruption. Solzhenitsyn estimates that ⅓ of all convictions came from people that weren’t willing, to tell the truth, and instead lied as witnesses.
8) The Lie as a Form of Existence: Not only did adults have to lie to survive, but so did children. Parents had to decide whether to teach children the truth, which would put them at risk of being arrested or teach them to lie as a child, which would increase their chances of surviving but would produce future generations of corrupt citizens.
9) Cruelty: In a society built on lies, corruption, and betrayal, there was only room for cruelty. Solzhenitsyn writes that kindness, mercy, and pity were all ridiculed in the Soviet state.
10) Slave Psychology: Solzhenitsyn says that in several parts of the country, there were sculptures of guards with a police dog straining forward in order to sink its teeth into someone. People become so accustomed to this new corrupt state, they did not shudder at the sight of these statues. Setting dogs onto people became the norm, even on the country’s own citizens. The people of Soviet Russia were no longer free citizens, but rather, they became slaves in their own country.
“The Gulag Archipelago” is a horrible book. Not horrible as in poorly written or unbelievably boring, but horrible as in, “I can’t believe this book is nonfiction and these horrible events actually happened in life.”
It took me roughly two months to finish this book because at times I had to put this book down either to completely absorb the atrocities that happened or to wonder in disbelief just how evil humans could be.
That said, this is a book I think everyone should read.
Because if I had to summarize the book in one sentence it is that, society becomes corrupt from individuals becoming corrupt and not standing up for what’s right. This is a lesson everyone should know and remember. Viktor Frankl learned a similar lesson from his experience in the Holocaust camps when he said, man is both the person that invented the gas chambers and the person that entered them.
Society is made up of individuals, and as individuals, it is our duty to uphold positive values (trust, honor, freedom) that will move society upwards and avoid negative values (betrayal, lying, ignorance).
Rating: 5/5 stars
If you’re interested in reading the book, click here or on the image below!
Book: “The Gulag Archipelago” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
For: People interested in learning about Soviet Russia, psychology of corruption and slave labor camps
Lesson: Learn how a country falls apart when its leaders and citizens become corrupt