The gulag archipelago

Why did Solzhenitsyn write The Gulag Archipelago and what was the political philosophy behind the book?

In 1970, over a decade after he began what was to become his masterpiece, The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Peace Prize for literature making him one of Russia's pre-eminent living writers. Four years subsequent to this he was expelled from the Soviet Union after the authorities discovered manuscripts of his work. However, the book which was published in the West in 1970 continued to circulate around the Soviet Union with the help of the Samizdat until its official publication in 1989. The three volume book is a massive narrative relying on eyewitnesses and primary research material, as well as Solzhenitsyn's own experiences as a prisoner in a Gulag labour camp. The name of book is a metaphor comparing the Soviet State to the chain of forced labour camps, like an archipelago in the middle of the ocean. Born in 1918 a year after the Russian revolution, Solzhenitsyn grew up under the new Soviet system and was a follower of the communist ideals. However, his arrest, as a result of his private criticisms of Stalin's departure from the Marxist ideals, lead to his disillusionment with the Soviet system and the underlying communist philosophy.

Solzhenitsyn presents to the reader the pervasive fear that was installed in the Soviet public under the Bolshevik rule as a result of the omnipresent NKVD and the threat of the Gulags. He walks the reader through a typical arrest and interrogation, illustrating the way in which agents would come in the dead of the night to install maximum surprise and terror. After a conviction was made whether true or fictional, prisoners were sent to the Gulag, the worst being situated in the farthest North of Siberia where winter temperatures remained around -60 degrees. There they would be forced into back breaking and dangerous labour in the swamps and mines with little food, clothing and shelter. Detainees would be denied sleep, clothes and food for days on end and were subjected to torture to extract confessions[1]. His passionate and often sarcastic writing creates vivid and convincing images of the camps made more compelling with the knowledge that he spent eight years in the Gulag himself. The possibility that the hundreds of Gulags that were scattered across the Soviet empire may be forgotten is a particularly prominent theme in Solzhenitsyn's writing along with the fact that many of the prisoners were innocent men and women who were being brutally terrorized by the regime. Solzhenitsyn questions the incentive to wage war on the nations own people which included not only farmers and peasants but also the intelligentsia - writers, scientists and teachers - and seemingly only resulted in the perpetuation of a useless terror. Solzhenitsyn also provides an explanation for the calmness of people who on being arrested would leave with the NKVD knowing they would never see their family and friends again, 'They could not imagine that singly - or God forbid, collectively - they might rise up for their liberty since they saw arrayed against them the state, the NKVD, the police, the guards, and the police dogs[2]' The entire governments complicity within the Gulag system created a sense of utter hopelessness in it's victims.

Rowley, argues that 'no one has contributed more to western consciousness of contemporary Russian nationalism than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn[3]'. This is further supported by Malia who claims that 'whether one likes the book or not, even whether one has read it or not, it has imposed itself on the consciousness of all men as a major cultural fact of the modern age. Everyone now knows what and where the Gulag is, just as everyone has long known what and where Auschwitz was'[4]. There is no debate that the influence and impact of Solzhenitsyn's writing has been enormous, however, his purpose in writing was not to become an international superstar. Rather, his purpose was to document for the Soviet people the full dimensions of what occurred in those camps and provide for them the truth which their Government refuses to acknowledge. As a survivor, Solzhenitsyn sees it as his obligation to those who suffered and to future generations to openly acknowledge the truth surrounding the criminality so that the nation can achieve spiritual and political renewal[5].

Solzhenitsyn began writing in 1958, with hopes of greater freedom as a result of Khrushchev's desalinization programme and with the purpose of spreading the truth. Its response among other dissident readers has been divided, although most are unanimous in their appreciation that something representing the full story of Soviet terror has been published, however, there is much debate over ideology and politics. Only a minority accept the author's condemnation exactly as he writes it, others believe that Solzhenitsyn so imperatively needed to tell his story that any ideology is a secondary motive and a small minority have condemned the work as politically harmful as a result of their negative reactions to the ideology[6].

However, despite the differing opinions on the extent of Solzhenitsyn's ideology, there is no doubt that The Gulag Archipelago is still a political piece. 'In the 1840s Alexander Herzen observed that in a country without freedom of political expression, literature becomes the sole outlet for all political and social concerns[7]'. One of the main issues that Solzhenitsyn refers to in his book is the nature of the Soviet evil, often applying the word 'fascist' to the regime and describing it in such a way that the reader would immediately compare it to that of Nazi Germany. This evil he believes is as a result of the discontinuity between the Old Russia and the new Soviet order. Although he draws many comparisons between the new and old regime such as the continuation of a police state, the differences between the two, he claims are more significant. He emphasizes the more oppressive character of the Soviet regime in comparison with the Tsars and states that Imperial Russia did not practice real censorship. Furthermore, political prisoners were not forced into labour camps and the number of political prisoners was only one ten-thousandth of those in the Soviet Union. He also argues that the Tsars secret service was only present in the largest cities comparing the Bolsheviks with the Jacobins during the reign of Terror in France. However, the fundamental difference for Solzhenitsyn between the two is the number of victims, at the height of the Imperial regime. Stolypin executed 2,200 whilst Stalin between 1937 and 1938 alone had almost 1,000,000 people shot. For Solzhenitsyn, therefore the nature of the Soviet evil is something completely different to anything Russia had seen previously. However, he also rejects the idea, made prominent by Khrushchev in his 'Secret Speech' that this terror began with Stalin, he argues that it was Lenin that created the Soviet totalitarian state and began the mass executions, created a planned economy and founded the Cheka as well as the system of labour camps later to become known as the Gulags. However, he is not arguing that Lenin created the entire Soviet system, instead he believes that Lenin created the ideology and the framework needed for Stalin to carry out the mass psychosis and epic holocaust of the 1930s. Thus the totalitarian nature of Soviet socialism is inherently linked to the continuity between Leninism and Stalinism. However, the origins of this evil, Solzhenitsyn believes can be found in the teachings of Marx and Engels. He concludes that communism will always be totalitarian and thus violent, not just in the Soviet Union but everywhere it exists, although one must note that these conclusions may not have come from close analysis of Marx. Solzhenitsyn rarely quotes Marx and uses Lenin far less than Stalin, however, Malia argues that this may no be important in assessing Solzhenitsyn's political stance[8].

Thus, what can the reader understand from Solzhenitsyn's criticisms? Despite his criticisms of the regime he is not looking for a return to the monarchy, he criticises the Middle Ages for an unbalanced tyranny of the soul over the body. Yet he believes that the moral development of man should become a central concern of social life, thus we can depict an element of 'spiritualism' or 'angelism' in his reflections[9].

In the third volume of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn articulates the limits and possibilities of politics in reflection to his experiences with a totalitarian regime.

'Of course, no one is in need of freedom if he already had it. We can agree with him [Tolstoy] that political freedom is not what matters in the end. The goal of human evolution is not freedom for the sake of freedom... what matter, of course are the moral foundations of society...If Tolstoy had been pressed as hard as we all were in Stalin's time, when three men feared to come together under one roof, even he would have demanded political freedom[10]'

This is supported by Solzhenitsyn in an interview with him where he stated that in his work the spiritual and philosophical dimensions are more important than the political. 'First would be the literary side, then the spiritual and philosophical. The political side is required principally because of the necessity of the current Russian position.' He goes on to use The Gulag Archipelago as an example, he states that within the book there are horrific stories but throughout there is still a spirit of catharsis. The spiritual sense is the most important because in many cases he can't suggest political solutions, as that, he believes, is a task for politicians[11].

The impact of the book, whether intentional or not, was enormo``````` us, Solzhenitsyn argued that the Soviet government could not govern without using terror and that the Soviet economy depended on forced labour camps with regard to the development and construction of public works and infrastructure. Therefore the entire moral standing of the Soviet system and their feelings of moral superiority over the west were put into doubt. The publication of The Gulag Archipelago in the West forced a rethinking of the historical role of Lenin, his political and historical legacy was put in jeopardy. Furthermore, the fractions of Western Communist parties who still used Lenin's teachings as their economic and political ideological basis lost much credibility. George Kennan claimed that The Gulag Archipelago was 'the most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be levied in modern times[12]'

Perhaps a turning point in the history of the Soviet Union is the fact that in the last year The Gulag Archipelago has been added to the school curriculum in a move to rehabilitate the Soviet-era dissident. Natalya Solzhenitsyn has been asked to cut her husbands three volume work down by 80% in order to make it more accessible to young students. "Readers must understand (from the book) that the Gulag was a system. They must understand its spread over the country," Natalya Solzhenitsyn said. Two of his other works One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Matryona's House which are both equally critical of the communist regime - are already part of the Russian curriculum. However, The Gulag Archipelago has remained controversial as Russia has yet to face up to its traumatic history. Soviet secret police archives are still sealed and Stalin is viewed by many as an unimpeachable hero for his role in defeating Nazi Germany in World War II[13].


Cohen, S., The Gulag Archipelago, (The New York Times 1974).

Rowley, D., Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Russian Nationalism, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Jul., 1997), pp. 321-337.

Mahoney, D., Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and the Ascent from Ideology (Rowman & Littlefield 2001).

Malia, M., A War on Two Fronts: Solzhenitsyn and the Gulag Archipelago, Russian Review, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Jan., 1977), pp.46-63.

Pearce, J., An Interview with Solzhenitsyn

Solzhenitsyn, A., The Gulag Archipelago, (Harper & Row 1973).

Solzhenitsyn's widow cuts 'Archipelago' to student size, (The Independent Books 2009).

"Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Speaking truth to power",The Economist, 7 August 2008

Solzhenitsyn's widow cuts 'Archipelago' to student size, (The Independent online 2009)

[1] Solzhenitsyn 1973

[2] Ibid p225

[3] Rowley 1997

[4] Malia 1977 p46

[5] Cohen 1974

[6] Malia 1977 p48

[7] Ibid p50

[8] Ibid p60

[9] Mahoney 2001 p55

[10] Solzhenitsyn 1973

[11] Pearce

[12] The Economist


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