Solzhenitsyn's Testament


GULAG ARCHIPELAGO. By Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn. New York: Harper & Row. 1974. 660 pp. $12.50/$1.95.

George St. George opens his much publicized book Siberia (David McKay Co., 1969) with an account of his childhood in the central Siberian city of Irkutsk during czarist days. Among other things, he tells how political prisoners were shipped from European Russia to exile and sometimes imprisonment in Irkutsk, and he expresses relief that a far more humane regime has now replaced that of the czars, and that such things no longer take place. When I was in Irkutsk a few months after reading this book in 1971, I could see traces of czarist days, especially in the architecture, but of course I saw no caravans of prisoners; nonetheless, since I had also read other books (such as Dallin and Nikolaevsky's Forced Labor in Soviet Russia) I was far from convinced of the truth of St. George's account.

Solzhenitsyn's book The Gulag Archipelago (the archipelago being the "islands" of slave labor camps scattered across the length of Russia, and "Gulag" being the acronym for "Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps") explodes the St. George myth once and for all. Not that it hadn't already been exploded by such books as The Great Terror, a scholarly and extensively documented account by Robert Conquest; but Solzhenitsyn's work has a special authenticity: it was written within Russia itself, partly from his own experiences (he spent eleven years in Soviet labor camps, which he survived, as he says, only because most of the time was spent in a special place of detention for engineers, such as he describes in The First Circle, where conditions were better than in other prisons) but mostly from the experiences of others—accounts gleaned from other prisoners (usually cross-checked for accuracy) and some from underground publications and other sources which reached him, which he cannot yet reveal without incriminating the sources.

His account is devastating. People and places and dates are named; he spares the reader no detail of horror, until from time to time one must lay the book aside in revulsion that such things actually occurred. But in addition to the relentless accumulation of factual details, we also learn firsthand what it feels like to be arrested, interrogated, tortured, sent off in the night to destinations unknown. The impact is overwhelming; and the upshot of the account is that conditions in the USSR have been far more terrible than even in the worst days of the czars.

If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be practiced in Russia; that prisoners would have their skulls squeezed with iron rings; that a human being would be lowered into an acid bath; that they would be trussed up naked to be bitten by ants and bedbugs; that a ramrod heated over a primus stove would be thrust up their anal canal; that a man's genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot; and that, in the luckiest possible circumstances, prisoners would be tortured by being beaten to a bloody pulp, not one of Chekhov's plays would have gotten to its end because all of the heroes would have gone off to insane asylums.

Yes, not only Chekhov's heroes, but what normal Russian at the beginning of the century, including any member of the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party, could have believed, would have tolerated such a slander against the bright future? What had been acceptable under Czar Aleksei Mikhailovich in the 17th century, what had already been regarded as barbarism under Peter the Great, what might have been used against ten or twenty people in all during the time of Biron in the mid-18th century, what had already become totally impossible under Catherine the Great, was all being practiced during the flowering of the glorious 20th century—in a society based on socialist principles, and at a time when airplanes were flying and the radio and talking films had already appeared—not by one scoundrel alone in one secret place only, but by tens of thousands of specially trained human beasts standing over millions of defenseless victims. (pp. 93-94)

During the long reign of Alexander I, capital punishment was introduced only for war crimes taking place during the campaign of 1812, and capital punishment did not occur even for crimes of state for an entire half century thereafter. The Provisional Government of 1917 abolished it entirely; but under Lenin it was restored in all its force. From mid-1918 to mid-1919 more than 16,000 prisoners were shot—more than a thousand per year in one Leningrad prison alone. Sometimes, when the administration of such vast numbers would have been too time-consuming, victims were taken by the hundreds into barges and the barges sunk with all on board, from the Volga to Lake Baikal.

And what kind of evil-doers were these condemned men? Among them, for example, were six collective farmers who were guilty of the following crime: after they had finished mowing the collective farm with their own hands, they had gone back and mowed a second time along the hummocks to get a little hay for their own cows. The All-Russian Central Executive Committee refused to pardon all six of these peasants, and the sentence of execution was carried out….Even if Stalin had killed no others, I believe he deserved to be drawn and quartered just for the lives of those six peasants!…(p. 437)

The agronomist of a District Agricultural Department got a death sentence for his mistaken analysis of collective farm grain…The chairman of a handicraft artel that made spools for thread, was sentenced to death because a spark from a steam engine in his artel had caused a fire…Ought we to be surprised then that the village lad Geraska got the death penalty? In honor of the spring holiday, he went off to the next village to celebrate; he drank heavily, and with a stick he hit the rear end of the policeman's horse. (440-1)

A streetcar motorwoman of Krasnodar was returning on foot late at night from the car depot; on the outskirts of the city she passed some people working to free a truck that had gotten stuck. It turned out to be full of corpses—hands and legs stuck out from beneath the canvas. They wrote down her name and the next day she was arrested. The interrogator asked her what she had seen. She told him truthfully. Anti-Soviet Agitation—ten years. (p. 74)


But the book deals not primarily with those who were shot but with those who were imprisoned, tortured, and sent to the labor camps of the archipelago. There were huge waves of these, numbering millions. The 1937-8 wave is the only one known to the outside world, for the trials of some of these men were publicized, and of the few who survived the sentences some were intellectuals who wrote books. But before it came the wave of 1929-30, "which drove a mere 15 million peasants out into the taiga and the tundra. But peasants are a silent people, without a literary voice, nor do they write complaints or memoirs. No interrogators sweated out the night with them, nor did they bother to draw up formal indictments—it was enough to have a decree from the village soviet. This wave poured forth, sank down into the permafrost, and even our most active minds recall hardly a thing about it. It is as if it had not even scarred the Russian conscience. And yet Stalin committed no crime more heinous than this. And after it there was the wave of 1944 and 1946, when they dumped whole nations down the sewer pipes, not to mention millions and millions of others who had been prisoners of war, or carried off to Germany and subsequently repatriated." (pp. 24-25)

Intellectuals were always suspect, and they were arrested and shipped to Siberia—and almost certain death from cold, malnutrition, overwork, or illness—in huge waves. The hardy peasants who resisted forced collectivization of their farms provided good material for Siberian labor—more than five million of them were shipped to Siberia and destruction. Or if someone reports you (truly or falsely) to the authorities, for criticizing Stalin, or for turning off the radio during his broadcast, or for not turning in parents or others who (it is thought) may have made an anti-Soviet remark, you will usually get a 25-year sentence and a one-way trip to the Gulag. Or if you have done nothing at all! Often the charge would be concocted after the prisoner was taken in. If an official liked your wife, he would arrest you, give you a sentence, then arrest her, rape her in prison, and sentence her too, leaving your children to be raised in state orphanages (you would never see them again). On one occasion a prisoner who had received a 25-year sentence was asked what crime he had committed; "None," he replied. "That's impossible," said the official; "the sentence for nothing at all is ten years!"

It is all a matter of chance who gets arrested and sent to the archipelago. "Whether our destiny holds a death cell in store for us is not determined by what we have done or not done. It is determined by the turn of the great wheel and the thrust of powerful external circumstances.…You were asleep in your unheated Leningrad room, and the sharp claws of the black hand were already hovering over you. And yet none of this depended on you. Notice was taken of a Lieut. Gen. Ignatovsky, whose windows looked out on the Neva; he had pulled out a white handkerchief to blow his nose. Aha, a signal!" (p. 441) So he was arrested, and tortured until he consented to name his co-conspirators (there were none because there was no conspiracy). At last, to escape further torture, he named some names, and all those named were also arrested and shot.

Those who were shot were fortunate; for those who were sent into the archipelago (which contained an average of 12 million slaves during any given year), the death was only protracted. Prisoners were transported by night in barred cattle cars, crowded so that they could barely stand, were hardly fed the entire time (and providing them with water was too much of a logistical problem—besides, then they would have to go to the toilet), and deposited finally away from cities, out in the tundra, then forced to walk for miles—with a vehicle coming by afterward to pick up those who had fallen dead by the wayside. Often the final leg of the journey northward was in river barges.

People were thrown into the trough-like holds and lay there in piles or crawled around like crabs in a basket. And high up on the deck, as though atop a cliff, stood the guards.…The journey in such a barge was no longer prisoner transport, but simply death on the installment plan. Anyway, they gave them hardly anything to eat. Then they tossed them out in the tundra—and there they didn't give them anything at all to eat. They just left them there to die, along with nature. (p. 578)

Those that did arrive at an encampment found that death was only postponed: it was impossible to work 18 hours a day, with only a cup of gruel to eat once a day, and no winter clothing in 60-below-zero cold, living only in tents, and with no medical attention whatever. They died like flies of cold, malnutrition, disease, and beatings, and less than 50 percent usually survived the first winter. But hundreds of thousands of new prisoners took their places each year. What Solzhenitsyn calls the "Soviet sewage disposal system"—emptying the cities (one-fourth of the population of Leningrad alone in 1935) and the countryside (millions of kulaks, millions of others belonging to ethnic groups that Stalin found "undesirable") of all those who in Stalin's paranoid mind were possible threats to his regime, using them as cheap labor in Siberia as long as their bodies held out, then letting them die by the millions—worked in high gear from 1930 on, and continues to work at the present moment. If they complained that even their few miserable belongings were taken away from them in the camp, they were told, "In camp nothing belongs to you! Here in camp we have communism!"(p. 583) And, comments Solzhenitsyn, "If it was communism, then what was there for them to object to? That is what they had dedicated their lives to."


When I was in the USSR in 1971, there were signs up everywhere, "Free Angela Davis!" But of the monstrous crimes committed under Stalin and his successors—by thousands of trained interrogators who go to a three-year training school (at two to three times normal Soviet wages, paid by the state) to learn the most perfected methods of torture and interrogation, and can arrest anyone at any time for virtually anything—there was not one word. Yet the knock on the door in the night that took a person from his home forever must have touched most homes in the Soviet Union; but they dare not speak, lest they suffer the same fate themselves. All these men, writes Solzhenitsyn, should themselves be arrested and tried. "We will not shoot them. We will not pour salt water into them, nor bury them in bedbugs, nor keep them on sleepless 'stand-up' for a week, nor kick them with jackboots, nor beat them with rubber truncheons, nor squeeze their skulls in iron rings, nor push them into a cell so that they lie atop one another like pieces of baggage—we will not do any of the things they did. But for the sake of our country and our children we have the duty to seek them all out and bring them to trial…and to compel each one of them to announce loudly, 'Yes, I was an executioner and a murderer.'"(p. 177) And in the most pregnant line in the book Solzhenitsyn says, "We have to condemn publicly the very idea that some people have the right to repress others"(p. 178).

Solzhenitsyn's main indictment, of course, is of Stalin and the officials of the Soviet Government. But it does not end there. The Allied Powers with whom Russia fought World War II come in for bitter criticism. The main target of Solzhenitsyn's attack here is the agreement between Roosevelt and Stalin providing forcible repatriation of nationals after the war, which in the case of the Russians meant sentences to the Gulag and certain death [see the review of Operation Keelhaul in this issue—Ed.]. All prisoners of war, no matter how much they had suffered at the hands of the enemy, received punishment of from ten years in the archipelago to being shot (they could not be permitted to return home to tell others how much better life was in the West). An army of anti-Soviet Russians in 1945, headed by Gen. Vlasov, were willing to die in the Allied cause, to go anywhere and do anything in order to escape from their Soviet prison. But when the American armies marched into Germany, "the Americans greeted them with a wall of armor and forced them to surrender to Soviet hands, as stipulated by the Yalta conference" (p. 259). Along with these troops, Churchill turned over to the Soviet command a Cossack corps of 90,000 men, and "many wagonloads of old people, women, and children who did not want to return to their native Cossack rivers. This great hero [Churchill], monuments to whom will in time cover all England, ordered that they, too, be surrendered to their deaths."


Solzhenitsyn finds the adulation in the Western world for Roosevelt and Churchill incomprehensible. "In their own countries Roosevelt and Churchill are honored as embodiments of statesmanlike wisdom. To us, in our Russian prison conversations, their consistent shortsightedness and stupidity stood out as astonishingly obvious. How could they…fail to secure any guarantees whatever of the independence of Eastern Europe? How could they give away broad regions of Saxony and Thuringia in exchange for the preposterous toy of a four-zone Berlin, their own future Achilles' heel? And what was the military or political sense in their surrendering to destruction at Stalin's hands, hundreds of thousands of armed Soviet citizens determined not to surrender?" But Roosevelt, as if hypnotized by his ally "good Joe, "gave the orders, and his generals carried them out. Yes, Eisenhower too. All except Gen. Mark Clark, who refused to be a party to the mass murder of Russians at the orders of Americans.

In the current flurry of enthusiasm for "detente at any price," it is doubtful that the lessons of history, so indelibly etched on our minds by Solzhenitsyn's book, have been learned. Will as many people have to die for the next mistake of their governments as were the innocent victims of the one that Solzhenitsyn describes?

Contributing editor John Hospers is a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California. Author of many books, including Libertarianism, he is currently the Libertarian Party candidate for governor of California. A shorter version of this review is being published simultaneously by Books for Libertarians.