The Gulag Archipelago

I've finally finished reading the abridged version of The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who spent eight years imprisoned in a forced labor camp under Stalin. I'd strongly recommend that any aspiring writer read Solzhenitsyn's nobel address, delivered in absentia in 1970. Read from Part 4 onward, where he discusses the power and responsibility of the writer.


The Gulag Archipelago is an attempt at constructing a history of forced labor camps in the Soviet Union, without any access to high-level documentation—or even access to the entirety of Solzhenitsyn's own document, as he had to separate it into several parts for fear that the whole thing might be confiscated. It is unabashedly opinionated—he refers to the men who arrested him as "bums" and has a variety of names for Stalin—but throughout the work there shines a salient philosophy.


The following was all written by 1967. Some of it knocks out the underpinning of national socialist theory. Some is remarkably pertinent today. And much of it is simply human. (Yes, there are a lot of quotes. Read only as many as might interest you.)


  • From the first page: “The Universe has as many different centers as there are living beings in it.”


  • “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”


  •  On why, when pressed to join the NKVD in his youth, he and his friends declined: “Our feelings could not be put into words—and even if we had found the words, fear would have prevented our speaking them aloud to one another. It was not our minds that resisted but something inside our breasts. People can shout at you from all sides: ‘You must!’ And your own head can be saying also: ‘You must!’ But inside your breast there is a sense of revulsion, repudiation. I don’t want to. It makes me feel sick. Do what you want without me; I want no part of it.”


  • “The OSO did not claim to be handing down a sentence. It did not sentence a person but, instead, imposed an administrative penalty. And that was the whole thing in a nutshell. Therefore it was, of course, natural for it to have juridicial independence! …The OSO enjoyed another important advantage in that its penalty could not be appealed. There was nowhere to appeal to. There was no appeals jurisdiction above it, and no jurisdiction beneath it. It was subordinate only to the Minister of Internal Affairs, to Stalin, and to Satan.”


  • “We are therefore forced to conclude that no list of tortures and torments existed in printed form for the guidance of interrogators!... And it was simply stated, orally but often, that any measures and means employed were good, since they were being used for a lofty purpose; that no interrogator would be made to answer for the death of an accused; and that the prison doctor should interfere as little as possible with the course of the investigation… Even the chief of some provincial NKVD administration, if some sort of mess developed, could show Stalin his hands were clean: he had issued no direct instructions to use torture! But at the same time he had ensured that torture would be used!”


  • “21. Sleeplessness, which they quite failed to appreciate in medieval times. They did not understand how narrow are the limits within which a human being can preserve his personality intact. Sleeplessness (yes, combined with standing, thirst, bright light, terror, and the unknown—what other tortures are needed!?) befogs the reason, undermines the will, and the human being ceases to be himself, be his own 'I.' …Here is how one victim—who had just sat out days in a box infected with bedbugs—describes his feelings after this torture: ‘Chill from great loss of blood. Irises of the eyes dried out as if someone were holding a red-hot iron in front of them. Tongue swollen from thirst and prickling as from a hedgehog at the slightest movement. Throat racked by spasms of swallowing. Sleeplessness was a great form of torture: it left no visible marks and could not provide grounds for complaint even if an inspection—something unheard of anyway—were to strike on the morrow. ‘They didn’t let you sleep? Well, after all, this is not supposed to be a vacation resort. The Security officials were awake too!’ (They would catch up on their sleep during the day.) One can say that sleeplessness became the universal method in the Organs. From being one among many tortures, it became an integral part of the system of State Security; it was the cheapest possible method and did not require the posting of sentries.”


  • “To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek a justification for his actions… Ideology—that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination… Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions.”


  • “The reason why the camps proved economically profitable had been foreseen as far back as Thomas More, the great-grandfather of socialism, in his Utopia. The labor of the zeks was needed for degrading and particularly heavy work, which no one, under socialism, would wish to perform. For work in remote and primitive localities where it would not be possible to construct housing, schools, hospitals, and stores for many years to come. For work with pick and spade—in the flowering of the twentieth century. For the erection of the great construction projects of socialism, when the economic means for them did not yet exist.”


  • “It is unthinkable in the twentieth century to fail to distinguish between what constitutes an abominable atrocity that must be prosecuted and what constitutes that ‘past’ which ‘ought not to be stirred up.’ We have to condemn publicly the very idea that some people have the right to repress others. In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousandfold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations. It is for this reason, and not because of the ‘weakness of indoctrinational work,’ that they are growing up ‘indifferent.’ Young people are acquiring the conviction that foul deeds are never punished on earth, that they always bring prosperity. It is going to be uncomfortable, horrible, to live in such a country!”


  •   “’And on the whole, do you know, I have become convinced that there is no punishment that comes to us in this life on earth which is undeserved. Superficially it can have nothing to do with what we are guilty of in actual fact, but if you go over your life with a fine-tooth comb and ponder it deeply, you will always be able to hunt down that transgression of yours for which you have now received this blow’… [T]here is such mystical knowledge in his voice that I shudder. These were the last words of Boris Kornfeld.”


  • “So wouldn’t it be more correct to say that no camp can corrupt those who have a stable nucleus, who do not accept that pitiful ideology which holds that ‘human beings are created for happiness,’ an ideology which is done in by the first blow of the work assigner’s cudgel?”


  • “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years.”


  • “Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.”


  • “The Nuremberg Trials have to be regarded as one of the special achievements of the twentieth century: they killed the very idea of evil, though they killed very few of the people who had been infected with it… And if by the twenty-first century humanity has not yet blown itself up and has not suffocated itself—perhaps it is this direction that will triumph? Yes, and if it does not triumph—then all humanity’s history will have turned out to be an empty exercise in marking time, without the tiniest mite of meaning! Whither and to what end will we otherwise be moving? To beat the enemy over the head with a club—even cavemen knew that.”


  • “This is surely the main problem of the twentieth century: is it permissible merely to carry out orders and commit one’s conscience to someone else’s keeping? Can a man do without ideas of his own about good and evil, and merely derive them from the printed instructions and verbal orders of his superiors? Oaths! Those solemn pledges pronounced with a tremor in the voice and intended to defend the people against evildoers: see how easily they can be misdirected to the service of evildoers and against the people!”

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