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The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

An Experiment in Literary Investigation

By Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
16-minute read
Audio available
The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

The Gulag Archipelago (1973) is a literary chronicle of the Soviet work camps known as gulags, which existed between the years 1918–56. Drawing from his own experience as a prisoner, as well as the reports, memoirs and letters of hundreds of others, author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn provides a chilling account of the constant dread and horror of life in the gulags, while also charting the psychology and organization behind the government-sanctioned prison system.

  • Students of Soviet history
  • Advocates and critics of communism
  • Freedom fighters

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) was a Russian novelist who authored many books, including One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) and Cancer Ward (1968), and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970. An outspoken critic of the Soviet regime, he was imprisoned from 1945–53 for making unfavorable comments about Josef Stalin. Beginning in 1974, he spent 20 years in exile from the Soviet Union, during which time he lived in West Germany and America. He finally returned in 1994, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

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The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

An Experiment in Literary Investigation

By Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 10 key ideas
The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Synopsis

The Gulag Archipelago (1973) is a literary chronicle of the Soviet work camps known as gulags, which existed between the years 1918–56. Drawing from his own experience as a prisoner, as well as the reports, memoirs and letters of hundreds of others, author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn provides a chilling account of the constant dread and horror of life in the gulags, while also charting the psychology and organization behind the government-sanctioned prison system.

Key idea 1 of 10

The Archipelago rose with the October Revolution, spread from Solovki prison, and was firmly rooted after World War II.

The gulags, or forced labor camps, of the Soviet Union were not unlike an archipelago – a series of islands unto themselves, spread throughout the country. These islands were invisible to much of the world, but any soul who entered one would discover they were all too real.

There were thousands of islands in the Gulag Archipelago, scattered here and there across the Russian motherland – from the Bering Strait in the east to the Bosporus in the west. But you won’t find tickets to these destinations being sold at any travel bureau.

The reality of these spellbound islands remains a mystery to all, even though the first peaks of the Gulag Archipelago emerged in 1918 – the year of the Great October Socialist Revolution, led by Vladimir Lenin.

Lenin would go on to take control of the Soviet government, calling for “decisive, draconic measures” only months after the revolution in order to “tighten up discipline.” And so the islands began to form.

Those familiar with communist politics will not find the gulags particularly surprising. After all, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, writing in their Communist Manifesto, called for the old bourgeois system of compulsion to be destroyed. In its place, a new system of compulsion for the working class. Since the old system included prisons, it was only logical that this new system would come with a new kind of prison.

On September 5, 1918, the Gulag Archipelago was born when the following decree was published: “Secure the Soviet Republic against its class enemies by isolating them in concentration camps.

True to its name, the very first gulag in the Archipelago appeared on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea, where an old monastery was turned into a prison camp. This first camp, the Solovki gulag, was the model from which all future camps would take their cues.

From there, the Archipelago grew through the dense forests of taiga and barren lands of tundra – places where mostly hares, deer, foxes, and wolves had called home. Now, these animals would appear as curious neighbors to the inhabitants of these quickly sprouting islands.

While the origins of the Gulag Archipelago can be traced back to before World War I, it was following World War II that these islands hardened into the massive workforce they would become.

After World War II, the Soviet Union faced a pressing economic concern to grow and build, and what better workforce to take on this task than all the manpower sitting in the gulags? Not only did you not have to pay them, but they had no families to look after and so could be easily moved from place to place. You also didn’t have to worry about housing, schools, hospitals or even food and bathing.

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