This is the first of a series of reviews I intend to write about my reading of the classic book ‘The Gulag Archipelago (1918-1956)’. The book is an abridged version of three volumes of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s work, translated from Russian to English. During my visit to St Petersburg and Moscow in November of 2018, I bought as many books as I could about Russia, written by Russians. A Russian journalist, who works for one of the major newspapers with over 100 million readership advised that I should read books by Russian authors to get the ‘other perspective’. I think he was right as the literature about Russia available to Papua New Guineans are those written by Western scholars, unfairly biased towards the West’s views, but I do not think he was hoping I read the Gulag Archipelago. Or Maybe he was.
The Gulag Archipelago was made a mandatory reading for Russian students in 2009. This is interesting because the book reveals the evil practices of the Soviet Regime under Lenin and Stalin, and despite that, Russian students are required to face the evil past of their country. If you find a people willing to do that, you are amongst a people more afraid of repeating the past than facing it. Even President Putin expressed his support for the decision to make the Gulag Archipelago a mandatory reading ( Boudreaux, Richard (28 October 2010). “‘Gulag Archipelago’ Re-Issued for Russian Students”. The Wall Street Journal). For someone who still though of Russians as ‘communists’ this was an interesting revelation to me. Since then I read several books about Russian history, politics, crime etc., but none comes close to the Gulag Archipelago. So I decided to do reviews of each chapter as I read.
The Gulag Archipelago, written by a Russian, has sold more than 30 million copies world wide, and has been translated to several languages. In 2009, with the current Russian President Putin’s support, the book was made a mandatory reading for Russian students. Solzhenitsyn won a Noble Prize for literature. I’m reading the fiftieth anniversary edition released on 1 November 2018, forwarded by another prolific scholar of our time, Dr Jordan Peterson. For lack of a better term I call this series “review” but what I intend to do its provide brief summary of parts of the book that made me stop and think “how was this even possible?”
Solzhenitsyn was arrested from the front lines fighting the Germans in the second world war, for making derogatory statements against Stalin. He was a captain in the arterially division. On page 29 Solzhenitsyn talks about the ‘quota system’ for arrests. He writes:
“Every city, every district, every military unit were assigned a specific quota of arrests to be carried out by a stipulated time (Solzhenitsyn, 1973:29)”.
The political prisoners were to be sent to the islands in the Gulag Archipelago. “Political crimes” were defined vaguely under Article 58 of the Criminal Code. Article 58 made “propaganda or agitation….” to overthrow, subvert or weaken the Soviet power a very serious crime. The problem was, anyone could be arrested, and labelled as political prisoner even if he or she did not commit any political crime. They officers needed to meet the ‘quota’.
The lower jail limit was 10 years for anyone guilty of Article 58. The maximum penalty was not set, only the minimum. Beyond 10 years, the state decided when you were released from prison. The article was amended and increased to 25 years minimum, whilst the maximum remained infinite. The prisoners were used as slaves for building state infrastructure.
A former Checkist Aleksandr Kalganov retold one of his his experiences to Solzhenitsyn on how they strived to meet the quota system. Kalganov and his friends received a telegram that read “Send 200”. They were asked to send 200 political prisoners. Kalganov and his friends had a problem: they already cleaned out the area of anyone with political crimes under section 58 of the Criminal Code. Without an alternative, they reclassified people they arrested earlier for non-political crimes as political prisoners under Article 58 of the Criminal Code. Even then they fell short of the quota. One of Kalganov’s friends had an idea – there was a gypsy band playing not far from where they were – the entire band was arrested, labeled political prisoners, and sent to Gulag. The band had members ranged from 16 to 67 years old.
Sometimes if the officers were lucky, their quota problem was solved without the officers going out to do arrests. One day a women went to the police station to ask the officers what to do with her neighbor’s baby who had been crying non-stop since her mother was arrested. She went at a time when the officers were contemplating how to meet their quota. The woman was arrested, branded as political prisoner, and added to the list. She did not commit any crime, but she was needed to meet the quota.
Not all arrests driven by the need to meet the assigned quota. There were those, like Solzhenitsyn, a war hero decorated twice, arrested for expressing a negative view of Stalin. Solzhenitsyn tells the story of an independent journalist who was arrested for being the first to ‘stop clapping’. A district Party conference (the Communist Party) was underway in Moscow, and at the end of the conference, as was the custom in those days, the members stood up to applaud Stalin when his name was mentioned. Stalin was not even in the room! The small hall erupted in a stormy applause.
They clapped with hands raised, and cheered. It went on for one minute, five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes. Everyone was afraid to be the first to applauding for Stalin. So it went on and on. Tired, hungry, weak, but who would dare to be the first to stop cheering? Suddenly the journalist stopped clapping and slumped into his chair. The tired party members stopped almost abruptly and collapsed on their chairs. They had someone who they would blame for being the first to stop applauding Comrade Stalin. The journalist had saved them from collapsing from exhaustion, but he had to pay the price! The journalist was charged for some crime he probably did not commit and sentenced to 10 years. He was later released, but the the interrogator warned him “don’t every be the first one to stop clapping” (Solzhenitsyn, 1973: 28).
All kinds of people were arrested including people of all faith. Husbands would renounce their faith to remain with the children whilst wives kept the faith and went to prison. Spounses were arrested for not breaking up with partners arrested for their faith. The rich were arrested for being wealthy. The poor were arrested.
One lecturer was arrested for talking about Marxism and Lenin, but forgetting to mention Comrade Stalin. The reasons were many, the quota was endless. Those who conducted the arrests were also vey creative in their techniques. You would be arrested by a hiker, who did not dress up as a military or police officer, but carried an ID nevertheless. A young woman was arrested by her date. Every train station had some kind of cell.
This book makes a very interesting reading. Solzhenitsyn writes it was incredibly painful detail. I am excited to read the next chapter: “Interrogation”. I will review it once I am done with the next chapter, so be sure to subscribe to the blog and follow the the succeeding reviews.
At completing the book, I will write about what we can learn from the Soviet experiment of communism and socialist policies. Appeal for varied versions of socialist-like policies are rising on every continent. Will we be better at implementing socialist policies that Communist Russia?
Also, there are those who say “communism began as a good idea, but was corrupted along the way.” I will use provide insights from this book on whether that is true. Others say “I would have done things differently if I was Lenin or Stalin.” I will also provide my views on that. And finally, I will conclude with what impact communism had in places it was practiced: USSR, China, Cambodia, Cuba etc.
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