Review: The Gulag Archipelago

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Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. The Gulag Archipelago: A Literary Investigation I-II. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1974 [1973].

Few books are written with raw, electric energy. Solzhenitsyn’s work can only be labeled as a testimony to the 20th century and its postmodern politics. His work is a triumph of the human spirit. As is commonly noted of classics, this book is quoted yet rarely read. You will see blue-pilled virtue cons quote it about “human dignity” (and liberals ignore it altogether), but few will follow his reasoning out (and definitely shy away from what he says about Churchill).

I don’t think even Solzhenitsyn anticipated how accurate his words would describe 21st century social science, particularly “social engineering.” Social engineering is when a scientific and/or ruling elite engage in various practices to “shock” a people, thus manipulating them towards a pre-planned goal. He gives numerous examples

  • [people not accused of anything were arrested] simply to terrorize or wreak vengeance on a military enemy or population (Solzhenitsyn, I:29).
  • In the rear the first wartime wave was for spreading rumors and panic…”This was just a trial of bloodletting in order to maintain a general state of panic and tension” (78).
  • “All that was required in order to heighten the general consciousness was to arrest a certain percentage” (82).

I should probably clarify one point. You might see well-meaning authors describe the above as “The Hegelian Dialectic.” It is nothing of the sort. Hegel didn’t believe in such a dialectic. For him every thesis contains its own antithesis. Hegel wasn’t saying that we should create a problem in order to deliver our pre-planned solution. That’s what the Deep State does, but that’s not what Hegel said.

We might be tempted to say that the Soviets elites are simply stupid. There is some plausibility to that. Most Communists are stupid. But I think it is deeper. They are engaged in social alchemy. They are “changing” a population from leaden kulak into golden proletariat. They aren’t stupid. They are quite shrewd.


On How to Survive the GULAG

“From the moment you go to prison you must put your past firmly behind you…”From today on, my body is useless and alien to me. Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious and important to me” (130).

In other words, a strong doctrine of man’s soul.

AS neatly interweaves doctrines of man’s soul combined with what Gulag does to you. Although he likely doesn’t intend this, it is a good illustration of the mind-body problem.

The Bluecaps

The Soviet elite also adopted the motto of the criminal underworld, in which they would say to one another, “You today; [perhaps] me tomorrow” (145).

One danger, perhaps the main danger AS warned about in all of his works was ideology. Ideology is what separates the common criminal from the diabolical evil-doer. The criminal knows he is wrong. The Deep State agent has convinced himself that he is doing the Good. As he notes, “The imagination and spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology” (176). As concludes with a chilling observation: “Evidently evildoing also has a threshold magnitude. Yes, a human being hesitates and bobs back and forth between good and evil all his life….But just so long as the threshold of evildoing is not crossed, the possibility of returning remains” (177).

That Spring

AS rightly notes Winston Churchill’s post-WWII actions: “He turned over to the Soviet command the Cossack corps of 90,000 men. Along with them, he also handed over wagonloads of old people, women, and children who did not want to return to their native Cossack rivers. This great hero, monuments to whom will in time cover all England, ordered that they, too, be surrendered to their deaths” (259-260). In a moving, heart-breaking footnote, AS comments,

“This surrender was an act of double-dealing consistent with the spirit of traditional English diplomacy. The heart of the matter was that the Cossacks were determined to fight to the death, or to cross the ocean, all the way to Paraguay or Indochina if they had to . . . anything rather than surrender alive. Therefore, the English proposed, first, that the Cossacks give up their arms on the pretext of replacing them with standardized weapons. Then the officers —without the enlisted men—were summoned to a supposed conference on the future of the army in the city of Judenburg in the English occupation zone. But the English had secretly turned the city over to the Soviet armies the night before. Forty busloads of officers, all the way from commanders of companies on up to General Krasnov himself, crossed a high viaduct and drove straight down into a semicircle of Black Marias, next to which stood convoy guards with lists in their hands. The road back was blocked by Soviet tanks. The officers didn’t even have anything with which to shoot themselves or to stab themselves to death, since their weapons had been taken away. They jumped from the viaduct onto the paving stones below. Immediately afterward, and just as treacherously, the English turned over the rank-and-file soldiers by the train- load—pretending that they were on their way to receive new weapons from their commanders. 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, in their decline from 1941 to 1945, 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? They say it was the price they paid for Stalin’s agreeing to enter the war against Japan. With the atom bomb already in their hands, they paid Stalin for not refusing to occupy Manchuria, for strengthening Mao Tse-tung in China, and for giving Kim II Sung control of half Korea! What bankruptcy of political thought! And when, subsequently, the Russians pushed out Mikolajczyk, when Benes and Masaryk came to their ends, when Berlin was blockaded, and Budapest flamed and fell silent, and Korea went up in smoke, and Britain’s Conservatives fled from Suez, could one really believe that those among them with the most accurate memories did not at least recall that episode of the Cossacks?

The Law as a Child

AS notes that a dialectic functioned on the people during this time: “And in the end, the members of the intelligentsia accepted it, too, cursing their eternal thoughtlessness, their eternal duality, their eternal spinelessness” (328).

The Law Becomes a Man

AS surveys a number of key trials between church and Soviet, and notes a number of tactical blunders by the former.

The Law Matures

In these chapters on the Law “growing,” AS notes since there isn’t a stable Law, then there isn’t stable justice. Soviet Justice is quite consistent in this regard, as seen here: “For a thousand years prosecutors and accusers had never even imagined that the fact of arrest might in itself be a proof of guilt. If the defendants were innocent, then why had they been arrested” (394)?

When one is done reading this work, you really can’t say too much more. Perhaps something like what Wittgenstein said,

“What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”


About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
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1 Response to Review: The Gulag Archipelago

  1. Pingback: Gulag Archipelago | The Correctness of our Sentiments

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