The Gulag Archipelago

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The Gulag Archipelago
Gulag Archipelago.jpg
Author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Original title Архипелаг ГУЛАГ
Translator Geneviève Johannet, José Johannet, Nikita Struve (French)
Thomas P. Whitney (English)
Country France
Language Russian
Publisher Éditions du Seuil
Publication date
Published in English
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
ISBN 0-06-013914-5
OCLC 802879
LC Class HV9713 .S6413 1974

The Gulag Archipelago (Russian: Архипелаг ГУЛАГ, Arkhipelag GULAG) is a book by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn about the Soviet forced labor camp system. The three-volume book is a narrative relying on eyewitness testimony and primary research material, as well as the author's own experiences as a prisoner in a gulag labor camp. Written between 1958 and 1968, it was published in the West in 1973 and, thereafter, circulated in samizdat (underground publication) form in the Soviet Union until its appearance in the Russian literary journal, Novy Mir, in 1989, in which a third of the work was published over three issues.[1]

GULag or Gulág is an acronym for the Russian term Glavnoye Upravleniye ispravitelno-trudovyh Lagerey (Главное Управление Исправительно-трудовых Лагерей), or "Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps", the bureaucratic name of the governing board of the Soviet labour camp system, and by metonymy, the camp system itself. The original Russian title of the book is Arkhipelag GuLag, the rhyme supporting the underlying metaphor deployed throughout the work. The word archipelago compares the system of labor camps spread across the Soviet Union with a vast "chain of islands", known only to those who were fated to visit them.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the formation of the Russian Federation, The Gulag Archipelago has been officially published, and it has been included in the high school program in Russia as mandatory reading since 2009.[2]

Structure and factual basis

Structurally, the text comprises seven sections divided (in most printed editions) into three volumes: parts 1–2, parts 3–4, and parts 5–7. At one level, the Gulag Archipelago traces the history of the system of forced labor camps that existed in the Soviet Union from 1918 to 1956, starting with V.I. Lenin's original decrees shortly after the October Revolution establishing the legal and practical framework for a series of camps where political prisoners and ordinary criminals would be sentenced to forced labor.Note 1 It describes and discusses the waves of purges, assembling the show trials in context of the development of the greater Gulag system with particular attention to the legal and bureaucratic development.

The legal and historical narrative ends in 1956, the time of Nikita Khrushchev's Secret Speech at the 20th Party Congress of 1956 denouncing Stalin's personality cult, his autocratic power, and the surveillance that pervaded the Stalin era. Though the speech was not published in the USSR for a long time, it was a break with the most atrocious practices of the Gulag system; Solzhenitsyn was aware, however, that the outlines of the system had survived and could be revived and expanded by future leaders.

Despite the efforts by Solzhenitsyn and others to confront the legacy of the Gulag, the realities of the camps remained taboo into the 1980s. While Khrushchev, the Communist Party, and the Soviet Union's supporters in the West viewed the Gulag as a deviation of Stalin, Solzhenitsyn and many among the opposition tended to view it as a systemic fault of Soviet political culture — an inevitable outcome of the Bolshevik political project.

Parallel to this historical and legal narrative, Solzhenitsyn follows the typical course of a zek (a slang term for inmate), derived from the widely used abbreviation "z/k" for "zakliuchennyi" (prisoner) through the Gulag, starting with arrest, show trial, and initial internment; transport to the "archipelago"; treatment of prisoners and general living conditions; slave labor gangs and the technical prison camp system; camp rebellions and strikes (see Kengir uprising); the practice of internal exile following completion of the original prison sentence; and the ultimate (but not guaranteed) release of the prisoner. Along the way, Solzhenitsyn's examination details the trivial and commonplace events of an average prisoner's life, as well as specific and noteworthy events during the history of the Gulag system, including revolts and uprisings.

Solzhenitsyn also waxes philosophical:

"Macbeth's self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb, too. The imagination and spiritual strength of Shakespeare's evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology. Ideology – that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others' eyes.... That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis, by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations.... Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago."

— Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Chapter 4, p. 173

Aside from using his experiences as an inmate at a scientific prison (a sharashka), the basis of the novel The First Circle (1968), Solzhenitsyn draws from the testimony of 227 fellow prisoners, the firsthand accounts which base the work. One chapter of the third volume of the book is written by a prisoner named Georg Tenno, whose exploits enraptured Solzhenitsyn to the extent that he offered to name Tenno as co-author of the book; Tenno declined.[citation needed] Solzhenitsyn also poetically re-introduces his character of Ivan Denisovich towards the conclusion of the book. When questioned by the books author if he has faithfully recounted the story of the Gulag, Denisovich (now apparently freed from the camps) replies that "you [the author] have not even begun...".

The sheer volume of firsthand testimony and primary documentation that Solzhenitsyn managed to assemble in The Gulag Archipelago made all subsequent Soviet and KGB attempts to discredit the work useless. Much of the impact of the treatise stems from the closely detailed stories of interrogation routines, prison indignities and (especially in section 3) camp massacres and inhuman practices.

There had been works about the Soviet prison/camp system before, and its existence had been known to the Western public since the 1930s. However, never before had the general reading public been brought face to face with the horrors of the Gulag in this way. The controversy surrounding this text, in particular, was largely due to the way Solzhenitsyn definitively and painstakingly laid the theoretical, legal, and practical origins of the Gulag system at Lenin's feet, not Stalin's. According to Solzhenitsyn's testimony, Stalin merely amplified a concentration camp system that was already in place. This is significant, as many Western intellectuals viewed the Soviet concentration camp system as a "Stalinist aberration".[3]

Historical impact of the text

Solzhenitsyn documented that the Soviet government could not govern without the threat of imprisonment, and that the Soviet economy depended on the productivity of the forced labor camps, especially insofar as the development and construction of public works and infrastructure were concerned.

This put into doubt the entire moral standing of the Soviet system. In Western Europe the book eventually contributed strongly to a need for rethinking of the historical role of Lenin. With The Gulag Archipelago, Lenin's political and historical legacy became problematic, and those factions of Western communist parties who still based their economic and political ideology on Lenin were left with a heavy burden of proof against them. George F. Kennan, the influential U.S. diplomat, called The Gulag Archipelago, "the most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be levied in modern times".[4] The book was published at a time when many communists in the West were already re-thinking their relationship towards the USSR, as many were deeply disappointed by the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.[5] In Germany, it sparked discussions not only about Leninism but also about how to deal with the memory of World War II.[6]

In an interview with German weekly Die Zeit British historian Orlando Figes asserted that many gulag inmates he interviewed for his research identified so strongly with the book's contents that they became unable to distinguish between their own experiences and what they read: "The Gulag Archipelago spoke for a whole nation and was the voice of all those who suffered".[7]


After the KGB had confiscated Solzhenitsyn's materials in Moscow, during 1965–1967, the preparatory drafts of The Gulag Archipelago were turned into finished typescript, sometimes in hiding at his friends' homes in the Moscow region and elsewhere. While held at the KGB's Lubyanka Prison in 1945, Solzhenitsyn had befriended Arnold Susi, a lawyer and former Estonian Minister of Education, who had been taken captive after the Soviet Union occupied Estonia in 1940. Solzhenitsyn entrusted Susi with the original typed and proofread manuscript of the finished work, after copies had been made of it both on paper and on microfilm.[8] Arnold Susi's daughter, Heli Susi, subsequently kept the "master copy" hidden from the KGB in Estonia until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.[9][10]

The KGB seized one of only three extant copies of the text still on Soviet soil. This they achieved after interrogating Elizaveta Voronyanskaya, one of Solzhenitsyn's trusted typists[11] who knew where the typed copy was hidden; within days of her release by the KGB she hanged herself (3 August 1973).[12]

The first edition of the work was published (in Russian) by the French publishing house Éditions du Seuil a few days after Christmas 1973;[13] they had received a go-ahead from Solzhenitsyn but had decided to release the work about ten days earlier than he had expected. News of the nature of the work immediately caused a stir, and translations into many other languages followed within the next few months, sometimes produced in a race against time. American Thomas Whitney produced the English version; the English and French translations of Volume I appeared in the spring and summer of 1974.

Solzhenitsyn had wanted the manuscript to be published in Russia first, but knew this was impossible under conditions then extant. The work made a profound impact internationally. Not only did it provoke energetic debate in the West; a mere six weeks after the work had left Parisian presses Solzhenitsyn himself was forced into exile.

Because possession of the manuscript incurred the risk of a long prison sentence for "anti-Soviet activities", Solzhenitsyn never worked on the manuscript in complete form. Since he was under constant KGB surveillance, Solzhenitsyn worked on only parts of the manuscript at any one time, so as not to put the full book into jeopardy if he happened to be arrested. For this reason, he secreted the various parts of the work throughout Moscow and the surrounding suburbs, in the care of trusted friends, and sometimes purportedly visiting them on social calls, but actually working on the manuscript in their homes. During much of this time, Solzhenitsyn lived at the dacha of the world-famous cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and due to the reputation and standing of the musician, even with Soviet authorities, he was reasonably safe from KGB searches there.

Solzhenitsyn did not think this series would be his defining work, as he considered it journalism and history rather than high literature. However, with the possible exception of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, it is his best-known and most popular work, at least in the West.

Finished in 1968, The Gulag Archipelago was microfilmed and smuggled out to Solzhenitsyn's main legal representative, Dr Fritz Heeb of Zürich, to await publication (a later paper copy, also smuggled out, was signed by Heinrich Böll at the foot of each page to prove against possible accusations of a falsified work).

Solzhenitsyn was aware that there was a wealth of material and perspectives that deserved to be continued in the future[clarification needed], but he considered the book finished for his part. The royalties and sales income for the book were transferred to the Solzhenitsyn Aid Fund for aid to former camp prisoners, and this fund, which had to work in secret in its native country, managed to transfer substantial amounts of money to those ends in the 1970s and 1980s.


Natalya Reshetovskaya, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's first wife, wrote in her memoirs that "The Gulag Archipelago" was based on "campfire folklore" as opposed to objective facts. She wrote that she was perplexed that the Western media had accepted The Gulag Archipelago as "the solemn, ultimate truth", saying its significance had been "overestimated and wrongly appraised". She said her husband did not regard the work as "historical research, or scientific research", and "The Gulag Archipelago" was a collection of "camp folklore", containing "raw material" which her husband was planning to use in his future productions.[14] However, it is possible her memoirs were part of a KGB campaign, orchestrated by Yuri Andropov in 1974, to discredit Solzhenitsyn.[15]

TV documentary

On 12 December 2009, the Russian channel Rossiya K showed the French television documentary L'Histoire Secrète de l'Archipel du Goulag[16] made by Jean Crépu and Nicolas Miletitch[17] and translated into Russian under the title Taynaya Istoriya “Arkhipelaga GULAG” (Secret History: The Gulag Archipelago). The documentary covers events related to creation and publication of The Gulag Archipelago.[16][18]

Translated video accessible online:


See also


1.^ A similar network of forced labour camps, known as katorga, existed in the Russian Empire since the early 18th century. It was abolished by the Russian Provisional Government in 1917.[19]


  1. Joseph Pearce (2011). Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile. Ignatius Press. pp. 81–. ISBN 978-1-58617-496-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. "The Gulag Archipelago is included in the obligatory school program". Izvestia. September 2009. Retrieved June 2013. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Thomas, Donald Michael (1998). Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: A Century in his Life. London: Abacus. p. 439.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Speaking truth to power", The Economist, 7 August 2008
  5. Ulrich Rosenbaum: Ist der Wurm nun aus dem Apfel Gefallen?, "Vorwärts", 21 February 1974, p. 3.
  6. Elisa Kriza (2014). Alexander Solzhenitsyn: Cold War Icon, Gulag Author, Russian Nationalist? A Study of His Western Reception. Stuttgart: Ibidem, pp. 194-199.
  7. Held des Westens, Die Zeit, 7 August 2008
  8. Solzhenitsyn, The Oak and the Calf and Invisible Allies
  9. Rosenfeld, Alla; Norton T. Dodge (2001). Art of the Baltics: The Struggle for Freedom of Artistic Expression Under the Soviets, 1945–1991. Rutgers University Press. pp. 55, 134. ISBN 978-0-8135-3042-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr (1997). Invisible Allies. Basic Books. pp. 46–64 The Estonians. ISBN 978-1-887178-42-6.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Solzhenitsyn, Literary Giant Who Defied Soviets Dies at 89
  12. Thomas, 1998, p. 398.
  13. Scammell, Solzhenitsyn, a Biography, 1985
  14. Lewis, Paul (6 June 2003). "Natalya Reshetovskaya, 84, Is Dead; Solzhenitsyn's Wife Questioned 'Gulag'". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 26 January 2017.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. Andrew, Christopher; Mitrokhin, Vasili (2000), The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West, Gardners Books, pp. 416–19, ISBN 0-14-028487-7<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. 16.0 16.1 ""Тайная история "Архипелага ГУЛАГ"". Премьера фильма". The press service the channel Rossiya K. 12 December 2009. Retrieved 23 August 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Marina, Nicolaev (10 October 2009). "Ultimul interviu Aleksandr Soljeniţîn: "L\'histoire secrète de L\'ARCHIPEL DU GULAG"". Poezie. Retrieved 23 August 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Secret History: The Gulag Archipelago (in Russian). maint: unrecognized language (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Michael Jakobson. Origins Of The Gulag: The Soviet Prison Camp System, 1917–1934. p. 16.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links