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Literature / The Gulag Archipelago

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The Gulag Archipelago is a book by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It was written between 1958 and 1968 and first published in 1973.

An account of life in The Gulag, required reading in Russian high schools as of 2009. Multiple editions exist, most of which have been abridged because of the sheer length. This book tells the story of the Gulag from Solzhenitsyn's perspective as a former inmate, in stark contrast to the Soviet Union's account of the Gulag once it was shut down upon Stalin's death. Solzhenitsyn considered their account to have been written with rose-coloured goggles. The First Circle can be considered the more fictionally-inclined sequel.

This book contains the following tropes:

  • The Apocalypse Brings Out the Best in People: There is a chapter called The Ascent that explores how people could actually become better while living in the slavery and poverty of the work camp.
  • Bad Boss: Too many Gulag camp managers to count. In many cases they were responsible to no one and had total control over the zeks' lives, with predictable results.
  • Benevolent Boss: ...But there were a few managers and guards who kept their human decency.
  • Big Brother Is Watching:
    • Everywhere. And that means everywhere. One common tactic of the authorities was to plant a so-called "stool pigeon" in the cells to spy on the prisoners. Solzhenitsyn alludes to numerous cases of inmates being slapped with another prison sentence for having been loose-tongued in the presence of a spy.
    • One of the earlier chapters describes in detail the ubiquity of the archipelago, and reminds the readers that in Stalin's time, every train station and post office would have a cell.
  • Black Comedy: The combination of endless misinformation, impossible tasks and no concern whatsoever for the lives of the prisoners mostly results in tragedy, but also in a few moments that would not be out of place in a comedy skit. One of the most farcical instances concerns building inspectors being shown a newly-completed apartment block where several of the bathtubs had "gone missing" at various points of the process due to corrupt officials. The solution was for several prisoners and one experienced sealant applier to rip out the tubs in the first rooms the inspectors had checked, rush them up the back stairs and install them in the last rooms on the inspectors' schedule before they could get there. It worked.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: Solzhenitsyn discusses the trope and says the people like that only exist in fiction; real human beings need to justify themselves and present their evil acts as good.
  • Children Are Innocent: Not in the view of the state, they're not; they can get shipped off to the gulag like any adult. Once there, Solzhenitsyn notes that their very innocence makes them extremely dangerous, as they adapt to their new environment far faster than an adult with more deeply entrenched moral convictions. See Kids Are Cruel below.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Some sections read like a manual on how to become a Torture Technician or Shadow Dictator. You'll never look at office chairs or baggy pants the same way again.
  • Deadly Euphemism: Chapter title "History Of Our Sewage Disposal System."
  • Deadpan Snarker: The narration of the arbitrariness of the regime is full of dry humor and sometimes the absurdism borders on Black Comedy (see above).
  • Dedication: The book is dedicated "to all those who did not live to tell it."
  • Doomed Moral Victor: There are a fair number of these, as you might expect, but there are also surprising instances where staying true to one's principles bought an inexplicable reprieve. Solzhenitsyn gives a few examples of cases where the officials were so surprised by defiance that they didn't know what to do, backed down, and tried to ignore the prisoner rather than risk drawing attention to themselves, and cases where moral conviction seems to have had a massive positive impact on the prisoner's resistance to disease and starvation.
  • Doorstopper: It is a very large book, normally published in three heavy volumes.
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: One of the many, many techniques used by the gulag interrogators. Rather effectively, too.
    "Two interrogators would take turns. One would shout and bully. The other would be friendly, almost gentle. Each time the accused entered the office he would tremble — which would it be? He wanted to do everything to please the gentle one because of his different manner, even to the point of signing and confessing to things that had never happened."
  • Hidden in Plain Sight: At one point when news of the atrocities leaked and caused enough pressure that a respected writer was invited to the camps to inspect the conditions, the guards successfully prevented the obviously starving and abused prisoners from catching his eye and prompting closer inspection by... threatening them into sitting still and silently on the ground in a large group and throwing large tarpaulin sheets over the lot of them. The writer, rather than seeing inmates who he might want to take a closer look at and talk to, simply saw the sheets and didn't think to wonder what they were doing there. It seems like the guards themselves could hardly believe they got away with that.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: By the regime of itself, its predecessors, and ironically many of the people they threw behind bars who were safely dead. On the author's part, Solzhenitsyn's high opinion of Tsarist Russia is... controversial.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Nobody was completely safe from purges, even those who had orchestrated previous purges from the highest echelons of Soviet society e.g. the 1938 show trial of Yagoda (former head of the NKVD, who had supervised the Moscow Show Trials of 1936 and '37), Bukharin, Rykov, and other high-ranking officials. His successor Beria got hit with this himself after Stalin's death.
  • Holier Than Thou: Many of the Communist prisoners being purged still think themselves loyal to Stalin's regime, convinced that it was all a mistake that they were arrested, whereas everybody around them are of course scum and deserve every moment of their sentence.
  • The Informant: Stoolies, as they were called, were universally despised by prisoners and the security services alike. In many cases they didn't have a choice when they were recruited; Solzhenitsyn himself was forced to become an informant. He considered himself very fortunate to have been transferred out to a sharashka (science lab in the gulag system) before internal security could really pressure him into snitching on overheard conversations.
  • Inherent in the System: Solzhenitsyn makes it very clear that the gulags were no abberration of Stalin: from the very beginning, communism only survives through the terror and oppression of the people.
  • Insane Troll Logic: Article 58 of the RSFSR Penal Code, which was so broadly written that it could easily cover any sort of unapproved behavior.
  • Interrogated for Nothing: Frequently followed by a Tenner For Nothing.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Once they adapt to their new environment (far faster and more thoroughly than an adult) they certainly are. Solzhenitsyn describes one event when children (about 12 years old) lured a nurse into a cell with dozens of them by lying about one of them being sick, and then pinned her down and barricaded the doors, doing everything to her from biting and beating to gang rape. Unlike some of the terrible things they did for food (stealing a weaker adult's clothes and then selling them, leaving the adult to starve and freeze) this particular atrocity had no discernible motive beyond For the Evulz, and if asked about it the savage children would probably not have had the moral vocabulary to explain it.
  • Know-Nothing Know-It-All: The infamous propagator of pseudoscience, Trofim Lysenko, pops up. When his "ideas" on science and agriculture go to seed, he insists that it was the fault of the agronomists who followed his orders.
  • A Million Is a Statistic: The author laments that the numbers he's dealing with are simply too immense to leave an emotional impact. To give you some perspective, Solzhenitsyn's estimates of the total death toll under Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev combined have margins of error numbering in the tens of millions.
  • Moral Myopia: Stalin's regime never misses a chance to rant about the (admittedly dreadful) purges of the Tsars, even with the even more massive purges they themselves stage.
  • Never Speak Ill of the Dead: One of the objections to the original publication of the book was that Solzhenitsyn was disgracing the memory of the dead. He was even accused of pointlessly opening the old wounds of the camp survivors, by former camp guards, no less.
  • No Honor Among Thieves:
    • The "58s", as the political prisoners are called, have to share their camps with the "socially friendly" elements, the thieves and career criminals, and Solzhenitsyn makes it very clear that the romanticization of the thieves has no basis at all in reality, particularly as the camp administration could trust the thieves to keep the 58s under strict control.
    • Averted during the Kengir Revolt, much to everyone's surprise.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: Solzhenitsyn recalls how he started to become haughty and cruel as an officer and concludes that under the right circumstances, most people could become brutal interrogators.
    "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. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"
  • Place Worse Than Death: The eponymous Gulags.
  • Refuge in Audacity: The book contains a few examples both of people standing up to the guards and inexplicably not being punished, and examples of total farce that should have exposed the whole hideous affair but the guards successfully bluffed their way through.
  • Russian Guy Suffers Most: Hell yes, they all do. Also the Ukrainian guy, Belarusian guy, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian guys...
  • Secret Police:
    • The NKVD, or "Blue Caps" as they are more commonly referred to in the book. They are described as men who are totally obedient to the Party and feel little to no empathy towards others, endowed with what essentially amounts to unlimited power. Nobody was out of their reach, from the lowest farmer, to ranking government or military officials.
    • So long as they didn't go against their fellow Blue Caps or the state, they could do pretty much anything they wanted; which they did. A school professor is giving a lecture on something you don't like? You can forbid him from saying anything else. You saw an apartment that you would like to live in? You could have it, and if it happens to already be occupied, just throw the tenant into a cell on whatever charge comes to mind. A woman catches your eye? She's yours, so go ahead and rape her.
  • Take That!: Aimed at communist officials and policies, mostly Soviet but a few in the West too, b(at least three to Bertrand Russell, for instance) sympathetic with the Soviet Union (though Russell criticized the USSR and Marxism, so he may have been misinformed about that).
  • This Is a Work of Fiction: Inverted. The book has a disclaimer at the beginning, saying that while many names have been changed, everything in it really happened exactly like it's described. How true that actually is is subject to dispute.
  • Would Hurt a Child:
    • Children were not exempt from being shipped to the gulag, and they suffered no less than the adult inmates.
    • Due to essentially growing up in an environment where survival required doing practically anything, by any means, plenty of adolescents took advantage of older, weaker adults by stealing their allotted rations and beating them into helplessness in order to take whatever they might possess, all without a shred of remorse. This, in turn, caused the adults to have such a profound and corrosive hatred for them that, given half a chance, they would kill any kid they could lay hands on. One particular inmate's preferred method was to pin them to the ground and kneel on their chests until the ribs cracked, but didn't fully break. This way, they suffered for days before dying, and nobody would know why.