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Literature / The Gulag Archipelago

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The Gulag Archipelago is a book by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

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.
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  • 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.
  • Dedication: The book is dedicated "to all those who did not live to tell it."
  • Doorstopper: It is a very large book, normally published in three heavy volumes.
  • 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.
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  • More Communist 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. Solzhenitsyn distinguishes between them and the true socialists who carried their beliefs in their hearts and not on their sleeves—and were arrested because of it.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 thieves could be trusted by the camp administration to keep the 58s under strict control.
    • Averted during the Kengir Revolt, much to everyone's surprise.
  • Not So Different: 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.
  • Russian Guy Suffers Most: Hell yes, they all do. Also the Ukrainian guy, Belarusian guy, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian guys...
  • Take That!: Mostly sarcastic parenthetical asides and footnotes to Soviet officials and policies, but some of those are aimed at Western persons (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.


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