Published 50 years ago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s account of the Soviet Union’s barbaric system of forced labor camps is arguably the 20th century’s greatest work of nonfiction.
Today the word “gulag” is often used figuratively, but in the Soviet Union the Gulag—an acronym designating the system of forced labor camps—was all too real. Millions of people lived and died in the Gulag’s many “islands,” the camps scattered over the vast country. The worst were located in the Kolyma region in northeastern Siberia, where prisoners labored at 50, 60, even 70 degrees below zero and were given insufficient calories to sustain life.
So different was this experience from anything Western intellectuals had imagined, and so thoroughly did it discredit fashionable Marxism, that reports by Gulag survivors were laughed at, especially in France where Marxist ideology was strongest. That all changed when Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s detailed history of the Gulag was smuggled out of the U.S.S.R. “The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation,” published 50 years ago, was much more than a detailed account compiled from the testimonies of hundreds of people; it was also arguably the 20th century’s greatest piece of nonfiction prose.
Dedicated to “all those who did not live” to tell their story, “The Gulag Archipelago” demonstrates a nadir of humanity with nearly unfathomable cruelty. In one memorable passage, Solzhenitsyn muses that if the intellectuals of Chekhov’s plays who wondered what things would be like in a few decades had learned “that prisoners would have their skulls squeezed within iron rings; that a human being would be lowered into an acid bath . . . that a ramrod heated over a primus stove would be thrust up their anal canal (the ‘secret brand’); that a man’s genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot . . . not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would have gone off to insane asylums.”
Those who had admitted some of the horrors often blamed them entirely on Stalin, as if Lenin would not have done such things, but, Solzhenitsyn demonstrates, Lenin set up the system of terror and the Gulag while making clear that both were to be permanent features of the new regime. To those Westerners who imagine that this bizarre system of punishment could not happen in their country, Solzhenitsyn cautions: “Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth.”
How was such evil possible? Shakespeare and Schiller clearly did not grasp evil, Solzhenitsyn instructs, because their villains “recognize themselves as evildoers, and they know their souls are black,” but those who commit the greatest harm think of themselves as good. Before interrogators could torture prisoners they knew were innocent, they had to discover a justification for their actions. Shakespeare’s villains stopped at a few corpses “because they had no ideology,” nothing to compare with Marxism-Leninism’s “scientific” and infallible explanations of life and ethics. “Ideology—that is what . . . gives the evil-doer the necessary steadfastness and determination . . . the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good . . . in his own and others’ eyes.”
Far from excusing himself, Solzhenitsyn describes how he had once accepted official ideology and behaved loathsomely. “The Gulag Archipelago” is not only history, but also autobiography chronicling how the author changed. In the Gulag he encountered the “great fork” of prison life: Does one choose “to survive at any price,” including at the expense of others? “From this point the roads go to the right and to the left. . . . If you go to the right, you lose your life, and if you go to the left, you lose your conscience.”
Those accepting Soviet ethics laughed at the very idea of “conscience.” “Right” was whatever aided the Communist Party. In this view, there were no higher values, no absolute good and evil, and the only thing that counted in any action was its result. On the contrary, Solzhenitsyn decided; what matters most is not the result but one’s soul.
When Solzhenitsyn arrived at this conclusion, he also recognized the evil in himself. His sense of life was completely transformed. He learned forgiveness and discovered what true friendship is. Above all, he came to understand “how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful success I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel.”
But in prison Solzhenitsyn gradually realized the fundamental falsity of ideological thinking: the idea that evil results from bad people, and it is only necessary to rid ourselves of them. Not at all. “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart.” Having grasped this truth, Solzhenitsyn arrived at another—“the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being).”
Amazingly enough, “The Gulag Archipelago” becomes an optimistic story about a soul’s rebirth. “I nourished my soul there,” Solzhenitsyn concludes, “and I say without hesitation: ‘Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!’”
Mr. Morson, a professor of Slavic Languages at Northwestern University, is the author of “Wonder Confronts Certainty: Russian Writers on the Timeless Questions and Why Their Answers Matter” (Harvard University Press).
Copyright ©2023 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8
Appeared in the May 6, 2023, print edition as ‘Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Epic of True Evil’.