The Gulag Archipelago

The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (Russian: Архипела́г ГУЛА́Г, Arkhipelág GULÁG) is a three-volume, non-fiction text written between 1958 and 1968 by Russian writer and historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It was first published in 1973, followed by an English translation the following year. It covers life in what is often known as the gulag, the Communist Soviet forced labour camp system, through a narrative constructed from various sources including reports, interviews, statements, diaries, legal documents, and Solzhenitsyn's own experience as a gulag prisoner. In Russian, the term GULAG (ГУЛАГ) is an acronym for Main Directorate of Camps (Главное управление лагерей).

The Gulag Archipelago
AuthorAleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Original titleАрхипела́г ГУЛА́Г
TranslatorGeneviève Johannet, José Johannet, Nikita Struve (French)
Thomas P. Whitney (English)
PublisherÉditions du Seuil
Publication date
Published in English
Media typePrint (Hardback & Paperback)
LC ClassHV9713 .S6413 1974

Following its publication, the book initially circulated in samizdat underground publication in the Soviet Union until its appearance in the literary journal Novy Mir in 1989, in which a third of the work was published in three issues.[1] Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, The Gulag Archipelago has been officially published in Russia. An abridged fiftieth anniversary edition was released on 1 November 2018 with a new foreword by Jordan Peterson.[2]


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. Solzhenitsyn begins with V. I. Lenin's original decrees which were made shortly after the October Revolution; they established the legal and practical framework for a series of camps where political prisoners and ordinary criminals would be sentenced to forced labor.Note 1 The book then describes and discusses the waves of purges and the assembling of show trials in the context of the development of the greater Gulag system; Solzhenitsyn gives particular attention to its purposive legal and bureaucratic development.

The narrative ends in 1956 at the time of Nikita Khrushchev's Secret Speech ("On the Personality Cult and its Consequences"). Khrushchev gave the speech at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, denouncing Stalin's personality cult, his autocratic power, and the surveillance that pervaded the Stalin era. Although Khrushchev's speech was not published in the Soviet Union for a long time, it was a break with the most atrocious practices of the Gulag system.

Despite the efforts by Solzhenitsyn and others to confront the legacy of the Gulag, the realities of the camps remained a taboo subject until the 1980s. Solzhenitsyn was also aware that although many practices had been stopped, the basic structure of the system had survived and it could be revived and expanded by future leaders. 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 an 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"; the treatment of prisoners and their 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 the 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 states:

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.

The Gulag Archipelago, Chapter 4, p. 173[3]

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".[4]


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.[5] 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.[6][7]

In 1973 the KGB seized one of only three existing copies of the text still on Soviet soil. This was achieved after interrogating Elizaveta Voronyanskaya, one of Solzhenitsyn's trusted typists[8] who knew where the typed copy was hidden; within days of her release by the KGB she hanged herself (3 August 1973).[9] Although he had earlier wanted it published in Russia first, after Solzhenitsyn learned of her death, he decided the next month, September, to allow its publication in Paris.

The first edition of the work was published (in Russian) by the French publishing house Éditions du Seuil a few days after Christmas 1973;[10] 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 had a profound effect 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. Sometimes when he was purportedly visiting them on social calls he actually worked 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, despite the elevated scrutiny of the Soviet authorities, Solzhenitsyn 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 about Gulag to be continued in the future, 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.

Impact and reception

Beginning in 2009, Russian schools issued the book as required reading.[11][12] In an exchange with Natalya Reshetovskaya (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's wife) Russian president Vladimir Putin called the book "much-needed."[11] while the Russian Ministry of Education said that the book showed "vital historical and cultural heritage on the course of 20th-century domestic history."[13] Arseny Roginsky, then head of the human-rights organization Memorial, welcomed Mr. Putin's backing for the Solzhenitsyn textbook.[12]

Natalya Reshetovskaya for her part created an abridged version for Russian school children[11], but in her memoirs said her husband did not regard the work as historical or scientific research, and added that The Gulag Archipelago was a collection of "camp folklore", containing "raw material" which her husband was planning to use in his future productions. She wrote that she was "perplexed" that the Western media had accepted The Gulag Archipelago as "the solemn, ultimate truth", saying that its significance had been "overestimated and wrongly appraised".[14] According to Mitrokhin Archive, Reshetovskaya's memoirs were part of a KGB campaign to discredit Solzhenitsyn.[15]

Novelist Doris Lessing said that the book "brought down an empire"[16] while Michael Scammell similarly said that the book was a gesture that "amounted to a head-on challenge to the Soviet state, calling its very legitimacy into question and demanding revolutionary change."[17] The philosopher Isaiah Berlin said that, "Until the Gulag, the Communists and their allies had persuaded their followers that denunciations of the regime were largely bourgeois propaganda."[16] while the American diplomat George F. Kennan, said that the book was “the most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be levied in modern times.”[18] Tom Butler-Bowdon has described the book as a "Solzhenitsyn's monument to the millions tortured and murdered in Soviet Russia between the Bolshevik Revolution and the 1950s."[16]

An edition of The Book Show said that the book helped expose the brutality of the Soviet system.[19]

Psychologist Jordan Peterson has said that the Gulag Archipelago is the most important book of the twentieth century.[20]

Historian and archival researcher Stephen G. Wheatcroft describes the book as "a fine literary masterpiece, a sharp political indictment against the Soviet regime, and has had tremendous importance in raising the issue of Soviet repression in the Russian consciousness." He also said that the book was essentially a "literary and political work", and "never claimed to place the camps in a historical or social-scientific quantitative perspective" but that in the case of qualitative estimates, Solzhenitsyn, according to Wheatcroft, gave his high estimate as he wanted to challenge the Soviet authorities to show that "that the scale of the camps was less than this."[21]

Parallels have been drawn between the book and the treatment of Liao Yiwu, a dissident who, according to the AFP, is dubbed the "Chinese Solzhenitsyn."[22] David Aikman has asserted that Yiwu is the first Chinese dissident writer to "come up with a very detailed account of prison conditions including torture in China in the same way that [Soviet dissident Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn did in “The Gulag Archipelago,”."[23]

UCLA historian J. Arch Getty writes of Solzhenitsyn's methodology that "Such documentation is methodically unacceptable in other fields of history".[24] Gabor Rittersporn shares Getty's criticism saying "he is inclined to give priority to vague reminiscences and hearsay [...] [and] inevitably [leads] towards selective bias".[25]

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".[26]

Former Communist Party member, dissident and historian, Roy Medvedev has referred to the book as "extremely contradictory".[27] However, in a review for the book he described it as without parallel, saying, "I believe there are few who will get up from their desks after reading this book the same as when they opened its first page. In this regard I have nothing with which to compare Solzhenitsyn's book either in Russian or world literature."[28][29]

Mustafa Akyol drew a parallel between the book and the current situation in Xinjiang.[30]

Television documentary

On 12 December 2009, the Russian channel Rossiya K showed the French television documentary L'Histoire Secrète de l'Archipel du Goulag[31] made by Jean Crépu and Nicolas Miletitch[32] and translated it into Russian under the title Taynaya Istoriya “Arkhipelaga GULAG” (Secret History: The Gulag Archipelago). The documentary covers events related to the writing and publication of The Gulag Archipelago.[31][33]

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.[34]


  1. Joseph Pearce (2011). Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile. Ignatius Press. pp. 81–. ISBN 978-1-58617-496-5.
  2. "The Gulag Archipelago". Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  3. Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn (1973). The Gulag Archipelago (1st ed.). Harper & Row.
  4. Thomas, Donald Michael (1998). Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: A Century in his Life. London: Abacus. p. 439.
  5. Solzhenitsyn, The Oak and the Calf and Invisible Allies
  6. 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.
  7. Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr (1997). Invisible Allies. Basic Books. pp. 46–64 The Estonians. ISBN 978-1-887178-42-6.
  8. Solzhenitsyn, Literary Giant Who Defied Soviets Dies at 89
  9. Thomas, 1998, p. 398.
  10. Scammell, Solzhenitsyn, a Biography, 1985
  11. "Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag" mandatory in Russian schools". Reuters. Reuters. 26 October 2010.
  12. Boudreaux, Richard (28 October 2010). "'Gulag Archipelago' Re-Issued for Russian Students". WSJ. WSJ.
  13. "Gulag Archipelago joins Russian curriculum". CBC. CBC. 9 September 2009.
  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.
  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
  16. Butler-Bowdon, Tom. 50 Politics Classics: Freedom, Equality, Power (50 Classics) (Kindle ed.). Nicholas Brealey. pp. Chapter 43.
  17. Scammell, Michael (11 December 2018). "The Writer Who Destroyed an Empire". NYT. NYT. In 1973, still in the Soviet Union, he sent abroad his literary and polemical masterpiece, “The Gulag Archipelago.” The nonfiction account exposed the enormous crimes that had led to the wholesale incarceration and slaughter of millions of innocent victims, demonstrating that its dimensions were on a par with the Holocaust. Solzhenitsyn’s gesture amounted to a head-on challenge to the Soviet state, calling its very legitimacy into question and demanding revolutionary change.
  18. "Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Speaking truth to power", The Economist, 7 August 2008
  19. Mares, Peter. "Alexander Solzhenitsyn". ABC AU. ABC AU. The author of a One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Gulag Archipelago, Cancer Ward, First Circle and many other books, Solzhenitsyn exposed the brutality of the Soviet system to his fellow Russians and to the rest of the world...he criticised the system, as we know, and he wrote The Gulag Archipelago which was a study of the way in which the gulag system worked, but at the same time as having that systematic critique of the Soviet Union, he never let go of the idea of individual responsibility within it, did he, a personal morality.
  20. Hains, Tim (30 September 2018). "Jordan Peterson On Soviet Horrors, The Gulag Archipelago: "This Is Not Widespread Knowledge"". Real Clear Politics. Real Clear Politics.
  21. Wheatcroft, Stephen (1996). "The Scale and Nature of German and Soviet Repression and Mass Killings, 1930–45" (PDF). Europe-Asia Studies. 48 (8): 1330. doi:10.1080/09668139608412415. JSTOR 152781. When Solzhenitsyn wrote and distributed his Gulag Archipelago it had enormous political significance and greatly increased popular understanding of part of the repression system. But this was a literary and political work; it never claimed to place the camps in a historical or social-scientific quantitative perspective, Solzhenitsyn cited a figure of 12–15 million in the camps. But this was a figure that he hurled at the authorities as a challenge for them to show that the scale of the camps was less than this.
  22. "China is 'threat to world' says dissident writer". France 24. France 24. 05/04/2019. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  23. Svrluga, Susan (17 October 2011). "Chinese dissident Liao Yiwu to speak at Patrick Henry College". Washington Post. Washington Post.
  24. Getty, A. Origins of the Great Purges. Cambridge, N. Y.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985, p. 211
  25. Rittersporn, Gabor. Stalinist Simplifications and Soviet Complications, 1933-1953. New York: Harwood Academic Publishers, c1991, p. 231-235
  26. Held des Westens, Die Zeit, 7 August 2008
  27. Medvedev, Roy. On Stalin and Stalinism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979, p. ix
  28. Medvedev, Roy (7 February 1974). "Excerpts From Roy Medvedev's Essay on Solzhenitsyn's 'Gulag Archipelago'". NYT.
  29. Medvedev, Roy (1974). "On Solzhenitsyn's Book The Gulag Archipelago". Soviet Studies in Literature. Taylor & Francis Online. 10 (3).
  30. Akyol, Mustafa (2 January 2019). "China's Gulag for Muslims". NYT. NYT. The camps were established by Lenin, expanded by Stalin and finally exposed to the world by the great Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, with his 1973 masterpiece, “The Gulag Archipelago.”...Today, Russia’s gulags are long gone, as is the Communist Party of the Soviet Union that operated them. But now another dictatorship, ruled by another Communist Party, is operating a new chain of prisons that evoke memory of the gulags — more modern, more high-tech, but no less enslaving...These are China’s “re-education camps,” established in the far-western Xinjiang region, where up to a million Chinese are reportedly imprisoned in order to be indoctrinated.
  31. ""Тайная история "Архипелага ГУЛАГ"". Премьера фильма". The press service the channel Rossiya K. 12 December 2009. Retrieved 23 August 2011.
  32. Marina, Nicolaev (10 October 2009). "Ultimul interviu Aleksandr Soljeniţîn: "L\'histoire secrète de L\'ARCHIPEL DU GULAG"". Poezie. Retrieved 23 August 2011.
  33. Secret History: The Gulag Archipelago (in Russian). Archived from the original on 13 January 2013.
  34. Michael Jakobson. Origins Of The Gulag: The Soviet Prison Camp System, 1917–1934. p. 16.

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