In this article I shall try to provide an evaluation of Solzhenitsyn’s new book. The assessment can only be a brief and preliminary one—not merely because Gulag Archipelago is only the first of three or four volumes of a single work, but also because even by itself it is too considerable to be adequately appraised straightaway. The book is full of frightening facts: it would be difficult to grasp even a much smaller number of them immediately. Solzhenitsyn describes in concrete detail the tragic fate of hundreds of people, destinies both extraordinary and yet typical of what has befallen us in the past decades. His book contains many reflections and observations that are profound and truthful, and others which may not be correct, but are nevertheless always born from the monstrous sufferings of millions of people, in an agony unique in the age-old history of our nation. No man who left that terrible Archipelago was the same as he who entered it, either in body and health or in ideas about life and people. I believe that no-one who has read this book will remain the same person as he was when he opened its first pages. There is nothing in Russian or world literature in this respect which I can compare with Solzhenitsyn’s work.
A certain I. Soloviev has written in Pravda (14/1/1974) that Solzhenitsyn’s facts are unreliable, fancies of a morbid imagination or mere cynical falsifications. This, of course, is not so. I cannot agree with some of Solzhenitsyn’s judgments or conclusions. But it must be firmly stated that all the main facts in his book, and especially all the details of the life and torment of those who were imprisoned, from the time of their arrest to that of their death (or in rarer cases, their release) are perfectly correct. Of course, in an ‘artistic investigation’ on such a huge scale, based not only on the impressions of the author himself but also on stories told (and retold) by more than two hundred former prisoners, some inaccuracies are inevitable, particularly as Solzhenitsyn had to write his book in complete secrecy, with no possibility of discussing it before publication even with many of his close friends. But the number of these errors is very small in a work of such weight. My own calculation, for example, of the scale of the deportations from Leningrad after the murder of Kirov in 1934–5 is lower than that of Solzhenitsyn. Tens of thousands of people were deported, but not actually a quarter of the population of a city of 2,000,000. Yet I do not possess exact figures either, and base myself simply on fragmentary reports and my own impressions (I have lived in Leningrad for over 15 years). It is also difficult to believe the anonymous report that Ordzhonikidze could talk to old engineers with two revolvers on his desk, at his right and left hand. To seize former officials of the Tsarist regime (not, of course, all of them but mainly functionaries of the judiciary or gendarmerie), the gpu had no need to use random notes of casual informers. Lists of such officials could be found in local archives and in published reference books. In my view, Solzhenitsyn exaggerates the number of peasants deported during the years of collectivization, which he estimates at 15 million. However, if one includes among the victims of those years peasants who died from starvation in 1932–3 (in the Ukraine alone not fewer than 3 to 4 million), it is possible to arrive at a figure even higher than that suggested by Solzhenitsyn. After Stalin’s death, there were not ten but about a hundred officials of the mgb—mvd who were imprisoned or shot (in some cases without an open trial). But this was still a negligible number compared with the quantity of criminals from the ‘security organs’ who were left at large or even given various responsible posts. In 1936–7 Bukharin was no longer a member of the Politbureau, as Solzhenitsyn claims, but was only a candidate-member of the Central Committee.
But all these and a few other inaccuracies are insignificant within the immense artistic investigation which Solzhenitsyn has undertaken. On the other hand, there are other ‘shortcomings’ in the book which Solzhenitzyn himself notes in the dedication: he did not see everything, did not recollect everything, did not guess everything. He writes, for example, about the arrest of repatriated and amnestied Cossacks in the mid-1920s. But the campaign of mass terror against the Cossacks in the Don and Ural regions during the winter and spring of 1919 was still more terrible in its consequences. This campaign lasted ‘only’ a little over two months, but it prolonged the Civil War with all its excesses for at least another year, providing the White Armies with dozens of
If Pravda tried to argue that Solzhenitsyn’s facts were untrue, Literaturnaya Gazeta by contrast (16/1/1974) sought to persuade its readers that Solzhenitsyn’s book contained nothing new. This is not true either. Although I have been studying Stalinism for over a decade, the book told me a great deal I had not known before. With the exception of former inmates of the camp, Soviet readers—even those who well remember the 20th and 22nd Congresses of the Party—know hardly one tenth of the facts recounted by Solzhenitsyn. Our youth, indeed, does not know even a one hundredth of them.
Many of our newspapers have written that Solzhenitsyn justifies, whitewashes, and even lauds Vlassov’s Army. This is a deliberate and malignant distortion. Solzhenitsyn writes in Gulag Archipelago that the Vlassovites became pitiful hirelings of the Nazis, that they ‘were liable to trial for treason’, that they took up the enemy’s weapons and fought on the front with the despair of the doomed. Solzhenitsyn’s own battery was nearly annihilated in East Prussia by Vlassovite fire. But Solzhenitsyn does not simplify the problem of Vlassov’s troops and of similar formations in the fascist army.
Among the multiple waves of Stalinist repression, there were for many of us one that constituted our own special tragedy. For Tvardovsky, for instance, this was the destruction of the kulaks. His father, a poor and conscientious peasant, a former soldier in the Red Army, a defender of Soviet power, fell victim to it. He was deported to the Urals with his whole family. Only an accident saved his son: by that time he was already studying in an urban centre. This son was to become our great poet. But at that time Tvardovsky had to disown his father. He was to write about all this in his last poem In the Name of Memory.
For my own family, it was the repressions of 1937–8 that brought tragedy upon us, for the purges of those years struck especially at the commanders and commissars of the Red Army. My father, a divisional commander and lecturer at the Military Political Academy, was among those who were arrested and perished. Men like him were utterly devoted to the Soviet State, to the Bolshevik Party and to Socialism. They were romantic heroes to me as veterans of the Civil War, and I never believed that they were ‘enemies of the people’.