The Gulag Archipelago testifies to a threefold tragedy. First, the tragedy of the Stalinist purges that struck at millions of Soviet citizens, among them the majority of the old cadres of the Bolshevik party, who were innocent of the crimes they were charged with. Second, the tragedy of a present-day generation of rebel intellectuals in the Soviet Union whose experience of Stalinism has led them to reject Leninism and Marxism and who are thus incapable of understanding the causes of Stalinist repression, the present reality of the Soviet Union, or the solutions required by the crisis of Soviet society. Third, the personal tragedy of a writer of exceptional talent who, because of his inability to understand the origins and character of the evil he is confronted with, has come to reactionary conclusions that to some extent even adopt the theories with which Stalin and his executioners justified their crimes in the past—the same theories that are used to justify the repression that is once again striking political oppositionists in the ussr.
The first subject of The Gulag Archipelago is the world of forced labour camps created by Stalin and the gpu. During Stalin’s reign the inmates of these camps numbered in the millions, the overwhelming majority of them deported, if not executed, in obvious violation of Soviet legality. They were railroaded to the camps by a whole range of monstrous arbitrary procedures: torture, total suppression of all the rights guaranteed by the Soviet constitution, use of secret decrees that themselves violated the constitution and the penal code.
Solzhenitsyn has assembled a mass of testimony about the conditions under which the great Stalinist purges took place. He especially denounces the direct responsibility for these crimes borne by the team around Stalin. Not just the Berias or Yezhovs, but also the Kagonovichs and the Molotovs, the men whose complicity accounts for the reticence of so many bureaucratic dignitaries to press ahead after the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist party with any idea of bringing all Stalin’s crimes to light. Solzhenitsyn recounts in detail the condemnations and deportations of whole categories of citizens: all the personnel of the East China railway, all the Korean communist refugees in the ussr, most of the old fighters of the Austrian Schutzbund, most of the former members of the Lettish Red Guard, who had played such an important role in the victory of the October Revolution and the creation of the Red Army.
To be sure, those (in the West!) who have been able to read Trotsky’s books The Revolution Betrayed and The Crimes of Stalin or the book on the Soviet labour camps by the Mensheviks Dallin and Nikolayevsky, will not learn anything basically new from The Gulag Archipelago. But they will appreciate the series of vignettes through which the great novelist Solzhenitsyn sketches the personalities he met in prison and in the camps: the old revolutionary worker Anatoly Ilyich Fastenko; chief technician S-vs, prototype of the careerist bureaucrat; M. P. Yakobovich, the old Menshevik, later a Bolshevik and victim of the first witch-hunt trial (the dry-run for the future Moscow trials); M. D. Riyumin, the Vice-Minister of State Security who in the realm of depravity surpassed even the sinister Abakumov, Stalin’s right-hand man, and who seems to have been the organizer of the ‘Doctor’s Plot’, which was intended to set off a massive new purge that was just barely averted by the death of the tyrant. These unforgettable sketches, which join those of The First Circle and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, are no doubt the most valuable part of The Gulag Archipelago.
The book also contains details on the tortures used by the gpu to extract confessions from the accused. Here Solzhenitsyn generally confirms Trotsky’s conclusion that lack of a political outlook independent of Stalinism (that is, the political capitulation of Stalin’s unfortunate victims before the bureaucratic dictatorship) was the real basis of the confessions. One of the rare sensational revelations of The Gulag Archipelago is that there were some trials that turned out badly for the bureaucracy, trials in which the accused retracted their confessions and
The general impression that comes out of this important part of The Gulag Archipelago is a thorough condemnation of institutionalized repression as a system of government, for that was the objective character of the Stalinist purges. A regime based neither on the political support of the labouring masses nor on the satisfaction of their material needs must resort to terror which becomes the main state institution. That is the most striking aspect of the Stalinist world of concentration camps, and not the supposed ‘economic’ contribution that prison labour is said to have made to the industrialization of the ussr. Those who blindly denied the reality of that terror or who still deny it today do not contribute one iota to ‘defending the cause of communism’. On the contrary, they cover up foul crimes against communism and against the Soviet working class, crimes that are all the more pernicious in that they have discredited and continue to discredit the cause of communism in the eyes of a not inconsiderable section of the world proletariat.
If there was nothing in The Gulag Archipelago except denunciation of Stalin’s crimes sprinkled with a few observations on the old theme that ‘Leninism is at bottom responsible for the crimes of Stalin’, it would be enough merely to defend Solzhenitsyn against bureaucracy’s repression while regretting his ideological confusion. But the reality is otherwise. In The Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn systematically attempts to demonstrate with facts and figures that institutionalized terror began at the time of the October Revolution. That is the second central theme of the book, and it is scarcely less developed than the first one. Presented with a mass of evidence and in the impassioned language of an author whose literary talent need not be demonstrated, an author who presents himself to millions of readers adorned with the halo of a victim of contemptible persecution, this theme will have a deep influence on the people of the capitalist countries as well as those of the bureaucratized workers’ states.