The Gulag Archipelago

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Cover of the 1973 Penguin Edition (1st) of A. Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, printed in Paris in Russian.

The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation
AuthorAleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Original titleАрхипелаг ГУЛАГ
PublisherYMCA Press
Publication date
Published in English
Media typePrint (hardback and paperback)
LC ClassHV9713 .S6413 1974

The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (Russian: Архипелаг ГУЛАГ, romanizedArkhipelag GULAG) is a three-volume non-fiction series written between 1958 and 1968 by Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a Soviet dissident. It was first published in 1973 by the Parisian publisher YMCA-Press,[1][2] and it was translated into English and French the following year. It explores a vision of life in what is often known as the Gulag, the Soviet labour camp system. Solzhenitsyn constructed his highly detailed narrative from various sources including reports, interviews, statements, diaries, legal documents, and his own experience as a Gulag prisoner.

Following its publication, the book was initially circulated in the Soviet Union by samizdat underground publication. It was not widely published there until 1989. It appeared that year in the literary journal Novy Mir; a third of the work was published in three issues.[3] Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, The Gulag Archipelago has been officially published in Russia.


As structured in most printed editions, the text comprises seven sections divided into three volumes: parts 1 to 2, parts 3 to 4, and parts 5 to 7. At one level, the Gulag Archipelago traces the history of the system of forced labor camps that operated in the Soviet Union from 1918 to 1956. Solzhenitsyn begins with Vladimir Lenin's original decrees that 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 2

The book describes and discusses the waves of purges and the assembling of show trials by Stalin through the 1930s in the context of the development of the greater Gulag system; Solzhenitsyn closely examines 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 Joseph Stalin's personality cult, his autocratic power, and the widespread surveillance of all classes of people that pervaded the Stalin era.

Parallel to this historical and legal narrative, Solzhenitsyn follows the typical course of a zek through the Gulag. This was a slang term for an inmate, derived from the widely used abbreviation z/k for zakliuchenny ("prisoner"). He started with arrest, show trial, and initial internment, continuing with the transport to the Gulag. In that setting, he explored the treatment of prisoners and their general living conditions, slave labor gangs and the technical prison camp system, camp rebellions and strikes, such as the Kengir uprising; the practice of continued internal exile following the completion of the original prison sentence, and the ultimate but not guaranteed release of the prisoner, if one survived. 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.


At Chapter 4, Solzhenitsyn writes: "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."[4]

Solzhenitsyn 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 amplified a concentration camp system that was already in place and this was significant because he said many Western intellectuals[who?] considered the Soviet prison camp system to be a Stalinist aberration.[5]

Solzhenitsyn claims 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 others among the opposition tended to view it as a systemic fault of Soviet political culture, and an inevitable outcome of the Bolshevik political project.[6]


After the KGB had confiscated Solzhenitsyn's materials in Moscow, during 1965–1967, he worked to develop his preparatory drafts of The Gulag Archipelago into finished typescript. He accomplished some of this while 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 1944. 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.[7] Susi got the manuscript to his daughter, Heli Susi, who kept the "master copy" hidden from the KGB in Estonia until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.[8][9]

In 1973, the KGB seized one of only three existing copies of the text still on Soviet soil. This was achieved by interrogating Elizaveta Voronyanskaya, one of Solzhenitsyn's trusted typists[10] who knew where the typed copy was hidden. Within days of her release by the KGB she was found hanged in the stairwell of her apartment on the 3rd of August 1973. She had apparently either hanged herself or been murdered.[11] Although he had earlier wanted it to be published in Russia first, after Solzhenitsyn learned of her death he decided in September to allow its publication in Paris. The first edition of the work was published in Russian by the Parisian publishing house YMCA-Press (founded by Russian immigrants) a few days after Christmas 1973.[12] 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 P. Whitney produced the English version. The English and French translations of Volume I appeared in the spring and summer of 1974.[13]

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.

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, 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. His fund, (The Russian Social Fund), which had to work in secret in its native country, managed to transfer substantial amounts of money towards helping former gulag prisoners in the 1970s and 1980s.[14][15]

Reception and impact[edit]

Beginning in 2009, Russian schools issued the book as required reading.[16][17] Russian president Vladimir Putin called the book "much-needed",[16] while the Russian Ministry of Education said that the book showed "vital historical and cultural heritage on the course of 20th-century domestic history."[18] Arseny Roginsky, then head of the human-rights organization Memorial, welcomed Putin's backing for the Solzhenitsyn textbook.[17]

Natalya Reshetovskaya described her ex-husband's book as "folklore", telling a newspaper in 1974 that she felt the book was "not in fact the life of the country and not even the life of the camps but the folklore of the camps."[19] In her 1974 memoir, Reshetovskaya wrote that Solzhenitsyn did not consider the novel to be "historical research, or scientific research", and stated that the significance of the novel had been "overestimated and wrongly appraised."[20] Reshetovskaya created an abridged version for Russian high-school students,[16] including her probing introduction about the unique nature of Solzhenitsyn's "experiment in literary investigation."[21][22] Her books were published by the Novosti Press, which was run by the KGB[better source needed]. Her editor there was Konstantin Semyonov, and he became her third husband.[23]


Historian and archival researcher Stephen G. Wheatcroft described 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." Wheatcroft wrote 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 gave his inaccurately high estimate as he wanted to challenge the Soviet authorities to show that "the scale of the camps was less than this."[24] Wheatcroft stated that historians relied on Solzhenitsyn to support their estimates of deaths under Stalin in the tens of millions but research in the state archives vindicated the lower estimates, while adding that the popular press has continued to include serious errors that should not be cited, or relied on, in academia."[25]

UCLA historian J. Arch Getty wrote of Solzhenitsyn's methodology that "such documentation is methodologically unacceptable in other fields of history" and that "the work is of limited value to the serious student of the 1930s for it provides no important new information or original analytical framework.[26][27] Gabor Rittersporn shared Getty's criticism, saying that "he is inclined to give priority to vague reminiscences and hearsay ... [and] inevitably [leads] towards selective bias", adding that "one might dwell at length on the inaccuracies discernible in Solzhenitsyn’s work".[28] Vadim Rogovin writes of the eyewitness accounts that Solzhenitsyn had read, saying he "took plenty of license in outlining their contents and interpreting them".[29] Both Rogovin and Walter Laquer argue that the book belongs to the genre of 'oral history'.[30][31]

In an interview with the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, British historian Orlando Figes stated 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."[32] Soviet dissident and historian Roy Medvedev referred to the book as "extremely contradictory".[33] In a review for the book, Medvedev described it as without parallel for its impact, 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." In the same review, he also writes that "This book is full of thoughts and observations, some profound and true, others perhaps not always true but born in the monstrous sufferings of tens of millions of persons."[34][35]

Popular press[edit]

Novelist Doris Lessing said that the book "brought down an empire",[36] while author Michael Scammell described the book as a gesture that "amounted to a head-on challenge to the Soviet state, calling its very legitimacy into question and demanding revolutionary change."[37] About its impact, philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote: "Until the Gulag, the Communists and their allies had persuaded their followers that denunciations of the regime were largely bourgeois propaganda."[36] United States 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."[38]

Author 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."[36] An edition of The Book Show said that the book helped expose the brutality of the Soviet system.[39] Psychologist Jordan Peterson, who wrote the foreword of an abridged fiftieth anniversary edition released on 1 November 2018,[40] described The Gulag Archipelago as the most important book of the twentieth century.[41]

Parallels have been drawn between the book and the treatment of Liao Yiwu, a dissident who is dubbed "the Chinese Solzhenitsyn" according to the Agence France-Presse.[42] Author David Aikman stated that Liao 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."[43] In 2019, journalist Mustafa Akyol drew a parallel between the book and Xinjiang re-education camps.[44]

Television documentary[edit]

In December 2009, the Russian channel Rossiya K showed the French television documentary L'Histoire Secrète de l'Archipel du Goulag[45] made by Jean Crépu and Nicolas Miletitch,[46] 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.[45][47][48]

See also[edit]

Explanatory notes[edit]

1.^ In Russian, the term GULAG (ГУЛАГ) is an acronym for Main Directorate of Camps (Главное управление лагерей).
2.^ A similar (but on vastly smaller scale) 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.[49]


  1. ^ "Goulag dans " Le Monde ", l'avant et l'après Soljenitsyne". Le (in French). 28 December 2023. Retrieved 2 January 2024.
  2. ^ "Cinquante ans après avoir édité "L'Archipel du Goulag", la librairie Les Éditeurs réunis à Paris résiste encore". (in French). 20 December 2023. Retrieved 2 January 2024.
  3. ^ Joseph Pearce (2011). Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile. Ignatius Press. pp. 81–. ISBN 978-1-58617-496-5.
  4. ^ Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn (1973). "4". The Gulag Archipelago (1st ed.). Harper & Row. p. 173. ISBN 9780060139124.
  5. ^ Thomas, Donald Michael (1998). Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: A Century in his Life. London: Abacus. p. 439.
  6. ^ Cohen, Stephen (16 June 1974). "New York Times Book Review: The Gulag Archipelago". Retrieved 9 April 2024.
  7. ^ Solzhenitsyn, The Oak and the Calf and Invisible Allies
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr (1997). Invisible Allies. Basic Books. pp. 46–64 The Estonians. ISBN 978-1-887178-42-6.[permanent dead link]
  10. ^ Solzhenitsyn, Literary Giant Who Defied Soviets Dies at 89
  11. ^ Thomas, 1998, p. 398.
  12. ^ Scammell, Solzhenitsyn, a Biography, 1985
  13. ^ Swayze, Harold (December 1975). "The Gulag Archipelago, 1918–1956: An Experiment In Literary Investigation, I-II. By Aleksandr I. Solshenitsyn. Translated from the Russian by Thomas P. Whitney. New York: Harper & Row, 1974. xii, 660 pp. $12.50, cloth. $1.95, paper. - The Stalinist Terror In The Thirties: Documentation From The Soviet Press. Compiled with an introduction by Borys Levytsky. Hoover Institution Publications, 126. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1974. xxvii, 521 pp. $14.50". Slavic Review. 34 (4): 825–827. doi:10.2307/2495739. JSTOR 2495739.
  14. ^ Remnick, David (7 February 1994). "The Exile Returns". The New Yorker. Retrieved 30 July 2022.
  15. ^ Reinsch II, Richard M. (28 November 2020). "Truth In Exile". The American Conservative. Retrieved 30 July 2022.
  16. ^ a b c "Solzhenitsyn's 'Gulag' mandatory in Russian schools". Reuters. 26 October 2010. Retrieved 8 January 2022.
  17. ^ a b Boudreaux, Richard (28 October 2010). "'Gulag Archipelago' Re-Issued for Russian Students". The Wall Street Journal.
  18. ^ "Gulag Archipelago joins Russian curriculum". CBC. 9 September 2009.
  19. ^ "Solzhenitsyn's Ex-Wife Says 'Gulag' Is 'Folklore'". The New York Times. 6 February 1974. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 27 June 2021.
  20. ^ Lewis, Paul (6 June 2003). "Natalya Reshetovskaya, 84, Is Dead; Solzhenitsyn's Wife Questioned 'Gulag'". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 27 June 2021.
  21. ^ "Natalia Solzhenitsyn: Returning to 'The Gulag'". The New Criterion. September 2012. Retrieved 13 August 2021.
  22. ^ Lewis, Paul (6 June 2003). "Natalya Reshetovskaya, 84, Is Dead; Solzhenitsyn's Wife Questioned 'Gulag'". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 3 January 2022.
  23. ^ smith, J.Y. (5 June 2003). "Natalya Reshetovskaya Dies at 84". The Washington Post. ISSN 2641-9599. Retrieved 5 July 2022.
  24. ^ 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.
  25. ^ Wheatcroft, Stephen G. (March 1999). "Victims of Stalinism and the Soviet Secret Police: The Comparability and Reliability of the Archival Data. Not the Last Word" (PDF). Europe-Asia Studies. 51 (2). London, England: Routledge: 340–342. doi:10.1080/09668139999056. JSTOR 153614. Retrieved 4 September 2021 – via Soviet Studies. For decades, many historians counted Stalin' s victims in 'tens of millions', which was a figure supported by Solzhenitsyn. Since the collapse of the USSR, the lower estimates of the scale of the camps have been vindicated. The arguments about excess mortality are far more complex than normally believed. R. Conquest, The Great Terror: A Re-assessment (London, 1992) does not really get to grips with the new data and continues to present an exaggerated picture of the repression. The view of the 'revisionists' has been largely substantiated (J. Arch Getty & R. T. Manning (eds), Stalinist Terror: New Perspectives (Cambridge, 1993)). The popular press, even TLS and The Independent, have contained erroneous journalistic articles that should not be cited in respectable academic articles.
  26. ^ Getty, J. Arch (1981). Origins of the Great Purges. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 211.
  27. ^ Getty, J. Arch (1981). Origins of the Great Purges. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 218-9
  28. ^ Rittersporn, Gabor (1991). Stalinist Simplifications and Soviet Complications, 1933–1953. New York: Harwood Academic Publishers. pp. 231–235.
  29. ^ Rogovin, Vadim (1998). 1937: Year of Terror. p. xx.
  30. ^ Laquer, Walter (1990). Stalin The Glasnost Revelations. Scribner's. p. 127.
  31. ^ Rogovin, Vadim (1998). 1937 Stalin's Year of Terror. Mehring Books. p. xx.
  32. ^ Held des Westens, Die Zeit, 7 August 2008
  33. ^ Medvedev, Roy. On Stalin and Stalinism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979, p. ix
  34. ^ Medvedev, Roy (7 February 1974). "Excerpts From Roy Medvedev's Essay on Solzhenitsyn's 'Gulag Archipelago'". The New York Times.
  35. ^ Medvedev, Roy (1974). "On Solzhenitsyn's Book The Gulag Archipelago". Soviet Studies in Literature. 10 (3). Taylor & Francis Online: 44–62. doi:10.2753/RSL1061-1975100344.
  36. ^ a b c Butler-Bowdon, Tom. 50 Politics Classics: Freedom, Equality, Power (50 Classics) (Kindle ed.). Nicholas Brealey. pp. Chapter 43.
  37. ^ Scammell, Michael (11 December 2018). "The Writer Who Destroyed an Empire". The New York Times. Retrieved 8 January 2022. 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.
  38. ^ "Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Speaking truth to power". The Economist. 7 August 2008. Retrieved 13 August 2021.
  39. ^ Mares, Peter (12 August 2008). "Alexander Solzhenitsyn". ABC AU. Retrieved 8 January 2022. 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.
  40. ^ The Gulag Archipelago. Penguin. November 2018. Retrieved 4 March 2019.
  41. ^ Hains, Tim (30 September 2018). "Jordan Peterson On Soviet Horrors, The Gulag Archipelago: 'This Is Not Widespread Knowledge'". Real Clear Politics. Retrieved 8 January 2022.
  42. ^ "China is 'threat to world' says dissident writer". France 24. 5 April 2019. Retrieved 8 January 2022.
  43. ^ Svrluga, Susan (17 October 2011). "Chinese dissident Liao Yiwu to speak at Patrick Henry College". The Washington Post. Retrieved 8 January 2022.
  44. ^ Akyol, Mustafa (2 January 2019). "China's Gulag for Muslims". The New York Times. Retrieved 8 January 2022. 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.
  45. ^ a b "'Тайная история "Архипелага ГУЛАГ"'. Премьера фильма". The press service the channel Rossiya K. 12 December 2009. Archived from the original on 19 September 2020. Retrieved 23 August 2011.
  46. ^ Marina, Nicolaev (10 October 2009). "Ultimul interviu Aleksandr Soljeniţîn: 'L\'histoire secrète de L\'ARCHIPEL DU GULAG'". Poezie. Retrieved 23 August 2011.
  47. ^ Secret History: The Gulag Archipelago (in Russian). Archived from the original on 13 January 2013.
  48. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: Crepu, Jean; Miletitch, Nicolas. "Secret History | The Gulag Archipelago". YouTube.
  49. ^ Jakobson, Michael (1992). Origins of the Gulag: The Soviet Prison Camp System, 1917–1934. University Press of Kentucky. p. 16. ISBN 9780813117966.

External links[edit]