In the Gulag

"Convict" labour building the Belomor canal in 1933
Imagine this - the entire population of Italy has disappeared. Not a person is left in the country, no-one saw them leave, no-one knows where they've gone, they've just vanished. All 60 million of them.... Impossible, eh?
Actually no. Up to as many as 60 million people died during Stalin's infamous rule over the Soviet Union. More than 10 million more than the total dead of the Second World War. A fair proportion of these passed at one time or another through his labour camps - the Gulag which spread across vast swathes of the Soviet Union, or were deported to hostile territory where they swiftly perished. And yet even today remarkably little is known about this, one of the darkest periods of twentieth century history. It's not taught in schools to my knowledge, and hardly anyone (possibly no-one), in the case of the death or labour camps, has been accused of any crime against those who were tortured and/or killed. The end of Dr. Zhivago always bothered me, Lara's disappearance into the darkness of Gulag. After reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, the full depth of the horror of the Gulag became only too apparent.

I read the abridged version - published in one volume by Harvill (a consistently great press for those who like European literature) - rather than the original seven volume version. I suspect that the abridgement has actually helped the narrative flow, there is less room for Solzhenitsyn to turn aside from his path, and the pace is remarkable. His anger is all too apparent, it blazes forth shining a torch on this darkest of periods. The cruelty that is so casually written about here - casual because Solzhenitsyn was so used to it as a former prisoner himself - is horrendous and extraordinary. Imprisonment without trial, casual brutality, rape, torture, murder, starvation, prisoners with no redress to any form of authority, and no knowledge of whether their family thinks they are alive or dead. Children torn from their parents to be "re-educated", others just abandoned in a family home suddenly devoid of any adults - abandoned by the government as casually as a cruel owner might abandon an unwanted pet. It's one long litany of the dark places of the human soul.

And yet where there is darkness there is also light - the resilience and bravery of many of the prisoners, their solidarity and love for each other, and unbelievably their humour and courage. The Gulag may now be in the past, but Gulag Archipelago is a warning to the world to reflect on the failings of humanity. For every man who was courageous and kind, there was one who was brutal, cruel and only too willing to inflict pain on someone who he saw as being "outside" society. And sadly that attitude of being able to conveniently divide society into us and them is as alive today as it ever was.

This may be grim reading but it's an important book to read. It's also extraordinarily readable, there's even the odd moment - all the more remarkable considering the subject matter - of humour. And for anyone who loves Russian literature, it's a must-read. I felt after reading it that I looked at some aspects of both Dr. Zhivago, and, my very favourite read, The Master and Margarita in a different light. Master and Margarita especially was more informed by a deeper understanding of the Gulag, and the processes that led people into it.
Remember the people who disappeared into the Gulag, those who died in Stalin's self-inflicted famines (and continue to die in North Korea's own version today), and those who were the wrong race or religion. Those who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, the soldiers and people abandoned behind enemy lines, and sentenced for crimes that they had never committed. Those who died trying to complete government projects that were doomed to failure - 11,000 "convicts" many of whom were political prisoners died building the Belomor, the canal to link the White Sea with the Baltic. Even though they now have no name and are forgotten, they deserve to be remembered.


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