The Gulag Archipelago: Volume One

I have not picked up a nonfiction so dense as The Gulag Archipelago since my genetics textbook. After two days of dedicated reading, I have made it 164 pages into volume one. (If this were Steven King, I’d have shelved over a thousand pages to my done pile, happily, and with an itch to replace the two books I read with new ones.) Much scarier than King though is this retelling of soviet life in the mid 1900s. Not that I don’t believe in things like cryptids and telekinesis mind you, but because the prevalence of terror and abuse in Russia was staggering.

I’ll avoid the details. Those of you whom would rather not shy away from it are more than welcome to pick up a copy and see it in Solzhenitsyn’s own words. After all, it was by the details that this author so severely undermined Stalin and the fascist regime of his home country. (Isn’t it weird how humans have to be shocked into paying attention?) If you are shy, but nonetheless curious, you can also try One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. This short story was tame enough to make it passed the government censors, and was also written by Solzhenitsyn.

So why is it that someone who will consume a book like hot dogs at an eating challenge suddenly takes it slow? First off, I never realized how many different forms of secret police existed in Russia. I challenge you to Google “soviet secret police agencies”. It all started with the Cheka, or Vecheka, also known as the All-Russian Extraordinary Committee to Combat Counter-Revolution and Sabotage. Five years later the Cheka evolved into the GPU (State Political Directorate) which was part of the NKVD (People’s Commiserate for Internal Affairs). One year after that, the GPU became the OGPU (Joint State Political Directorate), and then the GUGB (Main Directorate for State Security). The GUGB of the NKVD is separated out to the NKGB (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs). The NKGB was merged back into the NKVD, then separated out, then merged, separated, merged, separated… from 1941 to 1946. There was the MGB, KI, MVD, and finally the KGB. I started a notebook and under “Secret Police”, jotted out a whole bunch of letter soup.

Second, there are terms used freely that had meanings I wasn’t familiar with: Organs and insects, for example. Organs were individuals employed by the secret police, as though it was a biological entity that was effecting its’ will throughout the populace by forming new growths. Insects were individuals whose alleged purpose was to subvert the government. This infestation of insects was the basis upon which many citizens were exterminated under Stalin’s rule. I had to learn that “wrecking” was an actual offense in the Soviet Union criminal code. “Wrecking” has been translated in English to mean sabotage, but also, inflicting damage, harm, and undermining. Plainly stated, it was a way to imprison anyone guilty of, suspected of, or even innocent of not embodying Stalin’s ideal.

“Things were said innocently, but they weren’t listened to innocently”

-The Gulag Archipelago

Learning new terms that were heretofore completely unfamiliar with was my third challenge.

Extrajudicial Reprisal: The same body is in charge of investigation, arrest, interrogation, prosecution, trial, and execution of the verdict.

Social Prophylaxis: Removal of the intelligentsia, or educated persons amidst the populace. (We don’t want anyone thinking that what the government is doing is wrong.)

Kulak: A term originally coined to mean a “miserly, dishonest, rural trader” which was manipulated to refer to all those whom hired workers (e.g. had some standing in society), and then further adulterated to mean “all strong peasants” in general. This has been one of my favorite terms, because I think it examples how tradition can be used to manipulate a population into conferring historical prejudice against a convenient new target. (Chinua Achebe addresses this concept in Things Fall Apart, in explaining how religious missionaries utilized tribal beliefs to convert the natives.)

Tenner: Ten years imprisonment.

Article 58: The RSFSR (Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic) criminal code under which arrests were made.

Section 10: The section of Article 58 under which could be creatively applied to most any individual or circumstance, and referred to crimes regarding counterrevolutionary propaganda or agitation.

Unless you are an anti-government citizen, then it’s a tenner under Section 10 for you.

What I have found most intriguing about The Gulag Archipelago thus far are the euphemisms and the explanations of how this exposition of cruelty was allowed to commence. For instance, the verdict of “ten years without the right to correspond” meant that the accused was already dead. It would have been implacable to admit that an organ had shot a suspected insect whom was actually someone’s family member, so they found a different way to phrase why no letters would be forthcoming. Much of the beginning of Volume 1 is about uncertainty. After a tenner, maybe the accused didn’t write because they died in the gulag. Maybe they were exiled. Maybe they were set free, only to be sent to a different gulag. Nobody knew what tomorrow would bring. Solzhenitsyn describes it as a game of Solitaire where there are three piles in which to place any card: Arrest, Release, and Exile. To maintain imbalance, any given person could be randomly placed in any pile, at any time.

I couldn’t imagine living that way, though I believe that is Solzhenitsyn’s point.

A map of the Russian gulag system – There really were this many.

I will soon embark on chapter four (Yup, I’m only on four.) and learn more about the guards (or Bluecaps) of the gulag system. I’ll suspect that I will learn about how they were people too, placed in an impossible situation and struggling to find some way in which to survive the regime. I imagine their positions of authority will lead to further shady dealings. Solzhenitsyn states early on that he felt the time to cry out against injustice was at the very beginning. And yet, those whom did, died. Those who did not were carried away in a swift, deadly current of fate and circumstance. How much choice did any given individual have? What made the difference between a University student invited to NKVD school, and intelligentsia? How did anyone manage, when the constant stress and terror of being abducted in the middle of the night was not only plausible, but commonplace?

These are some of the questions I hope to gain answers to. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was exiled from Russia for his work, but also awarded the Nobel Prize because of it, I plan to work at it for as long as it takes.

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