This monumental work and successive volumes (reviewed also by me), provide priceless information about the Gulags, arcane details about Russian history, insights into Soviet thinking and policies, etc. I can only touch on a few of these.
Anti-Christians never tire of bringing up the Spanish Inquisition. Yet this most severe of inquisitions paled in comparison not only with the killings under Communism, but even with just the deeds of the Cheka further limited to early post-Revolution times. “…in a period of sixteen months (June 1918 to October 1919) more than sixteen thousand persons were shot, which is to say MORE THAN ONE THOUSAND A MONTH…during the eighty years of the Inquisition’s peak effort (1420 to 1498), in all of Spain ten thousand persons were condemned to be burned at the stake–in other words, about ten a month.” (p. 435; emphasis his).
Some Communist apologists have claimed that Communism “went bad” only because of Stalin, and that, had Trotsky (Bronshtein) ruled instead, Communism would’ve been rosy. In actuality, Trotsky wasn’t substantially different from Stalin. Solzhenitsyn quotes Trotsky as saying: “‘Terror is a powerful means of policy and one would have to be a hypocrite not to understand this.’” (p. 300). Also: “The terror Trotsky inspired as Chairman of the Revolutionary Military Council was something he acquired very cheaply, and does not at all demonstrate any true strength of character or courage.” (p. 410).
The 1939 Soviet conquest of Poland’s Kresy had been justified as a protection of the Byelorussians and Ukrainians (and, of course, liberation from those big, bad “Polish landlords”). Ironic to this, Solzhenitsyn condemns the imprisonment of successful members of those groups, and of Poles, which, he admits, led to Katyn. (p. 77). Otherwise, he rarely mentions Gulag Poles (e. g., p. 81, 86).
Solzhenitsyn has choice words about Teheran and Yalta: “In their own countries Roosevelt and Churchill are honored as embodiments of statesmanlike wisdom. To us, in our Russian prison conversations, their consistent shortsightedness and stupidity stood out as astonishingly obvious. How could they, in their decline from 1941 to 1945, fail to secure any guarantees whatsoever of the independence of Eastern Europe?” (p. 259).
Contrary to his portrayal as a “Russian nationalist” (who, one would think, would adopt a blame-the-victim approach), Solzhenitsyn is very candid about both old and new Russian imperialisms against Poland: “Still worse: In October, 1944, the Germans threw in Kaminsky’s brigade–with its Moslem units–to suppress the Warsaw Uprising. While one group of Russians sat traitorously dozing behind the Vistula, watching the death of Warsaw through their binoculars, other Russians crushed the Uprising. Hadn’t the Poles had enough Russian villainy to bear in the nineteenth century without having to endure more of it in the twentieth? For that matter, was that the last of it? Perhaps more is still to come.” (p. 257). God forbid!
This review is based on the original 1970’s English-language Harper & Row edition.
There is so much here about Russian history, Soviet thinking and policies, and the situation inside the Gulags. Because there are so many topics and issues raised in this combined volume, I will elaborate on only a few of them.
Solzhenitsyn rarely mentions Gulag Poles in this set of volumes. In one year, 2,100 Zolotisty Polish inmates had been reduced to 168 survivors (p. 131).
The Soviet concentration camps have sometimes been favorably compared to the Nazi German ones by western liberals. We hear, for instance, that at least the children were well treated. Tell that to the Gulag children, some imprisoned for political crimes at the dangerous age of six! (p. 463). Besides physical suffering, Gulag children underwent severe de-moralization, in effect becoming amoral beasts (e. g., p. 452). Finally: “They didn’t hesitate to liquidate the `kulak’ families right down to tiny children, and they even wrote about it proudly in the newspapers.” (pp. 370-371).
Communist apologists have claimed that Gulag deaths were caused largely by passive negligence, Soviet-system inefficiencies, wartime disruptions and privations, etc. This is nonsense. To illustrate: “…police dogs are fed better than prisoners…” (p. 534).
Well, at least there were no gas chambers in the Gulags. But so what? They weren’t needed. Referring to the primitive state of Gulag life, labor, and death, Solzhenitsyn quipped: “That’s what our gas execution van consisted of. We didn’t have any gas for the gas chamber.” (p. 91). In describing the Belomor Canal project, Solzhenitsyn commented: “Stalin simply needed a great construction project SOMEWHERE which would devour many working hands and many lives (the surplus of people as a result of the liquidation of the kulaks), with the reliability of the gas execution van but more cheaply, and which would at the same time leave a great monument to his reign of the same general sort as the pyramids.” (p. 86. Emphasis his).
Some have argued that there was no Gulag equivalent to the Nazi death camps–no camps to which admission absolutely guaranteed death. In fact, there were. “Certain work brigades (Ogurtsov) died off totally, including the brigadiers.” (p. 221). Also: “The real Solovki was in the logging operations, at the remote work sites. But it is precisely those distant backwoods that are most difficult to learn about nowadays, because THOSE people did not survive.” (p. 54. Emphasis his). “During the war years (on war rations), the camp inmates called three weeks at logging `DRY EXECUTION.'” (p. 199. Emphasis his). “We are not able to enumerate the countless logging camps. They constituted half the Archipelago.” (p. 593).
Solzhenitsyn cites 15 million Gulag inmates, at any one time, based on the ROSSIYA-SSSR encyclopedia–a figure also endorsed by former inmates (p. 205). According to émigré Professor of Statistics Kurganov, the Gulag claimed 66,000,000 lives from 1917 to 1959 (p. 10).
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