The Gulag Archipelago ~ Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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“Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.”

The Gulag Archipelago chronicles events in Russia between the 1920's and the early 1950's, especially regarding the forced labour camps and the extermination of tens of millions of people, usually for dissidence. I was mesmerised while reading this book a few years ago, and have begun to reread it, and I have spoken with others who were also very deeply moved and affected by this book. Not simply because it is a litany of disasters and evil - it is - but because it conveys the deep philosophical understanding of a great mind (Solzhenitsyn's) as he intimately confronts the condition of evil within the human psyche. So, it is also about heroism and the triumph of small human kindnesses. It is also about history, a field of knowledge our present age seems to want to forget. The book travels between macro-details concerning the underlying policies which led a vast country to chew up and spit out its own, to the micro details of individual accounts of what happened on any ordinary day when their lives might have been turned upside down by being arrested - the trivial domestic things, the obscure absurdities in life that make our suffering so personal.

Rebecca West, when reviewing it, described it thus - '' What gives the book its value is the sound it gives out; the harsh roar given out by a wise and experienced animal as a warning that the herd is in danger.''

Really it is a book everyone should make an effort to read.

“And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?... The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin's thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! If...if...We didn't love freedom enough. And even more – we had no awareness of the real situation.... We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward.”

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

“Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag.” 

“Only those who decline to scramble up the career ladder are interesting as human beings. Nothing is more boring than a man with a career.” 

“… What about the main thing in life, all its riddles? If you want, I'll spell it out for you right now. Do not pursue what is illusionary -property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life -don't be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn for happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn't last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don't freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don't claw at your insides. If your back isn't broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes can see, if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart -and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well. Do not hurt them or scold them, and never part from any of them in anger; after all, you simply do not know: it may be your last act before your arrest, and that will be how you are imprinted on their memory.”

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  • Going to look for this book....thanks!
    • Thanks, Beso, for responding. I would like to hear what you think of it when you read it. Go for hard copy rather than PDF as it is not a book one reads lightly, plus, well, I find PDFs annoying. I can only read a bit at a time, not that it is completely laden with gloom, it's not as Solzhenistsyn has that kind of sardonic thing going on that Russian writers often have, a wry black humour mocking the world at the back of things that makes reading it easier. They are masters of gentle sarcasm. But still, I only read a bit at a time. Books like this one and ''If This Is A Man'' by Primo Levi, really put recent history and the present into perspective. For me, anyways. Love to you x

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