The Gulag Archipelago, 1918 - 1956

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Painting - Study by Vasily Surikov (1882)
Study · Vasily Surikov ( 1882)
Oil on canvas · 25 x 25 cm ·State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

“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?”

Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece and personal reckoning with the the Soviet regime, which incarcerated him for eight years in prisons and labor camps. A tour de force of storytelling - interlacing his own experiences with historical documents, testimony of prison inmates, legal decrees, economic figures, and material evidence, he draws a meticulous map of his Archipelago, in which his story – and that of his 200 protagonists and eyewitnesses, as well as millions of others – takes place.

“Every little island and every little hillock of the Archipelago had to be encircled by a hostile, stormy Soviet seascape.”

And what a terrible story it is: Of absolute evil, infinite brutality, naked cruelty. Just when it seems that the experience of a zek during its common journey from arrest to release reached the lowest rung possible, Solzhenitsyn’s testimony descends into more horrific depths, detailing yet another facet of humanity’s potential for evil; and, at the same time, refining his testimony for humanity’s capacity in overcome bound- and senseless suffering.

“In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand fold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.”

His outlook for the human spirit, at last, is fragile, but distantly hopeful.

“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.”

Small sketch - Book Review - The Gulag Archipelago, 1918 - 1956
© 2024 Camillo Visini