May 16, 2023


'The Gulag Archipelago': An Epic of True Evil: Published 50 years ago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn's account of the Soviet Union's barbaric system of forced labor camps is arguably the 20th century's greatest work of nonfiction. (Gary Saul Morson, May 5, 2023, WSJ)

Dedicated to "all those who did not live" to tell their story, "The Gulag Archipelago" demonstrates a nadir of humanity with nearly unfathomable cruelty. In one memorable passage, Solzhenitsyn muses that if the intellectuals of Chekhov's plays who wondered what things would be like in a few decades had learned "that prisoners would have their skulls squeezed within iron rings; that a human being would be lowered into an acid bath . . . that a ramrod heated over a primus stove would be thrust up their anal canal (the 'secret brand'); that a man's genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot . . . not one of Chekhov's plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would have gone off to insane asylums."

Those who had admitted some of the horrors often blamed them entirely on Stalin, as if Lenin would not have done such things, but, Solzhenitsyn demonstrates, Lenin set up the system of terror and the Gulag while making clear that both were to be permanent features of the new regime. To those Westerners who imagine that this bizarre system of punishment could not happen in their country, Solzhenitsyn cautions: "Alas, all the evil of the twentieth century is possible everywhere on earth."

How was such evil possible? Shakespeare and Schiller clearly did not grasp evil, Solzhenitsyn instructs, because their villains "recognize themselves as evildoers, and they know their souls are black," but those who commit the greatest harm think of themselves as good. Before interrogators could torture prisoners they knew were innocent, they had to discover a justification for their actions. Shakespeare's villains stopped at a few corpses "because they had no ideology," nothing to compare with Marxism-Leninism's "scientific" and infallible explanations of life and ethics. "Ideology--that is what . . . gives the evil-doer the necessary steadfastness and determination . . . the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good . . . in his own and others' eyes."

Posted by at May 16, 2023 6:31 PM