Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has given us, in this epic trilogy, the story of Soviet Russia's Gulag, the prison camp system which affected, and in many cases ended, the lives of millions of citizens of the U.S.S.R. beginning in the 1920s. Its scope is at once breathtaking and horrifying - 1800 pages of the experiences of real men and women as they suffer at the hands of a regieme which can only be compared to Hitler's Reich in its compass and despotism. Solzhenitsyn draws on his own experiences and those of over 200 survivors who sent him testimony, painstakingly assembled despite the knowledge that discovery of any part of this book would have meant it never seeing the light of day.
The first volume deals with the arrests of the political prisoners, under the far-reaching 'Article 58', in which almost any kind of activity could be deemed "Anti-Soviet agitation" or other such terms which would land you a 'tenner' (10 years) or a 'quarter' (25 years) in the camps. Solzhenitsyn's descriptions of the nighttime arrests, the holding prisons, the torture and endless interrogation are genuinely terrifying - a true picture of absolute power, absolutely corrupted. The arrests left no-one untouched: returing soldiers from WW-II who had had the misfortune to be captured by the Germans were imprisoned for ten years for collaboration with the enemy; a handshake with another who was subsequently arrested was enough to bring your arrest; family members of those arrested were tortured in order to extract confessions from those brave enough to stand their own torture. Solzhenitsyn describes the horrific overcrowding of the prisons where the interrogation took place, with cells where people were unable to sit down for lack of space, where sanitation and air supply were severely restricted. In the latter stages of the book, he describes the journey to the camps in the grim Stolypin cars, where prisoners could spend several days without drink or proper food.
The second volume deals with the camps themselves, and the conditions which prisoners had to suffer. Political prisoners (the 58's) would find themselves not only at the mercy of the camp overlords, but also the murderers, rapists and thieves (termed "class allies" by the authorities) who were thrown in with them to keep them silent. Solzhenitsyn describes the appalling conditions of forced labour in the Artic regions of Northern Russia, where prisoners died by the thousand in construction schemes shown to the West on completition as examples of Soviet ingenuity. This is the work at its most harrowing - we in the west have grown accustomed to the idea that Nazi Germany was the only perpretator of such monstrosity. It was not. It may not have even been the worst.
The final volume tells us of the escape and rebellion attempts of those unfortunates in the system, and speaks of the miracles of human strength under enormous suffering. In the closing stages Solzhenitsyn draws heavily on his own experiences to tell us of the prioners plight on release into exile, and then to the country at large. He gives a remarkable survey of life pre and post Stalin for such people, with the conclusion that very little has changed. To illustrate his point, he tells us of the massacre at Novocherkassk, little known in the west, but rivalling Tiananmen Square in ferocity.
Throughout the book, three themes are constant. The first is that as far as possible, Solzhenitsyn tells us of his sources and points out to us where they may be biased or unreliable. In so doing, he is far more open than the society he is describing. The second is the biting sarcasm, reserved mostly for those who believed in the system, and its principle architect, Stalin. The West, which stood by while all this was (is?) going on, does not get off lightly either. Lastly is Solzhenitsyn's frequent apology for the inadequacy of his work, in fear that it would not be enough
This edition has a different cover.