Commentary Magazine


The Gulag Archipelago Two, by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn

The Gulag Archipelago Two: The Destructive-Labor Camps; The Soul and Barbed Wire.
by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn.
Translated by Thomas P. Whitney. Harper & Row. 712 pp. $15.00.

We hear what Solzhenitsyn says. But after all the cries, pleas, groans, pardons, commands, beatings, and pistol shots of The Gulag Archipelago Two, there is something additional to be heard, though this we shall have to listen for, or it may not come through clearly. Solzhenitsyn’s carefully detailed reports on why such and such an inmate committed suicide, on how the women inmates suffered more than the men, and at what human cost (100,000 lives), and for what peculiar purpose (not industrial use), the White Sea-Baltic Canal was engineered, dug, and celebrated—these facts do more, I think, than document the lamentable story of what men have done to men under the Soviets. They also speak to the continuing violence out of the human past.

Solzhenitsyn accuses the Bolsheviks of having originated the terrible system of Destructive-Labor camps. This charge merges, as I read the Gulag Archipelago volumes, with charges made before by other men of spirit against other forms of oppression: in our own time, Gandhi against the British Raj; Malraux against the Kuomintang; Bernanos against Franco. If we did not understand it as the continuation of what is in fact a very old outcry, The Gulag Archipelago Two (Gulag One also) could be interpreted as a call for vengeance. After all, some 60 million persons, according to the available figures, had to endure ignominious and painful death at forced labor in the camps. Think of it! Some 60 millions! More than all the victims of this century’s two most terrible wars. So a demand for vengeance would be humanly understandable.

Not, however, if one regards the sufferings of the zeks (inmates) as Solzhenitsyn does. For the author makes it clear from the outset of his text that he does not want it to be thought of as having a retaliatory aim; in this respect his rage is in direct contrast to the cry for vengeance voiced by Marxists (for oppressions, to be sure, not caused by them). Listen to the literary-critic Walter Benjamin on this topic:

The repository of historical knowledge is the oppressed . . . class itself. In Marx’s work, this class appears as the last of the enslaved classes, as a vengeant class, bringing to an end the work of emancipation in the name of generations of slain human beings. This awareness has always been objectionable to democratic socialists. Within the span of three decades, social democracy succeeded in wiping out the memory of a Blanqui whose iron rhetoric shook up the last century. This same social democracy wanted nothing more dearly than to assign to the working class the role of redeemer of future generations. In so doing, it severed the sinew of the proletariat’s greatest strength. Under the auspices of democratic socialism, the working class soon forgot what it is to hate and also to will self-sacrifice. Both hatred and the will to self-sacrifice are fueled by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than by the ideal of emancipated grandchildren.

What is significant about these words of Walter Benjamin, set down before the last great war in his now widely-quoted theses on history—I found them cited in the Fall 1975 issue of the Marxist magazine Telos, in an article by Christian Lehnhardt—is that the project of vengeance they support, and the kind of hate they justify, were no doubt at least in part responsible for the 60 million victims of the Destructive-Labor camps, victims Solzhenitsyn wants us to think about today, but whose fate he does not ask us to avenge. And that Blanqui of iron rhetoric, whom Benjamin accuses the social democrats of having made us forget, is the very same Blanqui whose words were a warrant for and augury of the ruthlessness of Lenin—on whom Solzhenitsyn fixes the main responsibility for the invention of the camps.

No doubt the Bolsheviks wanted to exact vengeance for the serfs. But as Solzhenitsyn sees the matter, the treatment of the zeks under Bolshevism has been more cruel and more senseless than anything the serfs endured under the Czars. The writer makes the comparison directly in his chapter, “What the Archipelago Stands On”:

The serfs did not work longer than from sunrise to sunset. The zeks started work in darkness and ended in darkness. . . . For the serfs Sundays were sacred; and twelve . . . Orthodox holidays as well, and local saints’ days, and a certain number of the twelve days of Christmas (they went about in mummers’ costumes). The prisoner was fearful on the eve of every Sunday. . . . And he never got holidays at all. . . . Those firsts of May and those sevenths of November involved more miseries with searches . . . than the holidays were worth (and a certain number were put into punishment blocks every year precisely on those very days). . . . The serfs lived in permanent huts, regarding them as their own, and when at night they lay down on top of their stoves or on their sleeping platforms . . . they knew: this is my own place, I have slept here forever and ever, and I always will. The prisoner did not know what barracks he would be in on the morrow. . . . The serfs were slaves, but they had full bellies. The Archipelago lived for decades in the grip of cruel famine. The zeks would scuffle over a herring tail from the garbage. . . .

Then should there be vengeance for the zeks? Real revenge, demanded in some iron rhetoric inspired perhaps by Solzhenitsyn’s eloquence? As I indicated, this is not what the writer asks. In the political or legal sense, revenge? No. But in the intellectual sense, before the assizes of the mind, revenge? Yes. And we do not even have to call for it; miraculously, almost of its own volition, revenge is taking shape.

Consider these facts: at the close of 1949, David Rousset, former war prisoner of the Nazis at Buchenwald, author of L’Univers concentrationnaire, and founder with Jean-Paul Sartre of the radical left-wing grouping, the RDR, drew up a manifesto protesting the concentration-camp system in the Soviet Union. This protest he asked other French intellectuals to sign. Among those who refused to sign it were Jean-Paul Sartre and Merleau Ponty. In a joint editorial for their review, Les Temps Modernes, they gave their reasons why.1 They did concede that in fact there were such camps in Russia, and that one of every twenty Soviet citizens was at that time a camp prisoner. And they did call Soviet Communism “decadent.” All the same, they argued against Rousset’s manifesto. Why had he not protested in the same document against the imprisonment of dissidents in Greece and in Spain? (It was clear, though, that they themselves would have signed a protest against the prisons in Spain and in Greece which did not protest the camps in Russia.) Moreover, they argued that to sign this manifesto meant to side with American imperialism and to absolve the capitalist world.

The Sartre-Ponty statement ended on this note: “The truth is that even the experience of so absolute a horror as the concentration camps is not enough to determine a political position. The days of our life are not the days of our death.” But this amounted to saying that the writers were not themselves camp prisoners, and so had other things to think about. For the camp inmate the days of his life often were indeed the days of his death, as we have learned from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who in 1950 was still a prisoner in one of the Soviet camps.2 The refusal by Sartre, that man of many protests, to support Rousset’s protest against the Soviet camps, has, I think, been fatal to the Frenchman’s reputation as a political thinker. It earned him contemptuous dismissal as an advocate of “false freedom” and a defender of “brutality” by Nadezhda Mandelstam.

If signing Rousset’s manifesto against the Destructive-Labor camp system while Stalin was still living meant giving aid to American imperialism, then what about the aid to American imperialism provided by the volumes of Gulag Archipelago, in which the camp system is described in its total horror and the guilt for its invention fastened not on Stalin, but on Lenin? And all this, long after Stalin’s death and after Khrushchev’s efforts at de-Stalinization. Surely the books should be denounced! Yet so far Sartre has not denounced them. According to press reports, before Sartre made his most recent trip to Eastern Europe, he asked Simone de Beauvoir to telephone Solzhenitsyn (who had by then been deported and was living in Switzerland) and arrange a meeting with him. One wonders: what could Sartre hope for from such an interview? Did he intend to ask forgiveness for not having protested against the camps in 1950? Did he intend to reproach Solzhenitsyn for having described the camps to Western readers? Or did he perhaps think that since the camps had been for the most part liquidated, it was finally permissible to protest against them? But we shall not have an answer to any of these questions until the day when Sartre himself decides to tell us what he had in view. Solzhenitsyn refused to see him.

For his part, Solzhenitsyn has avenged the zeks of Solovki on Maxim Gorki, who once visited the camp. How the zeks awaited the writer’s coming! Solzhenitsyn describes their feelings:

The falcon, the stormy petrel, was about to swoop down upon the nest of injustice, violence, and secrecy. The leading Russian writer! He will give them hell! He will show them! He, the father, will defend! They awaited Gorki . . . like a universal amnesty.

The chiefs, writes Solzhenitsyn, were alarmed, and did the best they could to hide the monstrosities and polish things up for show. Only somewhere there was an oversight. On Popov Island a ship was being loaded by prisoners in underwear and sacks, just at the moment when Gorki’s train appeared. The writer would have to see them as he prepared to embark. Solzhenitsyn tells the story in his best style:

You inventors and thinkers! Here is a worthy problem for you, given that, at the saying goes, every wise man has enough of the fool in him: a barren island, not one bush, no possible cover—and right there, at a distance of three hundred yards, Gorki’s retinue has shown up. Your solution? Where can this disgraceful spectacle—these men dressed in sacks—be hidden? The entire journey of the great Humanist will be for naught if he sees them now. Well, of course he will try hard not to notice them, but help him! Drown them in the sea? They will wallow and flounder. Bury them in the earth? There is no time. No, only a worthy son of the Archipelago could find a way out of this one. The work assigner ordered: “Stop work! Close ranks! Still closer! Sit down on the ground! Sit still!” And a tarpaulin was thrown over them. “Anyone who moves will be shot!” And the former stevedore Maxim Gorki ascended the ship’s ladder and admired the landscape for a full hour until sailing time—and he didn’t notice !

There is more. Gorki had been to the children’s colony. And after he had admired everything there he was told by a fourteen-year-old boy that all he had seen was false. Did the writer want to know what things were really like? Yes, said Gorki, and the boy told him in detail, not neglecting to describe the various kinds of torture in the camp. In the visitors’ book Gorki wrote on leaving: “. . . I would be shamed to permit myself banal praise for the remarkable energy of people who, while remaining vigilant and tireless sentinels of the Revolution, are able, at the same time, to be remarkably bold creators of culture.” Solzhenitsyn tells us that hardly had Gorki’s steamer pulled away from the pier than the boy was shot. Who, now, I wonder, will want to read even a line, let alone a story, a novel, a play by Maxim Gorki, that “remarkably bold creator of culture”?

For our part, we shall not neglect Walter Benjamin, whose theses on history, while not in any sense the cause of what occurred in Russia under Lenin or under Stalin, are nevertheless justifications of what happened there; they may also be used to justify oppression in East Germany, where Benjamin’s texts have a particular relevance: he is one of the finest German critics of the century. But apart from the justice of visiting vengeance on someone who has extolled vengeance as just—apart from this, there is the matter of truth. Is Benjamin right in what he asserts? Is the proletariat truly the repository of past anger, anger for the past? There is no evidence that this is so. All we know of the proletariat indicates Benjamin’s assertion to be false. Here we have an aestheticizing of the proletariat and its politics, and let us not forget, since we are talking about things remembered and who remembers them, that it was none other than Walter Benjamin who identified the aestheticizing of politics with fascism.

Who is it that remembers the tragic events of history? Surely it is the poets. Not without reason was it said that memory is the mother of the muses. It was Homer who remembered what happened to Troy, and Racine in Andromache remembered this because Homer had:

Because he does not remember,
  does that mean I must forget?
Should I forget my Hector,
  denied the right to burial
Dragged like sticks over stones
about the walls of Troy?

The poets have answered these questions for Andromache. I do not know that the proletariat has even considered them. No class has the special role of remembering unhappiness, not even the zeks, if they are a class. (Solzhenitsyn raises the question of whether they may not be a nation.) But in any case it is Solzhenitsyn who has taken upon himself the difficult, dangerous, and poetical task of remembering all that happened to the zeks, and I want to stress that these massive books on the Archipelago, which aim at truthful and accurate description of the Destructive-Labor camp system in Russia, constitute what is fundamentally a poetical work.

A poem? But certainly not a modernist poem. In calling the Archipelago books poetical, I am thinking of what Gogol had in mind when he called his Taras Bulba a poem. And Tolstoy must have had some such notion of poetry in view when he compared his prose work, Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth, to Homer’s epic. To be sure, the stress in the Archipelago books is on the facts, on the events, as they give themselves to the writer, and not as he takes them into his rhetoric. This work is, if you please, socialist realism, perhaps the only genuine writing we have in that style.

It is also, interestingly enough, a literature of commitment, the very kind of writing that Jean-Paul Sartre proposed to his generation as its special literary task; yet Sartre was neither able to produce this kind of writing himself, nor able to persuade others under his influence to do so. Why? Evidently the investigation of real facts and their accurate description would not in the West convey the political message Sartre wanted conveyed: it is urgent that there be a revolutionary overturn of this not-precisely-capitalist world. Would such an overturn result in a precisely socialist world? How could the doubts which many feel in this regard be resolved by a genuinely descriptive work, which, for the main points Sartre wanted made, would have to rely on some abstract hypothesis?

And there was another difficulty. In this century investigative writing has for the most part been pursued in prose, while poetry has opted for hiding things rather than for unveiling them. I am thinking here of T.S. Eliot’s requirement that poetry make itself obscure, to which modern poetry has adhered with a strictness one is almost tempted to call fanatical. In this century there have been very few instances of what might be called investigative poetry. Probably the greatest example of such art in the 19th century was Balzac’s Human Comedy, taken as a whole. The Gulag Archipelago books are poetry of this kind.


Footnotes

1Les jours de notre vie” (“The Days of Our Life”), Les Temps Modernes, January 1950.

2 Arrested in 1946, he was not released until some eight years later, when Khrushchev began his de-Stalinization of Soviet life.

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