On Finishing The Gulag Archipelago

 

Earlier today I finished the final volume of The Gulag Archipelago. Whereas Mark Twain defines a work of great literature as “Something that everyone wants to have read but no one wants to read,” I still think I’d like to re-read this one. There’s very little I can do for the multitudes processed through the Soviet prison camps, but I can bear witness. To that and to the camps that are still maintained in North Korea, Cuba, and other dictatorships around the world.

Even if there weren’t such camps in existence today I’m far too pessimistic to believe “never again.” If anything, I hope to be the one in the camp rather than the one running it. To that end, here are some lessons I learned from the book to help survive the Gulag.

 

  • Your best chance to escape is before you get to the Lubyanka. You’re healthy and you’ve got no walls and fewer guards than you ever will again.
  • Lie to your interrogators. Remember nothing at all. If you build them a story you’ll get tripped up in the details.
  • Sign absolutely nothing that they give to you.
  • Don’t trust the thieves.
  • Spend what time you have in the transit prison sleeping. You’ll be thankful for it after a tour on general labor.
  • If you want to survive your ten-ruble note then do whatever you can not to get out on general labor.
  • The thieves are going to get all the trustee positions.
  • It’s not the short ration, but the long ration that kills you. (The bonus ration is given to shock-workers who overfulfill the norm. You spend more calories earning it than you get from eating it.)
  • Don’t bother petitioning Stalin to release you. He wants you right where you are.
  • Don’t believe the rumors of a general amnesty either.
  • Gorky won’t tell the world about your prison conditions. Gorky depends on praising the state to maintain his livelihood.
  • Gorky will end his days in the camps anyway.
  • Tukhta: A word for the difference between the work you do and the work you tell your commissar you do.
  • If you get your Tukhta past the commissar then he’s going to be invested in maintaining the illusion to his bosses. He doesn’t want to end up behind the wire.
  • When the godfather recruits you to inform on your comrades laugh in his face.
  • Knife stoolies.
  • To escape requires constant observation, meticulous planning, and a willingness to immediately seize whatever chances fortune throws your way.
  • Study up on geography now; you’ll be thankful when you’re trying to cross the Kazakh steppes.
  • When you’re dying of thirst in the desert it doesn’t help to stab your comrade to death to drink his blood to survive a little longer. He’s also badly dehydrated and won’t bleed much at all.
  • Lie to the commissars. Tell them what they want to hear.
  • When they let you out they aren’t actually letting you out. They’ll arrest you again and slap another tenner on you.

As a rule, it’s better not to live in a country that maintains a gulag.

There are 38 comments.

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  1. Major Major Major Major Inactive
    Major Major Major Major
    @OldDanRhody

    Hank Rhody, Red Hunter: Don’t trust the thieves.

    The thieves are ordinary criminals, not the political prisoners which comprise the great majority of the inmates.

    One question:

    Hank Rhody, Red Hunter: If you want to survive your ten-ruble note then to whatever you can not to get out on general labor.

    What does it mean, “…not to get out on general labor?”

    • #1
  2. philo Member
    philo
    @philo

    I read Volume 1 in 2014 but haven’t had the stomach to dig into Volumes 2 and 3 yet. They still sit on the shelf. (I have managed to get through The Great Terror and Memoirs of a Revolutionary in the interim. Both worth the time also.) Last year I did try some alternate Solzhenitsyn with In the First Circle.  It was excellent.

    Thanks for the bulleted advice.

    • #2
  3. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    Everyone who complains about America should read it.

    • #3
  4. Hank Rhody, Red Hunter Contributor
    Hank Rhody, Red Hunter
    @HankRhody

    Major Major Major Major (View Comment):
    What does it mean, “…not to get out on general labor?”

    There are four categories of prisoners. Those who are necessary for camp maintenance. Those who are out on medical leave. Those who are in punishment cells, and if you’re not in one of those categories you’re necessarily in the fourth; general labor. Logging, mining, making bricks, working the lime kilns, whatever difficult and dangerous work the Soviet state demands.

    • #4
  5. OldPhil Coolidge
    OldPhil
    @OldPhil

    According to the left (and some not-so-left), America is turning into the Gulag, isn’t it?

    • #5
  6. Brian Watt Member
    Brian Watt
    @BrianWatt

    On his latest Patreon Q&A podcast, Jordan Peterson mentioned that a new anniversary abridged version of the Gulag Archipelago will be released soon. He was asked to write the introduction to it and what he has written was approved by the Solzhenitsyn family. 

    • #6
  7. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Thank you.  It’s on the list.  Okay, lots of great books are “on my list.”  But you make it sound like the suckitude of these is less than the suckitude of most of the others.  It’s on you, Rhody.

    • #7
  8. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    Thank you. It’s on the list. Okay, lots of great books are “on my list.” But you make it sound like the suckitude of these is less than the suckitude of most of the others. It’s on you, Rhody.

    “suckitude” haha

    • #8
  9. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    A most thoughtful post, Ricochet at its best. Some sobering thoughts about history that few seem interested in remembering. 

    People in the arts (I speak from experience) sometimes meddle in the sciences in cases where they know nothing about it. This is a case of the total opposite. Hank Rhody’s a scientist–his “How to Build a Computer” series is a worthy, noble attempt to drag the rest of us upwards from the mental status of apes–but he writes with authority on Solzhenitsyn. That’s something I wish schools would encourage. 

    • #9
  10. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    I read each volume shortly after it came out, and was impressed.  If you want a short course, read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by the same author.

    • #10
  11. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt
    @DougWatt

    Putin has found that the camps are too expensive. It is much more cost effective to shoot a journalist in the back of the head as they are inserting a key into the lock on their apartment door, or throw them over a balcony. There have some been some problems using nerve agents, or polonium outside the borders of Russia, but whatever works is okay.

    • #11
  12. Jim Beck Inactive
    Jim Beck
    @JimBeck

    Morning Hank,

    Rules from “The First Circle”, this is one of the chapters, “You Have Only One Conscience”.  So don’t sell out others or yourself.  The second rule is “never be too happy, never be too sad”,  that is when you get transferred, one does not know what the new camp will be like regardless of its reputation. Don’t get your hopes up, and don’t be depressed.

    “The First Circle” is a wonderful antidote to the Gulag, my favorite book.

    From Victor Frankl,  we know that there are prisoners who are here suffering as we and yet they make life worse, and we know prisoners who are here suffering as we, who lighten our losd and make life better. We can choose to be that type of person.

    • #12
  13. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    “Keep Yer Faith”

    Also, an excellent read is The Great Terror By Robert Conquest.

    • #13
  14. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    I spent 6 hours with a man that survived a gulag. He spoke very little English and I spoke no Russian but we had a wonderful conversation somehow. His crime was surviving being a German POW. He was told he should have died and therefore was a traitor.  He was given a life sentence. After many years he managed to escape  he just walked away , no one expected him to survive. He walked thousands of miles and eventually stowed away on a ship bound for Japan. From there he made it to Israel and finally the US. I meet him in the eighties and he was already in his sixties. In spite of that he married a young woman and had two children. His idea was that they were not going to steal his life. I never saw him again. I hope he had a great life.

     

    • #14
  15. philo Member
    philo
    @philo

    PHCheese (View Comment): His crime was surviving being a German POW. He was told he should have died and therefore was a traitor. He was given a life sentence.

    From Volume 1:

    That also was the reason why they sentenced the majority of war prisoners (it was not simply because they had allowed themselves to be captured), particularly those POW’s who had seen a little more of the West than a German death camp. This was obvious from the fact that interned persons were sentenced as severely as POW’s. For example, during the first days of the war one of our destroyers went aground on Swedish territory. Its crew proceeded to live freely in Sweden during all the rest of the war, and in such comfort and plenty as they had never experienced before and would never experience again. The U.S.S.R. retreated, attacked, starved, and died, while those scoundrels stuffed their neutral mugs. After the war Sweden returned them to us along with the destroyer. Their treason to the Motherland was indubitable — but somehow the case didn’t get off the ground. They let them go their different ways and then pasted them with Anti-Soviet Agitation for their lovely stories in praise of freedom and good eating in capitalist Sweden. – Pages 82-83

    • #15
  16. Jim Beck Inactive
    Jim Beck
    @JimBeck

    Afternoon Hank,

    In reading the Gulag and the other books on the camps and exile, it seems as if the camps were much like other USSR govt projects.  Employees of/for the state grind through projects stealing as much for themselves as possible whether building an apartment or holding prisoners in the gulag indifferently getting the job done while trying to get a little ahead.  The prisoners are raw materials generally not targeted personally just part of the annual harvest, that they get used up and die while digging a canal or in a mine, or in the forest is just part of the gulag business.  That the canal is too shallow for usefulness, or the mine is not very productive is also of no great consequence, no one will get fired because they are doing a mediocre job.  It is enough to punch a certain number, made up or not, to keep the system grinding along.  That such an inefficient system could last so long is discouraging.  Imagine how the average family must have felt, the always wondering who are the informants, how does one even get ahead, being stuck in a job and apartment, a certain city, where merit is of little use, better keep your head down don’t attract attention or envy.

    • #16
  17. Ontheleftcoast Member
    Ontheleftcoast
    @Ontheleftcoast

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    Thank you. It’s on the list. Okay, lots of great books are “on my list.” But you make it sound like the suckitude of these is less than the suckitude of most of the others. It’s on you, Rhody.

    Embrace the suck?

    Seriously, it’s harrowing to read, but it’s not only that. It is not like reading Western European literature, but high culture it definitely is. It is truly profound and broad, simultaneously a passionate effort to preserve a history that was being actively suppressed by the state, and an overwhelming but not pretentious work of literature and culture. He was Russian to his bones, Christian to his bones.

    I tried reading volume 2 in Russian because the translation wasn’t out yet, but the language is too complicated. I was able to struggle through bits of Pushkin and the like at the time, but Solzhenitsyn is on an entirely different level. He had and used a huge vocabulary, and he alluded to or sampled the French and German classics known to educated Russians (at least in translation, most of which I didn’t know even in translation) as well as of course classical and modern Russian literature, and details of Russian history unknown to most Westerners. In addition to that, he used zek slang and I don’t know what all else. It took me hours with a dictionary to get a reasonable comprehension of just a page or two. I am in awe of the translators.

    • #17
  18. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Ontheleftcoast (View Comment):

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    Thank you. It’s on the list. Okay, lots of great books are “on my list.” But you make it sound like the suckitude of these is less than the suckitude of most of the others. It’s on you, Rhody.

    Embrace the suck? Embrace the suck, cupcake!

    Seriously, it’s harrowing to read, but it’s not only that. It is not like reading Western European literature, but high culture it definitely is. It is truly profound and broad, simultaneously a passionate effort to preserve a history that was being actively suppressed by the state, and an overwhelming but not pretentious work of literature and culture. He was Russian to his bones, Christian to his bones.

    I tried reading volume 2 in Russian because the translation wasn’t out yet, but the language is too complicated. I was able to struggle through bits of Pushkin and the like at the time, but Solzhenitsyn is on an entirely different level. He had and used a huge vocabulary, and he alluded to or sampled the French and German classics known to educated Russians (at least in translation,) as well as of course classical and modern Russian literature, and details of Russian history unknown to most Westerners. In addition to that, he used zek slang and I don’t know what all else. It took me hours with a dictionary to get a general comprehension of just a page or two. I am in awe of the translators.

    FIFY.

    • #18
  19. Jim Beck Inactive
    Jim Beck
    @JimBeck

    One part of being old, it is a universal reason/excuse.  I did not know until a minute ago what FIFY meant and I propose for our Ricochet tribe an “embrace the suck, cupcake” text version, ie ETSC, or EtheSC.  This would be our sign of membership and understanding.  Boss Mongo, if you could perhaps FIFY, I would appreciate it.  Your variation or version would be helpful.

    • #19
  20. Hank Rhody, Red Hunter Contributor
    Hank Rhody, Red Hunter
    @HankRhody

    This summer there’s been a gang of college students playing big band music on the back patio of a bar downtown. I’d sit there two hours a Wednesday evening drinking Shiner Bock on tap, reading Solzhenitsyn and listening to the music. Broke the book down into manageable chunks. It’s unquestionably great literature, but it’s heavy going.

    • #20
  21. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Hank Rhody, Red Hunter (View Comment):
    I’d sit there two hours a Wednesday evening drinking Shiner Bock on tap, reading Solzhenitsyn and listening to the music.

    Sounds like a helluva way to spend a summer.  And to read a book.

    • #21
  22. Hank Rhody, Red Hunter Contributor
    Hank Rhody, Red Hunter
    @HankRhody

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    Hank Rhody, Red Hunter (View Comment):
    I’d sit there two hours a Wednesday evening drinking Shiner Bock on tap, reading Solzhenitsyn and listening to the music.

    Sounds like a helluva way to spend a summer. And to read a book.

    They finished this Wednesday and I still had two chapters to go. That’s how I came to end the book on a Saturday.

    • #22
  23. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    The gulag system was set up because a prisoner wrote to Yagoda and Stalin that the prison camp system was inefficient and should be reorganized. This prisoner argued that the prisons should be turned into a slave labor system taking people to places to extract natural resources that even with economic inducement, people would not move at least initially. They took his suggestion and the prisoner became the first administrator of the first gulag camp. Source: Orlando Figes The Whisperers.  

    • #23
  24. Jim Chase Member
    Jim Chase
    @JimChase

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):

    I read each volume shortly after it came out, and was impressed. If you want a short course, read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by the same author.

    I literally finished reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich yesterday.  Literally, in the most literal sense of the word.  From which another rule of gulag survival surfaces:  take care of your squad leader, and he’ll usually take care of you. 

    • #24
  25. Rōnin Coolidge
    Rōnin
    @Ronin

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    Thank you. It’s on the list. Okay, lots of great books are “on my list.” But you make it sound like the suckitude of these is less than the suckitude of most of the others. It’s on you, Rhody.

    “suckitude” haha

    Boss Mongo, hear me now and believe me later, this is a must read for you in your line of work.  If you don’t have the time to read it, do the audible thing, but do it.  I recommend it to anyone else who is still in the game.

    I’m doing a nice ice cold Warsteiner now, waiting on the rain.  It’s hot and dry in South Texas.

     

    • #25
  26. Ontheleftcoast Member
    Ontheleftcoast
    @Ontheleftcoast

    My mother’s aunts ran the gamut to the left of Roosevelt Democrat all the way to card carrying Communist; my father went to a socialist boarding school and my mother was in the Young People’s Socialist League in college.

    Despite that, I had taken a right turn in the 1960s, but even so, when the opening salvos of Gulag Archipelago convinced me that the entire Communist enterprise was founded on murder it was a shock. The idea that was somehow in the air that “Well, there may have been excesses under Stalin, but Lenin, on the other hand…” was a lie was hard to swallow, but there was no going back after Gulag.

    In Fear no Evil, Natan Sharansky tells us that the zeks referred to the “camp zone” of the Gulag in which they lived, and the “larger zone,” which was the rest of the country; he maintains that for a person to be honest was only possible in the camp zone.

    He had decided to follow a policy of never obeying the orders of the servants of the regime; he followed this at the moment of  his release, when he was ordered “go straight across the bridge” to freedom – and zig-zagged instead.

    Hang On (View Comment):

    The gulag system was set up because a prisoner wrote to Yagoda and Stalin that the prison camp system was inefficient and should be reorganized. This prisoner argued that the prisons should be turned into a slave labor system taking people to places to extract natural resources that even with economic inducement, people would not move at least initially. They took his suggestion and the prisoner became the first administrator of the first gulag camp. Source: Orlando Figes The Whisperers.

    If you listen to Stephen Kotkin’s Uncommon Knowledge interviews with Peter Robinson, and Kotkin’s interviews with John Batchelor and others, you understand why: There were true believers in the camps, there were many, many Winstons who were convinced that Comrade Stalin would bring the Communist redemption.

    I’m not sure I want to immerse myself in Stalin by reading the books, but the interviews are compelling.

    • #26
  27. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    Ontheleftcoast (View Comment):

    Hang On (View Comment):

    The gulag system was set up because a prisoner wrote to Yagoda and Stalin that the prison camp system was inefficient and should be reorganized. This prisoner argued that the prisons should be turned into a slave labor system taking people to places to extract natural resources that even with economic inducement, people would not move at least initially. They took his suggestion and the prisoner became the first administrator of the first gulag camp. Source: Orlando Figes The Whisperers.

    If you listen to Stephen Kotkin’s Uncommon Knowledge interviews with Peter Robinson, and Kotkin’s interviews with John Batchelor and others, you understand why: There were true believers in the camps, there were many, many Winstons who were convinced that Comrade Stalin would bring the Communist redemption.

    I’m not sure I want to immerse myself in Stalin by reading the books, but the interviews are compelling.

    I’ve read Figes’ book, as well as Kotkin’s.  Figes is excellent, despite having become a loonybin Trump-hater.   (Kotkin is excellent, too.)  

    • #27
  28. Rick Banyan Member
    Rick Banyan
    @RickBanyan

    My fencing coach in college had been a Hungarian cavalry officer in World War 2. After the war, the Russians put him into the Gulag. Why? Because they didn’t like the Von in his surname. Anyway, he was in the system for eleven years and was let out in 1956 between the thaw in Hungary’s communist system and the Russian crackdown.

    Coach came to America and began teaching in California. When the Gulag Archipelago came out in the mid-1970s, he carried it around wherever he went. He’d say things like, “I wasn’t in that camp [meaning Solzhenitsyn’s camp], but that’s how things were.” Do I need to add that Coach didn’t care for the Russians?

    Knowing of Coach’s experience immunized me against leftist propaganda. I have, however, joined the Resistance—I have resisted the urge to slap my socialist nephew and nieces up side the head.

    • #28
  29. Brent Chambers Inactive
    Brent Chambers
    @BrentChambers

    I read the Gulag twice, some sections many more times.  I always summed up Solzhenitsyn’s attitude as this:  The moment you are arrested, you are a dead man.  Answer as a dead man would answer, care about their threats as a dead man would care, bargain as a dead man would bargain.  It is too bad that you had a wife or children or an art.  You are now a dead man.  

    BTW, on “Knife the stoolies” he really means “kill them.”

    • #29
  30. philo Member
    philo
    @philo

    Brent Chambers (View Comment): … The moment you are arrested, you are a dead man. …

    Yes, but simpl[y] termed “dead” just doesn’t convey just how insidiously evil the process was.  My mind always returns to Solzhenitsyn’s depiction (again, from Volume 1):

    Throughout the years and decades, interrogations under Article 58 were almost never undertaken to elicit the truth, but were simply an exercise in an inevitably filthy procedure: someone who had been free only a little while before, who was sometimes proud and always unprepared, was to be bent and pushed through a narrow pipe where his sides would be torn by iron hooks and where he could not breathe, so that he would finally pray to get to the other end. And at the other end, he would be shoved out, an already processed native of the Archipelago, already in the promised land. (The fool would keep on resisting! He even thought there was a way back out of the pipe.) – Pages 94-95

    After 500 or so pages of the details, I just remember being mentally/emotionally exhausted.  Much respect for those who powered through Volumes 2 and 3.

    • #30
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