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.

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  1. Hang On Member
    Hang On

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    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.)

    Figes is an excellent writer and I generally agree with his conclusions. Kotkin is not nearly as good a writer. I really like how he clearly takes aim at Montefiore’s biography which I didn’t think much of especially on Stalin’s early life and psychobabble. 

    • #31
  2. Jim Beck Inactive
    Jim Beck

    Afternoon philo,

    Your quote reminds me of two chapters at the end of “The First Circle” where a govt official is arrested and beginning what will be his life in the gulag.  The titles are: “Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here” and “Keep Forever”.  Thinking about the books about the gulag, communism is more destructive of hope than anything else, material or not.  It is not just the prisoners whose hopes are erased, no Stalin will not correct this horrible mistake,  it is every human who is forced to live in the system.  Things will not get better, new wreckers will be found next year, it is not what you do that saves you, even the toadies are eventually culled.  Not only is there nothing to hope for but everyone knows there is nothing to hope for.  Maybe if you are a zek you hope for a nuclear war, as some did.  Solzhenitsyn in cataloging the prisons, camps, lives of the prisoners, is writing the history of the country which iself is a prison.  The folks living in the USSR or now North Korea may not even imagine a life of Western freedom and luxury, but they know that their life is bad and that they have to act as if it is not or they will become zeks themselves.  Remember the North Korean guard who darted across the border, shot five times and filled with parasites.  For a man so lucky to be in the army, and favored and trusted to guard the border to be filled with parasites tells us how horrible life must be.  Everything in that life crushes hope, creates a cynical view of human life, the hardest thing would be to maintain a hope that life had a meaning.

    • #32
  3. philo Member

    Jim Beck (View Comment): Your quote reminds me of two chapters at the end of “The First Circle” where a govt official is arrested and beginning what will be his life in the gulag. The titles are: “Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here” and “Keep Forever”.

    I just finished that one last December. My only note from the chapters you reference is this one:

    The naked prisoner sat submissively without wondering why. (The free man’s habit of thinking over his actions before performing them was atrophying fast, now that others were thinking so effectively for him. …  – Page 689

    As is often the case, the history of this book may be as interesting as the story in it.  I read the 2009 edition titled In the First Circle (as opposed to the original published as The First Circle) which is, or is at least much closer to, the original as written by Solzhenitsyn.  I would highly recommend The Oak and the Calf for more insight.

    Also, and I know I am like a broken record on this one, I will once again direct those interested in the topic to Victor Serge.

    • #33
  4. Jim Beck Inactive
    Jim Beck

    Afternoon philo,

    Also in “The First Circle”, Solzhenitsyn says “just like King Midas turned everything to gold, Stalin turned everything to mediocrity”.  So what I see is that the prisoner looses his ability to think clearly before acting, but not because other are now thinking efficiently for him.  Just the opposite, no one is thinking efficiently.  Everyone is just going through the motions.  Each person is playing the role assigned to him, interrogator, guard, etc.  One does his job by rote.  So not only does the prisoner loose his ability to think, but all citizens loose their ability to think.  The price of thinking is too great, or irrelevant to survival.  One can not afford to care that everything is false, to proclaim so gets you the camp or nine grams. To think efficiently, one might approximate a less deceived reality.  Communism only permits a communist reality which is a false world. The communist world relentlessly demands that you deny the reality you know to be true and accept that the clock struck thirteen.

    • #34
  5. Concretevol Thatcher

    Hank Rhody, Red Hunter: 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.

    Bravo.  I agree 100%

    • #35
  6. Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu Inactive
    Yehoshua Ben-Eliyahu

    Fear No Evil, by Natan Sharansky, is an excellent companion volume, although it depicts the final years of the Soviet prison system, to The Gulag Archipelago.  And don’t forget Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler, the first and most harrowing (if nominally fictional) account of the Gulag nightmare.

    • #36
  7. JimGoneWild Coolidge

    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 read it too and that’s enough for me. The suffering, the pain, the misery — Man!

    • #37
  8. J Ro Member
    J Ro

    philo (View Comment):

    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.

    I was right out of college with a fine-tuned mind and little to do when I closely read the whole trilogy. Couldn’t get enough of it. It was profoundly moving, late in the Cold War, and on a topic I hadn’t had a chance to study before. Recently bought Vol 1 hoping to wake up the details lost over the decades. 

    But Russ Roberts is going to go over In the First Circle on his EconTalk podcast this month, so I’m starting with that. 

    • #38
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