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The Gulag Archipelago


The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (New York: Harper Row 1973-1974)

This book is a masterpiece, but like many (most? all?) masterpieces it is a bit of a slog, nearly two thousand pages as published by Harper Row in the 1970s. So I have linked instead to the abridged edition, a mere 528 pages. Besides, the originals are mostly out of print; look for them at your nearest research library.

Volume One, Books I-II

The Gulag was the creation "not by one scoundrel alone in one secret place only, but by tens of thousands of specially trained human beasts standing over millions of defenseless victims." p.94

"In his instructions on the use of Red Terror, the Chekist M. I. Latsis wrote: 'In the interrogation do not seek evidence and proof that the person accused acted in word or deed against Soviet power. The first question should be: What is his class, what is his origin, what is his education and upbringing? These are the questions which must determine the fate of the accused.'" pp.96-97

"The overcrowding of the cells ... assumed the character of a first-class torture in itself ... one that was particularly useful because it continued for whole days and weeks--with no effort on the part of the interrogators. The prisoners tortured the prisoners!" p.145 "Their naked bodies were pressed against one another, and they got eczema from one another's sweat. They sat like that for weeks at a time, and were given neither fresh air nor water--except for guel and tea in the morning." p.146

"Maybe there are and were bluecaps [NKVD personnel] who never stole anything or appropriated anything for themselves--but I find it impossible to imagine one. I simply do not understand: given the bluecaps' philosophy of life, what was there to restrain them if they liked some particular thing?" p.154

"If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them." p.168

"To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he's doing is good, or else that it's a well-considered act in conformity with natural law." p.173

Tsarist secret police: Okhrana. p.195

"the tiny Estonian anvil had, from way, way back, been caught between two hammers, the Teutons and the Slavs. Blows showered on it from East and West in turn; there was no end to it, and there still isn't." p.213

"Several hundred thousand Koreans were exiled to Kazakhstan, all ... accused of spying." p.247

"Both of us were weak, dried out: our skin was grayish-yellow on our bones." p.268

The criminal category of ChS: the NKVD abbreviation for Member of a Family, i.e. the family of anyone convicted of a crime. p.284

"Thus many were shot--thousands at first, then hundreds of thousands. We divide, we multiply, we sigh, we curse. But still and all, these are just numbers. They overwhelm the mind and then are easily forgotten." p.442

"Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag. Use your memory! Use your memory! It is those bitter seeds alone which might sprout and grow someday." p.516

The cattle cars were called "red cows." p.565 Prison cars must go to a designated stop. "But the red trains can go into emptiness: and whereever one does go, there immediately rises right next to it, out of the sea of the steppe or the sea of the taiga, a new island of the Archipelago." p.566

"The prisoners considered April and September the best months for transports." p.574

"We can assume that at any one time that there were not more than twelve million in the camps." Though others argue for fifteen to twenty million. Of these, roughly half were politicals. p.595

Ivan Serov p.632

Zek: slang for zaklyuchenny, prisoner. p.641

The Only War We've Got

Volume Two, Books III-IV

The Belomor Canal, 1931-1933: "Stalin simply needed a geat construction project somewhere which would devour many working hands and many lives (the surplus of people as a result of the liquidation of the kulaks), with the reliability of a gas execution van but more cheaply, and which would at the same time leave a great monument to his reign of the same general sort as the pyramids." p.86

"That's what our gas execution van looked like. We didn't have any gas for the gas chamber." p.91

"They say that in the first winter, 1931-1932, 100,000 died off--a number equal to the number of those who made up the full working force on the canal." p.98

At the amnesty in 1941: "One hundred and eighty-six Poles were released from [the gold-mining camp at] Zolotisty out of 2,100 brought there a year before." p.131n

"Sikorski displeased Stalin, and in one night they seized thirty Polish women at Elgen [in the far north] and took them off and shot them." p.134

"... the need was manpower:
a. Cheap in the extreme, and better still--for free.
b. Undemanding, capable of being shifted about from place to place any day of the week, free of family ties, not requiring either established housing, or schools, or hospitals, or even, for a certain length of time, kitchens and baths.
It was possible to obtain such manpower only by swallowing up one's sons." p.143 (And, of course, the sons of others.)

"And the life of the natives [in the Archipelago] consists of work, work, work; of starvation, cold, and cunning." p.198

"And on their feet the tried and true Russian 'lapti'--bast sandals--except that they had no decent 'onuchi'--footclothes--to go with them. Or else they might have a piece of old automobile tire, tied right on the bare foot with a wire, an electric cord. (Grief has its own inventiveness....) Or else there were 'felt boots'--'burki'--put together from pieces of old, torn-up padded jackets, with soles made of a thick layer of felt and a layer of rubber." p.205

"If one has no other youth but youth in camp then ... one has to be gay there too, where else?" p.237

"The big, white, bloated lice reminded you of plump suckling piglets. And when you crushed them, they splashed your face, and your nails were covered with ichor." p.385

"The hostility of the surrounding population, encouraged by the authorities, became the principal hindrance to escape.... And the nationalities inhabiting the area around Gulag gradually came to assume that the capture of a fugitive meant a holiday, enrichment, that it was like a good hunt or like finding a small gold nugget. The Tungus, the Komis, and the Kazakhs were paid off in flour and tea ... and several pounds of herring. During the war years there was no other way to get herring, and local inhabitants simply nicknamed the fugitives herrings." p.396

"Who, except prisoners, would have worked at logging ten hours a day, in addition to marching four miles through the woods in predawn darkness and the same distance back at night, in a temperature of minus 20, and knowing in a year no other rest days than May 1 and November 7?....
And who other than the Archipelago natives would have grubbed out stumps in winter? Or hauled on their backs the boxes of mined ore in the open goldfields of the Kolyma? Or have dragged cut timber a half-mile from the Koin River ... through deep snow on Finnish timber-sledge runners, harnessed up in pairs in a horse collar[?]" p. 579

"So many millions of people agreed to become stool pigeons. And, after all, if some forty to fifty million people served long sentences in the Archipelago during the course of the thirty-five years up to 1953 [i.e., during Stalin's reign] ... --and this is a modest estimate, being only three or four times the population of Gulag at any one time, and, after all, during the war the death rate there was running one percent per day--then we can assume that at lest every third or at least every fifth case was the consequence of somebody's denunication and that somebody was willing to provide evidence as a witness!" p.642

Soviet Russia under Stalin: "So there in that stinking damp world in which only executioners and the most blatant of betrayers flourished, while those who remained honest became drunkards, since they had no strength of will for anything else, in which the bodies of young people were bronzed by the sun while their souls petrified inside, in which every night the gray-green hand reached out to collar someone in order to pop him into a box--in that world millions of women wandered about lost and blinded, whose husbands, sons, or fathers had been torn from them and dispatched to the Archipelago." pp. 653-654

The Greater America

Volume Three, Books IV-VII

1941: "In the space of two months we abandoned very nearly one-third of our population to the enemy--including all those incompletely destroyed families; including camps with several thousand inmates, who scattered as soon as their guards ran for it; including prisons in the Ukraine and the Baltic States, where smoke still hung in the air after the mass shooting of political prisoners." p.17

The Germans discovered mass graves in 1943: "In June they began digging near the Orthodox cemetery [in Vinnitsa, Ukraine] and discovered another forty-two graves. Next the Gorky Park of Culture and Rest--where, under the swings and carrousel, the "funhouse," the games area, and the dance floor, fourteen more mass graves were found. Altogether, 9,439 corpses in ninety-five graves.... After viewing these corpses, were the population supposed to rush off and join the partisans?" p.19

Of the Russian prisoners of war who joined the Vlasov army to aid the Germans: "These people, who had experienced on their own hides twenty-four years of Communist happiness, knew by 1941 what as yet no one else in the world knew: that nowhere on the planet, nowhere in history, was there a regime more vicious, more bloodthirsty, and at the same time more cunning and ingenious than the Bolshevik, the self-styled Soviet regime. That no other regime on earth could compare with it either in the number of those it had done to death, in hardiness, in the range of its ambitions, in its thoroughgoing and unmitigated totalitarianism--no, not even the regime of its pupil Hitler, which at the time blinded Western eyes to all else. p.28

Gulag escapees on the run: makhmadera = "stop asking--and grab!" Kazakh yurt: a well, no bucket, a saddled horse tied to a post, a narrow opening, illuminated by an oil lamp. "Salaam!" Low round table. Benches covered with felt. A big metal-bound chest. Kazakh male sullen. Kazakh terms: beshbarmak = meat dish. aksakal = "white beard" (term of respect). yok = there is none. Threatens guests with a whip, prods him with whip handle. Kumiss = fermented mare's or camel's milk, in jugs. Dried mutton in a "meat safe." baursaki = deep-fried lumps of dough. Geese. pp. 162-164, 534.

"a dead and deserted Kazakh village" (1930-1933 left ruined villages dotted around Kazakhstan, first the Soviet cavalry, then famine. p. 165

cut a stick to hunt gophers and jerboas, which he killed by flinging it at them as they sat by their burrows; sucked their blood and roasted the meat on a fire of dry steppe gorse. Kazakh horseman in a big red-brown fur hat. shashlik = shish kabob, grilled on a stick. Kazakhs use the lasso. pp. 197-198 "Hunting bipeds! A man's life for a kilogram of tea!" p.198 Kazakh carrying a hunting rifle p.217

Postwar: a private in the MVD troops earned 230 rubles/month, twelve times army pay. In the polar regions, 400 rubles and all expenses. p.222

"Humanity probably invented exile first and prison later. Expulsion from the tribe was of course exile. We were quick to realize how difficult it is for a man to exist, divorced from his own place, his familiar environment. Everything is wrong and awkward, everything is temporary and unreal, even if there are green woods around, not permafrost." In Russia, government policy since 1648. "But even earlier, at the end of the sixteenth century, people were exiled without legal sanction.... Our great spaces gave their blessing--Siberia was ours already." p.335

"Emptiness. Helplessness. A life that is no life at all." p.340

The peasants who were deported and starved to death in the 1930s: "This chapter will deal with a small matter. Fifteen million souls. Fifteen million lives.
They weren't educated people, of course. They couldn't play the violin. They didn't know who Meyerhold was, or how interesting it is to be a nuclear physicist." p.350

"In the war and postwar years, the exile system steadily grew in capacity and importance together with the camps. It required no expenditure on the construction of huts and boundary fences, on guards and warders, and there was room in its capacious embrace for big batches, especially those including women and children.... Exile made possible a speedy, reliable, and irreversible cleansing of any important region of the 'mainland.'" p.369

"In the kolkhoz, exiles are always badly off--no regulation clothing, no camp ration. There is no more dreadful place of exile than the kolkhoz." p.378 "The more remote the farm, the worse things were; the wilder the place, the fewer the exile's rights." Essentially a slave to the Kazakh overseer. Months could go by without seeing a Russian with authority to intervene. p.379

"In 1937 some tens of thousands of those suspicious Koreans ... were swiftly and quietly transferred from the [Russian] Far East to Kazakhstan." They were early settlers and more recent ones fleeing the Japanese occupation of Korea. p.386-387

"Total ruin was an experience reserved for those special settlers who were sent to collective farms." One Baltic exile got twenty grams of grain per workday and fifteen kopecks, which suffice in one year to buy an aluminim bowl. "What, you ask, did they live on? Why, on parcels from the Baltic States." p.398

Of the various populations in Kazakhstan, the Germans were most industrious and prosperous. The Greeks had the best dairy products and vegetables. The Koreans obtained educations and became teachers etc. p.401

When he was "released" into exile, but for the first few days was still locked up. "It differed from jail only in hat for those few days we were no longer fed free of charge, but had to pay for food to be brought from the market." p.414

"The steppe sped by, kilometer after kilometer. To right and to left, as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but harsh gray inedible grass, and only very occasionally a wretched Kazakh village framed with trees." Dogs. Donkeys. "a camel turned slowly and contemptuously to look at us."
"Past the district stores, the tearoom, the clinic, the soviet offices, the district Party headquarters with its slated roof, the House of Culture under its reed thatch." p.415

Wherever you looked, "there was lawlessness aggravated by ignorance, barbaric conceit, and smug clannishness." p.432

In the 1950s he encountered "certain very lonely old [Polish] men and women from the Western Ukraine and Western Byelorussa--the meekest and unhappiest people in the world. They cheered up greatly after the [1953] amnesty, and waited to be sent home. But some two months later came the usual heartless clarification: inasmuch as they had been exiled (ater having served their time in the camps and without trial) not for five years but in perpetuity, the previous five-year term of imprisonment which had led to their exile did not count, and they were not covered by the amnesty." pp 438-439

"Each year on the anniversary of my arrest I organize myself a 'zek's day': in the morning I cut off 650 grams of bread, put two lumps of sugar in a cup and pour hot water on them. For lunch I ask them to make me some broth and a ladeful of thin mush. And how quickly I get back to my old form: by the end of the day I am already picking up crumbs to put in my mouth, and licking the bowl." p.461

Says on old zek: "the pictures of the past ... are by no means all dark and harrowing; we have many warm and pleasant memories." AS: "In our day, if you get a letter completely free from self-pity, genuinely optimistic--it can only be from a former zek. They are used to the worst the world can do, and nothing can depress them." p.462

"Which is the dream, which is the ignis fatuus--the past? or the present?" p.466

""All you freedom-loving 'left-wing' thinkers in the West! You left laborites! You progressive American, German, and French students! As far as you are concerned, none of this amounts to much. As far as you are concerned, this book of mine is a waste of effort. You may suddenly understand it all someday--but only when you yourselves hear 'hands behind your backs there!' and step ashore on our Archipelago." p.518

bluecaps: from the light-blue band that distinguishes the NKVD uniform cap. p.534

Look for the abridged one-volume edition at Amazon.com.

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