Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the 20th century Russian author, is most famous for his book The Gulag Archipelago in which he describes life under the grip of totalitarian rule. Solzhenitsyn wrote the book while serving a sentence in the Soviet Gulag prison system. What was his crime? Writing a letter to a friend. The letter was intercepted by Soviet authorities who deemed it to be anti-Soviet propaganda as it made a joke about Stalin and criticized the Soviet regime. Solzhenitsyn received eight years for this act (his sentence began in 1945), but the Soviet government paid a price as well as The Gulag Archipelago helped topple the regime.

After being released from prison Solzhenitsyn completed his book and it soon made its way into the underground network of censored literature. By the early 1970s it was smuggled out of Russia and in 1974 it was published in English. Fifteen years later, in 1989, it was finally permitted to be published in the Soviet Union.

“Until the Gulag, the Communists and their allies had persuaded their followers that denunciations of the regime were largely bourgeois propaganda. . .” (Isaiah Berlin)

Solzhenitsyn provided a first-hand account of the misery, suffering and death that resulted from the actions of the Soviet state and in so doing he helped to turn the tide against the Soviets. The novelist Doris Lessing went as far as to suggest that the book “brought down an empire”. But this book is not merely a historical document, it also serves as a warning to all those who favor the growth of state power or the economic system of socialism. Here are some quotes from The Gulag Archipelago that are relevant to the modern day:

Nothing is easier than stamping your foot and shouting: “That’s mine!” It is immeasurably harder to proclaim: “You may live as you please.” (The Gulag Archipelago, Volume 3)

Life opportunities are inversely proportional to state power. The more the state controls, the less freedom individuals have to sculpt their own lives, and the more life becomes regimented by the cold hand of bureaucratic institutions.

Shall we sum up the whole history of Russia in a single phrase? It is the land of smothered opportunities. (The Gulag Archipelago, Volume 3)

A lot of people in the West have fantasies about socialism/communism, Solzhenitsyn lived it, here is his account:

The Communist system is a disease, a plague that has been spreading across the earth for many years already, and it is impossible to predict what peoples will yet be forced to experience this disease firsthand. My people, the Russians, have been suffering from it for 60 years already; they long to be healed. And the day will come when they are indeed healed of this Soviet disease. (From a Speech at a Cavendish Town Meeting in 1977)

The more power a state is granted, the more ruthless become those who wield such power, something Solzhenitsyn observed first hand under Soviet rule.

Unlimited power in the hands of limited people always leads to cruelty. (The Gulag Archipelago, Volume 2)

Political genius lies in extracting success even from the people’s ruin. (The Gulag Archipelago, Volume 1)

No, the old proverb does not lie: Look for the brave in prison, and the stupid among the political leaders! (The Gulag Archipelago, Volume 2)

It has been estimated by the political scientist RJ Rummel that governments killed over 200,000,000 of their own citizens in the 20th century. Be it the National Socialists (Nazis) in Germany, the communists in Russia and China, Pol Pot’s regime in Cambodia or the current communist regime of North Korea, the more powerful the state the greater the suffering and death it leaves in its wake. To commit evil on such a scale involves the willing participation of many parties, be it the politicians who give the orders, the bureaucrats, the police and the jailers who execute the orders, or the academics and talking heads who spin the propaganda and disseminate the lies to try and justify the actions of the state. An important question is what leads so many individuals to be complicit in these acts of evil? Here are some of the Solzhenitsyn’s thoughts on this question:

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. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek a justification for his actions.

Ideology – that is what gives evil doing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis, by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations.

Thanks to ideology, the 20th century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions. This cannot be denied, nor passed over, nor suppressed. How, then, do we dare insist that evildoers do not exist? And who was it that destroyed these millions? Without evildoers there would have been no archipelago. (The Gulag Archipelago, Volume 1)

How can an individual fight back against tyranny? Throughout the three volumes of The Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn provides some answers: Cultivate moral autonomy. Speak the truth. Remain skeptical of the justifications for state power. And most importantly: draw a moral line in the sand and remember that actions you would refuse to commit of your own volition remain just as immoral when at the command of the “coldest of all cold monsters” (Nietzsche), the state.

This is surely the main problem of the 20th century: is it permissible merely to carry out orders and commit one’s conscience to someone else’s keeping? Can a man do without ideas of his own about good and evil, and merely derive them from the printed instructions and verbal orders of his superiors? Oaths! Those solemn pledges pronounced with a tremor in the voice and intended to defend the people against evildoers: see how easily they can be misdirected to the service of evildoers and against the people! (The Gulag Archipelago, Volume 3)

We have to condemn publicly the very idea that some people have the right to repress others. In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousandfold in the future. (The Gulag Archipelago, Volume 1)

And the lie has, in fact, led us so far away from a normal society that you cannot even orient yourself any longer; in its dense, gray fog not even one pillar can be seen.

Moreover, even if they offered us the chance to learn the truth, would our free people even want to know it? Y.G. Oksman [who served time in the gulags] returned from the camps in 1948, and was not rearrested, but lived in Moscow. His friends and acquaintances did not abandon him, but helped him. But they did not want to hear his recollections of camp! Because if they knew about that – how could they go on living? (The Gulag Archipelago, Volume 2)

Not enough people resisted in the Soviet Union when resistance was still a possibility. In a footnote to Volume 1 of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn had this to say about the profound regret that he, and many of his fellow Russians, latter endured in the realization that more could have been done to avoid the living hell that overcame Russia under the rule of the communists.

And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say goodbye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrest, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood that they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand? After all, you knew ahead of time that those bluecaps were out at night for no good purpose. And you could be sure ahead of time that you’d be cracking the skull of a cutthroat. What about the Black Maria sitting out there on the street with one lonely chauffeur – what if it had been driven off or its tires spiked. The Organs [Soviet state institutions] would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt!

If…if… We didn’t love freedom enough. And even more – we had no awareness of the real situation. We spent ourselves in one unrestrained outburst in 1917, and then we hurried to submit. We submitted with pleasure! … We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward. (The Gulag Archipelago, Volume 1)


Further Readings