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Biochemisty-n-Classics

The Gulag Archipelago: Parts I & II

The Gulag  

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  1. 1. Have you read it?

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    • Tried but couldn't finish
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    • No
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I have tried to read this book a few times.  It is an old edition that had been in my mother's house for quite some time but even she can't recall where it came from.  She didn't care to read it so I took it off her hands.

 

I tried reading it 5 years ago and put it down because I could not read more than a few pages at a time.  This year I'm determined to finish it.  I actually have it in my bathroom since October of last year and often read it in the tub which is perfect because I can really still only read a few pages at a time.   I'm making progress, I've almost made it through the whole political prefix part.  Of course if I get through this I will still have to locate and finish Part 3.

 

I'm starting this thread because I have found so few people that have read it even though a lot of people seem to know what it is.  I figure if anyone has read this work it would be the fine well-read group of people that frequent the forums in this club.  I wanted to know other people's experiences with the work good bad or other wise.

 

I find this whole Stalin era time period somewhat fascinating because of all the things we was able to get away with and get people to do.  Sort of falls into Milgram & Stanford prison experiment material.

 

 

 

 

Edited by Biochemisty-n-Classics

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I have dipped in and out, many years ago. I found the bits depicting life in the gulag interesting, but the political treatises were interminable and so specific as to be meaningless unless you were already steeped in the Soviet political machinations - particularly those running rural affairs at the local area level if I remember correctly.

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I vaguely remember reading this during my 'Russian authors' period of many. many moons ago. Unfortunately I have no real recollection of it.

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Hello Bio and Classics, a late welcome to BGO. I was very interested to see this old title had cropped up again and glad to comment.

 

I read this when it was first published in the West in 1973, after having been smuggled out of  USSR a little at a time and kept secret until it could be published, because although it is critical of Stalin and his police state, which was past,  it is highly critical of the politics of communism itself and the authorities could not allow this to be broadcast. It must be judged in the perspective of that era in addition to its place in Russian literature.  At that time it created a huge discussion and interest because this was still the time of The Iron Curtain and The Cold War.   The West had absolutely no idea at all or any real general knowledge of life in the USSR.   Communism was the big bad wolf ( reds under the bed),  there was constant nuclear stand-off with the  nagging fear that either East or West would launch nuclear missiles.

 

It is hard to believe in these days of easy communication and social media, what really went on in all those states behind the Iron Curtain was unknown to the general public, although we have the present day example of North Korea.   Dissatisfied socialists dreamed  of everyone sharing equally in this Utopian Communism Theory-land, but the reality was far removed from this hopeful vision.

 

In Stalin's time everyday life was grim, grey, regimented, regulated and rationed.  Only most basic needs were met for the general populace.   Solzhenitsyn had already written  A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich which surprisingly had been published earlier in 1960's and does describe life in a gulag, but Ivan was accused of espionage and was not a political prisoner as such. 

 

Culture and Arts, except that approved by the State, was stamped down and it was only when Solzhenitsyn's smuggled works were eventually available that the miserable life of the people, the gulags full of political prisoners being used for forced labour in appalling conditions.  and the complete stifling of any kind of free thought started to be understood. Political prisoners, as such, could be defined as anyone who uttered any slightly critical comment  or voiced any criticism against the State' . Neighbours dobbed in neighbours and people frequently disappeared in the night , their families never knowing where they were or what had happened to them.  Although George Orwell's 1984 was written much earlier it exemplifies much of what had occurred in the Soviet Union and to some extent was still happening in the 70's with the active secret police.   I can't remember all the details of how Solzhenitsyn managed to smuggle out chapters of this book bit by bit through friends and also the retribution it brought down on him, but that is well worth researching  and there is a good  basic summary of his life in Wiki.

 

Gulag Archipelago is a very depressing book, as are his others novels,  because they reveal a miserable time in history. I wouldn't generally recommend them as reading unless you are particularly interested in social history or  politics  as they are no longer as relevant or as revealing as they were in their time. 

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One thing that interests me is the idea of normal life under tyrannical governments. Clearly, not everyone could be jailed or executed. Even in the most heinous societies (e.g. Cambodia 1976-1979), many people survive and believe in a Government that probably believes in itself. And even the most tyrannical government cannot control every single aspect of their societies - they need to pick their battles.

 

I know life in the Eastern Bloc in the 1970s and 1980s was very different to life under Stalin, but I find it fascinating to hear first hand from people who have happy memories of these times. I remember from my own life in Northern Ireland from 1994-2000 that extraordinary situations quickly start to feel normal. This is not intended to take away from the stories of those who really suffered, but hearing only their stories can give a misleading sense of what happened. 

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One thing that interests me is the idea of normal life under tyrannical governments. Clearly, not everyone could be jailed or executed. Even in the most heinous societies (e.g. Cambodia 1976-1979), many people survive and believe in a Government that probably believes in itself. And even the most tyrannical government cannot control every single aspect of their societies - they need to pick their battles.

 

I know life in the Eastern Bloc in the 1970s and 1980s was very different to life under Stalin, but I find it fascinating to hear first hand from people who have happy memories of these times. I remember from my own life in Northern Ireland from 1994-2000 that extraordinary situations quickly start to feel normal. This is not intended to take away from the stories of those who really suffered, but hearing only their stories can give a misleading sense of what happened. 

 

Gladly agree, MrHG, it would be good to hear more everyday stories because so many already depict the misery. The normality and cheerfulness under the communist regime in Laos was one of the best aspects of Colin Coterill's series about Dr Siri Paiboun .  http://www.bookgrouponline.com/topic/7279-the-coroners-lunch/.

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Gulag Archipelago is a very depressing book, as are his others novels,  because they reveal a miserable time in history. I wouldn't generally recommend them as reading unless you are particularly interested in social history or  politics  as they are no longer as relevant or as revealing as they were in their time. 

 

 

 

I would have to somewhat disagree with you on this point.  I don't ever think a book should not be recommended because it is "no longer relevant."  Every book no matter how old it is or the subject matter at least gives us a glimpse into language of the time period if only for the purposes of  Etymology.  (Such as being able to access the work to do research for this sort of article: http://www.businessinsider.com/what-is-blue-and-how-do-we-see-color-2015-2) In terms of recommending a book for enjoyment I agree with you.  But in purely scientific and record keeping for histories sake no book ever written could really be classified as "no longer relevant."  I also somewhat agree with your statement that the book is not as revealing but in my experience with my public school education and the fact that I was a young child when the Berlin Wall came down the work is revealing to me.  

 

I didn't know about Stalin until I saw him on the history channel and only learned of an East and West Germany from seeing the names in outdated textbooks at my school and old glassware in the labs marked "Made in West Germany."  Hitler is a name that seems to never be forgotten but Stalin only rarely comes up in jokes on TV and movies.  Like that episode of Friends were Chandler jestingly suggests to Joey that he should switch his stage name to "Joseph Stalin" and Joey agrees to it.  Later in the episode Joey tells Chandler something along the lines of "Did you know Stalin killed a whole bunch of people?  You think you (Chandler) would have known that."

 

I don't really know the reason but would have to suppose that US/Russia relations over time including the Cold War is the reason why it is never mentioned that Russia lost a good deal of its population fighting WWII.  I can see though why the Gulags were never mentioned.  The US education system doesn't like to talk about interment camps within their own borders or genocides that occurred and still occur elsewhere in the world.  The only camps that are ever regularly mentioned are again Hitler's camps throughout Europe and even when explained they make it out to be as if it was the only time any one was ever treated that way or that a tyrant was this cruel to his own people.

 

I do think that the US should be a bit more forthcoming when teaching history and if they are going to get into World War II should also present a more balanced picture than just Hitler and his camps but also include more of Russia, Italy, France, Japan etc histories and the atrocities the US committed while testing the bombs especially in to Bikini Atoll.  Our school did happen to teach us about the aftermath of what happened to Japan and footage of the damage done while they were testing the bombs.  But our teacher had grown up in the time of nuclear bomb drills in school.  He wanted to pass on this knowledge to our generation so that we could hope to gleam a bit more understanding about life during this time period for the average citizen of the US.  He also wanted us to have a more critical view of our government.  

 

I often say the dumbest people I ever met were people I met in college.  I say that because they for the most part from Communications to Chemistry majors were on the whole pretty set in their ways and not open to new ideas.   I imagine I was and still am at times like that but college was great at reminding me, just like my high school history teacher, to try to keep an open but critical mind.  To think analytically but to never assume that I had all the answers because if I did I wouldn't need college or any other institute of higher learning.  

 

So I'd have to say that there is no way that I could say whether a book would be revealing for someone else because I don't know how that person was educated or what his or her life story or experiences are, I could however answer that question for my self and then relate my experience to another individual.  For example, a romance novel might not be too revealing to me as I have experienced that kind of fun in my life, but one of my good friends is not too well versed in those earthly pleasures and also has not dated much.  For her the book was very revealing and even entertaining.

 

I remember reading an article about Mr. Solzhenitsyn having distributed the script around Russia and smuggling it out.  I will seek out the details of that at some point.  

 

I only know a few words in Russian.  I am currently working on studying the language and can only hope that one day I would have enough knowledge to read an actual book in the language.  I really enjoyed reading your review and perspective of the book, especially since you read it in that sort of political climate when very few were privy to the details of life behind the Iron Curtain.   But I would have to say that for me, having vague knowledge of the history of the Soviet Union it is still mighty revealing.  And I think that because of the historical period of the book and how it (if I'm not mistaken) still stands as one of the few personal first hand accounts of life in the Gulag it will always be at least somewhat relevant.

 

One scene from the book comes to mind often which is described here:  http://mannerofspeaking.org/2010/05/12/some-chilling-public-speaking-history/

 

There is a portion in the political section of the book where the author describes a conference which ended and then a tribute to Stalin was called for.   All the people in the room leap to their feet and clapped and it continued on for several minutes because they were all being watched and each person was afraid that if he or she was spotted as the first person to stop clapping he or she would be hauled into prison.  Which the story goes on to say is exactly what happens to the first person who stopped clapping.

 

The other day I was at my work and the CEO gave a speech in the middle of a lunch as it was his last day before his formal retirement.  As soon as he was done everyone started clapping.  As I wasn't in Soviet Russia I did stop clapping once he reached his seat and continued eating my meal.  The majority of the people in the room however kept clapping I guess in cue to his leadership position?  He was seated for about a minute or so while he eating his meal before he had to give the throat slash signal to get them to desist.  I immediately thought of the book's passage and then my thoughts bounced back to old psych studies about obedience.

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