DISCUSSED: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the War, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

“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.”

—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

In March of 2003, while the world was being duly shocked and awed by the rockets’ red glare illuming and obliterating the Baathist citadels of central Baghdad, I was reclining in the sun on St. Martin, a Caribbean island of typically Caribbean loveliness. My parents, who own a time-share there, had invited me to spend a week doing little more than swimming, eating, and drinking. On our second or third day, however, the war in Iraq began, and I wound up spending most of my evenings before the television, watching journalists describe sandstorms from atop beige tanks and the occasional stroboscope of a precision bomb detonating above yet another palace. What I saw so tormented me with worry that soon I was waking each morning with clickingly painful jaw malfunctions caused by nocturnal teeth-grinding.

When not watching television I was reading. But this was no respite. The books I brought with me to St. Martin—perversely, I must admit—were all three volumes of The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “experiment in literary investigation” of the origins and mechanisms of the Soviet prison-camp system, the first volume of which was published in English in 1974. In the preface to the first volume, Solzhenitsyn writes, “I would not be so bold as to try to write the history of the Archipelago.” Following that statement of inverse purpose are 1,800 pages of horror-splashed history. To read Gulag is to be emotionally demolished, page by page. In the preface to the third volume, Solzhenitsyn wonders if there remain any “readers who have found the moral strength to overcome the darkness and suffering of the first two volumes,” and it is not an idle worry. Alas, even if it were not so harrowing, it is the sad fate of lengthy, multivolume books to frighten away and intimidate readers, and for the uninitiated Gulag’s reputation (largely unfounded, I might add) is one of K2-grade insurmountability. (Equally unfounded is the weirdly common belief among those who have not read it that Gulag is fiction.) This is no book, it is too often assumed, for normal people. One of my fellow St. Martin vacationers, a New Jersey native covered in equal parts by Coppertone and sunburn, noticed me reading Gulag down by the pool. “The Gulag Archipelago?” she asked with surprise. “Is that for some class or something?”

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Tom Bissell is a regular Believer contributor. He is the author of Chasing the Sea, and the co-author (with Jeff Alexander) of Speak, Commentary. He strongly advises those interested in reading The Gulag Archipelago to stick with the harder-to-find three-volume edition of the book rather than HarperCollins’s condensed one-volume edition. Please trust him on this.

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