Thursday, June 02, 2005

Arkipelag GULAG

The summer I was eleven or twelve years old -- can't remember which, but it was the summer of Amii Stewart's version of "Knock on Wood," if any disco hound knows what year that was and can subtract 1967 from it -- I went down to spend a week at some sort of gifted-and-talented summer camp at a small college in Ada, Oklahoma. It was a heck of a week, memorable twice over. In the first place, I wrote my first computer program, loading it into a mainframe using punch cards (yes, Princess, your father really is that old).

And in the second place, wandering happily along the aisles of the college bookstore, my eye was caught (I still don't know why) by a book called Cancer Ward, written by some guy who didn't know how to spell "Alexander" properly and had a last name that I would spend the next four years pronouncing as "Solz-HEN-it-sign," as if Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn were some odd breed of chicken. (Southeastern Oklahoma public schools were not exactly notable for their Russian departments.)

I read the whole book at one go; couldn't put it down. I had never read any novel like it. My idea of Russian novels was Dostoyevski and Anna Karenina (magnificent stuff but a different era and a different world), and my idea of "realism" was the entirely unrealistic spiritual masochism of Thomas Hardy. Now I found myself without warning on a peak in an unsuspected literary Darien.

By the time I was an upperclassman in high school, I think that everything Solzhenitsyn had seen published in English up to that point, I had read. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, of course, immediately; and then The First Circle, and The Oak and the Calf, and Prussian Nights (about as successful as translations of poetry usually are, which is to say not very), and I regret to say the highly disappointing and never-again-bothered-with August 1914. Cancer Ward remains my favorite; but it is not his greatest work.

His most remarkable accomplishment is, I think without doubt, the peerless and indeed astonishing work, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: an experiment in literary investigation. The man is a novelist, not a historian; and rarely has any situation been less conducive to historical investigation than the situation of a non-Party member in Soviet Russia. And of course he doesn't pretend to objectivity. After all, for the unforgivable crime of criticizing Stalin in a letter from the front lines in World War II, he spent 11 years in prison camps and exile (my first knowledge of Kazakhstan, which has become my heart's home, arose from Cancer Ward and One Day and Gulag and Solzhenitsyn's years in Ekibastuz and Kok-Terek). There were, naturally, those in American universities who were quick to dismiss him as an ax-grinding amateur crank who could unfortunately write well enough to have an unhealthy influence on the gullible.

But, as has become all too frequently the case when American academia is involved, the gullible were those who believed the academics. When Anne Appelbaum's widely lauded Gulag: A History was published -- a book which I think at present has to be considered the authoritative Western book on the subject -- Steven Merrit Miner's review in The New York Times had this to say:

Applebaum's book weighs in heavily in support of Solzhenitsyn on almost every point, and her account is backed not only by a careful use of the vast memoir literature but also by a thorough mining of the long-closed Soviet archives. Most important, she supports Solzhenitsyn's central argument: that the gulag was not some incidental Stalinist accretion to Lenin's visionary concept of Socialism. The cancer of police terror was embedded in the original DNA of Lenin's creation, "an integral part of the Soviet system," in Applebaum's words.

So Solzhenitsyn turns out to be a bloody good chronicler, even without a Ph.D. from an accredited history department, despite what the fellow-travelers were saying back when I was in college in the late '80's. But wait, there's more! -- Solzhenitsyn also happens to be one of the twentieth century's five or ten greatest literary geniuses.

So he does the next-to-impossible, even in translation: for three volumes he lays out, inexorably, eloquently, devastatingly, unflinchingly, some of the greatest horrors any human beings have ever inflicted upon their own kind. The interrogations, the charges, the beatings, the starvation rations, the hard labor in the middle of the Siberian winters -- it's all here, one heart-rending vignette after another, the result of thirty years' obsessive determination that the stories of the zeks (political prisoners) would not be forgotten and that the Soviet regime would be held accountable, told with all the power and detail and passion of the most golden Russian tongue of the twentieth century.

Yet, astonishingly, the book can be read all the way through, despite the horror. For at the core of all of Solzhenitsyn's writing is the bone-deep conviction that the human spirit ultimately is triumphant. The bitterly hilarious chapter in which Solzhenitsyn parodies an anthropologist who has just discovered the heretofore unknown zek "tribe" is really not quite like anything else I can ever remember reading. And then Solzhenitsyn begins to tell of the escapes -- most of the ones he tells us about end badly, of course, because how would Solzhenitsyn have ever heard the details of the escape if he hadn't been told by the escapee himself, after recapture and return to the gulag? But in the creativity and indomitability of these glorious failures we see the indubitable evidence that there had to be at least some people who got out and stayed out. And then there were the camp rebellions, all of which ultimately ended in defeat, but which were tributes to the human spirit all the same and presaged the eventual collapse of the regime.

What comes through most clearly (as in all Solzhenitsyn's prison writings) is simply how superior were so many of those in the camps to those of the apparat. You see, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was proud of having been a zek and considered that the experience had changed him and made him a much better person than he could ever have been as the sort of person who could find a way to go along and get by, and by the time you read the last words of Volume III, you understand at least a little of why he held that conviction so fiercly. I have tried to explain to my acquaintances here in the U.S. that Stalin took most of the smart Russians and practically all of the devout and honest and good-hearted ones, and shipped 'em out of Russia into places like Kazakhstan, in one of history's great unintentional eugenics experiments. The Kazakhs you deal with in a former gulag city like Karaganda are apt to be good side effects of Stalin's wholesale exportation of the best and the brightest out onto the Kazakh steppes. But my first meeting with those resourceful and courageous grandparents of today's generation didn't come in 2003 in Karaganda. It came back in '78 or '79 when I got to know Oleg Kostoglotov in the pages of Cancer Ward, and Ivan and Alyosha and Gopchik in One Day, and Gleb and Lev in The First Circle, and then Solzhenitsyn himself without a fictional mask in The Oak and the Calf, and then I walked through the gates of The Gulag Archipelago and into the whole nine circles of the gulag hell, and found there the world of the zeks whose human spirit is the unexpected light at the deepest heart of the trilogy.

For an American, to read The Gulag Archipelago (unless you are, like those '80's fellow-travelers, desperate to hide your eyes from the truth at any cost) is to be deeply shaken, profoundly moved, and permanently changed.

You see, it turns out that A.I. -- that is, Aleksandr Isaevich -- really did tell the truth about the gulag, after all.

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