The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (Vol. 1) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Title: The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Volume 1.
Series: The Gulag Archipelago #1.
Writer(s): Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Translator(s): Thomas P. Whitney.
Publisher: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
Format: Paperback.
Release Date: August 7th, 2007.
Pages: 660.
Genre(s): Non-Fiction.
ISBN13: 9780061253713.
My Overall Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.


When convictions are enforced, the common mortal is inclined to submit, obey, and omit from fancying any form of retaliation. Under the guise of a social contract, there’s little that can be done in response to undesirable and devastating individual and societal conditions when an act of rebellion leads to death. The power held by rulers becomes the driving force to a political scheme devised as the core framework of society, and every individual, reduced to a pawn, must deconstruct and reconstruct their own understanding of the world around the reality they’re forced to acknowledge. For one decorated captain in the Soviet Army post-World War II, he witnesses a radical transformation of his life, world, and faith in humanity that couldn’t have been put in better words than by himself. Originally written in seven sections, this first volume contains part I (The Prison Industry) and part II (Perpetual Motion) of writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s terrifying report of a political regime that fundamentally reformed Russia during the 20th century.

What is The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (Vol. 1) about? In this first volume, writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn recounts his unpredictable arrest and dumbfounding interrogation while dissecting and exposing the complex and deceptive bureaucracy behind the secret police born and bred within the soviet society. Drawing upon the individual incidents and tragedies of countless individuals victim of this Russian political regime, he delivers a bone-chilling report of this system’s roots and ramifications. Interspersed with his own experience, he depicts through his meticulous analysis and investigation, the terrifying birth and clutch of the secret police since the October revolution of 1917 and allows his readers to grasp the inhuman phenomenon that took place in the Soviet territory.

“The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

This first volume is a heroic and monumental tour de force in the realm of non-fiction. His impeccable scrutiny of the socio-political landscape while portraying the historical climate without ever missing an opportunity to steer the narrative back to an intrapersonal experience is bewildering. Riddled with footnotes, case studies, and references to real-life figures, sometimes quite easy to get lost in, he effortlessly tackles the concept of the “archipelago” with a broad and comprehensive perspective, delving into the finer details that capture the underlying deceit, manipulation, and mischief that was brought out of the authorities in place. The tone of his voice also divinely reveals his own stance in regard to this political regime, at times hiding almost tangible wrath, while at others, utilizing irony and comedy to emphasize the jocosity of this tragic time in Soviet history.

This blunt indictment of the political regime also presents a devastating state of mind for all of Russia’s citizens, where the idea of innocence was void of meaning. In fact, the merciless structure established in Russia, tragically depicted by writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn through his arrest and interrogation to his transportation, clearly points out a system that puts you at its very mercy, deemed guilty for anything and everything, unless ready to commit an act of treason in a hopeless attempt to escape the crushing gears of this agonizing Russian regime. With the motley of torture techniques to pull the truth straight out from the depths of one’s innocent throat, this regime clearly establishes its preference of condemning individuals to death if there was even an iota of a risk of betrayal rather than leave people alone. The horror hidden between the lines in this volume is also transparent and it does not stop at what individuals are capable of but what a whole government administration can construct and impose upon everyone. What’s most appalling is that this volume is only the beginning of this descent into the infernal abyss. Everything apparently gets worse once you actually arrive in camp.

The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (Vol. 1) is a mind-boggling reconstruction of the post-World War II political regime at the heart of the secret police in the soviet society, covering the author’s arrest, interrogation, and transportation.



18 thoughts on “The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (Vol. 1) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

  1. Glad you are getting through this. It was very eye opening to see just what people will accept because of apathy and fear. I can’t remember if it was in this volume, or the next, where he talks about a group of military people who had more training than their captors and how they could have taken over and escaped with almost no effort, but they just sat. It was really sad to me to read that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fantastic review Lashaan! And you can trust me on this one because after teasing you this summer for reading this not-so-light book I kinda want to delve into it too now, damn 😂 Anyways, it does really seem like an interesting read and the subject is definitely fascinating!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Juliette! Hahaha no worries, it’s definitely no summer read that I’d ever recommend to anyone! 😛 I was just in the mood for it and I’m quite happy to have finished it. I definitely recommend picking it up at some point in your life, if you’re intrigued enough. There’s so much to learn from this, it’s amazing. There are things you’ll simply not believe too, it’s that horrifying!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The Gulag Archipelago is powerful, and probably one of the books that will stay with humanity, to help it remember the terrible totalitarianisms of XX century. And you aptly summarize why it is so, Solzhenitsyn definitely succeeded there. His personal history, and the history of the book, being written in secret, smuggled out of the country… quite a lot of heroism and then, after his expulsion from the Soviet Union, he was available and thus able to promote the cause, and his work. He lived to see the Soviet Union fall and was able to return to Russia, where he was quite celebrated.

    You have to remember it’s not actually the best source for GULAG data, as author’s research was obviously limited by circumstances. Anne Applebaum’s Pulitzer-winning “Gulag: A History” is a good, readable choice for that.



    I approached Sołżenicyn (as we write it in Polish) with reverence when I first read him, in the 90ties… I was about 15, and started with his excellent short story, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” (a day in GULAG), followed by “In the First Circle” (about special research camp for imprisoned scientists that). “The Gulag Archipelago” I read a few years later. But before “Gulag”, I found “Russia under Avalanche”, political pamphlet he wrote in the 90-ties (as far as I know, never translated into English, but there’s a Polish edition). And I have to say, it would be better for his legacy had he died soon after the fall of Soviet Union.

    Because he was full of mystical Russian exceptionalism, imperialism, disregard for smaller nations around Russia. And supporter of quite aggressive actions to “defend” Russian-speaking minorities – sounds familiar? No wonder he supported Putin, there are texts and photos to prove that.

    He’s an anti-Semite, not unlike Dostoyevsky. Even wrote a book about Russo-Jewish relations that is… controversial, but it would take too long to discuss it here.

    When it comes to Ukraine, I think he claimed different things at different times in his life. After the fall of the Soviet Union he claimed that Russia should get the eastern provinces and Crimea (through referendums, and maybe he was naive enough not to know how that would turn out… but I doubt that). He definitely is on the record claiming Holodomor (famine Soviets engineered to destroy Ukrainian independence movement by killing millions of people) was not a genocide…

    I’m always conflicted when it comes to the question of whether we should look at the author, or just her/his books separated from that context. “Gulag Archipelago” is great and deserves to be preserved. But should be read with caution.

    Russia is a colonial empire. Not the only one, but one that did nothing to work through all the issues that emerge from that. Even in “liberal”, anti-Putin Russians there’s often a lot of imperialism, megalomania… they might be unhappy about the war, especially now, when Russia is losing, but if you ask them about the internationally recognized borders of Ukraine, that’s another thing. Or whether they would let people of Caucasus go should they decided to separate from Russia (Chechens tried to, and Russians crushed them). I think countries like Ukraine, Georgia, Baltic States deserve more attention. We should not cancel Russia entirely, but maybe carve out some time to learn the perspectives of their victims directly. I know people quite ready to do it when it comes to England or the US, but somehow blind to how Russia isn’t any better.

    Please don’t take it as some personal criticism, I’m on a crusade and using every pretext to share my message 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I found the background story behind the publication of this piece so fascinating too. Rushed to publish it, managed to open the eyes of countless readers, and then return to his country, really, wow. To even want to return there is quite something to me. It shows that what he believed in at first stuck with him in the end, and change is something he probably preached for.
      I’ll have to look into Gulag: A History. I’ve never heard of that book and was mostly steered toward this trilogy because of other bloggers.
      How on Earth you even snagged a copy of those books at the year of 15 is beyond me hahaha I applaud you for even checking those out at such a young age. I imagine they must’ve helped shape you and your future up, considering what you grew up to study and research (actually, what was your specialization, and what do you do for a living with your Ph.D.? in sociology, I believe? If it’s not too much to ask).
      I totally hear you on what the author’s position and thoughts were regarding Russia’s imperialism and the smaller countries around it. With everything going on today, it does make you wonder how Russia fed its citizens these ideas and even nationalism. Considering how little I’ve researched Russia and how far away I am culturally from them, I mostly approach these books and their authors from a perspective to learn more about it all rather than position myself regarding their cultural/political vision. In the long run, I already know that I don’t plan to promote or hold in high respect what they’ve accomplished/destroyed over the years, and even today. I, however, don’t want to censure myself from learning from these classics either but will have to continue to research and learn more about all this by looking into other important literature, like Anne Applebaum’s book.
      Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts on this work and the author though. No personal criticism was noted from all this. I’m always happy to discuss with anyone who’s open-minded about everything and anything! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ola did her PhD, I stopped at MA and I’m now an accountant for a multinational behemoth of a corporation… nothing special, but quite comfortable 😉 But during my mid-teens I was heavily into history, and in Poland it meant such topics… I actually chose to study sociology to escape from traditional history.

        As I said, I no longer want to totally cancel Russians, but as the physical space of Russia needs to be decolonised, I would also want us to decolonise it mentally, by getting more direct access to the perspective of their victims. I started by reading more Ukrainian books 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Great review, Lashaan. This is a book I’d not really been familiar with though I recently purchased an ebook copy of it. It’s a wonder these sorts of books ever survived to reach the audience they did given the control the government had over everything and everyone. It brings back memories from my youth watching movies about Nazi Germany and how tight their control was, yet there were always those pockets of resistance. I think I also watched some about the Soviet times, as well. Everyone should be exposed to these things at some point. It’s too easy to live in complete ignorance of how the world and society could, and in the past has, drastically changed. I know it’s an old saying, but without learning about our history we could very well be doomed to repeat it, and there are things I’d like to hope we never need repeat.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep, it’s definitely one of those books that I’ve put on my list of books that should be read at least once in your life. There’s so much packed into it and a lot of it makes you realize how terrifying humankind can be under the right circumstances. And I agree. We do have to learn about it if we’re to not repeat it. Unfortunately, some people out there don’t care and will gladly repeat hoping for a different result that satisfies them on a personal level…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s