I read Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" in school and found it grim and not terribly enlightening. Since then, I'd avoided Solzhenitsyn, until last week, when I picked out "The Gulag Archipelago" from my bookshelf. And what a revelation! What a book! I'm 200 pages into this book of about 600 pages, and I'm convinced (I'm sure I'm extremely late to this party) that it is one of the greatest and most important books of the 20th century.
"The Gulag Archipelago" is a work of nonfiction. Really, it is a monumental work of investigative journalism, although AS was not a journalist. He was a soldier, a man with literary aspirations and an officer in the Soviet Army during World War II. But because of some rash things he put in letters to a friend (soldiers' letters were read), he was, near the end of the war, stripped of his rank, seized by state security -- "the bluecaps" -- and marched off to be interrogated and imprisoned. His sentence was 10 years. He joined the millions of Russians and others under Soviet control who were likewise seized and held for years -- or, frequently, until they died -- in the huge system of secret soviet prisons -- the gulags.
The title, which I had never understood before starting the book, is a metaphor, comparing the scattering across Russia of these scores of secret prisons -- these islands of deprivation and pain -- with an island archipelago.
The astonishing extent of the oppression in Soviet Russia -- the imprisoning of millions for no reason whatsoever -- is something I had no idea of. The scope of the oppression had not been revealed before AS published his books. But "The Gulag Archipelago" is more than the exposure of a sensational crime -- actually, millions of crimes -- perpetrated by a world power over a period of many decades. It is also a great work of literature, with a sense of humor and of the absurd that feels Russian to me, not that I would know. And that sense of humor is paired with a wonderfully lively writing style and a profound philosophical perspective. In the latest section I read, AS, who has been extremely hard on the bluecaps who seized and tortured their countrymen, turns his viewpoint around and wonders whether, if circumstances had been a bit different, and he had been in the security service, whether he would have been any better.