On February 12, 1974 KGB agents came to the Moscow apartment of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and took him to the notorious Lefortorvo prison where he was strip-searched and interrogated. The next day, he was bundled onto a plane and sent to Frankfort, West Germany. The day after that he was charged with treason and stripped of his Soviet citizenship.
These events were triggered by the French publishing house issuance on December 28, 1973 of The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation. The publication was an electrifying event in the West and set off a panicked reaction by the Soviet government.
While some memoirs of prisoners of the Gulag had previously been published, including by Solzhenitsyn during the Khrushchev-era thaw in the early 1960s (which ended with his overthrow in 1964) and Khrushchev himself had given his famous secret speech in 1956 (the text of which was obtained by Israeli intelligence and disseminated in the West) denouncing Stalin's excesses, there was still no comprehensive picture of what had happened in the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin and Vasily Grossman's towering novelistic portrayal and comparison of Communism and Nazism, Life and Fate, had not yet been smuggled to the West. In the West, Robert Conquest had published his seminal work, The Great Terror, on the purges of the late 1930s but he, and the book, came under sustained attack from American academic "experts" on the Soviet Union. It was not until the Soviet archives became available in the 1990s that Conquest's view was proved accurate prompting the mocking suggestion that the next edition of The Great Terror should be retitled I Told You So, You F**k**g Fools (this has been inaccurately attributed to Conquest himself; the British author Kingsley Amis was the real perpetrator).
Even Khrushchev's 1956 speech was only the Soviet version of a "modified limited hang out". It attributed all crimes to Stalin, focusing on his persecution of fellow Communist Party members and not on the sufferings of millions of designated "class enemies".
What was stunning about The Gulag Archipelago was it's definitive linking of the creation of the terror state to Lenin and his henchmen like Nikolai Krylenko, Chairman of the Revolutionary Tribunal (1918-22) and later Chief State Prosecutor at innumerable show-trials, who stated "in regard to convicted hostile-class elements . . . correction is impotent and purposeless" and in a more recent book by another author, is quoted exclaiming "We must execute not only the guilty. Execution of the innocent will impress the masses even more!" (in 1938, Krylenko was arrested in one of Stalin's purges and after a 20-minute trial was immediately shot; no one was impressed). Stalin merely inherited and then perfected what Lenin created. And the book contained voluminous documentation along with witness testimony. The American diplomat, George Kennan, called it:
"the most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be levied in modern times"
The author, a decorated WWII veteran, had been imprisoned in the Gulag in 1945 for making disparaging remarks about Stalin in a letter. Released in 1956 (Stalin died in 1953 and over the next three years the Gulag camps were mostly emptied), he secretly, and at great personal risk, set to compiling his history of the Gulag, completing it in 1968. Because of the danger of discovery and confiscation he never worked on the entire manuscript at once, storing it in sections with trusted friends at various locations in and around Moscow. The manuscript was eventually copied onto microfilm and was smuggled to France. Meanwhile, the KGB became aware of the book and began frantic attempts to seize it to prevent publication (not yet being aware that the microfilm version had already reached the West). At the time there were still three typewritten versions of the manuscript in the Soviet Union and in the summer of 1973 the KGB found one of them after interrogating one of Solzhenitsyn's trusted typists. The distraught typist hung herself a few days after being released.
For the Soviet leadership, Solzhenitsyn's book questioned the very legitimacy of the Soviet state and its founding, but one thing had changed by 1974. Under Stalin and Lenin, Solzhenitsyn would have been quickly imprisoned and then shot. By the 1970s the choices were mostly reduced to imprisonment, internal exile or expulsion (though untraceable murder was still occasionally employed on dissidents). Solzhenitsyn posed a difficult dilemma. In 1970 he had received the Nobel Prize for Literature for his novel One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich, an account of life in a Gulag camp published during the Khrushchev thaw. Deciding that imprisonment or internal exile would turn him into a martyr and constant source of Western pressure for his release the regime decided expulsion was the better course.
The Gulag Archipelago is not a dry history. It is brimming with passion, anger, contempt, caustic wit and acerbic asides. The accretion of detail on person after person, on trial after trial, on lawless and arbitrary decrees and on the squalid dehumanizing world of the camps is relentless and overwhelming and the translation by Thomas P Whitney captures it all.
To give you a flavor for its power, below is an excerpt from The Gulag Archipelago Two (in the U.S the book was published in two volumes, each about 700 pages). It's from a chapter is entitled "The Archipelago Metastasizes", which tells the sorrowful tale of the building of the White Sea-Baltic canal in the early 1930s. Stalin demanded the building of a canal that would allow the passage of Soviet naval vessels from one sea to the other in order to avoid the Arctic Ocean, setting a 20-month deadline for completion. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners were assigned to its construction. The canal was dug by hand without any mechanical equipment under terrible physical conditions and brutal oversight from abusive guards with 250,000 dying during its construction. The canal was poorly designed and never functioned as planned. Solzhenitsyn is unsparing in his portrayal of this debacle and near the end of the chapter recounts a visit he made to the canal in 1966 as he was completing the book and of the official tour he took:
"It's so shallow", complained the chief of the guard, "that not even submarines can pass through it under their own power, they have to be loaded on barges, and only then can they be hauled through."
And what about the cruisers? Oh, you hermit-tyrant! You nighttime lunatic! In what nightmare did you dream up all this?The chapter ends with this summing of accounts:
And where, cursed one, were you hurrying to? What was it that burned and pricked you - to set a deadline of twenty months? For those quarter-million men could have remained alive. Well, so the Esperantists stuck in your throat, but think how much work those peasant lads could have done for you! How many times you could have roused them to attack - for the Motherland, for Stalin!
"It was very costly", I said to the guard.
"But it was built very quickly!", he answered me with self-assurance.
Your bones should be in it!
My Lord! What canal is there deep enough for us to drown that past in?(Building the canal)
From West Germany, Solzhenitsyn emigrated to the United States moving to Vermont where he lived for many years. In the summer of 1975 he was invited to speak by George Meany, President of the AFL-CIO, to speak at the organization's dinner in Washington DC where he said:
I have tried to convey to your countrymen the constrained breathing of the inhabitants of Eastern Europe in these weeks when an amicable agreement of diplomatic shovels will inter in a common grave bodies that are still breathing. I have tried to explain to Americans that 1973, the tender dawn of détente, was precisely the year when the starvation rations in Soviet prisons and concentration camps were reduced even further. And in recent months, when more and more Western speechmakers have pointed to the beneficial consequences of détente, the Soviet Union has adopted a novel and important improvement in its system of punishment: to retain their glorious supremacy in the invention of forced-labor camps, Soviet prison specialists have now established a new form of solitary confinement -- forced labor in solitary cells. That means cold, hunger, lack of fresh air, insufficient light, and impossible work norms; the failure to fulfill these norms is punished by confinement under even more brutal conditions.While in DC, Meany and others tried to arrange a meeting between Solzhenitsyn and President Gerald Ford. Ford, with the concurrence of Henry Kissinger, refused to invited the author to the White House, for fear of endangering the emerging detente with the Soviet Union.
In 1990, Solzhenitsyn's Soviet citizenship was restored in the waning days of that country's existence and he returned to Russia in 1994, dying in 2008 at the age of 89.