Few people did more to document and expose the staggering scale of Stalin’s crimes than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. His diligence and skill in collating the material for this absorbing and prodigious record represent a singular literary-political accomplishment—all the more so when one bears in mind the oppressive and risky conditions under which he compiled notes and wrote. It is remarkable that the work ever saw the light of day. When he had no paper to write on in his prison cell, he would memorize the tragedies of fellow zeks so that they would not be buried under the rubble of history.
The Gulag Archipelago is monumental in its size, conscientiousness, commitment to individuals’ stories and humanity, and Solzhenitsyn’s own experiences as a political prisoner make him uniquely authoritative. It is one thing to know of the murders of millions as an accepted historical datum and quite another to learn facts in detail, the cruelties and the sufferings with names and places. Then the enormity of it all comes through.
I read the three volumes with astonishment at the persecution of so many and admiration for this man who stood up to make it known in such an accessible way. He treats the reader like a fellow human being, not an audience to be educated. Solzhenitsyn was an author, not a professional historian. He brings the material alive by telling true stories and while he does so, the dead are given the respect of memory.