Book Review: The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Volume 1)

The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Volume 1

When I read Les Miserables earlier that year, which sits at a whopping 1500 pages, I was pretty sure I probably would never read a book longer than that. Little did I know what I was getting into when I picked up this book, which sits at 700 pages…and it’s the first of three volumes.

Sigh…I really don’t understand why I decide to inflict pain on myself by reading such a massive tome, but after finishing the first part, I can say, it’s a beautiful book.

Release: 1973

Synopsis: This is Solzhenitsyn’s chilling account of his arrest and internment in a Soviet prison camp.


Read the abridged version, everyone said. And my response was simple: I don’t read abridgments. And thus, I’ve dived headlong into the masterpiece which is this book.

I’ve read quite a few books about inmate’s experiences in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, but never did I know much about the Gulag camps of Soviet Russia, which lasted much longer and are almost unknown even to the modern day. I know why this book is considered so exceptional, as Solzhenitsyn examines both general human experience as well as specific lives of the prisoners in the Gulags. It’s a dark book, not shying away from the horrific experiences the prisoners faced, and I can highly recommend it, whether you read an abridgment or decide you’re insane and want to read the full one as I am.

This first volume deals mostly with two things (both with general examples as well as Solzhenitsyn’s personal experience): interrogations/how the government worked and transportation between camps.

The interrogation process is terrifying. Justice is thrown out for corruption and greed. People who did nothing wrong are given ten to fifteen years, perhaps because they were related to someone who had a friend who was against the Soviet party or socialism. One might have a sentence changed from one year to ten just for speaking up in complaint during their hearing. The guards were corrupt, and there was no law.

But most importantly, this book examines the psychology behind how a human being can do such inhuman things as well as how a human could survive being put through literal hell. What these prisoners endured was horrible. They would freeze and starve without proper clothing or proper hygiene. Thieves would steal everything, if the guards did not take it themselves. For the record, the estimates average between 10 to 30 million dead in the Gulags. Just to consider, about 11 million died in Nazi Concentration Camps.

There is also quite a bit of history dabbled into this book, both about Russian history and what was happening around the world at that time. Solzhenitsyn clearly did his research even outside his own experiences, and that really shows in this book.

This book is indeed George Orwell’s 1984 come to life. But whereas that one was fiction inspired by real life, this one is entirely real, making it even a more sobering read. It also makes a case for the reason I went back to college to get a history degree, because I firmly believe that we should never, but probably will, repeat the mistakes of the past.

I honestly never knew about this book until the last couple years, which is an extreme pity. There are so many average books that become popular, and it is sad that one as important as this get brushed aside. I can definitely promise I will be reading the second two volumes as soon as I can get them from the library.

Have you heard of this book? Or read it? Does it look interesting? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, follow my blog for more musings and, as always,

Best wishes in your life full of adventure,

Madame Writer

6 thoughts on “Book Review: The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Volume 1)

  1. Easily one of my favorite books, and Solzhenitsyn is one of my favorite authors. A lot of his writing about the Gulag system was based on his own experiences. He was imprisoned in the Gulag after criticizing Stalin in a letter to a friend following World War II, and needless to say, it turned him into a virulent anticommunist. A lot of the people in the Gulag Archipelago are people Solzhenitsyn knew personally.

    He would go on to write other important works critiquing communism and the Soviet system. His works were so prolific he was exiled from the Soviet Union for a number of years, touring around America and other Western countries. He didn’t return home until after the Soviet regime collapsed in 1991.

    Solzhenitsyn’s work was a big influence on me when I was starting to get into writing and he gave me my first real glimpse into the oppressive nature of the Soviet Union. It’s kinda crazy to think he died just 11 years ago. Truly a great author, historian, writer, and man.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He is a great author and man, I agree! I was fascinated to learn about his background/life too. I don’t actually know of any of his other books. I’ll have to look them up, because both his writing and the content is just beautiful. I’m not surprised he influenced you so much, with your interest in Russian history. It’s crazy to learn more about the Soviet Union, especially since I don’t remember learning that much about it in any history class I’ve taken.


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