Remembering the Brutality of the Gulag: The Works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Remembering the Brutality of the Gulag: The Works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Roses stand at the gravesite of Russian author and dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Moscow on Aug. 6, 2008. The Nobel Prize-winning Russian writer can help us remember the horrors of socialism, which seem to be being forgotten by many in America today. (NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images)
Gary L. Gregg

The Cold War came to an end more than a quarter-century ago. When the winds of change started to blow in the eastern bloc, and then the Berlin Wall finally came down, many of us wondered what the future would bring.

I remember in the summer of 1990 driving through the Shenandoah River Valley of Virginia with a veteran leader of the anti-communist movement and talking about what life would be like without the Soviet menace dominating our foreign policy.

“Will we forget what they were like, and will it be easier to bring socialism to America after the Soviet Union is gone because we have forgotten?” I asked. He agreed that this would be a great danger—America might forget the horrors of socialism when it was no longer an armed doctrine threatening our very existence.

Evidence that much of America has forgotten the horrors of socialism in the 20th century seems to be emerging on college campuses and among the citizenry. While those of us who grew up during the Cold War will find it shockingly hard to believe, socialism is growing as an approved political/economic system in America.

Some college students, including some I have engaged with myself, now view Marx, Lenin, and Stalin with a degree of nostalgia and curious joy.

More than 100 million people died at the hands of communist regimes in the 20th century. Countless millions more may have physically survived the torture and near starvation diets of the education and work camps they were subjected to for their “crimes” (thought and otherwise), but they were never the same.

December gives us the perfect opportunity to revisit some of the brutal lessons of the 20th century, as this month, we commemorate the 100th birthday of the world’s greatest witness to the price of socialism as expressed in Soviet communism: Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

A Patriot

Who was Alexander Solzhenitsyn? An intellectual giant, a writer with towering achievements, and a Russian patriot who resisted what the communists had done to his people and his beloved country. Yet the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature has largely been forgotten in American classrooms and in our public consciousness today.

With the loss of him in our public memory and his books too seldom read, we have lost much of the stock of imagination that once armed us against the lures of government power and aggrandized political visions. Revisiting his work today would bring much moral clarity to our political discourse.

Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk, Russia, on Dec. 11, 1918, just months after his father was killed. He was raised by his single mother and educated in mathematics, philosophy, and history. During his education and up until World War II, he didn’t seem to question the ultimate correctness of the Soviet system.

During World War II, however, Solzhenitsyn began to question the regime as he watched war crimes being carried out against German civilians.

His great mistake was writing about such concerns in what he thought would be a private letter to a trusted friend. Under totalitarian governments, however, there are no private letters (or thoughts) and too few trusted friends.

Despite being a decorated soldier in service to the USSR, Solzhenitsyn was imprisoned for expressing his concerns. He was eventually sentenced to eight years in a labor camp and was placed in permanent internal exile after he emerged alive from his time in the camps.

He began to write while in prison—even memorizing long poems and prose because he had no pen and paper. What he eventually produced was a body of work that stands with the greats of Russian literature and is unrivaled as a window into the dehumanization of socialist terror.


His great masterwork, “The Gulag Archipelago,” published in 1973, is a multi-volume behemoth that is much more often referenced than read, but an abridged version has recently been republished in an affordable and approachable edition with a foreword by Jordan Peterson.
His books “Cancer Ward” and “The First Circle” are also brilliant looks at the human consequences of totalitarian government. If one is to come to Solzhenitsyn for the first time, however, let me recommend one starts with his small novella “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” which, as the name suggests, follows one day in the life of a detainee in a Soviet prison camp.

The reader is carried along as Ivan struggles to maintain some semblance of humanity within the walls of the most inhumane of prison systems. You see him risking grave punishment to hide just a scrap of a crust of bread in his mattress with which he can hope to scrape the last remnant of sustenance from a future bowl of gruel. You see the prisoners referred to by meaningless numbers rather than the names their parents chose for them or their friends had dubbed them with. You see the harshness of Russian winters experienced without adequate boots and gloves, and the struggle to give life some meaning beyond mere animal survival in the midst of repression.

Solzhenitsyn was eventually expelled from his homeland and lived in Vermont for the last two decades of the existence of the Soviet Union. Though he was a recluse, his writings informed the imagination of many who fought the dehumanizing forces of the 20th century. He also raised a challenge to the West, chastising us for our own loss of spirit and our growing materialism.

This 100th anniversary of Solzhenitsyn’s birth is the right time to remind people of the inhumane brutality of totalitarianism around the globe, and there is no finer way of doing it than by reading and sharing his work.
Gary L. Gregg holds the Mitch McConnell chair in leadership at the University of Louisville, where he is also director of the McConnell Center for Political Leadership. He is author or editor of a dozen books, including his young adult novels published as “The Remnant Chronicles.”
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Gary L. Gregg is director of the McConnell Center at the University of Louisville and editor of “Securing Democracy—Why We have an Electoral College.”
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