The Gulag Archipelago (Part 1) - Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Work is not at the highest morale at the moment, for reasons that keep popping up in the news. On the other hand, if I read this book on the way into work, everything is upbeat and sane.

The Gulag Archipelago is about the immense prison system in Soviet Russia in the first half of the twentieth century, but someone who had been through it. In some sense, the main claim to fame of this book is that it documented something that Russian society had tried to cover up. With recent events involving Russia, it's interesting to see the same patterns of twisting history coming up.

In any case, this is a long and heavy book, so I'm taking a break after half of the 600 or so pages. Despite all that, it is very readable, a credit to the author and translator, given the subject matter. What I've read so far has covered arrest, interrogation and sentencing. It does rather make me wonder why Kafka bothered, when real life can be so surreal, and "justice" so arbitrary.

It's almost funny - the pointless cruelty, the idiocy, the national self-destructiveness, the everydayness that the evil becomes. Yet this giant bureaucratic machine, arresting innocent people to quotas, isn't part of Brazil, it was real life for millions for decades. The effects of Stalin are astonishing.

In retrospect, it's not surprising that the USSR fell apart. It's surprising that it managed to hold together economically at all, and attempt to compete with the US, given the numbers either starved or arrested.

"Soviet communism was bad" is unlikely to be viewed as a particularly controversial statement, but as someone growing up on the tail of the Cold War, the real details make all the difference. Despite what we may think of our politicians, good government is precious.

Posted 2014-06-12.