Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

The Gulag Archipelago

The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation
Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn
Ekibastuz, Kazakh SSR, Soviet Union + other locations

PLOT SUMMARY: The Gulag Archipelago is an account of life in the gulag to which Solzhenitsyn himself and various other prisoners contribute with stories. It focuses on the horrors of the gulag system.
     Solzhenitsyn describes the process behind imprisonment. He describes how the NKVD tries to arrest people when they are disoriented and least expecting it. He then describes the interrogation following the arrest, which proceeds with guilt presumed and is aimed at providing “justification” for imprisonment. After being thoroughly broken and having their spirits crushed by the arrest and interrogation, prisoners are finally locked up. Solzhenitsyn then documents his own experiences in the gulag, along with those of many of his fellow prisoners. His accounts focus on the psychological effect of the gulag on its prisoners and the prisoners’ attempts at resistance and escape.

ANALYSIS: Solzhenitsyn sets The Gulag Archipelago apart from other gulag memoirs by focusing on the psychological aspects of not just imprisonment, but everything that goes on before it, like arrest and interrogation. He creates an atmosphere of foreboding when he describes arrest and interrogation, which is fitting given their aftermath. Solzhenitsyn also makes some startling claims, such as suggesting that the Russian people deserved the horror of Stalin’s reign because of their lack of resistance and that being imprisoned actually helped him (Solzhenitsyn) in a way. These claims would be a precursor to perhaps his most controversial moment when he came to the United States and disparaged Western culture.
     Solzhenitsyn’s unusual subtitle to The Gulag ArchipelagoAn Experiment in Literary Investigation – also sets his memoirs apart since one would not usually conflate “literaryinvestigation” with prison memoirs. However, it is a fitting title since his memoirs also feature the stories of other prisoners and thereby establish that the horrors of the gulag were real and not just the imagination of one man.


“Yes, resistance should have begun right there, at the moment of the arrest itself.” (15)

“Stalin…would rather 999 innocent men should rot than miss one genuine spy.” (247)

“Yes, indeed, all this is Russia: the prisoners on the tracks refusing to voice their complaints, the girl on the other side of the Stolypin partition, the convoy going off to sleep, pears falling out of pockets, buried bombs, and a horse climbing to the second floor.” (522)

BIOGRAPHY: Aleksandr Isaevich Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk, Russia on December 11, 1918 as the son of an Imperial Russian artillery officer. He was educated at Rostov-on-Don and studied mathematics, physics and literature. Solzhenitsyn served in the Red Army from 1941 to 1945 as a twice decorated captain of artillery and was arrested in East Prussia near the end of World War Two in 1945. He was exiled and sentenced to eight years in labor and prison camps for “anti-Soviet agitation,” i.e., for criticizing the Soviet government.

     Solzhenitsyn served in gulag camps near Moscow and in Ekibastuz, Kazakhstan, from 1945 to 1953 and then in the South Kazakh village of Kok-Terek from 1953 to 1956. Solzhenitsyn almost died of cancer in prison but was treated in Tashkent in 1954 and 1955. He was freed and “rehabilitated,” i.e. exonerated, in 1956 following Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in the Secret Speech.

     Solzhenitsyn released The Gulag Archipelago in 1974 and, although it was not published in the Soviet Union, it caused his deportation to Frankfurt, West Germany. He moved to Zurich, Switzerland in 1974 and then to Cavendish, Vermont in the United States in 1976, where he stayed until he returned to Russia in 1994. Solzhenitsyn’s Soviet citizenship, which was revoked in 1974, was restored under Gorbachev’s more liberal regime in 1989 and the treason charges against him were dropped in 1991.

     Solzhenitsyn died near Moscow on August 6, 2008.


Cornwell, Neil. Reference Guide to Russian Literature (1998): Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr: 769-770.

Stone, Jonathan. Historical Dictionary of Russian Literature (2013): Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr: 161-163.


Emerson, Caryl. “The Word of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.” The Georgia Review, vol. 49, no. 1, 1995, pp. 64–74.
In this article, Emerson analyzes Solzhenitsyn’s “Word,”, i.e., his literature and speeches, and its role in the Soviet Union, the United States and post-Soviet Russia. The article also explores Solzhenitsyn’s alienation from the United States and the “awkward question” (74) of his nationalism, Russo-centrism and his belief in “cultural difference and national exclusivity” (74).

Toker, Leona. “Gulag Memoirs as a Genre.” Return from the Archipelago: Narratives of Gulag Survivors, Indiana University Press, 2000, pp. 73–100.
This chapter explores various memoirs of former gulag prisoners, e.g., Margarete Buber-Neumann, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Yevgenia Ginzburg, etc., and how their memoirs describe life in the gulag and how those memoirs are connected to each other.

Garrard, J. G. “Things Left Unsaid: Solzhenitsyn's ‘Gulag Archipelago.’” Books Abroad, vol. 49, no. 2, 1975, pp. 244–248.
In this article, Garrard analyzes how Solzhenitsyn forces the reader, particularly a Soviet reader, to “absorb the horror” (246) of the gulag system and Stalinism in general and how, instead of perpetuating the myth of Leninism being a sound political ideology that Stalin ruined, Solzhenitsyn “leaves the myth of Leninism in tatters.” (246). He also notes Solzhenitsyn’s claim that the Soviets were more oppressive than the Tsars and that even the Spanish Inquisition and the Gestapo were less brutal than the NKVD.

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