The Gulag Archipelago - Structure and Factual Basis

Structure and Factual Basis

Structurally, the text is made up of seven sections divided (in most printed editions) into three volumes: parts 1–2, parts 3–4, and parts 5–7. At one level, the Gulag Archipelago traces the history of the system of forced labour camps that existed in the Soviet Union from 1918 to 1956, starting with V.I. Lenin's original decrees shortly after the October Revolution establishing the legal and practical framework for a series of camps where political prisoners and ordinary criminals would be sentenced to forced labour.Note 1 It describes and discusses the waves of purges, assembling the show trials in context of the development of the greater Gulag system with particular attention to the legal and bureaucratic development.

The legal and historical narrative ends in 1956, the time of Nikita Khrushchev's Secret Speech at the 20th Party Congress of 1956 denouncing Stalin's personality cult, his autocratic power, and the surveillance that pervaded the Stalin era. Though the speech was not published in the USSR for a long time, it was a break with the most atrocious practices of the Gulag system; Solzhenitsyn was aware, however, that the outlines of the system had survived and could be revived and expanded by future leaders.

Despite the efforts by Solzhenitsyn and others to confront the legacy of the Gulag, the realities of the camps remained taboo into the 1980s. While Khrushchev, the Communist Party, and the Soviet Union's supporters in the West viewed the Gulag as a deviation of Stalin, Solzhenitsyn and the opposition tended to view it as a systemic fault of Soviet political culture — an inevitable outcome of the Bolshevik political project.

Parallel to this historical and legal narrative, Solzhenitsyn follows the typical course of a zek (a slang term for inmate, derived from the widely used abbreviation "z/k" for "zakliuchennyi"(prisoner)) through the Gulag, starting with arrest, show trial and initial internment; transport to the "archipelago"; treatment of prisoners and general living conditions; slave labor gangs and the technical prison camp system; camp rebellions and strikes (see Kengir uprising); the practice of internal exile following completion of the original prison sentence; and ultimate (but not guaranteed) release of the prisoner. Along the way, Solzhenitsyn's examination details the trivial and commonplace events of an average prisoner's life, as well as specific and noteworthy events during the history of the Gulag system, including revolts and uprisings.

Aside from using his experiences as an inmate at a scientific prison (a sharashka), the basis of the novel The First Circle (1968), Solzhenitsyn draws from the testimony of 227 fellow prisoners, the first-hand accounts which base the work. One chapter of the third volume of the book is written by a prisoner named Georg Tenno, whose exploits enraptured Solzhenitsyn to the extent that he offered Tenno a position as co-author of the book; Tenno declined.

The sheer volume of firsthand testimony and primary documentation that Solzhenitsyn managed to assemble in The Gulag Archipelago made all subsequent Soviet and KGB attempts to discredit the work useless. Much of the impact of the treatise stems from the closely detailed stories of interrogation routines, prison indignities and (especially in section 3) camp massacres and inhuman practices.

There had been works about the Soviet prison/camp system before, and its existence was known to the Western public since the 1930s. However, never before had the wide reading public been brought face to face with the horrors of the Gulag in this way. The controversy surrounding this text in particular was largely due to the way Solzhenitsyn definitively and painstakingly laid the theoretical, legal and practical origins of the Gulag system at Lenin's feet, not Stalin's. According to Solzhenitsyn's testimony, Stalin merely amplified a concentration camp system that was already in place. This is significant, as many Western intellectuals viewed the Soviet concentration camp system as a "Stalinist aberration."

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The Gulag Archipelago - Structure and Factual Basis
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