Monday, May 13, 2019

Gulag Literature

Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote the most comprehensive description of the Soviet Union's horrific system of incarceration during the Stalin era.  Entitled The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn's moral masterpiece systematically investigated (and condemned) almost every aspect of the Great Power's inhuman slave labor system.  The book was so very thorough in its ruthless depiction of Soviet Communism's greatest villainy, that it may sometimes seem unnecessary to read anything else on the subject.  However, Solzhenitsyn's massive tomes should be supplemented by a close reading of Varlam Shalamov's Kolmya Tales. For Shalamov's artistry is greater than Solzhenitsyn's artistry, and that artistry exposes the variety of human tragedy of camp life more fully than the more prolific writer ever did. In fact, each of Shalamov's many vignettes delivers its own special snapshot of the sadness and bitterness that festered at the brutal epicenter of Soviet oppression.  It's art rather than journalism that can really help readers to get some sense of the many different ways in which the Soviet Union could destroy its citizens in the course of their lengthy prison sentences in the distant north.  It's irony rather than satire that can help readers to see that true dimensions of the anguish that befell the Soviet Union's citizens after they received arbitrary sentences of ten, fifteen, or twenty years of hard labor in a frozen, isolated, and hungry land.  While not, strictly speaking, a work about Stalin's Gulag Archipelago at all, Sergei Dovlatov's The Zone also has much to tell us about the Soviet Union's experience with utterly inhuman prison systems.  For, as Solzhenitsyn pointed out, the Gulag did not died with Stalin; it continued in some for decades, perhaps even until the end of the Soviet Union itself.  Of course, as Dovlatov confesses, he was a guard rather than a prisoner.  Still, Dovlatov knows that at least in some ways this is a distinction without a difference:  guards, almost as much as prisoners in some cases, were degraded by their participation in this system of freedom. In The Zone, Dovlatov seems to maintain that the Soviet Union's terrible political flaws were manifested or incarnated in the prison system.  However, one can't help but think that America's massive incarceration system must bear many similarities with that of the Soviet Union in its later decades.

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