The World of Gulag

The World of Gulag

The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Volume I (parts I-II). Translated from the Russian by Thomas P. Whitney. New York: Harper & Row. 660 pp.

In his review of The Gulag Archipelago–by far the most effective American response to date–George Kennan called it “the greatest and most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be leveled in modern times.” The intrepid Russian writer Lidya Chukovskaya spoke of Solzhenitsyn’s book as an “enormous event,” comparable in its repercussions to Stalin’s death. Roy Medvedev, a man who has serious philosophical and political disagreements with Solzhenitsyn, maintains that no one who has read The Gulag Archipelago can remain the same person he or she was before reading it. To approach such a momentous moral-political act primarily in literary terms may appear as fatuous as “reading the Bible for its prose.” Yet we could do worse than begin our effort to pin down the nature and import of this harrowing montage-an unorthodox blend of history, political commentary, personal reminiscence, and composite eyewitness testimony by focusing on some aspects of its texture and genre. Solzhenitsyn seems to have legitimized such a procedure by providing a curious subtitle “An Experiment in Literary [literally, ‘Artistic’] Investigation.” While I am not entirely clear about the precise implications of this phrase, I sense here something akin to the intent behind the title of Dostoevsky’s publicistic miscellany A Writer’s Diary–notably a suggestion that the body of nonfictional writing so labeled has been shaped in part by the resources of literary craft.

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