It is hard to overestimate the degree to which the term “Gulag” has become an integral part of the anticommunist horror story. Much of this can be traced back to the Russian writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn and his novels One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch and, especially, The Gulag Archipelago. I intend to write much more about Solzhenitsyn, but for the moment I just want to point out something about The Gulag Archipelago that most people don’t know: it is a work of fiction. Many people, myself included for a long time, believe it to be a documentary record of the Soviet penal camp system. But look at the subtitle: “An Experiment in Literary Investigation.”
Here is what one of Solzhenitsyn’s wives, Natalya Reshetovskaya, had to say:
In her 1974 memoir, Sanya: My Life with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Bobbs-Merrill), she wrote that she was “perplexed” that the West had accepted The Gulag Archipelago as “the solemn, ultimate truth,” saying its significance had been “overestimated and wrongly appraised.”
Pointing out that the book’s subtitle is “An Experiment in Literary Investigation,” she said that her husband did not regard the work as “historical research, or scientific research.” She contended that it was, rather, a collection of “camp folklore,” containing “raw material” which her husband was planning to use in his future productions.
Camp folklore. The fact that The Gulag Archipelago is fiction does not, of course, mean that its portrayal of prison conditions is false; but it is far from a work of scholarly research. And Solzhenitsyn’s proclivity for fantastic numerical exaggeration should give pause: in the book he states that between 12 and 20 million prisoners were in the Gulag at any one time, and half were political. The actual average was slightly over a million, and only a small percentage were political.
Solzhenitsyn also once claimed that 66 million people died because of communism. This would have been one third of the Soviet population. And yet this preposterous accusation was allowed to pass without comment, even by some scholars, so deep is the anticommunism.
- Natalya Reshetovskaya, 84, Is Dead; Solzhenitsyn’s Wife Questioned ‘Gulag’
- The Gulag Archipelago shouldn’t be taken seriously
Getty, J. Arch, Gabor T. Rittersporn, and Viktor M. Zemskov. “Victims of the Soviet Penal System in the Pre-War Years: A First Approach on the Basis of the Archival Evidence.” American Historical Review 98, no. 4 (October 1993).