On “Gulag Archipelago”

Most writers have one masterpiece. Everything else that they do is leading up to, or trying to explain, their one great work. A flash of brilliance. It is also likely that the work is not the one they themselves identify as their most significant creation. Vladimir Nabokov thought “Invitation To A Beheading” was the best – in point of fact its almost unreadable. Aldous Huxley probably thought “The Island” was his most important work, but it too was tiresome. Gabo is famous “One Hundred Years of Solitude“, when in reality “Love in the Time of Cholera” is his best work.

Sure, those could only be my own impressions – and I’m certainly not in the majority here – but I am entitled to my own thoughts. At least till the firemen arrive at my door (they are knocking, only down the street now).

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is considered Russia’s most important 20th century writer (I think I would probably give that title to another as well – maybe Vasily Grossman). “Gulag Archipelago”, his most important work. Now, I have tremendous respect for Solzhenitsyn. To have endured the gulag but retained the moral clarity to reject both Soviet Internationalism but also what he saw as the vapid missionary immoral universalism of the “West” took tremendous courage.

But, we also have to “say it like we see it”. In that, the truth is that the book, for which he is most famous, “The Gulag Archipelago”, is hard to read. Solzhenitsyn’s best book is his simplest, his shortest: “One Day In the Life Of Ivan Denisovich“. It is very short – unlike “Gulag” or, worse, “1914” (both unreadably long) – and it is full of power. Read that one!!

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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4 Responses to On “Gulag Archipelago”

  1. Lynda says:

    Thanks for echoing my reaction to this seminal work – I’ve tried, really tried to both read and listen to Gulag Archipelago and every effort has failed – I just can’t go the distance. Now I don’t feel so bad. I will read One Day in the Life of… and watch the movie, which I did see years ago, but need to re-watch.


    • Thanks Lynda! Ya, don’t fret. Read Denisovich. Writers sometimes forget they aren’t writing fot themselves, they are writing for us. My editor once told me “remember, when you want to get mad at me, I’m the defender of the reader, not your defender.” Solz. needed a good editor.


  2. Rod Smothers says:

    Great essay! Thanks for the link to the Harvard speech. I was unaware of it, but it rings as true today as in 1978. I Confess I read about half of “Gulag” about a year ago…it’s still stacked with a half dozen other unfinished books. Once I wrote here in your space that life is too short to read stuff we don’t like but “Gulag” is not (and should not be) in THAT list. At least portions of it should be read by every US high school student as part of a MANDATORY civics class. Maybe some folks would come away with an understanding that growing up in a Constitutional Republic is not the worst thing that could befall them. All the weaknesses of our system are due to the weaknesses of people as described in the Harvard speech.

    “The Gulag Archipelago” is great for the detail, but Solzhenitsyn is not a great writer. I recommend “Kolyma Tales” by Varlam Shalamov to anyone who wants to read about the gulags from the perspective of a very good writer.


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