Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, banned in the Soviet Union until 1989, has been published in a new shorter, Russian-language edition aimed at schools. The book was included in the list of compulsory books in Russian schools only last year, according to a report in RIA Novosti.

The widow of Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn presented on Thursday an abridged edition of The Gulag Archipelago that publishers hope will eventually be read by every Russian student. “It is necessary that people know what has happened in our country when they finish school,” 71-year-old Natalya Solzhenitsyna told journalists at the presentation of the book in Moscow.

The Gulag Archipelago vividly describes the mass arrests of innocent people and their deportation to labor camps during the Soviet era and Solzhenitsyna said people should know that they “were not just individual episodes, but a round-the-clock mowing down of people.”

The new edition gets an endorsement from the top:

At a meeting with Solzhenitsyna on Tuesday, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – a former KGB agent – said the book was essential reading for students to have a full understanding of Russia.

In the current Religion & Liberty, we interviewed scholar Edward E. Ericson Jr. about the publication of the “restored” edition of the Solzhenitsyn novel, In the First Circle. Because of space limitations, we had to cut a section of the interview, published as “Literature and the Realm of Moral Values,” that dealt with the almost total ignorance of American students about the Cold War period. Maybe the Gulag Archipelago should be mandatory reading in U.S. schools today. Here’s the Ericson “outtake” from the R&L interview published for the first time:

How do American students today understand Solzhenitsyn and the history of the Soviet Gulag?

I’ll tell you how they react when they read The Gulag Archipelago. Incidentally, we have 100 pages of it as an abridgment in The Solzhenitsyn Reader (ISI Books, 2006). I have taught selections from Gulag many times. In short January-term classes where students keep journals, the same refrain about Gulag will come from them over and over. “Why didn’t they tell us this in school? I never heard this from my teachers. I thought I was getting a good high school education. We studied history. We studied World War II and the Holocaust. We studied the Cold War. I never heard about the Gulag.”

How do you study the Cold War and miss the Gulag?

Good question. I don’t know. And that’s what these students wanted to know. I used to ask students, when the subject of the Holocaust came up, does a number of those who died in the Holocaust come to your mind? This is isn’t a trick question, I tell them. For many of you, I say, I think a number has come to your mind. Never mind if it’s a right number or a wrong number. And someone will finally say, “Six million?” And heads will start nodding; yeah, that the number. When I ask if anyone else has heard that number, the hands go up all over. After they have found out what the Gulag is, I ask, “Does any number come to your mind?” No. “What would you say if I said 66 million?” The looks say, “Really?” And then you have to explain. Well, it’s over a longer period, and as for efficiency on a per-day basis, the Germans had better technology for eliminating humans. All the Soviets had were guns and big trenches and they’d line up the people, let the shot bodies topple over into the trenches, and throw dirt over them. And the number Solzhenitsyn learned and used is probably too high, but it’s a number calculated by a demographer who did statistical analysis of birth and death records and the like, and he came up with 66 million. Maybe that’s double what it should be. Since we’ll never know, let’s just agree to say so. But still …


  • DMP

    I, too, have had the experience with students that Dr. Ericsson describes. When discussing Marxist literary theory with my students, I always ask how many have heard of the Gulag and how many died there. Always almost complete ignorance on the subject. When we begin to discuss details, there are always some who refuse to believe me. After all, how could an atrocity on such a scale be so widely unknown?, they wonder.

    It is shameful that Solzhenitsyn isn’t also required reading in US schools.

  • http://stkarnick.com/culture Daniel Crandall

    And if you move the discussion to gulags outside of Russia, I’m sure you’ll find ignorance that goes far beyond the sheer numbers of dead, which, by some estimates, is over 100 million killed in gulags in China, North Korea, Cuba and elsewhere.

    I don’t think it stretches the definition of gulag to include prison camps in other Communist nations.

    I wonder how many of those students know that gulags still exist, even, by some reports in Russia, where North Korea sends political dissidents to work in the euphamisticaly named ‘labor camps’ in Siberia. Check out this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vFbWXVTBU0

    An aside: Note, in the video linked above, the translation of a sign on the outside of the “Korean Democratic Republic [a nation that is neither democratic nor a republic, but that’s another story] Wongdong Logging Co. HQ” – “We, the North Korean People, regard Our Mighty Leader, Kim Chong Il, as a god and we follow all his teachings.”

    The video requires follow and more investigation, but it seems fairly clear that, as the narrator states, for North Koreans “the gulag lives on.”

    Gulags are not just an historical artifact of the former Soviet Union.