Stepping Into The Archipelago

10 Oct

I’ve mentioned Solzhenitsyn’s tremendous volume, The Gulag Archipelgao 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, in a recent blog post on books that have passed through my hands this year.  The edition I’m reading is a truncated and abridged version, but it is still a book which packs an intellectual and emotional heft.  As such it has become my companion over the past six or so months as I wade my way through it, dipping into it to read a section when I’ve finished a different novel or non-fiction book that has caught my eye and attention.  (I’ll admit here I’m behind on posts for this blog although many are fully formed in my mind’s eye.  This is probably due to too much reading and not enough actual writing, hence the lack of posts over the past few years though there are some hiding in the draft folders).

As I picked up Solzhenitsyn’s book I came across the quote below that has resonated with me following the political upheavals over the past few years, one that has reminded me of the staggering ineptitude of several world leaders and governments, and it seems only fair to share the quotation in full.  The context for the quote is the realisation by Solzhenitsyn that each individual is capable of both good and evil, that the factor that determines the outcome is within the individual to balance and the choices that they themselves make, regardless of the level of the individual within their standing in society.  This awakening, as he describes it, is the outcome of intense self-scrutiny within the Gulag system, that sprawling archipelago of labour camps that covered the USSR like an intricate spider’s web.

To quote:

‘The Nuremberg Trials have to be regarded as one of the special achievements of the twentieth century: they killed the very idea of evil, though they killed very few of the people who had been infected with it.  (Of course, Stalin deserves no credit here.  He would have preferred to explain less and shoot more.)  And if by the twenty-first century humanity has not yet blown itself up and has not suffocated itself – perhaps it is in this direction that will triumph?

Yes, And if it does not triumph – then all humanity’s history will have turned out to be an empty exercise in marking time, without the tiniest mite of meaning!  Whither and to what end will we otherwise be moving?  To beat the enemy over the head with a club – even cavemen knew that.

“Know thyself!”  There is nothing that so aids and assists the awakening of omniscience within us as insistent thoughts about one’s own transgressions, errors, mistakes.  After the difficult cycles of such ponderings over many years, whenever I mentioned heartlessness of our highest-ranking bureaucrats, the cruelty of our executioners, I remember myself in my captain’s shoulder boards and the forward march of my battery through East Prussia, enshrouded in fire, and I say: “So were we any better?”

When people express vexation, in my presence, over the West’s tendency to crumble, its political shortsightedness, its diverseness, its confusion – I recall too: “Were we, before passing through the Archipelago, more steadfast?  Firmer in our thoughts?”

And that is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: “Bless you, prison!”‘

– Solzhenitsyn (2003: 313).

Of course the catch, which he fully recognises, is that there is a distinct difference between both the prison and labour camps that existed  within the USSR, and of ultimately actually surviving the sentence delivered.  The dead, by their very definition, have not survived.  Instead their voices are silent against the echoes of history.

Brief Notes

The book also reminds me of an interest that I’ve had a bit of trouble pursuing so far, partially due to language difficulties but also due access problems.  I’ve always been curious about the bioarchaeology of the Soviet Union, especially so since reading Soviet period literature and non-fiction books, such as Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps, by Anne Applebaum, which was published in 2004.  However, on a brief sweep of bioarchaeological focused research published in the United Kingdom, with a specific caveat at the Masters level for a relatively easy introduction to the topic, I have not come across any relevant theses bar one thesis at Durham University.  Produced in the 2009/10 academic year, by one E. George, is a thesis entitled The remains of Ivan Denisovich: the potential for future bioarchaeology, palaeopathology, and forensic archaeology/anthropology on osteological remains dating from 1917-1958 in the former Soviet Union.

Unfortunately an enquiring email to the MSc course leader has proved unsuccessful in obtaining a readable copy of the above as a digitized version of the thesis does not exist.  So a quick shout-out if you are reading this George, let me know if I can borrow or read a copy of your research!  I’d love to see what the piece focuses on, the core contexts and periods under study and the methodologies used to analyse the potential in this area.

On a lighter note, the reference to cave men could perhaps belong palaeanthropologist John Hawks often humorous Neandertal anti-defamation files series of web blog posts.  It is worth giving the entries a read and having an informative, interesting and entertaining guide in the shape of Hawks at the same time.

Bibliography

Applebaum, A. 2004. Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps. London: Penguin Books.

Solzhenitsyn, A. 2003. The Gulag Archipelago 1918-56: A Experiment in Literary Investigation. Translated from the Russian by Thomas Whitney & Harry Willets, abridged by Edward Ericson Jr. London: The Harvill Press.

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4 Responses to “Stepping Into The Archipelago”

  1. Marisa October 10, 2017 at 8:11 pm #

    Hello, Gabe! Thank you for sending another interesting article. Please, check up your link here: http://artistinterviews.com/aiList.php Today or tomorrow I will start promoting this section of Artist Interviews. Kind regards, Marisa

    • These Bones Of Mine October 11, 2017 at 10:49 am #

      Hi Marisa,
      Thank you so much for your comment and the mention of my site on yours! It is always appreciated. I hope you are well?
      Yours,
      David M.

  2. Jessica (Diverting Journeys) October 11, 2017 at 2:14 pm #

    It sounds like a very interesting read, though I can understand why you find yourself dipping in and out of it. It’s like the time I decided to sit down with Tapeworms, Lice, and Prions: A Compendium of Unpleasant Infections. Not as profound as your book, obviously, but it was still a tome I was interested in…until I tried to read it like a novel or a nonfiction book with an actual narrative. Turns out I can only handle reading about a couple infections at a time.

    • These Bones Of Mine October 11, 2017 at 8:13 pm #

      Haha that sounds like an amazing volume! Yeah, I think some books are sometimes best dipped into if and read slowly if there is no specific narrative or arc to the writing. As the edition I’m reading of The Gulag Archipelago is a abridged version there are gaps where paragraphs or almost whole chapters have been removed, so it tends to jump around a lot. It isn’t a profoundly gruelling read by any means, but its just been fitting in nicely with my wider reading material. The fact that it isn’t straight history also means an open mind is needed to parse out Solzhenitsyn’s experiences in/out the gulag and the wider political environment at the time.

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