The Gulag Archipelago (Russian: Архипела́г ГУЛА́Г, Arkhipelág GULÁG) is a three-volume book written between 1958 and 1968 by Russian writer and historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It was first published in 1973, followed by an English translation the following year. It covers life in the gulag, the Soviet forced labour camp system, through a narrative constructed from various sources, including Solzhenitsyn's own experience as a gulag prisoner, reports, interviews, statements, diaries, and legal documents.
Following its publication, the book initially circulated in samizdat underground publication in the Soviet Union until its appearance in the literary journal Novy Mir in 1989, in which a third of the work was published in three issues. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, The Gulag Archipelago has been officially published, and since 2009, is mandatory reading as part of the Russian school curriculum. A fiftieth anniversary edition will be released in 2018.
Structurally, the text comprises seven sections divided (in most printed editions) into three volumes: parts 1–2, parts 3–4, and parts 5–7. At one level, the Gulag Archipelago traces the history of the system of forced labor camps that existed in the Soviet Union from 1918 to 1956. Solzhenitsyn begins with V. I. Lenin's original decrees which were made shortly after the October Revolution; they established the legal and practical framework for a series of camps where political prisoners and ordinary criminals would be sentenced to forced labor.Note 1 The book then describes and discusses the waves of purges and the assembling of show trials in the context of the development of the greater Gulag system; Solzhenitsyn gives particular attention to its purposive legal and bureaucratic development.
The legal and historical narrative ends in 1956 at the time of Nikita Khrushchev's Secret Speech ("On the Personality Cult and its Consequences"). Khrushchev gave the speech at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, denouncing Stalin's personality cult, his autocratic power, and the surveillance that pervaded the Stalin era. Although Khrushchev's speech was not published in the USSR for a long time, it was a break with the most atrocious practices of the Gulag system.
Despite the efforts by Solzhenitsyn and others to confront the legacy of the Gulag, the realities of the camps remained a taboo subject until the 1980s. Solzhenitsyn was also aware that although many practices had been stopped, the basic structure of the system had survived and it could be revived and expanded by future leaders. While Khrushchev, the Communist Party, and the Soviet Union's supporters in the West viewed the Gulag as a deviation of Stalin, Solzhenitsyn and many among the opposition tended to view it as a systemic fault of Soviet political culture – an inevitable outcome of the Bolshevik political project.
Parallel to this historical and legal narrative, Solzhenitsyn follows the typical course of a zek (a slang term for an inmate), derived from the widely used abbreviation "z/k" for "zakliuchennyi" (prisoner) through the Gulag, starting with arrest, show trial, and initial internment; transport to the "archipelago"; the treatment of prisoners and their general living conditions; slave labor gangs and the technical prison camp system; camp rebellions and strikes (see Kengir uprising); the practice of internal exile following the completion of the original prison sentence; and the ultimate (but not guaranteed) release of the prisoner. Along the way, Solzhenitsyn's examination details the trivial and commonplace events of an average prisoner's life, as well as specific and noteworthy events during the history of the Gulag system, including revolts and uprisings.
Solzhenitsyn also waxes philosophical: