The Gulag Archipelago, An Experiment in Literary Investigation by Aleksandr Solzenhenitsyn, 1973, New York: Harper Perennial, Abridged 2002, 472 pp.
The Gulag Archipelago is one of those “must read” books that I fully agree must be read. As a popular book it certainly has been reviewed thousands of times before. What then can a reviewer say that hasn’t been said before? Not being able to do justice to the political, economical, religious, and psychological depths of the book in a short review, I wanted to note something of Solzhenitsyn’s humor. This is not to overlook the terribleness of the events which occurred, but to note the author finding a small amount of humor in the dreary events of the Russian gulag.
Solzhenitsyn regularly talks about—even jokes about—space. Generally, that is, the prisoner not having enough of it! He writes of his first space after being captured by Russian authorities,
“And I really must describe that closet in a German peasant house which served as a temporary punishment cell. It was the length of one human body and wide enough for three to lie packed tightly, four at a pinch. As it happened, I was the fourth, shoved in after midnight.” (p. 15)
The humor of his “as it happened” is short-lived though as he tells of the horrible conditions of each space prisoners are held in. But, perhaps some humor can be found again in his further recollection of the German closet. He writes, “Then, as if afraid that with the coming of daylight we would have too much room in the punishment cell, they tossed in a fifth person.” (p. 16-17)
Less humorously, because of the deaths which often resulted, Solzhenitsyn writes about train cars designed for eleven people being made to fit as many as thirty-six. (p. 151) Again though, he seems to find a modicum of humor in the situation when he writes, “Was thirty-six the upper limit for a Stolypin compartment? I have no evidence available on thirty-seven or higher, and yet, adhering to our one-and-only scientific method, and remembering the necessity of the struggle against ‘the limiters’ we are compelled to reply: No, no, no! It is not a limit! Perhaps in some other country it would be an upper limit, but not here!” (p. 152)
Perhaps “space” is a significant theme of The Gulag Archipelago. There is the massive space of the Russian taiga and the widespread archipelago of prisons. Against that there are the tiny spaces of the prisons cells and all their accompanying misery. Ultimately there is a strong correlation between space and freedom.