Here’s the funny thing about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: he’s funny. You’d expect Gulag Archipelago to be a slog, but the very first lines of the preface, where the author describes some starving prisoners “flouting the higher claims of ichthyology” to wolf down a prehistoric fish they’d discovered frozen in the Siberian ice, made me laugh. Knowing that he survived the slave-camps himself, one would expect Solzhenitsyn to be embittered, indignant, aflame with righteous rage – and he is. But above all he’s a great writer with a keen ear for absurdity and a Siberia-sized index-card file full of astounding stories about life under the Soviets. *
Here’s one. A new prisoner arrives in camp and the guard raises an eyebrow at his long sentence. “Twenty-five years! What did you do?”
“Nothing at all,” comes the sullen reply.
“You’re lying!” says the guard. “The sentence for nothing at all is ten years.”
I laughed because it has the structure of a joke – and in fact, its tidiness and rim-shot pacing suggest to me that it is a joke. But whether or not the actual words were spoken by an actual guard, the joke is true. Consider (I open Volume One randomly, to page 82) the “traitors of the Motherland”, tens of thousands of ex-soldiers slapped with prison terms at the conclusion of World War II; their crime was to have spent time in German prisoner-of-war camps. (Their real offense, Solzhenitsyn points out, was to have been “witnesses to humiliating [Soviet] defeats.”) Their sentence? Ten years.
Here’s another one. The Solovki camp, on an island near the Arctic Circle, was getting some unwelcome publicity in the West. To put a stop to rumours that Solovki was something other than a socialist paradise in the making, in 1929 Moscow sent the famous proletarian writer Maxim Gorky on a fact-finding mission to the camp. The administrators scurried about preparing for Gorky’s visit, “hid the monstrosities and polished things up for show”, but…
Only in Kem was there an oversight. On Popov Island the ship Gleb Boky was being loaded by prisoners in underwear and sacks, when Gorky’s retinue appeared out of nowhere to embark on that steamer! You inventors and thinkers! Here is a worthy problem for you … a barren island, not one bush, no possible cover – and right there, at a distance of three hundred yards, Gorky’s retinue has shown up. Your solution? Where can this disgraceful spectacle – these men dressed in sacks – be hidden? The entire journey of the great Humanist will have been for naught if he sees them now. Well, of course, he will try hard not to notice them, but help him! … The work assigner ordered: “Stop work! Close ranks! Still closer! Sit down on the ground! Sit still!” And a tarpaulin was thrown over them. “Anyone who moves will be shot!” And the former stevedore Maxim Gorky ascended the ship’s ladder and admired the landscape for a full hour till sailing time – and he didn’t notice!
Gorky stands in for all those farsighted intellectuals who praised the Soviet experiment, eyes locked on the horizon while the victims of the regime huddled half-naked under their tarps. It’s a metaphor, and it’s funny, too!
* Even Solzhenitsyn’s footnotes are funny. Consider the unlucky peasant given a ten-year sentence for stealing a spool of thread – or as the authorities grandiosely described it in their indictment, “200 meters of sewing material.”