George St. George opens his much publicized book Siberia (David McKay Co., 1969) with an account of his childhood in the central Siberian city of Irkutsk during czarist days. Among other things, he tells how political prisoners were shipped from European Russia to exile and sometimes imprisonment in Irkutsk, and he expresses relief that a far more humane regime has now replaced that of the czars, and that such things no longer take place. When I was in Irkutsk a few months after reading this book in 1971, I could see traces of czarist days, especially in the architecture, but of course I saw no caravans of prisoners; nonetheless, since I had also read other books (such as Dallin and Nikolaevsky’s Forced Labor in Soviet Russia) I was far from convinced of the truth of St. George’s account.
Solzhenitsyn’s book The Gulag Archipelago (the archipelago being the “islands” of slave labor camps scattered across the length of Russia, and “Gulag” being the acronym for “Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps”) explodes the St. George myth once and for all. Not that it hadn’t already been exploded by such books as The Great Terror, a scholarly and extensively documented account by Robert Conquest; but Solzhenitsyn’s work has a special authenticity: it was written within Russia itself, partly from his own experiences (he spent eleven years in Soviet labor camps, which he survived, as he says, only because most of the time was spent in a special place of detention for engineers, such as he describes in The First Circle, where conditions were better than in other prisons) but mostly from the experiences of others—accounts gleaned from other prisoners (usually cross-checked for accuracy) and some from underground publications and other sources which reached him, which he cannot yet reveal without incriminating the sources.
His account is devastating. People and places and dates are named; he spares the reader no detail of horror, until from time to time one must lay the book aside in revulsion that such things actually occurred. But in addition to the relentless accumulation of factual details, we also learn firsthand what it feels like to be arrested, interrogated, tortured, sent off in the night to destinations unknown. The impact is overwhelming; and the upshot of the account is that conditions in the USSR have been far more terrible than even in the worst days of the czars….[ ]