Putin Makes Solzhenitsyn Required Reading

“In 1949 some friends and I came upon a noteworthy news item in Nature, a magazine of the Academy of Sciences. It reported in tiny type that in the course of excavations on the Kolyma River a subterranean ice lens had been discovered which was actually a frozen stream — and in it were found frozen specimens of prehistoric fauna some tens of thousands of years old. Whether fish or salamander, these were preserved in so fresh a state, the scientific correspondent reported, that those present immediately broke open the ice encasing the specimens and devoured them with relish on the spot.” — Preface, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

“With the blessing of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the widow of Alexander Solzhenitsyn is unveiling an abridged version of his celebrated and once-banned “The Gulag Archipelago” as required reading for Russian high-school seniors about the crimes of the Soviet regime.” — Wall Street Journal, 10/28/10

Depending upon your perspective, it is the most or second-most horrific story ever told: the story of the multi-decade Soviet holocaust. It’s not banned in the United States, but it might as well be for all the attention it gets.

Now, in Russia, Vladimir Putin -- who had once sought to rehabilitate Stalin -- has recognized the need for at least an “abridged” version. (Better abridged than nothing.)

Although Solzhenitsyn's masterwork runs well over 600 pages, densely footnoted, and unsparing in its detail of an attempted soul-murder of an entire people, its wry candor makes it droll at times. It is, nonetheless, a tall order for most students -- presumably why it’s required in Russia.

The Wall Street Journal article notes that “[h]uman-rights advocates welcomed Mr. Putin’s support for the project. But it raises some questions about how public-school teachers, who also use government-authorized texts portraying Soviet ruler Josef Stalin mostly in a positive light, will integrate the work about the Soviet prison labor-camp system in which millions died.”

Even if much of the detail is deleted, there’s no escaping the book’s central point: This death-camp system was the inevitable outgrowth not only of the rule of a bloodthirsty paranoiac like Stalin but of the Soviet system itself -- and of Lenin, who set it up.

It will be interesting to see how Russian teachers square the circle of the “good” Soviet years with the story of some of history’s greatest crimes.

But now that the Russians have apparently decided to face up to the legacy of Stalin and the system that produced him (and that massacred 22,000 Polish officers at Katyn, long denied but recently acknowledged by the Russian parliament), what about us? When will we fully come to grips with the argument that Stalin was  worse than Hitler and that the Soviet Union, that paradise of social justice, has never received the full “credit” it deserves in the annals of infamy?

Those who dismiss the idea that Stalin might be worse than Hitler almost certainly have not read The Gulag.

Those who have read it understand that, while Stalin’s genocide was not as focused or efficient as Hitler’s, and while it transpired in places never liberated by the U.S. Army and its photographers, it lasted far longer. And while Stalin didn’t focus his cult of death on particular groups, such as Jews and Gypsies, he cast a much wider net. He wanted to “liquidate” not only anyone who opposed him, but anyone who might think of opposing him.

When a decorated Red Army officer named Solzhenitsyn made the fatal mistake of putting some trenchant thoughts about Stalin into a letter to a friend, he found himself plucked from the front lines of the war against Hitler and thrown into the Gulag’s maw.

After eight years of circulating within the camps, he found himself, much to his astonishment, still alive.

As a writer, he also felt bound to witness the reality of the Soviet system. His account brings readers face to face with truths so harrowing that they might induce despair. Yet if we can ask students to watch movies like Shoah and Schindler’s List, why can’t we require them to dig up this almost-forgotten book like the frozen remains of a long-ago age, break out its truths from beneath the ice of indifference and bias, and devour them?