Weeks before the current war between Russia and Ukraine began, I started reading Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Now, with the most recent Russian belligerance (courtesy of Vladimir Putin), the book has proven to be very, very timely. Although it harkens back about fifty plus years, suddenly almost everything Solzhenitsyn talks about fits own day: Back to the USSR… lucky us.
In case anyone is confused as to what the Gulag Archipelago actually was, Solzhenitsyn refers not to a literal archipelago of islands in a lake, sea, or ocean, but instead to the vast complex of gulags that comprised the sprawling Soviet prison system. Solzhenitsyn himself was a zek, a prisoner in the Gulag Archipelago, for much of his adult life.
Here are two sequential pages (pp. 312-313 of my personal copy of the offical abridged edition), containing some of the most frequently quoted passages in the book. On these two pages Solzhenitsyn reflects on his own personal transformation during his time as prisoner:
During his time in the gulags Solzhenitsyn went from being an atheistic Marxist to a committed Christian.
If you could assign and compel all your friends to read one hundred books, which books would make your list of required reading?
One book I would very seriously consider including on my list is the abridged version of The Gulag Archipelago, by the Russian dissident Alexandr Solzhenitzyn. Hopefully, the book sounds vaguely familiar to you. If so, it may be because Time Magazine declared it the best nonfiction book of the 20th century. And Solzenitzyn won the 1970 Nobel Prize in literature. But still, few people I know have actually sat down and read it. I had not until this year.
Currently, I am both reading it and listening to an audio version of it, read (in perfect American English) by Solzhenitzyn’s son Ignat. Ignat must have lived here in the United States for at least a while, because he speaks both Russian and English fluently. His fluency with both languages and familiarity with both cultures proves to be a big help to those of us listeners who do not speak Russian or know much recent Russian history.
Should you decide to read or listen to it, I definitely recommend the abridged version, not the unabridged version. Why? Well, the unabridged version of The Gulag Archipelago is very, very long. It requires the diligence and perseverance of a reader who has the time to devote to three volumes of some very dark and heavy material. I knew right from the start that I would only have the time to devote to a single volume; and thus I opted for the abridged version.
Incidentally (and this may come as a surprise), the book does have relevance to eschatology and the Book of Revelation. How so? Well, the most significant point of connection is the tyranny of totalitarianism. The Book of Revelation speaks of a future tyrant, a totalitarian figure known as the Beast from the Abyss.
Connectedly (in my thinking, at least), the Gulag Archipelago tells the tale of what happens to a country under the strong arm of totalitarianism. Totalitarianism occurs when a government decides it deserves the ultimate allegiance of its populace. Said slightly differently, totalitarian regimes effectively declare themselves to hold the place that only God rightfully holds. A totalitarian regime demands the absolute devotion of its citizens. In so doing, it puts itself in the place of God. By requiring and compelling all its subject to submit (i.e., bow down) in servile submission (i.e., worship), it fashions itself into an idol, a subsitute for God.
The Gulag Archipelago shows how the Soviet leadership, and especially Stalin, methodically did just that. The Soviets demanded the absolute compliance and devotion of their citizens. And to achieve their idolatrous goal, they would (and did) use any and all horrifying means to coerce it.
Based on my study and understanding of the Book of Revelation, I want to suggest that whenever you see a government tending towards totalitarianism, you may well be seeing a foreshadowing of the ultimate Beast to come, the Beast from the Abyss. I believe that the Soviet Union was a very recent case study in how that future Beast will likely behave.
The Gulag Archipelago should be required reading, if only to make a relatively free people realize what can (and will) happen when they lose their freedom to a totalitarian regime.