THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO, Volume II, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, 712 pages (Collins and Harvill Press). £4.95.
This is an agonising heavy book to read which leaves the reader cold and empty inside.
The great pen of Alexander Solzhenitsyn paints a picture of a different planet, a strange world of ragged “zeks” (camp slang for prisoners) their society and their captors; a world which in terms of distance, is not far from the centres of European civilisation, yet in terms of its values and ethics, is another dimension.
Solzhenitsyn relates in explicit and bitter detail, the history, functioning and scope of this man-made hell. It does not affect the emotions so much because of its cold, calculating style, but the spirit is totally drained.
It is almost impossible to understand how innocent people survive the daily degradations and humiliations of Soviet labour camps. Solzhenitsyn survived and it is all too clear why he has stored up all the bitterness and anger which flow through his books.
Endless accounts of his fellow-prisoners who suffered for no reason at all fall out of every page. Like the man who hung his jacket and cap over a bust of Lenin because there was no hook. He was sentenced to ten years. Or the shepherd who swore at a disobedient cow, drawing comparisons with collective farm personnel. Ten years for him too.
All of the material for the book was clandestinely collected. Solzhenitsyn sifted and processed all the information in the mid-1960s and hid the material ready when the KGB acted against him. This situation inevitably led to occasional inaccuracies and misinterpretations.
His single-mindedness is also reflected in his attitude towards the Jews. Many Jewish prisoners played a great role in organising and co-ordinating activities within the camps. Yet hardly any mention is made of this. The only Zionist who appears in the book is Perets Gertsenberg, who was sentenced on a charge of registering as a Polish citizen in order to facilitate his emigration to Israel.
Gertsenberg left the USSR for Israel two years ago. He and his wife refused to touch down on “German soil” in Vienna and consequently passed through London on their way to Israel.
At this time, I spoke to him about his recollections of Solzhenitsyn when they were in a camp together in the late 1940s. Gertsenberg insisted that Solzhenitsyn was no anti-Semite, but a strong Russian patriot and a man of immense moral courage. Even so, the book labels Naftali Aronovich Frenkel – who is credited with the instigating the idea of forced prison labour – as a Turkish Jew, a millionaire timber king and a blackmarket speculator. It is almost the stereotype hook-nosed Jew.
Six photographs on one page show the faces of the first evil and misguided men responsible for the growth and nourishment of the Gulag. Five of the six names are Jewish.
It is true that there were many villains as well as idealists among the early Jewish Communists. Yet Solzhenitsyn has unfairly shown the heretics without showing the heroes.
I do not believe that this was done intentionally and I certainly do not believe to be an anti-Semite or an enemy of the people of Israel. Yet the imbalance remains.
Despite this criticism, the book is invaluable for a student of the Jewish struggle for national liberation in the Soviet Union.
Jewish Observer 5 December 1975