The Soviet Gulag system ruined the lives of millions and late writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn immortalised the Gulag through his famous publications, which were read behind closed doors in the USSR for many years.
Thirty-five years ago, the first publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn`s ‘Gulag Archipelago’ shook a generation – and the Soviet authorities – to the core.
They banned the book, which was a grim chronicle of the experience of the author and thousands of others sent to Soviet labour camps. It took Solzhenitsyn ten years to finish the three-volume work.
However, the writer himself paid a high price for his efforts. Accused of treason by the authorities, in 1974 he was expelled from the Soviet Union and exiled to the West, which meant he was at last able to accept the Nobel Prize for Literature which he’d been awarded in 1970. He was not to return to Russia until after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Many people back in the Soviet Union kept special bookshelves to hide forbidden literature. Sometimes people would cover books with paper to hide what they were reading inside.
Having a copy of one of Solzhenitsyn's works could get you into big trouble then. But even today, when the book can be openly read in public, it still provokes a deep and intense reaction with its devastating portrayal of life in the Gulag.
However, there are people who criticise the book. During the Gorbachev era, many secret archives of the Gulag labour camps were opened. History professor Viktor Zemskov was one of the first to read the files. He undertook research on several camps, but criticised the work of Solzhenitsyn for exaggerating the numbers sent to the camps.
“The book was really directed against the regimes of Stalin and Lenin. The influence of the book outside the Soviet Union was much larger than within the country. A lot of people had so many problems at the end of the 1980s when it was eventually published in the Soviet Union that many didn't even notice it. But it did have influence of course,” said Viktor Zemskov, a professor at the Institute of Russian History.
Most Gulag camps were located in extremely remote areas of north-eastern Siberia and in the south-eastern parts of the Soviet Union.
Aleksey Pryadilov is one of the few last survivors of Stalin's gulags. He was only sixteen when he was accused of political crimes and sentenced to seven years in the Gulag. He ended up in seven different camps and then served a further seven years in exile in the Russian far east before being allowed home to Moscow.
“At the end of school my friends and I started to publish a student newspaper. The authorities decided that many of the stories and poems we published in it were ‘anti-Soviet’. I got sent to the Lubyanka prison at sixteen and I came out when I was thirty years old. I can say the conditions in the camps at that time could differ. I've been to many and I've seen a lot,” he said.
The memory of the Gulag system remains devastating, with many in Russia today touched in some way by its cruelty. Over 14 million people passed through the camps between 1929 and 1953, with a further seven million being deported and exiled to remote regions of the Soviet Union.
Perhaps its everlasting historical legacy, however, is provided by the Gulag Archipelago. And that could only be provided by the immense courage of its author, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, to collect the stories of the victims and let them live on forever in the pages of his book.