At age 15, I brought volume one of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago with me on a class band trip to Disney World. It was 2003, the height of the Bush years. My classmates rode the Space Mountain roller coaster while I sat alone on a Magic Kingdom park bench, reading about Soviet citizens of the 1930s being arrested, tortured, and worked to death.
The Gulag Archipelago, a three-volume oral history of the Soviet prison camps based on the accounts of hundreds of prisoners, was not light reading. At night, perched on the polyester 101 Dalmatians comforter of the bed I shared with Matt B., I was struck by the story of Nikolai Bukharin, who during his long slide from the heights of Soviet power wrote plaintive notes to Stalin, his former friend and now persecutor, whom he addressed by his revolutionary sobriquet “Koba.”
“And all during these months [Bukharin] wrote endless letters,” Solzhenitsyn writes. “‘Dear Koba! Dear Koba! Dear Koba!’ And he got not one reply.” Bukharin was a primary architect of the Russian revolution, the chief political theorist of the Communist party, but Stalin executed him with the rest, purging the party ranks to shore up his own grip on power.
I knew very little about Soviet history or Communism, but something about Solzhenitsyn’s style, alternately elegiac and conversational, attracted me. I was drawn to his moral authority, the heights from which he condemned political savagery, and his preoccupation with redemptive, transformative suffering:
Your soul, which formerly was dry, now ripens from suffering. And even if you haven’t come to love your neighbors in the Christian sense, you are at least learning to love those close to you.
I was a middle-class kid from Reading, Pennsylvania, with loving parents, a sister, and a dog. The closest I’d come to suffering was three years of junior high. But my teenage obsession with the Gulag Archipelago continued. I read volume two in the front row of a bus crossing the Australian outback, on a summer exchange trip that my father paid for from a small inheritance. Fine, red dust stained the pages of Solzhenitsyn’s riff on “the soul and barbed wire.” When he wrote that extreme suffering could elevate the soul, I felt he was speaking directly to me. This felt realer, truer, than anything in my own life.
I recognized some kind of Christian ethic at work, but I wasn’t too concerned. Like a latter-day Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn expressed a faith that seemed to have come through a crucible that placed it somehow beyond the petty religious conservatism of the Bush years. I also missed his anti-Marxism because I didn’t really know what Marxism was. The main thing was that he was telling of some kind of organized, mass violence, apparently underwritten by ideology, and I needed to understand how it fit together.
Liking Solzhenitsyn in the aughts bordered on affectation. Russia was obscure. Communism was as niche as fervent anti-Communism. My father had bought me a worn, used edition of the Gulag Archipelago after seeing how I’d devoured 1984 and Manufacturing Consent—all books about power and political control. But few people seemed to have read Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece. For nearly a year, I carried the volumes around with me (together, they weighed nearly eight pounds), but no one in post-industrial Reading, Pennsylvania, shared my enthusiasm.
I carried my interest in Solzhenitsyn into college. I remember a conversation about him with one of my Russian language teachers that ended with her musing, “Hm, but I don’t think people read him much anymore.” At the time, I was carrying a photograph of Solzhenitsyn in my wallet. I kept it there well into Obama’s second term.
It was also in college that I began to reassess Solzhenitsyn and his most famous book. Archives opened after the Soviet collapse showed that his statistics were little more than guesses. He often depicted the Soviet regime as not merely evil, but incomprehensibly evil, which may have been cathartic but does not make for good history. He conflated conditions in the 1930s and ’40s with the post-Stalin era of the ’60s and ’70s, which, though still highly repressive, mostly lacked mass purges, internal deportations, and truly lethal work camps.
Still, despite his flaws, I felt that Solzhenitsyn had something to say to my emerging cohort of left-wing millennials. For all that U.S. socialists (understandably) hate to be tarred with the crimes of the Soviet Union, I felt that Solzhenitsyn posed challenges to the left to which we ought to have good answers. How could we account for Soviet violence without simply hand-waving away 70 years of history as “not real socialism”? What I never envisioned was that Solzhenitsyn would be co-opted and revived by a new wave of young, masculine reaction.
In the lead up to the 2016 presidential election, I began noticing references to Solzhenitsyn on message boards and in conservative media. Around the same time, online interest in the Gulag Archipelago more than tripled, remaining elevated ever since. Eight years after his death in 2008, it seemed that Solzhenitsyn was back.
Solzhenitsyn owes his revival to Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist turned self-help guru and celebrity lecturer, and Peterson’s mainly male, backward-looking audience. At their mildest, these include rationalist libertarians and other “red-pilled” freethinkers, but the spectrum runs all the way through men’s rights activists to the openly fascistic and white supremacist alt-right. Peterson himself rejects any connection to the alt-right—his fans see the equivalency as character assassination—but he insists on speaking the language of masculine grievance and embattled traditionalism.
Peterson rose to fame by presenting himself as a victim of sensitivity, denouncing Canadian legislation that, he claimed, would force him to use students’ preferred gender pronouns or else face punishment. This was a kind of creeping tyranny, he said, reminiscent of the authoritarianism that he had studied “for 40 years.” (Forty years ago, Jordan Peterson was 16 years old.)
The surge in interest in the Gulag Archipelago is largely attributable to Peterson including it on his list of the books people should read “to properly educate themselves.” When Peterson teaches Solzhenitsyn, he emphasizes the Soviet death toll:
Solzhenitsyn estimated the deaths in internal repression in the Soviet Union at something approximating 60 million between 1919 and 1959. … One of the things that’s really surprising to me and that I think is absolutely reprehensible—absolutely reprehensible—is the fact that this is not widespread knowledge among students in the West, any of this, and it’s because your education, your historical education, if you started to describe it as appalling you would barely scratch the surface.
Peterson endorses the Gulag Archipelago as a condemnation, not just of Stalinism and the Soviet Union, but of the whole of the “radical left,” which Peterson calls “the worst thing that happened in the twentieth century.” He links Soviet attempts to flatten society to today’s discourse on privilege, drawing a straight line from Stalin’s man-made famines to Canada’s effort to promote pronoun choice for trans people. Both programs abandon personal responsibility for ideology. Both seek to eliminate natural, immutable hierarchies, which can only end in tragedy. His fans scour Solzhenitsyn’s text for ways to equate contemporary “social justice warriors” with Stalinist totalitarians.
For earnest, 15-year-old me, part of Solzhenitsyn’s appeal lay in his esotericism. By reading grim tomes, each running many hundreds of pages, I could establish that I was smarter and more serious than most Americans, who seemed largely ignorant of Soviet crimes. In 2003, this was a very private pleasure. But Peterson has hitched the same experience of teenage vanity to a shared narrative of right-wing resentment. Now, the story goes, Americans are indifferent to, or ignorant of, Stalin and Solzhenitsyn because academics, many of them Marxist sympathizers, have kept them that way. It is up to a new generation of bold freethinkers to discover the truth for themselves.
Right-wing affinity for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is a natural thing. He is part of their tribe, wielding religion, nationalism, and patriarchy against the left. But for someone unversed in Soviet and Russian history, someone who shares the Gulag Archipelago’s outrage at Soviet atrocities but never explores beyond its pages, Solzhenitsyn’s flaws are easily missed. When Peterson and his adherents cite Solzhenitsyn’s gulag in an attempt to conjure a contemporary monster to fight, it can be useful to know Solzhenitsyn’s story—why the Gulag Archipelago can be both an invaluable record of human suffering and, potentially, a chute steering new generations to the right.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a serious, historically minded Red Army captain when Soviet counterintelligence arrested him in the final months of World War II for criticizing Stalin in letters to a friend. He was sentenced to eight years of forced labor for “anti-Soviet propaganda.” Of those eight years, four were spent in a scientific research facility just outside Moscow called a sharashka, where prisoners with specialized skills were spared the privations of regular camps. The final years of his sentence were served in northern Kazakhstan, where he performed manual labor while composing and memorizing thousands of lines of poetry and prose, committed to paper after his release.
At this point, Solzhenitsyn believed that his writing would never appear in print. He accepted that, within his lifetime, his only prospective readers were KGB investigators gathering evidence of subversion and conspiracy. So he went “underground,” laboring secretly in a quixotic effort to preserve the stories of his fellow prisoners for later generations. As Solzhenitsyn wrote in his memoir The Oak and the Calf:
Once arrested, once I had spent two years in prisons and camps, depressed now by the mountainous overabundance of subjects, I accepted as effortlessly as the air I breathed … the knowledge that not only would no one ever publish me, but a single line could cost me my life. Without hesitation, without inner debate, I entered into the inheritance of every modern Russian writer intent on the truth: I must write simply to ensure that it was not all forgotten.
At some point in his captivity, Solzhenitsyn abandoned his youthful Marxism for Eastern Orthodox Christianity and began calling himself a traditionalist. He grew a trademark beard.
Solzhenitsyn’s break came nearly a decade later with One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a slice-of-life novel based on the author’s experience in Kazakhstan. Ivan Denisovich was the only one of Solzhenitsyn’s works with an official publication in the Soviet Union, an artifact of the short-lived Khrushchev thaw. Supposedly, the editor of Novy Mir, the journal that published the novel, sought approval for publication from Nikita Khrushchev himself, who wept as he read about Solzhenitsyn’s freezing, malnourished inmates.
But it was the Gulag Archipelago that elevated Solzhenitsyn from dissident writer to globally lauded prophet of anti-Sovietism. It is a unique book. Solzhenitsyn spins hundreds of oral accounts, fragmentary and incomplete archival material, and his personal biography into a narrative of undeniable power, which he then peppers with analysis and commentary. Working without access to state security archives, Solzhenitsyn cites wildly inaccurate statistics, including numbers of victims, but it can seem almost gauche to dwell on his errors. The Gulag Archipelago feels “truer than true,” channeling the agony and despair of all those who did not survive the camps.
Solzhenitsyn is very deliberate about his representational intent. The book is dedicated to “all those who did not live to tell it.” And while he emerged from the Soviet system of forced labor a changed man, an improved man (“Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!”), he remains painfully aware of the victims for whom he claims to speak: “And from beyond the grave come replies: It is very well for you to say that — when you have come out of it alive!” Smuggled to the West on microfilm, the Gulag Archipelago seemed an emissary from the darkest totalitarian night, a near-miraculous testament of cruelty and resilience on a staggering scale.
The extremes of suffering that Solzhenitsyn channels in the Gulag Archipelago make the book intoxicating, particularly to young people who commit themselves to pursuing the “truth”—and then assume that whatever is worst is probably also truest. In his mid-50s, Peterson remains very much in the grip of the same mindset. When Solzhenitsyn depicts Marxism as little more than ideological window-dressing for a cult of murderers, Peterson and his followers are unlikely to dig deeper into the complexities of the historical record. And though Peterson has compared Solzhenitsyn to Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn’s global celebrity never hinged on his literary qualities but on a historical moment that was similarly ripe for sweeping anti-Marxism.
Translations of the Gulag Archipelago arrived in the West in the early 1970s, shortly after the USSR’s 1968 intervention in Czechoslovakia had rid most Western fellow travelers of any lingering Soviet sympathies. In France, a group of ex-Marxists calling themselves “new philosophers” were suddenly ubiquitous, promoting the profoundly pessimistic view that statism of any kind, even small-bore social democracy, would inevitably end in the maximal repression of the gulag. Socialism was deeply suspect. Even as détente took hold in U.S.-Soviet relations, the mood in influential Western intellectual circles grew increasingly anti-Soviet and anti-Marxist.
In this environment, Solzhenitsyn’s attacks on the left did not receive the scrutiny they might have a generation earlier. He begins volume two of the Gulag Archipelago by tracing a genealogy of the camps straight to the Bolsheviks’ earliest revolutionary violence—and beyond, to Marx himself. In other words, there was no Stalinist betrayal of the revolution; Stalin had read Lenin correctly, who in turn had read Marx correctly. The seed of the gulag was contained whole and viable within Marx, on whom ultimately the tens of millions of dead must lie. This, of course, is the oldest of anti-Marxist lines, but Solzhenitsyn went further and equated the camps under Khrushchev and Brezhnev and the camps under Stalin, writing, that the Gulag Archipelago “remains because that particular political regime could not survive without it. If it disbanded the Archipelago, it would cease to exist itself.” Solzhenitsyn allows readers to imagine Stalin’s camps of the 1930s alive and well in the Soviet Union of the 1970s. This was misleading, since Solzhenitsyn surely knew that drastic changes to the Soviet penal system took place after Stalin’s death.
When Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974, Western intellectuals welcomed him rapturously. Like other Soviet dissidents, he was lionized as his country’s exiled conscience, a kind of anti-Soviet prophet wandering the Western desert. With his beard and soulful eyes, he even looked the part. One prominent French writer called Solzhenitsyn “the Shakespeare of our time” and “our Dante,” who would force the West to see that “the Soviet camps are Marxist, as Marxist as Auschwitz was Nazi.”
Much of this praise relied on ignoring what Solzhenitsyn actually believed. If Solzhenitsyn raged at the Soviet state, if he grieved the loss of millions of political prisoners and called for a moral accounting, then he must be one of us—a liberal democrat concerned with human rights, civil liberties, and rule of law. Right?
Instead, Solzhenitsyn was something that Western liberals have never understood very well —a Great Russian nationalist. For him, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union wasn’t bad simply because it was tyrannical, but because it embodied an alien ideology, a Western import that held the Russian nation in chains. Meanwhile, the West had lost its manly vigor to feeble liberalism, leaving it too weak to halt the Communist advance. Only Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Harvard commencement speech—in which he lambasted the West’s materialism and “decline in courage”— broke the spell. The writer retreated to Vermont and monastic obscurity for the remainder of the Cold War.
There was a vicarious aspect to my teenaged fascination with Solzhenitsyn and the Soviet gulag. I would likely never experience the rigor or quandaries of life in the camps, so I borrowed some of that intensity from a safe distance. I did so because it made me feel closer to some higher truth, serious, and part of an intellectual and moral elite.
Jordan Peterson today seems to crave a similar purity of purpose. After Solzhenitsyn, he wants to be the clear-eyed and somber prophet speaking truth to unthinking ideologues. A New York Times’ profile last spring revealed that he decorates his home with posters of Soviet executions as “a constant reminder, he says, of atrocities and oppression.” But whereas Solzhenitsyn faced Stalin and heavily armed camp guards, Peterson’s bugbears are online SJWs and the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
Peterson does seem aware of this disconnect between his own reality and the Soviet monster he so frequently invokes, which is why he makes sure to describe the threat, if not yet here, as soon coming. A measure obliging him to use people’s preferred gender pronouns are a harbinger of atrocities to come. As he warns interviewers, “Marxism is resurgent.”
While explicitly Marxist political movements remain marginal within the United States, Peterson is right that, for the first time in decades, a genuine U.S. left is emerging from factionalism and irrelevance, especially among the young. The right sees this as a failure of education, as well as an existential threat, and their growing sense of dread has driven the rise of anti-Marxist figures like Peterson himself. Nor is the anxiety confined to the right. Many liberal commentators also bemoan Marx’s rehabilitation, indignantly reminding everyone that socialism doesn’t work and killed millions.
This suits Solzhenitsyn’s return. As in the 1970s, his strident anti-Marxism, moralizing, and authority as a gulag survivor are all useful tools with which to attack the left. Then as now, such attacks seek to group all left-wing politics together into an ever more monolithic and frightening ball, with moderate social democrat Bernie Sanders tantamount to Joseph Stalin.
Peterson has been invited to write the introduction to the Gulag Archipelago’s fiftieth anniversary edition. Since he has almost single-handedly revived interest in a book whose heyday ended some four decades ago, the choice makes sense, but it is unfortunate for the book. Peterson is now in a position to shape new readers’ interpretation of it for years to come. If his past commentary is a guide, he will push readers to approach the Gulag Archipelago not as a vital, flawed testament to Stalinist repression, but as a confirmation of reactionary pessimism and a fearful prophecy of what will happen if the left ever comes to power. With luck, some of Solzhenitsyn’s new readers will go beyond Peterson’s uncritical take. But as reaction to social justice and left-wing political movements continues to grow, many more will likely adopt it as their own.
As a fledgling reader of the Gulag Archipelago, I made the mistake of projecting my own values onto Solzhenitsyn. Today, his right-wing fans read him more clearly. They correctly see in him their own loathing for the left, socialists and liberals alike, and attempt to coopt his authority as a chronicler, from the inside, of one of history’s greatest bloodlettings. They only err in taking the Gulag Archipelago as the final word on Soviet history and the radical left, rather than a provocative opening salvo.