Goodbye to the man who gave us gulag

On Sunday (3 August 2008), Alexander Solzhenitsyn, died aged 89, in his home in the Moscow area. He, through great hardship, brought the Russian word gulag, into the mainstream of the English language.

His book, The Gulag Archipelago, written in secret while he was living in the Soviet Union and published in Paris in the early 1970s, is probably the definitive work on Stalin’s forced labour camps. Having spent eight years in the camps for criticising Stalin, he used his own experience, research and other prisoner’s testimonies to create the book.

Gulag was a loose abbreviation for the government agency administering the ‘corrective’ labour camps across the Soviet Union:

Glavnoe upravlenie ispravitel’notrudovykh lagereĭ

Gulag came to be used to denote the camps themselves or the procedural system of arrest, interrogation, transport, and forced labour. It is now also used specifically to mean a prison camp for political dissidents (although the gulags had no such distinction) or a place of great hardship.

Solzhenitsyn and his works had a huge impact in the West culminating in his Nobel Prize for literature in 1970.

I remember that, when I was a boy, he showed us that both personal courage and the power of words could challenge the evils of the state. I hope we remember him as he deserves.