ABOUT 40,000 NEW BOOKS will be published in America this year. In the bookstores, this one will look like the others. It will receive reviews like many of the others, remain on the shelves for a few months like the luckiest of the others, and may pass through the consciousness of the book-reading public like - well, like your average big book by a foreign author, whose work is bought more than it is read.
Perfectly understandable in a way. Solzhenitsyn has made enormous demands on book readers throughout the world. This is the third (and final) huge volume on the Arkhipelag Gulag, as his brilliant verbal invention sounds in Russian, not to mention his stream of novels and polemics. Enough, already!
But in fact, it is anything but enough. And the idea that his volume can pass for an ordinary book in this age of too many books is - upon brief reflection - laughable, ludicrous. The Complete Book of Running compares to The GULAG Archipelago the way cotton candy compares to prime rib.
The seven sections of The GULAG Archipelago - published in English in three volumes - are unique literary documents. They represent one driven man's effort to tell the longest, most complex and probably most important story in the modern history of a great nation, a story that is simply ignored - no, officially obliterated - in that country itself.
In many ways this final volume is the most interesting of the three, for it is filled with stories that we knew almost nothing about before this book. They are stories of attempts by Soviet citizens - mostly prisioners in the archipelago of camps that dot the U.S.S.R. - to fight back against their masters.
The first volumes covered ground that students of the terrors of Stalinist Russia had glimpsed before, both in the work of western scholars and the memoirs of other prisoners. They had a special power nevertheless, because Solzhenitsyn marshaled so much evidence of so many horrors and recounted it with such bitter, even venomous force.
But I know of no other source for the kinds of stories Solzhenitsyn takes great relish in telling here, stories of foolhardy but wonderful individual courage and even mass uprisings by Soviet citizens who decided to fight back.
The most stunning of these stories to me was one that has nothing to do with the prison camps that are the main subject of the GULAG books. Solzhenitsyn tells it almost as an after-thought at the end of this volume.
It is the story of a spontaneous uprising in the industrial town of Novocherkassk on June 1-2, 1962. According to information Solzhenitsyn assembled (and it must be taken on faith, he cites no sources), workers in a locomotive factory there rebelled at the coincidence of a nationwide increase in the prices of meat and butter and the announcement in their factory of lower piecework rates for the work force.
The rebels uprooted track on the main Moscow-Rostov railroad line, hung banners reading "Use Khrushchev for sausage meat," among others, and marched on the local office of the Communist Party. "The whole town was seething," Solzhenitsyn writes. The local police disappeared, but the town was flooded with soldiers, some of whom opened fire on the crowd in front of Party headquarters, and kept shooting as the people fled. "Information from a variety of sources is more or less unanimous that some seventy or eighty people were killed," according to Solzhenitsyn.
This was an unprecedented event in the known history of post-Stalin Russia. Though there have been earlier reports of spontaneous strikes and riots at individual industrial enterprises, never has there been a suggestion that an entire town inside European Russia had risen up against the authorities.
According to Solzhenitsyn's account, those authorities found an unprecedented method for dealing with the events in Novocherkassk:
"The wounded all vanished without trace; not one of them went home. Instead, the families of the wounded and the killed (who of course wanted to know what had become of their kin) were departed to Siberia. So were many of those involved in the demonstration . . . "
There is too much more of this fantastic tale to repeat here. Solzhenitsyn is delighted with the story, in part because it serves what he now appears to regard as the principal argument of this last portion of the GULAG epic - that Russians are not the pathetic "sheep" described 150 years ago by Pushkin, but potential freedom-fighters only held back by a regime that is "inhumanly strong, in a way as yet unimaginable in the West."
In a preface to the English translation of this volume, Solzhenitsyn uses an argument he repeated forcefully in his recent commencement address at Harvard, that there is now a great "spiritual force" lurking in Russia, waiting to be released. The stories he tells of prisioners and others in open rebellion are offered as evidence of the existence of this force, and as refutation of the traditional image (encouraged by many besides Pushkin!) of a submissive Russian nation only too eager to accept the tyranny of the day.
Alas, Solzhenitsyn offers at least as much evidence in this book to refute that proposition as he does to support it. At every turn, ordinary citizens with no clear need to do so are betraying their fellow citizens. Prisoners who manage to escape from a camp in the Archipelago are almost invariably caught because of the eagerness of some citizen to turn them in. At one point Solzhenitsyn writes of a young girl who signals to a group of prisoners from outside the prison wall that she would like to deliver letters for them to the outside, and she points to where they should throw such notes: "Sweet fearless girl! . . . If our people had all been like you there would have been not a hope in hell of imprisoning them." But of course, they weren't all like her.
Solzhenitsyn only succeeded in convincing me that some Russians in some extreme circumstances are not afraid to fight horrible odds to assert their own humanity. Solzhenitsyn himself demonstrated that point years ago. But there is no persuasive evidence in this book - and I saw none in the three years I lived in the Soviet Union - that supports the vague claim of a gathering spiritual storm inside Russia.
But that theory is peripheral to the main objective of the GULAG volumes, which is nothing less than to fill in crucial pieces of a great nation's own recent past. No aspect of contemporary Soviet society is more depressing than the officially required silence in all public discussion on most of the significant developments in the country's history since the Bolshevik Revolution. Trotsky still cannot be mentioned. Stalin can almost never be mentioned. The terrors of collectivization, the labor camps, the mass deportation of minority groups - all subjects covered in the GULAG volumes - cannot be mentioned.
All embarrassments are covered over with facile slogans. Trotsky is unmentionable, a museum guide in Moscow once told me, because he was "an enemy of the people." The horrors of Stalin's rule - which Solzhenitsyn believes were worse than Hitler's horrors - are blithely written off as the excesses of "the cult of personality," and are now never discussed in specific terms.
Solzhenitsyn has argued elsewhere that the lie has become "a pillar of the state" in the U.S.S.R. It is a brutal characterization, and there is no honest way to dispute its accuracy. For years, Solzhenitsyn has conducted a personal crusade to destroy that pillar by providing the truth - or some of the truth - where the authorities prefer to rely on their own inventions.
Solzhenitsyn apparently hopes that he will do this most effectively in the series of historical novels he is now working on, a mammoth project that has fallen far behind the author's own schedule for reasons not yet explained.
But he has done in the GULAG series more than any writer would dare hope, and Solzhenitsyn can rely on these books alone for a huge place in the true history of Russia. American readers should not be deflected by the grievous shortcoming in Solzhenitsyn's political commentary and historical analysis of the kind he delivered at Harvard. Solzhenitsyn is not an expert on politics, nor well schooled in the intellectual history of the western world, but these shortcomings do not diminish him or his contribution. These large books are surely among the few gigantic literary achievements of this age.