Fall 2008

Reflections on The Gulag Archipelago

Alexander Schmemann

“Thus from the very beginning the organic unity of ‘investigation’ and ‘literature’ was experienced by Solzhenitsyn as something given to him, as the inner law which was to determine his work, and which indeed governs the whole of it and not only Gulag.”1

Part 1. The subtitle explained


“An experiment in literary investigation”—such is the unusual and puzzling subtitle given by Solzhenitsyn to The Gulag Archipelago. And because it is so strange, yet obviously not accidental, I am convinced that to decipher it constitutes a first step toward the understanding of the deeper—the spiritual, and not merely “political”—meaning of this uniquely important book.

But why consider it strange? Because normally, i.e., within the commonly accepted terminology, “literary investigation” should mean an investigation of things literary, an investigation concerning literature. Otherwise the term “investigation,” which belongs to the vocabulary of science and research, would make the adjective “literary”2 sound awkward. For if, on the one hand, any investigation in written form is “literary,” at the same time, to be truly an investigation, i.e., truly “scientific” and “objective,” it must be free from literature, the latter term normally applying such “nonscientific” elements as fiction, imagination, aesthetic pursuits, etc. Thus the adjective “literary” in the subtitle of Gulag seems to be either superfluous or indeed strange. It is a term which in itself requires an “investigation.”

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1. This essay first appeared in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials, ed. John B. Dunlop, Richard Haugh, and Alexis Klimoff (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co, 1975). Reprinted by kind permission of Mrs. Julianna Schmemann.

2. Or “artistic,” as the Russian word khudozhestvennoe ought to have been translated.