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Reviewed by:
  • Return from the Archipelago. Narratives of Gulag Survivors
  • Richard Tempest
Leona Toker. Return from the Archipelago. Narratives of Gulag Survivors. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2000. xi + 333 pp.

In this remarkably well-written book Leona Toker demonstrates the same mastery of her subject and sensitivity to textual nuance as in her earlier Nabokov: The Mystery of Literary Structures (1989). She begins by addressing a question that has also preoccupied Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, that of the "appropriateness of artistic texts" for the depiction of extreme human suffering (3); such texts, she concludes, privilege not the deaths but the lives of the victims.

She then goes on to offer a detailed survey of the memoir literature about the Gulag from the 1930s to the 1970s, making the point that prewar prison narratives failed to make much impression on Western readers partly because of the "lack of mutual confirmation" (32): uniformity of practice had not yet been achieved in the camp system. Among the books she discusses are Ivan Solonevich's exciting, indeed "almost Hollywoodian" (32), Russia in Chains (1936); Victor Kravchenko's famous I Chose Freedom (1946), the title of which became an idiom; and Under Two Dictators (1950) by Margarete Buber-Neumann, who as a prisoner of both Stalin (in Kazakhstan) and Hitler (in Ravensbrück) was in a position to compare the horrors of the two camp systems. Evgenia Ginzburg's well-known memoir Into the Whirlwind (1967), Toker suggests, should be read as an account of the author's loss of faith in communist ideals engendered by her own suffering and that of others. Ginzburg's pattern of disillusionment was proleptic, for eventually it was repeated by "the bulk of the Soviet intelligentsia" (54). Anatolii Marchenko's My Testimony (1967) was the "first sustained narrative about the camps . . . of the Khrushchev-Brezhnev era"; the prose of this manual worker from Siberia, who was perhaps the last political prisoner to perish in the Gulag (1986), is remarkable for its "purity of form" (58). However, the prison memoirs that were written after 1973, the year of the [End Page 532] appearance of the first volume of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, "bear the mark of belatedness" (60), she asserts, perhaps too categorically. The author breaks new ground when she suggests that the traditional reading of The Gulag Archipelago as a call on Russia to repent may miss the point. This towering indictment of Soviet tyranny "overlaps" the discourse of what B. F. Skinner called the "literature of freedom," which "aims to induce readers to escape from or attack those who seek to control them aversively" (112). In Toker's interpretation, Solzhenitsyn seeks to induce revolt, rather than repentance.

Most Gulag memoirs, despite the overwhelmingly secular character of the corpus, are written in what the author calls, by association with Bakhtin's notion of the carnivalesque, "the Lenten mode." In these texts the moral self is privileged over the biological self, the distinction between actors and spectators is erased, people from different walks of life commingle, and the possibility of survival at the expense of others is rejected. Toker defines a set of nine topoi, of which usually no less than seven are present in a given memoir: arrest; dignity ("the Socratic realization that true dignity . . . consists in deserving rather than in being given credit" [84]); stages (movement from prison to camp or from camp to camp); escape; moments of reprieve; Room 101 (the Orwellian notion of some special horror the narrator fears above all others); chance; the Zone and the Larger Zone (the relationship of the camp and the country outside); and end-of-term fatigue.

Like a number of other scholars, Toker compares the camp prose of Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov: "The blurring of the borderlines between the factographic and the fictionalized is nowhere as meaningful as in the stories of Varlam Shalamov" (141). By contrast, in his novels One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) and The First Circle (1958), Solzhenitsyn offers his readers a "pact" that is "formally fictional" (188). Unlike the "generalized, almost algebraic, referentiality" of Shalamov's prose, Solzhenitsyn's characters and events are "typical" and paradigmatic (188). In a penetrating comparative analysis of the 87...


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