Solzhenitsyn draws upon his own life in labor camps as well as the experience of fellow prisoners and extensive research to document the workings of the Soviet secret police and prison system.
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"Its importance can hardly be exaggerated," said Doris Lessing. "It helped to bring down an empire." For those who doubt that literature can change the world, here is evidence to the contrary. Solzhenitsyn's scorching, brilliant, part-autobiographical expose of the dreary oppressiveness and institutionalised cruelty of the Soviet regime, really did contribute to the final collapse of the Union in 1989. It also exposed how, if Hitler had the deaths of well over 6 million on his hands, the figure for Stalin might be nearer 60 million. This is not only history-in-the-making, but also an absolutely compulsive read (especially in this 400-page version abridged from the 1800 pages of the three-volume original.) From the breathtaking opening page, when Solzhenitsyn depicts starving prisoners of the Kolyma gulags, discovering a deep-frozen, prehistoric salamander in an icy stream and devouring it on the spot, "with relish," he holds you rapt, like the Ancient Mariner, with his "skinny hand" and "glittering eye." You have no choice but to listen to him, especially when he derides those who say "It would not happen here". "Alas," he says, "all the evil of the 20th century is possible everywhere on earth." One of the very few undeniable books of the century. -- Christopher Hart
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