This is the transcript of Jordan Peterson’s Personality lecture titled “Existentialism via Solzhenitsyn and the Gulag”. In this lecture, Jordan explores the dreadful socio-political consequences of the individual inauthentic life: the degeneration of society into nihilism or totalitarianism, often of the most murderous sort, employing as an example the work/death camps of the Soviet Union.
Dr. Jordan B. Peterson – Psychologist
So, I want to tell you about a book today. The book is called The Gulag Archipelago. You ready? The book is called The Gulag Archipelago and it’s by a Russian author, a Soviet author named Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was in the Gulag Archipelago concentration camp system for a very long time. He had a very hard life. He was on the Russian front when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in the early stages of World War II.
Now, Hitler and Stalin had signed a non-aggression pact. And Hitler invaded the Soviet Union anyway. And from what I’ve been able to understand, the Soviets had prepared an invasion force for Europe at that point, but were not concerned with having to defend their territory and so they were caught completely unawares by Hitler’s move. And the conditions on the Russian front were absolutely dreadful, and Solzhenitsyn was a soldier on the Russian front.
And he wrote some letters to one of his friends which were intercepted complaining about the lack of preparation and using bitter dark humor to describe the situation. And the consequences of that was that he was thrown into a work camp. The Soviet system relied on work camps, and so those were large labor camps of people who were essentially enslaved, many of whom were worked to death, often froze to death working in conditions that were so dreadful that they’re virtually unimaginable.
Solzhenitsyn spent a very large number of years in these camps, sometimes in a more privileged camp, because he was an educated man and sometimes in worse camps. He also developed cancer later, and wrote a book about that called Cancer Ward which is a brilliant book. So he had a very hard life. There’s just no way around that to be on the front and then to be in a concentration camp and then to have cancer. That’s pretty rough.
Now he wrote The Gulag Archipelago. He wrote a book called One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich first. That was published in the early 1960s. When there was a brief thaw, Stalin was pretty much out of the picture by the end of the 1950s. There’s some indication that he was murdered by Khrushchev, and Khrushchev became premier of the Soviet Union after Stalin. And there’s some indication perhaps that Stalin was either murdered by Khrushchev and a set of his cronies or when he was very ill just before he died was not helped at least by — wasn’t provided with any medical attention because of the intervention of Khrushchev and his cronies.
Now there’s some indication as well at that point that Stalin who was an absolute — absolutely barbaric in every possible way you could imagine — was planning to start a Third World War and he was certainly capable of doing such things, because he had already imprisoned or killed tens of millions of people.
Now just after Stalin died, there was a bit of a thaw in the Soviet Union with regards to internal repression. In the early 1960s Solzhenitsyn published a book called One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich which was a story about one day in the life — his life really — inside one of these so-called Gulag archipelago camps.
Now he called it The Gulag Archipelago, because an archipelago is a chain of islands, and so Solzhenitsyn likened the work camp system in the Soviet Union which is made up of isolated camps distributed across the entire state. He likened that to a series of islands and hence the metaphor. And One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was one of the first publications released in the Soviet Union that dared make public what had happened inside these camps at least initially.
Now that thaw didn’t last very long but that book had a tremendous effect. It’s a short book, it’s worth reading. After that he spent — he wrote a number of other books which are also — he’s a great literary figure in the same category I would say as Tolstoy or Dostoevsky which is like really saying something. Those two are perhaps the greatest literary figures who ever lived with the possible exception of Shakespeare.
He wrote this book called The Gulag Archipelago which is published in three volumes, each of which is about 700 pages long. The first one details the origin of the oppressive Soviet system at least in part under Lenin, and then its full fledged implementation under Stalin and the deaths of — well, Solzhenitsyn estimated the deaths in internal repression in the Soviet Union at something approximating 60 million between 1919 and 1959. Now that doesn’t count the death toll in the Second World War by the way.
Now people have disputed those figures but they’re certainly in the tens of millions and the low end bounds are probably 20 million and the high end bounds are nearer what Solzhenitsyn estimated. He also estimated that the same kind of internal repression in Maoist China cost 100 million lives, and so you can imagine that the genuine historical figures again are subject to dispute but somewhere between 50 and 100 million people.
And one of the things that’s really surprising to me, and that I think is absolutely reprehensible — absolutely reprehensible is the fact that this is not widespread knowledge among students in the West any of this and it’s because your education, your historical education, if you started to describe it as appalling you would barely scratch the surface. These were the most important events of the 20th century, and they’re barely covered at all in standard historical curriculum.
You know of something I would presume about World War II and about the terrible situation in Nazi Germany and the death of 6 million gypsies and Jews and homosexuals in the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, but my experience with students has been that none of them know anything about what happened as a consequence of the repression of the radical left in the 20th century. And I believe the reason for that is that the communist system had extensive networks of admirers in the West especially among intellectuals and still in fact does which is also equally reprehensible. And I believe that one of the consequences of that is that this element of history has been under, what would you say, under examined and certainly very little attention has been brought to it in the public school curricula, and there’s absolutely no excuse for that. It was the worst thing that happened in the 20th century, and that’s really saying something, because the 20th century was about as bad as it gets.