Solovki. The first Soviet labour camp on an island in the White Sea, the blueprint for what became the Gulag. Originally planned as a re-education camp, it all too soon evolved into a brutal punitive camp; what was originally conceived as a place for “forging new human beings” with a library, research facilities, a theatre and sporting events, almost immediately descended into a hell of hunger, unimaginable cold, murder, institutionalised violence, forced labour under intolerable conditions, death and betrayal. Into this hell comes 27-year-old Artiom, convicted of killing his father. Unlike many other inmates, he has no political affiliations, allies himself with no particular group, and is just intent on surviving. It is through his eyes that we are immersed in the daily life of the camp and follow him as he suffers all the ills to which the place can subject him.
The prison camp novel has a long tradition in Russia, although this is one of the first in recent literature to revisit and re-examine the camp system. Prilepin spent several months on the islands researching in the archives, and many of the main characters in the novel are based on real people whose lives can easily be read about online, and I recommend doing just that. Artiom himself is based on the author’s own great-grandfather. The strong historical setting, the drama, the vivid descriptions, and the large cast of characters all combine to make this a compelling read. It does have its faults, though, not least that the book is too long at 650 pages and would have benefited from some editing. But for all that, it’s quite an achievement and essential reading for anyone interested in Russian literature and Russian history, or for anyone who simply enjoys an absorbing, if hard-hitting, story.