Of Gilead and Gulag: 'Handmaids Tale' and 'Gulag Archipelago', a Comparative Review

Elisabeth Moss plays Offred in the TV
version of Handmaid's Tale

Earlier this month I read both ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. As they both centre on the themes of freedom and oppression―much talked about issues in our day―I thought it was worth doing a comparative review. I’ll briefly describe each book first.

Gulag Archipelago
Gulag was written by the Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008). As its title suggests, it focuses on the numerous prison and work camps into which the Soviets threw millions of its own people who were suspected of political dissent. Solzhenitsyn himself spent nearly ten years there, so it contains biographical as well as historical elements. In addition to simply recounting history, there is considerable space given to literary and spiritual reflection as it describes his journey from atheism to Christianity while in the gulags.

I read the author-approved abridged version which is 500 pages (the original is 2,000). Gulag is credited as being one of the great books that helped to bring down the USSR.

The Handmaid's Tale
Handmaid was written by Canadian author Margaret Atwood (1939-present). It is a dystopian novel set in in an imaginary futuristic New England that has been renamed Gilead. It is run by a religious, totalitarian, military dictatorship and, like Gulag, the novel follows the life of a character through an oppressive society dominated by an ideology to which everyone must conform and where dissent is severely punished. We follow the life of the protagonist, Offred, who has been chosen to be a handmaid (as one of the few fertile women left on the planet, she is selected to be a surrogate mother to a commander and his wife). She does not personally embrace the empowered ideology of the Republic, and so she struggles to keep her sanity in a system which would punish her for expressing disagreement and for breaking societal rules.

The book is about 320 pages. Handmaid has won many awards and is currently a popular television series.

How are they alike?
Hopefully, by now, it is obvious why we are comparing a work of non-fiction with a work of fiction: they aim to take us on the same journey and feel what life is like under an oppressive regime. The author herself, though Canadian, was living in West Berlin at the time of writing. Atwood saw the Marxist oppression as close as a free person can without having to actually come under it. It is her experience of living there that adds realism to the many scenes she describes. She has taken what she has seen and heard from the secular, Soviet regime and transplanted it into an imaginary religious dictatorship. Many scenes that she describes have a remarkably similar feel to what we find in Gulag.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn - a man whose book
 helped bring down the USSR

Atwood has a great gift for words and our ability to experience the inner life of Offred is noteworthy. Gulag does the same thing because, well, it actually is a real man’s own experiences and thoughts. But Atwood makes her work feel almost as real. We can feel the loneliness and the questioning that Offred experiences as we do with Solzhenitsyn.

Both books touch on the theme of restricted speech―something that is becoming more of an issue here in the UK. In both societies, there were certain un-PC words that one could get in trouble just for uttering.  In Gilead, Offred longs for magazines that are forbidden. In the Gulag, Solzhenitsyn longs for the Bible and other books that are equally forbidden. One walks away from both book (hopefully) with a greater appreciation of how valuable the right to dissent and the freedom of speech really is.

Both books depict just how rash revolution can be. Revolutionaries of any ideology tend to be in such a hurry to denounce so much.

Both books show how oppressive ideologies and regimes de-humanise their dissenters. Solzhenitsyn is given a number instead of a name. Offred is given her name by the new society (we are never told her real name).

Both books describe an existence where one has to continually question her friends and family. Who is a genuine believer? Who is secretly working for the regime? Who can I really trust? Will this person turn me in? The sense of isolation that comes from untrustworthy relationships is powerful in both works.

Neither book seeks to fully demonise the individual oppressors―this is to the credit of both books. One does not walk away from Gulag with the thought that all Marxists or all Atheists are evil. Solzhenitsyn even empathises with his interrogators at times. It’s in these experiences that one of his famous quotes about the line of good and evil running through the heart of every human occurs. Though Atwood doesn’t give the same depth of spiritual reflection to these issues, she does not make everyone in the regime purely demonic either―her characters are not cardboard. One does not walk away hating religious people after reading it. In fact, the ruling elite (apparently Protestants of some unspecified variety) war against Catholics, Baptists―and the Quakers are actually painted in a fairly good light. Atwood wields a nuance we can appreciate.

How are they Different?
One of the biggest differences―other than the obvious genre difference and the religious/irreligious natures of the regimes―would be the spiritual nature of Gulag. Though Handmaid does spend a lot of time exploring the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist, one does not finish the book with a clear roadmap for how to handle life if one is ever in such a situation. Many times, the phrase ‘don’t let the bastards wear you down’ is used, but we are left wondering how to not let them do so. The ending of the book doesn’t give us clear instructions. But Gulag is different. When finished, one feels like she has an idea of what truths her heart must embrace if her soul is to survive, and even thrive, in such a situation.

This is inevitably connected to the larger issue of transcendence. For Solzhenitsyn, there are clear transcendent truths by which he evaluates and compares life in Russia pre- and post- Marxist Revolution. We have a clear standard by which to say that the freedom before is better than the oppression after. But though such ideas are implied in Handmaid, they are not―and perhaps from its secular standpoint cannot―be developed in much depth.

That is not to say Atwood is wholly silent on the subject. But her attempts to root Offred’s longing for freedom in something other than just a subjective preference―that is, in something actually morally verifiable―feels weak after reading Gulag. She contemplates the nature of ‘love’ at one point and even recites her own version of the Lord’s Prayer―but these reflections don’t go very far (at least not by comparison to Gulag). All this leads the thinking reader to ask ‘On what objective basis can we say that a free society is superior to an oppressive one? Offred may not like it, but there are others who do―so who cares what Offred thinks?

We are left wondering if Offred would not treat her religious persecutors in the same way if roles were reversed and she were to suddenly come to power. By contrast, we sense that if the roles were suddenly reversed, Solzhenitsyn would really want freedom and good for those tormenting him. He has the calming fluid of patience flowing through his veins. 

In the recesses of the gulag, we find salvation and a clear answer to why freedom is better for all mankind―religious or irreligious. In the Republic of Gilead we find neither.

I’m glad I read the two books together. I would recommend reading the abridged version of Gulag to everyone as a great book to help grow your soul and to understand life under Marxism. I would also commend Handmaid as an engaging novel with good wordsmithery, syntax, and realistic psychological descriptions―even if the plot is a bit underdeveloped at points. 

For more on growing spiritually in the midst of spiritual oppression, check out Elijah Men Eat MeatReadings to slaughter your inner Ahab and pursue Revival and Reform (Get Here) 


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