MOSCOW — The book that made "Gulag" a synonym for the horrors of Soviet oppression will be taught in Russian high schools, a generation after the Kremlin banned it as destructive to the Communist cause and exiled its author.
The Education Ministry said Wednesday that excerpts of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago," published in 1973, are to be required reading for students.
Coming at a time when Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is pushing to restore pride in the Soviet past, the decision could be a reflection of the Russian establishment's struggle to reconcile that pride with the freedoms that Russians take for granted nearly 20 years after dumping communism and embracing democracy and the free market.
The government in recent years has tried to control how history is taught, getting rid of textbooks that deviate from the new official line. In 2003, authorities banned a history text that was critical of Josef Stalin, the dictator most readily identified with the horrors of the Gulag.
After publication, "The Gulag Archipelago" circulated underground and soon reached the West in translation. A furious Kremlin expelled Solzhenitsyn from his native country in 1974, and he spent the next 20 years in the U.S.
His massive three-volume book gave the outside world a detailed account of the systematic imprisonment and murder of hundreds of thousands of Russians in the nationwide "archipelago" of prisons and labor camps designed by Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin and expanded by StalinSolzhenitsyn, who had won the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature, drew on his own experiences in various labor camps in the 1940s and on the testimony of hundreds of other prisoners who survived the Main Department of Corrective Labor Camps and Colonies — the title whose Russian acronym is "Gulag."
Stalin, who died in office in 1953, was recently voted by Russians as their third greatest historical figure, and lyrics praising him have been inscribed in the vestibule of a prominent Moscow subway station.
Other books by Solzhenitsyn are taught in Russian schools, but choosing "The Gulag Archipelago," one of the most explosive publishing events in Soviet history, seemed to go against the Kremlin tendency toward treating Stalin's 24-year rule with nostalgia.
Human rights activists, however, were hesitant to call it a turnaround.
Lev Ponomaryov, who campaigns for Russia to repudiate Stalinism, said the Kremlin was worried that the economic crisis is increasing the popularity of the Communist Party at a time of economic crisis.
"The introduction of the books is a rather good way to decrease the popularity of the Communists among the young people," Ponomaryov said.
The Education Ministry stayed out of the debate, saying only that the decision was taken due to "the vital historical and cultural heritage" contained in Solzhenitsyn's work.
It was not immediately clear whether the book would be taught in the current school year, which began Sept. 1.
But whatever the motive, Ponomaryov said, he welcomed fact-based education about the Gulag because "the younger generation should know about the crimes of Bolshevism and Stalinism in Russia."
Following his expulsion, Solzhenitsyn and his wife led a secluded life in Vermont and the author surprised many by revealing himself as an arch-conservative almost as harshly critical ofthe West's permissive ways as he was of the Soviet system.
After a triumphant return from exile in 1994 that included a 56-day train trip across his homeland, Solzhenitsyn later expressed disappointment that most Russians hadn't read his books.
He died in August 2008 of a chronic heart condition, mourned in the West as a Cold War hero but never revered at home. He was 89.