When the nail sticks out

rants, raves and randomness

The Gulag Archipelago

The Gulag Archipelago written by  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is one of the most depressing things I have ever read. I couldn’t go on reading a few pages at a time and had to prolong my reading time for a month.

It is about the Gulag or forced labor camps in Russia from 1918-1956. The author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, was arrested after criticizing Stalin and served his own time in prison. He accumulated data from personal accounts of his fellow “zeks” (inmates), totaling to 227 prisoners all in all. Some may dispute the accuracy of his accounts and his tendency for flair of words, but I don’t doubt the capacity of humans to be  immensely cruel, especially granted unchecked power. In  the words of the author, I do not know whether this is truth or calumny, or, if there were any such cases, how many were there. But I wouldn’t set out to look for proof, either. Following the practice of the bluecaps, I would propose that they prove to us that this was impossible

This is not the first I read about forced labor camps. When the e-book Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West first came out in Kindle, I bought it immediately and managed to read it in two days (and was depressed for a whole month). It was an account of a  North Korean Gulag-born-and-bred prisoner, Shin Dong-hyuk. But somehow, maybe because Shin was born inside the prison camp and ignorant of anything of the world outside the camps , his own personal story seemed less emotional than the numerous third-person stories collected and compiled by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. For one, Shin didn’t seem to have emotional attachment to his parents or family in the usual sense of a way. His mother was good for him as long she served his purposes (provide food) and in the end, he admitted to betraying her that ultimately lead to her execution. In a perverse sort of way, because Shin hadn’t experienced kindness in his life or the world outside, it seemed like Shin was less bothered by the things he missed out in life until by the time he got out. On the other hand, the prisoners of the Russian Gulags knew life outside of prison- they were living normal lives, they had families and friends,  when their lives were turned upside down. Snatched on the streets or from their homes, some never survived to see their loved ones again. When I looked at young Aleksandr’s photo, his identity wiped out by mere numbers, I couldn’t help but weep for the life taken from him and millions others.

The author,  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

The author, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in 1953, after his release from the special camp

The Gulag archipelago starts with the arrest: How and when it was usually done and to whom. There are all sorts of prisoners, mainly divided into two the ” politicals” and “non-politicals”. Politicals may include those believed to be “spies” for the west (even without evidence), those who were criticized Stalin or his intimates, those who opposed the government, those who fought in the war and were shamelessly captured as POWs, those who experienced living in the west, those who stole from state property or even those accused of telling anti-Stalinist jokes. Almost anybody can become a political- it suffices to have someone denounce you. The non-politicals include those who were involved in murder, robberies or petty crimes, such as stealing a sack of grains or vegetables from the common folks. Age or gender did not exempt anyone from being under suspicion. Teenagers could be spending five years in prison for breaking into a fight and accidentally smashing a portrait of Stalin.Religious people were not spared- after all Christianity proclaims God’s law as higher than any laws, including Soviet laws. All persons convicted of religious activities got a tenner (ten years). In fact, many prisoners did get tenners during that time- it was the norm than the exemption. One man got a tenner for being the first one to stop clapping after a Stalin speech.  Another would get a tenner for “desecrating” a Stalin bust by hanging his jacket on it. Almost anybody can be sent to prison! Laws were selective and applied arbitrarily. One lady went to the police station to ask the authorities what to do with the child of the person who had been arrested. What happened? They arrested her too.

The village club manager went with his watchman to buy a bus of Comrade Stalin. They bought it. The bust was big and hevy. They ought to have carried it in a hand barrow, both of them together, but the manager’s status did not allow him to. “Allright, you’ll manage it if you take it slowly.” And he went off ahead. The old watchman couldn’t work out how to do it for a long time. If he tried to carry it at his side, he couldn’t get his arm around it. If he tried to carry it in front of his, his back hurt and he thrown off balance backward. Finally he figured out how to do it. He took off his belt, made a noose for Comrade Stalin and put it around his neck, and in this way carried over his shoulder through the village. Well, there was nothing here to argue about it. It was an open-and-shut case. Article 58-8, terrorism, ten years. P 240

Why, they couldn’t care less about your guilt or your motivations. What mattered was to fulfill the quota of prisoners to keep the wheels of the Gulag running.

The real law underlying the arrests of those years  was the assignment of quotas, the norms set, the planned allocations. Every city, every district, every military unit was assigned a specific quota of arrests to be carried out by a stipulated time. P 29

Majority of those arrested believed themselves to be innocent of any crimes.

But the Gulag Archipelago knows now pangs of conscience! Out of one hundred natives – five are thieves, and their transgressions are no reproach in their own eyes,  but a mark of valor. They dream of carrying out such feats in the future even more brazenly and cleverly. They have nothing to repent. Another five…stole on a big scale, but not from the people; in our times, the only place where one can steal ona big scale is from the state, which itself squanders the people’s money without pity or sense – so what was there for such types to repent of? [] And, so far as another 85 percent of the natives were concerned – they had never committed any crimes whatever. What were they supposed to repent of? That they thought what they thought?  P 300

But why these massive arrests? The Gulag was an enterprise, that served two purposes : to purge the opponents of Stalin (and teach them a lesson by example) and to supply free labor to the industrial programs (eg construction, digging canals, logging forests, mining and building railroad tracks.)

We have to squeeze everything out of a prisoner in the first three months-  after that, we don’t need him anymore. Naftaly Frenkel. P 187

Another chapter was dedicated, enumerating the different ways of torturing, of “breaking”  prisoners. And almost everyone breaks – considering the excessive brutality and ingenuity of the torturers. I find that there is hardly any shame in that- when you are mentally, physically, emotionally strained, some people just give in and break. Unfortunately, some are corrupted by the whole system. It was a dog-eat-dog-world in there, and one learned, if you couldn’t beat them, then join them.

If you study in detail the whole history of arrests and trials of 1936-1938, the principal revulsion you feel is not against Stalin and his accomplices , but against the humiliatingly repulsive defendants – nausea at their spiritual baseness after their former pride and implacability. P 63

 One thing that stood for me is the sleeplessness, where one prisoner, under interrogation, would be subjected to sleeplessness for days on end, with dedicated guards to kick him whenever his eyes closed. Sometimes, a prisoner would be made to stand for three, four and five days and be deprived of water! (P 51). Such perverse creativity, these NKVD had!

The book also detailed what happened during prison transport, the horrors one would have to endure in cramped trucks traveling for days with no decent food or water or deprived of using latrines. Guards avoided feeding the prisoners or giving them water because that would mean more restroom breaks- and restroom breaks took a lot of time if you were herding hundreds of prisoners at a time.

Things could only get worse. Once inside the camp, people were subjected to inhumane conditions, sometimes deprived of latrine, but almost always deprived of food while forced to work long hours ill-equipped for the work itself or for the climate. The terrible fact that echoes throughout the book is that all these were done, not by invaders or enemies, but by the nations onto itself, its own people. Now that I am reading another book, War Trash, a fictional book written about a Chinese POW, I can’t help but be astounded by a quote that seemed to hold true for The victims of the Russian Gulags :

History has shown that Communists always treat their enemies more leniently than their own people. Only by becoming their significant enemies can you survive decently. – Han Shu

Ha Jin. War Trash. Penguin Books, 2004. Print. P 103

According to Wikipedia,

 About 14 million people were in the Gulag labor camps from 1929 to 1953. A further 6–7 million were deported and exiled to remote areas of the USSR, and 4–5 million passed through labor colonies. The total population of the camps varied from 510,307 in 1934 to 1,727,970 in 1953.

According to a 1993 study of archival Soviet data, a total of 1,053,829 people died in the Gulag from 1934 to 1953.[6] However, taking into account that it was common practice to release prisoners who were either suffering from incurable diseases or on the point of death, the actual Gulag death toll was somewhat higher, amounting to 1,258,537 in 1934-53, or 1.6 million deaths during the whole period from 1929 to 1953.Some estimates for total number deaths in the Gulag go beyond 10 million.

The deaths under Stalin rivaled that of Hitler. Scholars argue now- who killed more? But the problem with this is reducing a life into mere numbers, as if life itself is just statistics. What we know now is that there were many people who suffered in those archipelagos enough to populate a country. What was taken away can never be given back, and all the horrors and trauma each individual had to endure was just unquantifiable. We could never imagine to what greatness or good they coul have achieved, had they lived in freedom. Or had they lived at all. What a waste!  And for what?

For an ideology, that’s what. Ideology that divided the world twice over.

To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek justification for his actions.

Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.

Ideology – that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and other’s eyes, so that he won’t hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis by race; and the Jacobins (early and late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations.

Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions. This cannot be denied, nor passed over, nor suppressed. How, then, do we dare insist that evildoers do not exist? And who was it that destroyed these millions? Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago.

The author wrote that is through ideology that one can continue doing inhumane things and not feel guilty about it. It is the border line that cuts people from their own humanity, the lie that one had to feed oneself to get a good  night’s sleep.  How can a man do horrible things and live through the end of his life without remorse if he can’t justify his actions to himself? The ideology served as fuel to those who operated the Gulag and kept its wheels turning. Without these people, Russian history would have been different.

This book was published to last for all eternity, so that future generations would read it and be astounded.

P 200

Although I ended up reading this book in  small installments, my heart unused to so much…tragedy, I must admit I found this book inspiring. For sure, amid horrific conditions, there were prisoners who couldn’t take the mental or physical strains, those who were already pushed to the edge, those who prayed it  would all just end. Some did take their lives, but they were a minority. Some decided to go with the flow, and “participate in the lie.” However, the most admirable ones are the zeks managed to survive with their humanity intact, finding hope in themselves,  despite the odds stacked against them. They held out and endured as long as they could. For those of us , privileged to live freely without fear of harassment or arrests, it does lend a valuable perspective.  What if it happened to me or you, us, the Walmart generation, unused to struggles, would we have acted any better? The prisoners would eventually find their courage and rise in defiance. What didn’t kill them, made them stronger. There is after all, more to man than his flesh, more to life than just surviving. What have they got to lose, they who already had everything stripped from them?! When you’ve experienced the worst, been at the bottom, there was just no way to go but up. Even those who were to be released in a few months, including the author, joined this collective fight for justice. Life is more than self-preservation. You may lose your life, but you keep your soul.

 The human soul is irreducible. It is the core which neither NKVD nor Stalin with all his brute forces, could ever touch. 

“Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.” ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956

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