Gulag Reflections

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As I mentioned about a week ago, I took it upon myself to read the book The Gulag Archipelago by Nobel laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The actual Archipelago series is three volumes, and about 1200 pages. I read the approximately 500 page trimmed-down version of it, making copious highlights along the way.

The book certainly had an impact on me, and I wanted to offer you a smattering of snippets, with remarks along with each one, and perhaps by the time I get to the end, I’ll have some personal insights to offer

I originally was going to break this into multiple parts, due to its length, as well as to satisfy my neurotic need for a large quantity of posts every day. But this post is very long for a reason, and some people will want to consume it all in one sitting. So this will be the only post for twenty-four hours. It took a tremendous amount of work, and it deserves the time.

These snippets are not meant in any way to substitute for the reading of a 500 page book (which itself is less than half the content of the original work), but to instead serve as small jumping-off point for various thoughts and impressions I had. We begin with a description of the ubiquitous and omnipresent risk of being arrested anytime and anywhere during the era of the gulag

They take you aside in a factory corridor after you’ve had your past checked and you are arrested. They take you from a military hospital with a temperature of 102° and the doctor will not raise a peep about your arrest. They’ll take you right off the operating table in the middle of an operation for stomach ulcers and drag you off to a cell, as they did to one patient, half alive and all bloody. You are arrested by a religious pilgrim whom you put up for the night “for the sake of Christ.” You are arrested by a meter man who has come to read your electric meter. You are arrested by a bicyclist who has run into on the street, by a railway conductor, a taxi driver, a savings bank teller, the manager of a movie theater. Any one of them can arrest you, and you notice the concealed maroon colored identification card only when it is too late.

He describes the earliest days of the gulag system, and how the philosophy behind it is embedded in the concept that an individual’s thoughts and actions are less important than any given group to which he belongs.

On November 1, 1918 in the newspaper Red Terror “we are not fighting against single individuals. We are exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class. It is not necessary during the interrogation to look for evidence proving that the accused opposed the Soviets by word or action. The first question which you should ask him is what class does he belong to, what is his origin, his education and his profession. These are the questions which will determine the fate of the accused.

One pathetically hilarious scene is described in which, at a large official gathering, someone makes a sycophantic and over-the-top toast toward Joseph Stalin (who wasn’t there physically, but whose praises the citizens were expected to endlessly sing). The huge group starts clapping and clapping…………and clapping. One minute, two minutes, five minutes, ten minutes, just nonstop, ferocious applause, with many of the older people looking like they were about to fall over from exhauation:

With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with false hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on applauding until they fell where they stood, until they were carried out of the hall on stretchers! And even then those who were left would not falter. Then after 11 minutes the Director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. And oh and a miracle took place! We are at the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved! The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel.

You can probably guess what happened next.

That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory Director was arrested. They easily pasted 10 years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed form 206, the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him “don’t ever be the first to stop applauding! “

So the poor bastard got thrown in the gulag for a decade because, after eleven minutes of insipid clapping, he was the first to cease it. Of course, the more one learns about Stalin, the more one wishes that Hell exists with Stalin as a permanent, infinitely-suffering resident.

But the suffering in the 20th century was not doled out to Stalin but instead of the literally 16 million people he threw into nightmarish hellholes. The book goes into blood-curdling detail about the psychological and physical tortures the prisoners endured. Just to give you a taste, here is one of the gentler ones described.

The bedbug infested box has already been mentioned. In the dirt closet made of wooden planks, they were hundreds, maybe even thousands, of bedbugs, which had been allowed to multiply. The guards removed the prisoners jacket or shirt, and immediately the hungry bedbugs assaulted him, crawling onto him from the walls are falling off the ceiling. At first he waged war with them strenuously, crushing them on his body and on the walls, suffocated by their stink. But after several hours he weakened and let them drink his blood without a murmur.

I won’t assault you with it here, but feel free to do an image search on “bedbugs” to turn your stomach. In our society, if a hotel is said to have a single bedbug, it can ruin their business. Just imagine the sort of mind which would want to saturate a person’s existence with these blood-sucking little bastards.

As you read about the conditions of the gulag – – and, believe me, it is a vision of hell – – you start to get a tiny sense of what it must have been like, even in the most superficial sense. But even worse than the always-wet, bitterly-cold, disease-infested conditions are the guards and interrogators. These monstrous animals were given power by the state apparatus, and they exploited it as far as they could.

There is one thing, however, which remains with us all as an accurate, generalized recollection. Foul rot. And when, decades later, we are long past fits of anger or outrage, in our own quieted hearts we retain this firm impression of low, malicious, impious, and possibly muddled people. Their branch of service does not require them to be educated people of broad culture in broad views and they are not. Their branch of service does not require them to think logically, and they do not. Their branch of service requires only that they carry out orders exactly and be impervious to suffering, and that is what they do and what they are. We who have passed through their hands suffocated when we think of that legion, which is stripped bare of universal human ideals.

Solzhenitsyn suggests a thought with which I agree strongly when it comes to the corruption of power:

Power is a poison well known for thousands of years. If only no one were ever to acquire material power over others! But to the human being who has faith and some force that holds dominion over all of us, and who is there for conscious of his own limitations, power is not necessarily fatal. For those, however, who are unaware of any higher sphere, it is a deadly poison. For them there is no antidote.

In other words, in spite of the phrase “absolute power corrupts absolutely”, power affects different people in different ways. Not all of us would become monsters if we were placed in positions of power. A person’s character is directly related to the use or misuse of the power, and these boorish, primitive creatures that were handed the cudgels of the prison system were exactly the sort to lord it over all whom they considered their inferiors.

Then Solzhenitsyn go farther, not just on power, but on the entire subject of good and evil within the human spirit. This is a vitally important part of this work:

If only it were also simple! If only they were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being, and who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place, sometimes it is squeezed One Way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for the good to flourish. One and the same human being is, in various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to Sainthood.

He takes no pity on the cruel overseers of the prison system, however, even after they become very old. He adamantly believes that the guilty parties must be held accountable for their actions in life, no matter when.

We have to condemn publicly the very idea that some people have the right to oppress others. In keeping silent about evil, and burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are in planting it, and it will rise up a thousand fold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evil doers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath the new generations. It is for this reason, and not because of the weakness of indoctrination will work, that they are growing up indifferent. Young people are acquiring the conviction that foul deeds are never punished on earth, that they always bring prosperity. It is going to be uncomfortable, horrible, to live in such a country!

One of the things I found shocking an disappointing in this book is how complicit the allies were at the end of World War II when it came to forcing the Russians back to their country. Many of the soldiers had absolutely no interest in going home, but the allied forces took whatever measures needed, including outright tricking of the soldiers, to get them back within Russian borders. It was apparently incomprehensible to the allies that someone would despise the idea of returning to their native land. Keep in mind, the gulag system had been running for decades already.

In Yalta, Churchill and Roosevelt had signed the agreement to repatriate all Soviet citizens, and especially the military, without specifying weather the repatriation was to be voluntary or enforced: how could any people on earth not be willing to return to their homes? The nearsightedness of the west with condensed and what was written at Yalta.

A large part of the book is focused on the human experience and relational nuances among the prisoners, particularly on the deep bonds created by their shared misery. Solzhenitsyn believes the richest, most meaningful connections of his life were made within those hellish walls:

Own only what you can always carry with you: no languages, no countries, no people. Let your memory be your travel bag. Use your memory! Use your memory! It is those bitter seeds alone which might sprout and grow someday. Look around you. There are people around you. Maybe you will remember one of them all your life and later eat your heart out because you didn’t make use of the opportunity to ask him questions. And the less you talk, the more you will hear. Thin strands of human lives stretch from island to island of the archipelago. They intertwine, touch one another for one night only in such a clickety clack in half dark car as this and then separate once and for all. Put your ear to the quiet humming and the steady clickety-clack beneath the car. After all, it is the spinning wheel of life that is clicking and clicking away there.

Solzhenitsyn reserves a special fury for those “intellectuals” from the west, such as the United States, which made curious exploratory journeys to the Soviet Union to see what this Communist paradise was all about. Of course, what they were shown was every bit as contrived, phony, and false as what a North Korean tour might provide in the modern day. The prisons were largely emptied, those remaining prisoners were given nice, fresh clothes, and they all sang the praises of their experience in the gulag (lest they be shot through the head after the visitor had departed).

Oh what an intelligent, farsighted humane administration from top to bottom “a Supreme court Judge Leibowitz of New York State Route in Life magazine, after having visited the Gulag. “In serving out his term of punishment, the prisoner retains a feeling of dignity “ That is what he comprehended and saw. And oh you well fed Devil May care near-sighted irresponsible foreigners with your notebooks and your ballpoint pens, beginning with those correspondents who ask the prisoners questions in the presence of the camp chiefs, how much you have harmed us in your vain passion to shine with understanding in areas where you did not grasp a lousy thing!

It is very clear in the book that what the Soviet Union wanted was millions of people for slave labor. The criminal charges were utterly contrived.

However for the most part fantastic accusations were not really required. There existed a very simple standardized collection of charges from which it was enough for the interrogator to pick one or two and stick them like postage stamps on an envelope:

* Discrediting the leader
* Any negative attitude toward the collective farm structure
* Any negative attitude towards State loans
* Negative attitude toward the Stalinist constitution
* Sympathy for Trotsky
* Friendliness toward the United States

Sickening, isn’t it? But the state only cared for the state. They really weren’t about making their citizens moral. Far from it. The state, as a grotesque entity unto itself, was self-preserving and self-protecting, and made no similar defense when it came to private property:

Here is what our laws were like for 30 years: to 1947: for robbery of the state, embezzlement of state funds, a packing case from a warehouse, for three potatoes from a collective farm: 10 years! After 1947 it was as much as 20! But robbery of a free person? Suppose they cleaned out an apartment, cutting off a truck everything the family had acquired in a lifetime. If it was not accompanied by murder, then the sentence was up to one year, sometimes six months. The thieves flourished because they were encouraged, through its laws the Stalin‘s power said to these thieves clearly: do not steal from me! Steal from private persons!

Hmmm. Remind you of anything these days? I know it’s hardly in the same class, but recall the surge in crime in California, since the state decided to go soft on crime and making theft of up to $1,000 a misdemeanor offense.

The problem with slave slavery for those inflicting the slavery is that it’s actually a really horrible economic decision. Having human beings work for you against their will, and having taken their lives away from them, one isn’t going to get anything except the absolute barest and more slipshod effort imaginable. That’s one of the reasons Russia was such a disaster in the 20th century, in spite of having access to virtually free labor from countless millions of souls.

The first in principle caused with the lack of conscientiousness of the prisoners, the negligence of those stupid slaves. Not only could you not expect any socialist self-sacrifice of them, but they did not even manifest simple capitalist diligence. All they were on the lookout for it was ways to spoil their footgear, and not go out to work, had a record crane, to buckle a wheel, to break a speed, to sync a pail, anything for a pretext to sit down and smoke. All of the camp inmates made for their own dear State was openly and blatantly botched: you could break the bricks they made with your bare hands; the paint would peel off the panels; the plaster would fall off; posts would fall down; tables rock; legs fall out; handles come off. carelessness and mistakes were everywhere.

I think the numbers tossed around are just so gigantic, it’s impossible for us to grasp. Here in our society, we learn of, let’s say, one of the Varsity Blues moms getting sentenced to 14 days in prison, and people wring their hands about – – how will she do? Will she be OK? But these things are luxury hotels compared to the hellholes of the gulag. And we’re not talking about 14 days. We’re talking about 3,650 days (the common “tenner” sentence) in the Arctic Circle.

Even one mirror year, how long it lasts! Even in one year how much time is left for you to think! For 365 days you stop out to line up in a drizzling slushy rain in a piercing blizzard, and a biting and still subzero cold. For 365 days you work away at hateful, alien work with your mind an occupied. For 365 evenings you squint you up, wet, chilled, in the end of work lineup, waiting for the convoy to assemble from a distant watch towers. And then there is the march out. In the march back. And bending down over 730 bowls of gruel, and over 730 portions of grits, yes, and waking up and going to sleep on your multiple bunk. And neither books nor radio to distract you. There are none, and thank God.

What the author points out as remarkable – – and I am astonished, since I pathetically assume someone of my own nature would want to off himself as soon as possible in such a situation – – is that he knew of no suicides.

People died by the hundreds of thousands and millions, driven, it would seem, to the extremity of extremities: but for some reason they were no suicides! Condemned to a misshapen existence, to waste away from starvation, to exhaustion from labor, they did not put an end to themselves! And thinking the whole thing over, I found that proved to be the stronger. A suicide is always a bankrupt, always a human being in a blind alley, a human being who is gambled his life and lost in this without the world and continue to struggle. If these millions of helpless and pitiful vermin still did not put an end to themselves, this meant some kind of invincible feeling was alive inside them. Some very powerful idea

An important insight with the good/evil dichotomy is brought forth again, pointing out that although “evil” is impossible to expunge from the world entire, it can be achieved, person by person; and yet those who trumpet that they will rid the evildoers among the citizenry invariably turn out to be even worse than the problem they claim they will eradicate in the first place.

Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: they struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being) is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person. And since that time I’ve come to understand the falsity of all the revolutions in history: they destroy only those carriers of evil contemporary with them (and also feel out of haste to discriminate the carriers of good as well) and they then take to themselves as their heritage the actual evil itself, magnified still more.

Of course, there was also a sense of the gulag system’s presence in Soviet society in general, and the effects of this reality bled into all corners of the lives of those who were, relatively speaking, “free”:

Let us try to enumerate briefly those traits of free life which were determined by the closeness of the archipelago or which we were in the same style:

+ Constant fear
+ Servitude
+ Secrecy and mistrust
+ Universal ignorance
+ Squealing
+ Betrayal as a form of existence
+ Corruption
+ The lie as a form of existence
+ Cruelty
+ Slave psychology

So the society as a whole, whether imprisoned or not, became infected with the same continent-wide disease.

Over time, the prisoners – – incredibly, really – – began to form sort of a collective backbone and began to resist the merciless savagery of their captors. The author reflects proudly on a campwide hunger strike which they held, and which actually resulted in some meaningful changes in the camp and the behavior of the guards and interrogators there.

None of those who took part but ever forget those three days in our lives. We could not see our comrades in other huts, nor the corpses line there unburied. Nonetheless, the bonds which united us, at opposite ends of the deserted camp, were of steel. This was a hunger strike held not by well-fed people with reserves of subcutaneous fat, but by gaunt, emaciated men, who felt the whip of hunger daily for years on end, you had achieved with difficulty some sort of physical equilibrium, and who suffered acute distress if they were deprived of a single 100 gram ration. Even the “goners” starved with the rest, although a three day fast may tip them into irreversible and fatal decline. The food which we had refused, and which we had all these thoughts so beggarly, was a mirage of plenty in the feverish dreams of famished men.

The prisoners become more bold in their efforts, and at once point they actually took over the entire camp for 40 days before they were laid flat by tanks and military planes. During their seizure of the camp, they tried to disseminate information to others, with one of the more clever attempts by way of airborne kites:

Then some Chechen prisoners came to the technical department and offered to make kites. They were experts. They succeeded in sticking some kites together and playing out the string until they were over the settlement. There was a percussive device on the frame of each kite. When the kite was in a convenient position, the device scattered a bundle of leaflets, also attached to the kite. The kite flyer sat on the roof of a hut, waiting to see what would happen next. If the leaflets feel close to the camp, warders ran to collect them; if they feel further away, motorcyclists and horseman dashed after them. Whatever happened, they tried to prevent the free citizens from reading an independent version of the truth. The leaflets ended up requesting any citizen who found one to deliver it to the central committee. The kites were also shot at, but holing was less damaging to them then to the balloons. The enemy soon discovered that sending up counter kites to tangle strings with the them was cheaper than keeping a crowd of warders on the run. A war of kites in the second half of the 20th century! And all to silence a word of truth.

In the years that followed the author’s imprisonment, and exile, he felt an unbreakable bond with the brotherhood that had been established with the prisoners.

You read it, and feel a warm glow. No, honestly, however many letters you receive, those from prisoners stand out unmistakably. Such extraordinary toughness they show! Such clarity of purpose combined with such vigor and determination! In our day, if you get a letter completely free from self-pity, genuinely optimistic: it can only be from a former prisoner. They are used to the worst the world can do, and nothing can depress them.

But, at the very end of his book, he lashed out once more against the starry-eyed fans of Communism. Remember, this book was finished in the late 1960s, and kids around 20 years old were marching on the campuses of Columbia, Berkeley, and Chicago, screeching about the political revolution that was sure to come. Paging AOC!

All you freedom loving left-wing thinkers in the west! You lift labor rights! You progressive Americans, Germans, and French students! As far as you’re concerned, none of this amounts to much. As far as you’re concerned, this whole book of mine as a waste of effort. You may suddenly understand it all someday: but only when you yourselves hear “hands behind your back‘s there! “ and step ashore on an archipelago.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, right? This very morning, I looked at the newspaper, and this is what I saw……………. I’ve scanned it for you:


Article after article about forced slave labor in a huge Communist-run camp where God-knows-what kind of depravities and cruelties go on. Not a goddamned thing has changed. Just the players.

I believe there are many elements in life can be best understood as a bell curve or a Pareto distribution. That’s why I say outlandish things like “no men are created equal”. I think all men should live under the same laws and have access, broadly speaking, to the same opportunities. But the notion we’re all equal is absolutely laughable. I read claptrap from politicians about how “every child in American should have a world-class education’, and it just turns my stomach. Spare us the pabulum.

The very core of what I believe is that it is the individual that is the most important. NOT the collective. Not a collective of any sort – – be it a federal government, a state government, a labor union, a corporation, or a special interest group. Such amalgamations of humans tend to bring out the worst in people. In my own life, all I ask is to be left to bear my own burdens, strive as needed, and attempt to use whatever talents I have to the best of my ability. I thank the stars above that the spirit which was born into this body was not subject to the horrors contained in the book.

But what is the human spirit? What constitutes a person? Going back to the bell curves and Pareto distributions, we can offer some broad strokes. We can establish a person’s problem-solving abilities; their intelligence; their innate civility and decency; their industry; and dozens, or even hundreds, of other discrete factors.

And yet these are just dapples of color on the giant canvas that make up a person. Can we truly understand the wholeness of a person? Indeed, I don’t think we can fully understand ourselves. Could you accurately describe a painting to a person who has been blind for life? No, and likewise I think you and I would likewise fail at an attempt to capture the entirety of a person, even if that person was ourselves. Only that superset of spirits, which is mysterious to us all, can understand this entire Truth.

In spite of these limitations, I believe Solzhenitsyn offers ways of thinking about the good and evil within each of us. I even consider this when it comes to Slope. This is a community of humans. We have a tremendous amount in common, but there are stark differences as well. Having done this for seventeen years, it has given me insights into human behavior, and my own ways of interacting with that behavior, that I otherwise would never have known.

Overall, I think the entire experience has led me to conclude that people – – at least the people who have chosen to be here – – are a little better than I expected. It’s encouraging to see that, on the whole, people tend to have more good under the surface than you might at first expect.

If I had to think of a few succinct takeaways for myself from the experience of reading this book, they would be as follows:

  • I understand the anti-statist attitude now: The late Tom Holland always made a big point about those damned “statists”, and I figured he was just blowing off steam, as usual. Now I get it. I think I understand why we should be absolute adamantly anti-statist. The less government, the better. Just as Einstein supposedly declared that everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler, likewise government should be as small as possible, but no smaller. Strong governments and weak citizens are a horrid combination. So, Tom, wherever you are – – you were right.
  • The human spirit is surprisingly indomitable: The horrors these poor souls endured was insane. Now I realize that only a small fraction of them lived through this in the heroic way that some of the individuals in the book did. Even so, even if it was a sliver of people that lived through this hell with their heads held relatively high, they are a testament to the triumph of the human spirit versus the oafish, boorish, wicked blog known as Big Government. I pity the poor souls of North Korea, for example, for the Hades into which each of them has been born through no fault of their own. God damn Stalin, God damn the Kim family, God damn Pol Pot, and all the rest of the malignant beings who have sought to execute power over the masses.
  • Culture runs very deep: If you are in a good culture, you are blessed. It’ll probably stay that way. A bad culture? Same thing. The only thing that can shake a culture from its moorings is a total and complete disaster. Japan and West Germany were wildly successful economies, and free states, “thanks” to the absolute devastation of the second world war. What will it take to liberate North Korea? I’d say something along the lines of nuclear conflict. And it applies to small things, too. For instance, the U.S. healthcare system is permanently screwed up. Societies must start with a clean slate. Otherwise, the status quo reigns firm. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, the cynical corruption of Russia is deeply entrenched, even if there aren’t millions in gulags at the moment.
  • I am humbler about my own life: I’ve got it good. I always have. I realize that. But I still whine at times. I complain. I wish such-and-so were different. But you’re not different. As humans, we are all imbued with hedonic adaptation, and once we’ve settled into our circumstance (which usually takes very little time) then that becomes the norm, and we want things to be better. All the same, a book like this is going to stick with me, and it’s going to make me humbler in the face of whatever “problems” I think are burdening me.

I hope you’ll consider reading the book, as I’m sure it will shake you, as it did me. Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts.