It could be worse — you could be in a gulag

This is about quite a dark subject: the Soviet gulags. I don’t recommend reading this essay if you suffer from clinical depression. If you’re just somewhat got down by global politics, I do recommend you read this, to realize that things can be a lot worse, and to appreciate what we have going for us.

A week ago, staying at my grandparents’ house in Wales, I picked up The Gulag Archipelago¸ by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He reached out a cold, bony hand, and wouldn’t let go. His account of the gulags — the slave-labour camps run by the Soviet Union — was so awful, and exerted such a ghoulish fascination on me, that I had to read more, so I read his first book, One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and followed up with Anne Applebaum’s historical account, Gulag: A History.

Now I feel like someone who slowed down to ogle a car-crash, and now can’t get the sickening images out of their head.

The first thing that struck me was what a very good writer Solzhenitsyn is. The first section of the Gulag Archipelago is an extraordinary piece of writing, a sustained feat of irony, scorn and moral indignation, like a brilliant summing up by a prosecution attorney.

Both Nazism and Soviet communism combined savage cruelty with industrial bureaucracy, and Solzhenitsyn turns this bureaucratic tactic against the enemy, building up a dossier of crimes, ticking off the enormities one by one, as when he calmly lists the 31 methods of interrogation used by the KGB, from sleeplessness to ‘the box’. Or when he lists the waves of prisoners who swept through the ‘meat-grinder’, from the Mensheviks and Socialists in the first years of the Revolution, to the White Russians in the civil war, the kulaks in the forced collectivisation of the agricultural sector, to the engineers or doctors or Poles or whoever in the paranoid purges of the 1930s.

And then the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of German, Japanese, Polish and Soviet POWs in World War II (yes, any Soviet soldier captured by Germans who then escaped or was released was promptly imprisoned by the KGB on suspicion of spying. Over 200,000 were sent to the Gulags. This after the USSR refused to provide any support to Soviet POWs in German camps, so they starved like animals).

On and on the list goes, waves and waves of forgotten millions, which he tries to record and remember.

He guides one through the various awful stages of your incarceration, like the stages of the cross. There is the first moment of arrest, when you are plucked out of your normal life and plunged into hell, for decades (most prisoners tended to get a ten or 25-year sentence, no matter what their crime) or for ever.

He’s a spiritual writer, and he describes the moment of arrest as sort of a dark spiritual experience:

Arrest is an instantaneous, shattering thrust, expulsion, somersault from one state into another.

We have been happily borne — or perhaps have unhappily dragged our weary way — down the long and crooked streets of our lives, past all kinds of walls and fences made of rotting wood, rammed earth, brick, concrete, iron railings. We have never given a thought to what lies behind them. We have never tried to penetrate them with our vision or understanding. But there is where the Gulag country begins, right next to us, two yards away from us.

The arrested person thinks there must be a mistake. ‘Me? What for?’

It is the crushing of a universe in which there is a moral law, in which things happen for a reason, in which the good are rewarded and the bad punished.

You could be arrested because a neighbour denounced you. Because of your nationality or ethnicity. Because you were late for work. Because you told a joke. Because you happened to be in the wrong place. Or simply because the Gulag organs have to fulfil an official quota of new bodies, to fire up the forge of the Soviet economic miracle. So off you go. That’s the end of your old life, your relationships, your plans, your values and identity. You’re now Prisoner 1762, struggling to survive in the most awful conditions. That is your life from now on. And this could happen to anyone, at any time! A door in the wall opens, and you’re in hell.

What surprises me is the Soviet obsession with confession. There were awful, cosmic battles of wills that took place in the basement of the Lubyanka (the KGB’s headquarters), most of which we will never hear of. The KGB grabbed a young American who worked at the US Embassy, for example, thinking he was a spy. Someone called his name on the street, he turned round, and that was it, imprisonment, interrogation, a decade in the gulag. During the interrogation they denied him sleep for a month. For a month. He still refused to lie. Others were locked up in tiny boxes for days or weeks, or beaten up repeatedly, or raped, or hung upside down, or forced to hear their loved ones tortured. All for the ‘confession’, and for names of other ‘conspirators’.

Why bother? Why this pretence of being a country governed by the rule of law? They needed slaves, so just ship them off, no need to torture them. Perhaps the KGB needed to justify its bloated bureaucracy with confessions. Perhaps they really believed their country was filled with hundreds of thousands of spies. Perhaps they needed to break the prisoners’ spirit. Perhaps they enjoyed it.

Then, once you’ve confessed, or not, there’s the transit to one of the camps. Again, an awful experience, prisoners crammed into carriages, shitting themselves, dying of hunger and cold. This is where you might meet the Russian criminal underclass, who would immediately rob you of your clothes and possibly rape you.

If you survive that, you arrive at one of the 474 camps found right across the country. If you were lucky! Often there was no camp yet, and you had to build it, sleeping in tents or sometimes just a hole in the ground while you toiled in minus 25. And then it was off to work in one of the grand economic projects that Stalin liked to use slave labour for, such as the gold mines of Kolyma or the nickel mines of Norilsk. You were fed according to how well you worked. If you worked badly, you were fed less and would starve and die.

All in the name of communism and the people.

I realized, when I read Applebaum’s book, that Solzhenitsyn is actually too generous. He doesn’t mention the women and children in the camps, the gang-rapes, the babies ripped from their mothers and thrown into gulag nurseries, where they grew up ignored and incapable of speech. It’s almost too painful to read, particularly if you imagine your own loved ones in their place.

This all happened so recently, so close. I think this is one value of reading history. You get a sense of how bad things can get. It can help temper our culture’s tendency to hysterical pessimism, particularly on social media. As when people whine that 2016 was the worst year ever, because Trump was elected and David Bowie died. Westerners are terribly unprepared for how bad things can get.

Reading about the Gulags is also a good corrective if you should happen to have any romanticism about Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism (they are one ideology in my opinion, and Marx deserves his share of the blame for the atrocities that followed.) Why is this authoritarian ideology not condemned to the same degree as Nazism? Why do we tolerate Seamus Milne, senior advisor to Jeremy Corbyn, defending Stalin’s record in the Guardian? Why do we celebrate the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who continued to support the USSR after its invasion of Hungary? How can hip Leftist authors like Slavoj Zizek and China Mieville get away with celebrating the Bolshevik revolution or even the Stalinist purges? How is that not like celebrating fascism?

Russia itself has never gone through the public examination which Germany did after the fall of Hitler. No one ever went on trial for the gulags. Stalin is still seen as a hero by many, including Putin, the KGB president, who says the fall of the USSR was a national disaster. What is the consequence of this failure to face the past? Russia is still a country where the government holds people’s lives very cheaply, where journalists can be thrown out of windows, no problem, where planes can crash and submarines sink without any particular fuss, where state-hired Russian mercenaries can run around Syria testing out new forms of nerve gas on prisoners, and then try them out in England too, where KGB kleptocrats can still amass billions and billions of dollars for their own greasy consumption, and nobody who complains is left free or alive for very long.

Yes, Nazism was a different sort of evil. The USSR did, like Nazism, condemn people not on the basis of what they did but who they were. But the official enemies of the people were constantly changing — Poles one year, engineers the next, depending on Stalin’s deadly fits of paranoia. The USSR didn’t make hard ethnic distinctions between the good and the evil — anyone could find oneself in the camp, including disgraced Soviet leaders and those who ran the camps.

True, the USSR never constructed camps designed to kill people. It just didn’t much care if they lived or died. The inmates were soulless commodities. And, unlike Nazism, the Gulag system survived for thirty-five years, until the death of Stalin. 18 million human beings were sent to the Gulags. Another six million were sent into exile, another form of slave-labour. 4.5 million died in the camps. And, as Solzhenitsyn says, for each life directly destroyed, there would be two or three of their family members whose lives were likewise destroyed by the impact. It’s impossible to take in such numbers, until one puts names and faces and feelings to them. Each one of those 18 million could have been your brother, your daughter, your mother, your father, or you.

It is sickening to read, but it’s too easy to blame all the evil on Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism. Solzhenitsyn writes:

let the reader who expects this book to be a political expose slam its covers shut right now.

If only it were all so simple! If only there 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 from evil cuts through the heart of every human being….During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place…

This line goes through every culture and country as well. We can’t believe Russians still adore Stalin, yet we worship Churchill, vote him the greatest ever Brit, make eulogistic films about him, and give those films Baftas and Oscars. And if anyone criticizes Winston, they’re a ‘sickening turd’. No mention of the 1943 Bengal Famine, in which around three million Indians died, on our watch. No mention of how Churchill handed over 36,000 Cossacks to Stalin at the end of the war, betrayed them, knowing they would be murdered. This was great power politics, and the lives of millions were pawns on the chessboard. Of course, Churchill wasn’t all bad. But he certainly wasn’t all good. Nor was the British Empire, with its ideology of Anglo-Saxon supremacy. How many slaves did we ship…

Ah well.

The line of good and evil goes through my heart too. I wonder how I would have coped in the gulags. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have lasted a month. I’d have signed a confession straight off. I hope I wouldn’t have incriminated others, but who knows? And at the gulag itself. I just can’t imagine it.

I was reminded of Viktor Frankel’s Man and His Search for Meaning. This book, beloved of the self-help industry, has the very Stoic message that ‘everything can be taken from a man except the last of the human freedoms: the freedom to choose your perspective’. But surely this can also be taken from a man all too easily. Just deprive them of sleep for a few days, strip them naked, beat them up, and then let’s see their Stoic defiance.

How dare we turn people’s hellish experiences into a glib self-help mantra.

Still, while Solzhenitsyn admits he and all the other gulag inhabitants were, on the whole, bewildered, terrified and demoralized ‘rabbits’, he does manage to find some sort of resilience and transcendence in that hell. And there is something Stoic in his message.

The way to survive, he says, is to accept that your old life is finished and gone. Accept that you’re at the mercy of external circumstances over which you have very little control. Let go of your attachment to possessions. But then you may find something that cannot be taken away. He writes of ‘that glimmering light which, in time, the lonely soul of the prisoner begins to emit, like the halo of a saint’. That’s certainly the role he takes on, a role readily prepared for him by previous Russian authors like Dostoevsky. Like Dostoevsky, he almost seems to celebrate his suffering and take pride in it: ‘very early and very clearly, I had this consciousness that prison was not an abyss for me, but the most important turning point in my life’.

He, and others, managed to find a new mission in the gulags: to record and remember, and to hurl the truth at the Leviathan like a harpoon. It’s an awful story, but everyone should read it, and then thank their lucky stars for a warm meal, a bed, and a more or less functional democracy.

Author of Philosophy for Life and other books. Honorary fellow, Centre for the History of the Emotions.

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