Tuesday, 5 December 2017

The Gulag Archipelago Volume 1

I had seen a bit about Jordan Peterson around the traps. He seemed to be a clinical psychologist as well as an academic who has studied totalitarian government. Anyway, I had heard some sound bytes here and there of him, but then I decided to listen to a whole lecture he gave. I was impressed with some of his cultural observations, and around the 25-minute mark, Peterson drops in a reference to this book, saying he has started to popularise it. He said Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a genius and in this book, it is like having the smartest person you have ever met screaming in outrage for 2,000 pages. And that was kinda of enough of a book review for me to try and find it to read it.

This is kind of autobiographic in that it generally follows Solzhenitsyn through the political prisoner system of the USSR under Lenin and Stalin. But at every stage, he then leans on many many other examples of what others endured.

This volume doesn't even get to the actual prison camps. It traces the life a prisoner from the arrest phase, then the integerration, court trial (if any), sentencing and then the transport prisons before the actual hard labour. But already, in just these phases what a political prisoner had to put up with (if they have survived) was horrendous.

Make no mistake, Solzhenitsyn blames the ideology of the day for allowing what took place. While it seems he was first sympathetic to communism at the start of his arrest, I think what he experienced and who he met inside lead him to change his mind dramatically. Solzhenitsyn says:
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 a justification for his actions. 
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 others' 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.
Some people were arrested simply because a quota of traitors was needed, ie people were completely innocent under their "arrest" but under torture (I mean interrogation) they admitted to anything (like saying the government wasn't doing a great job - Solzhenitsyn got 8 years for this) and also implicated others so, therefore, was part of a cell of terrorist against the government. It is amazing what you can say under pain and sleep deprivation. Out of nowhere, under new laws, traitors were found everywhere.

Others who were arrested were engineers trying to solve resource problems that (of cause) occurred under communism/socialism. They were charged with "wrecking" if they didn't obey certain orders, even if they were physically impossible (like the production of crops during a drought). One guy said they should overload their trains to deal their lack of trains. This was wrecking as it sought to ruin the train lines. But years later, when the situation was far worst, the government ordered the trains to be even more overloaded, but since it was a decision from the top, this socialists maths worked out and disobeying it would now be considered wrecking.

Solzhenitsyn must have had a great mind for dates and names as he goes into lots detail of all the people he met while inside. When it comes to the court trials he has court documents to assist him. This means he goes into even greater detail of who and what and when and quotes court transcripts at length. He talks about how certain legal codes were very broadly interpreted and how different arms of the government were given exceptional powers to arrest and trail people. Executions had previously been abolished in Russia, but people weren't "executed" they were simply "shot" (see the difference?). This section kinda dragged on a bit but does make the point that there really was no justice under the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The process of being transported between the prison "islands" (Archipelago) are a whole other ball game as it meant mixing with the Thieves. These are general prisoners and not the passive (innocent) political prisoners. They would steal all your stuff with force (that the guards haven't already taken) and then trade your belonging with the guards for more food or vodka. Sometimes the guards didn't give you water as using the toilet on the train was a pain for them, but they did give you one piece of salted fish a day. These transports could last for days, maybe even weeks.

Once in the transport prison, you are then faced again with the continuous problem of starvation, overcrowding and ventilation since your arrest, except this has been turned up even more. Some people would die in their cells and they wouldn't tell the guards so others could eat their rations. There could be 100 people in a cell made for 20. The latrine bucket wasn't increased fivefold, nor were the beds. In one camp around 50 people would die a day, but this was under 1% of the total prisoners, so well within an "acceptable" range.

Even though this book describes horrific situations the tone of this book sometimes moves into some quite dark humour. Despite all that Solzhenitsyn had been through and seen he still seemed to have a bit of a sense of humour. He hints later that he got removed from a hard labour camp as years before on some prison form he said he was a nuclear physicist. I think this shows a bit of wit and gall.

The scale and extent of this whole horrible thing is hard to grasp. We are talking hundreds of thousands of innocent people tortured, then brought to starvation and put into rooms where you can not even lie down, with no ventilation. Perhaps six million people, maybe more. Adding lots and lots of personal faces and stories to this situation sometimes makes your heart break for all the people and their families.

This book shows a whole system that had no care for its own people. Lenin and Stalin must have been insecure and monsters to do what they did. In one section Solzhenitsyn points out that after WWII the German Nazis faced trial for their actions, but as of the time of writing no one had been held accountable for the terrible things taken place in Russia, as no one wanted to bring up the past. This sounds to me that the nation was crying out for healing but hadn't received it.

After Solzhenitsyn did publish this work he got the Nobel Prize in Literature. Wikipedia says that today all Russian students have to read this work. Even though I have only read the first volume, I think this should be mandatory reading for some Western students who are not grateful for the situation in which they are born. Democracy and capitalism are bad systems, but they are the best systems to choose from, hands down, and we should be grateful for our country.

When I was younger I was into Communism, I read some Marx, Engels and even some of Fidel Castro's speeches. I even got a Socialist Alliance badge from their stall at uni (I found it the other day when I was cleaning up and stuck it on my laptop bag). But today, even before I read this book I have no time for Communism. I think it's naive and shallow to rail against the evils of capitalist monopolies and instead, insist on a government monopoly on all things. Now, having read this book, not only do I think Communism (and to a lesser extent Socialism) is a bad idea and intellectually weak (or unrealistic), I also think it is immoral.

1 comment:

  1. prof premraj pushpakaran writes -- 2018 marks the 100th birth year of Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn!!!