Sunday, December 28

Considering "The Gulag Archipelago"

I have never been much of one for Holocaust literature. Somehow I left high school without ever reading The Diary of Anne Frank, and I have never bothered to pick up Eli Wiesel's Night. I don't know why. I guess I have always figured that it is enough to understand that systematically murdering entire populations is bat insane and evil. The rest is merely details. Still, it is odd that my first taste of holocaust literature was Alexander Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, possibly the most unreadable of the bunch. A friend's father suggested to me when I was still in high school and an active proponent of communism. I found my copy during a moving sale at a used bookstore two summers back. Solzhenitsyn's death this August and the accompanying accolades were the final push I needed to start it.

Solzhenitsyn's "experiment in literary investigation" yields three volumes (the first of which, and only one I read, running over 600 pages) of anecdotes and stories from him and hundreds of other prisoners and accounts from Soviet officials, on every aspect of the purges. Make no mistake. It may not have the capital 'H,' but this is holocaust literature, an account both personal and historical of the purges in the Soviet Union which left millions dead and sent millions more into prison and work camps for years. Entire chapters are devoted to methods of torture, means of transportation to the many prisons, the public sham trials and the inane laws under which the people were prosecuted. If mass deaths are not enough to convince you that these were messed up times, consider the following:
  • After a party meeting, the members broke out into applause for Stalin, but no one was willing to stop clapping first because that would demonstrate disrespect for the Dear Father, a sign of possible revolutionary tendencies. Eleven minutes later some guy finally quit and sat back down, and everyone was relieved to follow suit because that was a lot of clapping. That night the NKVD arrested him.
  • Section 6 of Article 58 permitted the arrest of those engaged in espionage. This did not have to be proven. Suspicion of such activities was enough an arrest. Furthermore, one could be arrested for having simply having contact with one of these people.
  • In 1922 V.V. Oldenborger, chief engineer of Moscow's water supply for 30 years, was prosecuted for wrecking the system. His manager hadn't allowed him to replace the wooden water holding tanks with concrete ones. Oldenborger committed suicide before the trial began, but the prosecution took place nonetheless.
  • To meet a prisoner quota of 200, an officer in Tashkent arrested all gypsy men who had arrived in the city earlier that day.
Every once and a while though, Solzhenitsyn takes a break from these encyclopediac accounts of evil and offers instead some insight into what made the purges all the worse and what made them tolerable. To do evil one needs justification, Solzhenitsyn wrote. "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."

Of the daily, 20-minute walks permitted to political prisoners, Solzhenitsyn wrote, "Spring promises everyone happiness - and tenfold to the prisoner. Oh, April sky! It didn't matter that I was in prison. Evidently, they were not going to shoot me. And in the end I would become wiser here. I would come to understand many things here, Heaven! I would correct my mistkes yet, O Heaven, not for them but for you, Heaven!"

Solzhenitsyn went through a lot to write this, to make sure these stories and memories gained a world-wide audience. In the mid-60's, the outspoken writer of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich became very interesting to the KGB, and he was forced to literally write Archipelago in parts. He would hide chapters in the homes of friends and could only work on them while visiting. When one of Solzhenitsyn's friends was terrorized into revealing the location of the manuscript in the Soviet Union (a microfilm copy had been delivered to the West years earlier), he had no choice but to publish. The friend hanged herself the next day. Solzhenitsyn himself was eventually exiled for his works.

In a letter sent to the Swedish Academy following their announcement of the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature Solzhenitsyn permitted his readers to some insight into what would lead a man to run such risks. Literature is the living memory of the nation, he wrote. It transcends borders and teaches the inexperienced the mistakes of those who have gone before. Literature stands against and makes clear the lies which make violence possible. Once literature and art destroy the falsehoods, violence will not be far behind.

It is a nice ideal, beautiful really. Whether it is true is another matter. Ivan Denisovich was published with Khruschev's approval and despite resounding success and popularity did nothing to alleviate authoritarian practices in the Soviet Union. By the time Archipelago was released, the Gulag had been dismantled as part of destalinisation. It is not just Solzhenitsyn and the Soviet Union either. Even the impact of George Orwell, the oft-quoted Brit who after 1936 wrote only against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, is questionable. Surveillance by both the government and private groups only increases, and Big Brother is more popular as a reality show than real political concern. Still, given the choice, I think I would prefer to follow Solzhenitsyn rather than one of the other celebrated writers who died this year, David Foster Wallace. "One word of truth shall outweigh the whole world" well before "The next real literary 'rebels' in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles."

If nothing else, Archipelago does put things into perspective while one is riding America's own train system. A train which arrives three hours late and loses another three en route does not seem nearly so bad when one reads about train booths built for four and stuffed with over 20 for multi-day journeys. The prisoners managed it by sliding a few of them on to the shelves meant for luggage. Those were the most desirable spots because on them one could actually sit.

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