Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Gulag Archipelago

Aleksandr I Solzhenitsyn’s riveting account of the system of persecution prevalent in Russia under Stalin certainly makes for moving reading. It shows the extremities to which mankind can go to safeguard their position, power and authority in the light of hallucinations experienced by leaders; and by all accounts, mystery leaders such as Stalin would certainly would have had reasons to be hallucinated.
Credit must also go to Thomas P Whitney for the excellent translation. The irony, the mockery, the joy and the sorrow that Solzhenitsyn must have experienced have been brought out in great detail. The supplementary explanatory title “An Experiment in Literary Investigation” is certainly an apt description of the intention of the book – investigating and exposing the Communist anarchy.
The book starts with a chapter on arrests. Aleksandr beautifully describes an arrest as follows: “It’s a blinding flash and a blow which shifts the present instantly into the past and the impossible into omnipotent actuality”. How many arrests have we seen? The dignified Sanjay Dutt, the bawling Karunanidhi, the unrepentant Alistair Pereira. But all of them constitute high profile cases and they had/have a way out either by way of position, authority or money respectively. How many arrests of ordinary people have we seen? Nil. That is because most ordinary folks do not have the money, position or authority to commit crimes to get arrested. But more important is the reason that we are in a thankfully tolerant regime which does not get into imagined fears about its very roots getting torn out. There might be instances of false cases being foisted upon innocent people, but I do not think the justice system would have clogged the “sewage disposal system” (as Solzhenitsyn says) with so many prisoners.
The second chapter deals with the history of the mass imprisonments, public trials, tortures and all those parts which make up that whole called a repressive regime. In fact, one gets to see that the seeds for this system are sown by V. I. Lenin, the first leader of the Russian Soviet. Sample this extract from the book:
And even though V. I. Lenin at the end of 1917, in order to establish ‘strictly
revolutionary order’ demanded ‘merciless suppression of attempts at anarchy on
the part of drunkards, hooligans, counterrevolutionaries and other
persons’…………...In his essay ‘How to Organize the Competition’ Lenin proclaimed
the common, united purpose of ‘purging the Russian land of all kinds of harmful
The chapter also describes the draconian Article 58 of the criminal code under which all the perceived enemies of the state were persecuted. The power of political commissars attached to the military units is also described; to see what powers the commissars exercised, you only need to see the movie ‘Enemy at the Gates’: how Vasily Zaitsyev is manipulated by the commissar – all for a woman. Yes, personal desires of a politically connected officer could land you in imprisonment.
There is a detailed description of the methods of interrogation and torture used by the Cheka/NKVD or whatever the agencies are called. In the middle of the chapter, Solzhenitsyn props up an unexpected gem: how to stand up and screw the interrogator“

From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you.
At the very threshold, you must say to yourself: ‘My life is over, a little
early to be sure, but there’s nothing to be done about it. I shall never return
to freedom. I am condemned to die – now or a little later. But later on, in
truth, it will be even harder, and so the sooner the better. I no longer have
any property whatsoever. For me those I have loved have died, and for them I
have died. From today on, my body is useless and alien to me. Only my spirit and
my conscience remain precious and important to me’. Confronted by such a
prisoner, the interrogation will tremble

How many of us will follow such austere measures cannot be foretold until we are subject to the same. The very thought of methods such as a blow on the genitals, drinking the interrogator’s urine etc makes us cringe and want to puke. Lucky for us: such sort of rulers we have never seen (excluding the Emergency period of-course) nor should we ever see, assuming though that the problem of the Maoists and naxalites is eliminated once and for all.
A comparison of the interrogation methods followed under the Tsar and the Bolsheviks can be seen from the following extract:
At the end of the last century and the beginning of this one, the Tsarist
interrogator immediately withdrew his question if the prisoner found it
inappropriate or too intimate. But in Kresty Prison in 1938, when the old
political hard labor prisoner Zelensky was whipped with ramrods with his pants
pulled down like a small boy, he wept in his cell: ‘My Tsarist interrogator
didn’t even dare address me rudely.’
True, nature puts us through ‘worse’ to realize the advantages of ‘bad’.
There are also descriptions of trials conducted by Stalin’s stooges – a mockery of justice; where the prosecutor changed color like a chameleon; double standards were used blatantly and all perceived enemies – church functionaries, engineers, political opposition, and intellectuals were sentenced by sham courts and trials.
The reader is also provided insight into the foolish policy decisions of the Soviet throughout the course of the book. Some of these policies are laughable and some even warranted the arrest of Stalin and his aides, but considering that those Stalinist stooges managed to imprison, execute and exile people under these policies, they cease to be a laughing matter.
The Soviet ‘tamasha’ continues with the description of how they rechristened the death sentence as the ‘supreme measure’ merely to make things look new and changed. There is a moving account of the execution of 6 collective farmers merely for having gone back to their fields a second time to collect hay for their cows – a violation of state planning principles and rules.
Take this extract as an example of ironical comedy:
Of course, the All-Russian Central Executive Committee would certainly have
‘completely abolished’ the supreme measure, as promised, but unfortunately what
happened was that in 1936 the Father and Teacher ‘completely abolished’ the
All-Russian Central Executive Committee itself
The author then proceeds to describe the inhuman slave labour system with chapters on the jails, the slave-convoy transports, the slave camps; how political prisoners are ill treated by the guards and common thieves; how they are denied their rations etc
As a conclusion, in my opinion, what should not be lost sight of is the fact that the common Russian populace is tired of the heavy hand of communism. They love their motherland alright, but not the type of rule that they are subjugated to. Considering the hardships that they were subjected to, with the cream of their population either lost to slave labor or to the jaws of death; the very fact that the cold war went on till 1989 is a tribute to the resilience of the Russians.
But, more importantly, this book proves that individual freedom coupled with the responsibility of humane behavior is the ultimate system which should come into the world. Capitalism, communism, fascism et al be damned. This message is the best review that one can give this book. Do read it.


Rambodoc said...

Hi. This is my first visit to your blog. Interesting post, and a subject close to my soul. You rightly identify that individual freedom is the ultimate system for man. But you botch it up (forgive me for saying so) by tarring capitalism with the same brush you use for communism and fascism.
Whatever you say in the previous line (except the part where you talk of responsibility-which is undefined and open to interpretation) is negated by grouping all these together. If it is a cause you support, please do so after correctly and proudly identifying the name of the cause. It is laissez-faire capitalism.

Deepak Krishnan said...

hi rambo

thanks for visiting....

i didn't intend to tarnish capitalism with the same brush as the other systems. its just that i am fed up of systems per se.

Rambodoc said...

Ok! Nihilism and anarchism are also systems!!