“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 and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
~~ Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956 ~~
I first read Solzhenitsyn`s truly shocking The Gulag Archipelago many years ago: it still defies belief that human beings can perform the most vile and evil acts against other humans…….For what? Where do these people come from? Is the capacity for unspeakable behaviour already inside waiting to be unleashed from the rules that govern normal social behaviour? Solzhenitsyn is probably right by assuming we all hold within us the capacity to step outside of the rules that constrain us. It may be a moment of blind instinct which triggers a violent emotional reaction, or a deep seated sociopathic gene imprinted upon the individual psyche which enables someone to systematically inflict pain and suffering upon others, helped by a dehumanisation of those at the receiving end. The subject to be punished by infliction of pain and suffering has to be reduced to something less than human, hence Comrade Stalin`s state wide network of Gulags where those deemed undesirable influences upon the workers paradise of the Soviet Union, are rounded up in their millions and poured into Siberian slave labour camps, where they live and die according to the perverted whims of the totalitarian system and it`s equally morally disjointed servants.
Solzhenitsyn was an unparalleled witness to the Gulag – Stalin`s answer to all social and political problems. An enthusiastic Leninist in his youth, Solzhenitsyn died a fervent religious nationalist and friend of the far right. Such are the harsh realities of life under Stalin, that even hard line communists who had shown their loyalty to the system`s ideals were ruthlessly rounded up – literally by lot in many cases – and packed off to a living hell: if you lived, there was the prospect of release, physically broken and mentally scarred; if you died, your body was not allowed to go to waste; in many cases corpses were pickled in barrels and sent off along the trans-Siberian railway to be used for dissection in medical establishments, or for any market which required the dead.
“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but through every human heart – and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates over the years. And even in hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, , there remains……..an unuprooted small corner of evil.”
By the mid-fifties the slave camps had served their purpose: hugely important for creating the primitive infrastructure for Soviet heavy industries, they had become inefficient and costly to maintain. In 1956 Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin, and marked the beginning of a political “thaw” in Soviet life. Stalin`s camp system was remarkable in it`s breadth of variety: camps were set up for all types of society – there was even a camp for technical specialists – which Solzhenitsyn wrote about in Full Circle and received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970. In 1972, the KGB discovered where Solzhenitsyn had buried a copy of his great historical work The Gulag Archipelago, and expelled him from the country.
Based upon the testimonies of some 220 prisoners, it is a devastating indictment of the effect the camp system had upon those who experienced it, and of the morally corrosive effect it had on the upper echelons of the party apparatchiks. The book is enthused with the author`s total respect for the poor, downtrodden humanity of those who suffered and died in the camps, and his utter contempt and disgust at the authorities. He shows that from Lenin flowed Stalin, and through those two the Marxist ideology which carried within it`s philosophy the embryonic seeds of the inhuman, totalitarian control of the slave camps. Perhaps Marx could not have envisaged how his words would be used by his most ruthless of followers to crush the spirit of the individual by incarceration and extermination……Who knows.
“Bless you prison, bless you for being in my life. For there, lying upon the rotting prison straw, I came to realize that the object of life is not prosperity as we are made to believe, but the maturity of the human soul.”
You can call Solzhenitsyn`s arguments concerning the why`s and wherefore`s of the Gulag system simplistic and wrong if you are so inclined, but you can`t escape the man`s heart felt admiration and love of the unfortunates he shared so many years in hell with, and of his bitter hatred of a political system which used such devastatingly brutal and inhuman tactics to hold onto it`s power at any cost, paid over and over again by it`s people, in their own blood and fear. Most particularly under Stalin, Soviet Russia was one enormous camp, populated by a captive citizenry, any one of whom could be woken in the middle of the night by a harsh knock on the door which signaled a new existence as a “non-person” and “enemy of the state.”
And what of Solzhenitsyn?………..His political journey ended rather pathetically when he accepted a lifetime achievement award from Vladimir Putin: ex KGB pen pusher, now the man responsible for resurrecting so many Soviet era authoritarian features. The Gulags may have come and gone, but there are many ways to skin a cat in a country which rubs shoulders with democracy, but has yet to learn how to embrace it and warmly shake it`s hand.