“In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousandfold in the future.”
—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
In March of 2003, while the world was being duly shocked and awed by the rockets’ red glare illuming and obliterating the Baathist citadels of central Baghdad, I was reclining in the sun on St. Martin, a Caribbean island of typically Caribbean loveliness. My parents, who own a time-share there, had invited me to spend a week doing little more than swimming, eating, and drinking. On our second or third day, however, the war in Iraq began, and I wound up spending most of my evenings before the television, watching journalists describe sandstorms from atop beige tanks and the occasional stroboscope of a precision bomb detonating above yet another palace. What I saw so tormented me with worry that soon I was waking each morning with clickingly painful jaw malfunctions caused by nocturnal teeth-grinding.
When not watching television I was reading. But this was no respite. The books I brought with me to St. Martin—perversely, I must admit—were all three volumes of The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “experiment in literary investigation” of the origins and mechanisms of the Soviet prison-camp system, the first volume of which was published in English in 1974. In the preface to the first volume, Solzhenitsyn writes, “I would not be so bold as to try to write the history of the Archipelago.” Following that statement of inverse purpose are 1,800 pages of horror-splashed history. To read Gulag is to be emotionally demolished, page by page. In the preface to the third volume, Solzhenitsyn wonders if there remain any “readers who have found the moral strength to overcome the darkness and suffering of the first two volumes,” and it is not an idle worry. Alas, even if it were not so harrowing, it is the sad fate of lengthy, multivolume books to frighten away and intimidate readers, and for the uninitiated Gulag’s reputation (largely unfounded, I might add) is one of K2-grade insurmountability. (Equally unfounded is the weirdly common belief among those who have not read it that Gulag is fiction.) This is no book, it is too often assumed, for normal people. One of my fellow St. Martin vacationers, a New Jersey native covered in equal parts by Coppertone and sunburn, noticed me reading Gulag down by the pool. “The Gulag Archipelago?” she asked with surprise. “Is that for some class or something?”
Almost certainly I should have read it before I did. I have spent time in the former Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union and wrote a book about the Aral Sea disaster, one of many unspeakable costs of the Soviet experiment. I had even read much of Solzhenitsyn’s fiction,from his triumphant Cancer Ward to his shattering One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (thanks to the thaw that occurred during the rule of Nikita Khrushchev—“the ice moved,” Solzhenitsyn’s editor remarked— the only work of Solzhenitsyn’s to have been published in the Soviet Union until 1989; the day after Denisovich was published in 1962, however, the Cuban missile crisis began, ultimately dooming both Khrushchev and his thaw) to weaker work such as the twin novellas in “We Never Make Mistakes” (which Solzhenitsyn admitted were “self-censored,” as were portions of Denisovich, though Solzhenitsyn was actually encouraged to add to the latter book an additional swipe at Stalin) to parts of The Red Wheel (an ongoing novel cycle that depicts the collapsing world of World War I–era Russia and its subsequent hijacking by the Bolsheviks). It should be said that the Red Wheel novels—the first of which, August 1914, appeared in 1972; the second of which, November 1916, appeared in 1999—considerably weakened Solzhenitsyn’s critical reputation. That I never managed to finish either of them probably speaks for itself.The most common complaint was that they were Solzhenitsyn’s miserably futile attempt to square his shoulders against Tolstoy’s, but Clive James, one of Solzhenitsyn’s most brilliant defenders, reminds us that “Solzhenitsyn’s novels are not Tolstoy’s, and never could have been. Tolstoy’s novels are about the planet Earth and Solzhenitsyn’s are about Pluto. Tolstoy is writing about a society and Solzhenitsyn is writing about the lack of one.” While James allows that this formulation has “a touch of sophistry,” the fact is that Solzhenitsyn had foisted upon him a psychological burden few writers—not Tolstoy, certainly not Chekhov—could have withstood: that of forging in the smithy of the Soviet soul the uncreated conscience of his race when the smithy in question was an all-consuming psychic inferno. Solzhenitsyn notes that when twenty people were executed during the pre-Bolshevik Stolypin terror of 1906-1907, Tolstoy “broke down and wept, said that he couldn’t go on living, that it was impossible to imagine anything more horrible.” In Leningrad, in the early 1920s, during one of the first waves of mass arrests,Solzhenitsyn tells us how the Soviet authorities “arrested a quarter of the entire city,” most of whom were quickly processed, shipped off to the camps, or done away with outright. The pacifist-vegetarian Christian brain of the elderly Tolstoy could never have withstood the second coming of such indiscriminate Herodism. As for Chekhov, Solzhenitsyn not unreasonably imagines that
If the intellectuals in [his] plays…who spent all their time guessing what would happen in twenty, thirty, or forty years had been told that in forty years interrogation by torture would be practiced in Russia; that prisoners would have their skulls squeezed within iron rings; that a human being would be lowered into an acid bath… that a man’s genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot; and that, in the luckiest possible circumstances, prisoners would be tortured by being kept from sleeping for a week, by thirst, and by being beaten to a bloody pulp, not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all of the heroes would have gone off to insane asylums.
It is important to stress that Solzhenitsyn is not attempting to proclaim supereminence over his masters. His pride, certainly, is evident in all his books (he could not have survived the camps without it), but Gulag reads like a work, above all, of profound humility. As Clive James points out,“it is a wonder that his pride isn’t positively messianic”—though in his later years Solzhenitsyn has veered uncomfortably close to precisely this type of self-regard.
James’s essay on Solzhenitsyn, which was first published in the 1970s, can be found in his recent collection As of This Writing, a book no English-speaking lover of literature can afford to be without. It was this essay, in fact, that inspired me to finally read The Gulag Archipelago. In her New York Times review of As of This Writing, Michiko Kakutani admits that James “makes you want to reconsider your doubts about Solzhenitsyn’s artistry as writer.” One wonders if Kakutani has read the third volume of Gulag,in which Solzhenitsyn, heartbreakingly, apologizes for its defects:
For sometimes expressing myself badly, or repetition in places and loose construction in others, I ask forgiveness. I was not granted a quiet year after all, and during the last few months the ground has been burning under my feet again, and the desk under my hand. Even while preparing this last version I have never once seen the whole book together, never once had it all on my desk at one time.
The “ground burning under” Solzhenitsyn’s feet was the latest burst of oppression under Leonid Brezhnev in the late 1960s, which once again pushed Soviet society into darker reaches of the icebox. “Artistry”? The word conjures writers’ colonies, rocking chairs, and sunlight; above all it suggests time and solitude. In Solzhenitsyn we have a man who had gone to the Gulag for criticizing Stalin in a letter to a friend during World War II (Solzhenitsyn was an officer in the Red Army).After his release in the mid 1950s he worked for several years as a schoolteacher in Kazakhstan and wrote secretly, eventually laboring for sixteen hours a day on a “homegrown, homemade” book he knew would never be published in his native land. He had to type quietly lest some neighbor report him to the KGB, and ultimately retreated to a secret farmhouse in rural Estonia to finish the book. In order to evade censors, various chapters of Gulag wound up scattered across Europe with contacts Solzhenitsyn had cautiously made after the publication of Denisovich; some of the brave Soviet souls who safeguarded pages for Solzhenitsyn closer to home were later harassed by the authorities. There are valid points to be made about Solzhenitsyn’s defects as a writer. His “artistry,” complicated by the small matter of standing up to one of the most hideous regimes in modern history, is not one of them. Gulag alone, whatever the weakness of his other work, secures his place in the starry firmament of world literature as an artist of the brightest grade.
Depressingly, Kakutani’s canard has been lobbed repeatedly at Aleksandr Isayevich. In his obituary for Vladimir Nabokov, William F. Buckley remembers a jolly evening during which he and Nabokov had a laugh over “the infelicitous Russian prose of Solzhenitsyn.” According to his wife,Vera, Nabokov did not consider Solzhenitsyn “a great writer.” (He considered very few people “great writers”: Faulkner, Mann, Camus, Dreiser, and especially Dostoyevsky all fell to his scythe.) Nevertheless, in February 1974, Nabokov joyfully welcomed his countryman to Switzerland. (Solzhenitsyn wound up in Switzerland after being arrested for treason, tried, convicted, and sentenced to exile by the Soviet authorities, all of which took two days. His crime? An errant copy of Gulag’s manuscript had fallen into the hands of the KGB, forcing Solzhenitsyn to publish the first sections in Paris, where he had secretly dispatched a copy, before the book’s existence could be annulled.) “I was happy to learn of your passage to the free world from our dreadful homeland,” Nabokov wrote in his letter. “I am happy as well that your children will be attending schools for humans, not for slaves…. I never make ‘official’ political statements. Privately, though, I could not refrain from welcoming you. I shake your hand.” It is sad but not really surprising that Nabokov could not find it within himself to be bigger-souled in regard to Solzhenitsyn, coming, as they did, from opposite ends of the pre-Revolutionary Russian spectrum: Nabokov, the son of a prominent liberal so cosmopolitan he sent his shirts to London to be laundered; and Solzhenitsyn, of faithly and more modest origins, whose self-consciously Russian fixations were more Dostoyevskian than Nabokov could stomach. (Solzhenitsyn, for his part, did not learn of Nabokov’s true feelings until much later: he even spontaneously suggested Nabokov for the Nobel Prize.) But then only a few of us in Western climes can quibble with Nabokov’s assertion that Solzhenitsyn was a bad writer. I personally have just enough Russian to get home in a cab, and while addressing anynotion of Solzhenitsyn as a prose writer can feel the ground quaking beneath me. I have no idea what his prose is like, only that of his translators, which is, at any rate, splendid (though Solzhenitsyn has long complained that his Russian was “butchered” into English). The Russian speakers I have spoken to about Solzhenitsyn’s Russian prose are divided, though all agree that he writes highly distinct Russian prose.
Of course, Solzhenitsyn was not the first writer to expose the horrors of the Soviet Union, which he called “the permanent lie… where only executioners and the most blatant of betrayers flourished.” One very early book, An Island Hell, written by an escapee of Solovki, one of the Soviets’ foulest concentration camps, was published in England during the 1920s—only to see its author accused by Western intellectuals of exaggerating his ordeal’s hellish aspects. (“And is this another book you have not read, Sir Bertrand Russell?” Solzhenitsyn bitterly asks in Gulag’s second volume. He might well have posed the same rhetorical question to George Bernard Shaw, Jean-Paul Sartre, Paul Robeson, Lillian Hellman, and countless other Western admirers of the Soviet Union.) But Solzhenitsyn’s stature—he won the Nobel Prize in 1970,though was unable to attend the award ceremony for fear of not being allowed back into the Soviet Union made him the most widely read writer to expose the Soviet system, from its pestilential years under Stalin to its less demonic but still crushing guise under Brezhnev. (His stature also undoubtedly prevented him from being thrown into prison.) As amazing as it sounds today, the first volume of Gulag sold well over a million copies in the United States, though the second and third volumes’ sales decreased exponentially. Its publication was what we now call an event, and purchasing it was, apparently,a matter of some cultural obligation. Even casual readers took note: I remember, as a boy, seeing a quietly oxidizing and quite obviously unread copy of Gulag’s first volume on the shelves of a friend’s not notably literary parents’ bookcase. For most Americans, one imagines it must have been a difficult read. As it thunders along it drops so many unfamiliar and often unattributed names and places it sometimes reads like a Slavic Lord of the Rings in which some Sauronov, surrounded by spineless Gollumovs, reigns supreme. Even I, an amateur Kremlinologist who has read a fair amount of Soviet history and who knows, say, who Vlasov and Malenkov were, what SMERSH and Lubyanka were, find several passages of Gulag only slightly more welcoming than Gilgamesh in the original Assyrian. This goes some way toward explaining why I know only two readers I would consider contemporaries who have read the books—one of them at my ceaseless urging. What Gulag did and what it stands for has been largely forgotten among my generation of readers. But we forget this book at our very real intellectual and moral peril, especially when some of the country’s most vocal antiwar protesters have purebred Stalinist pedigrees, and when many in the anti-war movement appear curiously blind to the evils of the foes we all, as pluralistic Westerners, now face. Put simply, the lessons of Gulag are no less crucial today than in 1974. Rare indeed is the thirty-year-old book whose dreadful, deathless applicability so calls out to be read. Sunburned Madame of New Jersey, would that I had been reading it “for some class”!
The most important thing The Gulag Archipelago did was destroy the belief, still fiercely held in some quarters in the early 1970s, that Stalinism was an abhorrent manifestation of Soviet Communism, that Stalin himself was a Georgian boogieman who filthied the pristine Marxist bathwater drawn by Lenin. It is perhaps difficult for many in my generation to understand the importance of Solzhenitsyn’s final destruction of the persistent belief that the Soviet system had ever been anything but a totalitarian horror show. From the 1920s to the 1940s, many prominent American writers and artists flirted with Communism. Indeed, to have been an intellectual and not a Communist in the 1930s was thought to have been a dodge of the essential question of the day:the seemingly inarguable failure of capitalism. The crossed ideological swords of those years seem to many of us as antique as debates surrounding abolitionism or the Dawes Act. The disgusting farce of Stalin’s well-publicized show trials in the 1930s, which were Stalin’s attempt to clear the decks of rivals and sent many of the founding fathers of Soviet Communism to their maker for imagined crimes, guillotined most reasonable Americans’ faith in the Soviet system.The anti-Stalinist left, which probably saved American liberalism from its kidnapping by radicals, was born. The debate remained from the 1940s on, though, about what Stalinism was. Many liberal intellectuals maintained their belief that Stalinism was a betrayal of the Soviet Union’s guiding principles, that, above all, it was a mistake. (“Those Western socialists who waited… to feel ‘ashamed of being socialists side by side with the Soviet Union,’” Solzhenitsyn writes in one of Gulag’s typically acerbic footnotes, “could very well have come to that conclusion some forty or forty-five years earlier. At that time Russian Communists were already destroying Russian socialists.”) What Solzhenitsyn told us was that the apparatuses of Leninism fated their Stalinist fulfillment. The debate rages on, as it always will, whether Lenin intended a Stalinist state. We know that Lenin personally thought little of Stalin, as did most of the Bolsheviks. But it now seems inarguable, and for this we have in no small part Solzhenitsyn to thank, that Leninism created a monster to which he lightning of Stalinism gave life.
For years many of Lenin’s more violent musings were hidden from all but the most persistent Western eyes. The intelligentsia, Lenin believed, “has outlived its time.”To the writer Maxim Gorky he said, “If we break too many pots, it will be [the intelligentsia’s] fault.” (When, a few years later, the Romanian writer Panait Istrati visited the Soviet Union and offered some reservations about the Stalinist terror unfolding all around him, he was told, similarly, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.” “I can see the broken eggs,” Istrati replied. “Where’s this omelet of yours?”) One of the earliest Soviet slogans, evidently approved by Lenin, was “Neither Peace Nor War,”and that was exactly what Lenin gave anyone who stood in his way: perpetual strife combined with total irresolution. By 1920 Lenin had arrested so many members of the intelligentsia that he believed they were finished off, yet, throughout the 1920s, Solzhenitsyn notes, he “kept finishing them off and finishing them off,” finding new crimes with which to charge anyone who spoke up. Or did not speak up. It was Lenin’s belief that simply because certain intellectuals did not actively work against Soviet power did not mean they were innocent. No, for Lenin, “inaction is also criminal.” Intellectuals were jailed and tortured at this time for… meeting. For having tea together. (“Icy chills!” Solzhenitsyn says.) However, the yellowy moral callus that Stalinism fed and hardened had not yet grown upon the minds of many Soviet agents, and a good number resisted tormenting the innocent. Lenin’s solution? “Find tougher people.” Most damningly, the first camps of the Gulag were established under Lenin in 1919 in the Soviet Arctic, though, admittedly, this was during the Russian Civil War, a time that saw awful, baby-stabbing cruelty perpetrated by both sides. These first Leninist camps were called the Northern Camps of Special Significance, also known by the acronym SLON (“elephant” in Russian).These Arctic elephants were among the Gulag’s most terrible sites of imprisonment, and prisoners were routinely sent to SLON wearing only thin trousers and short-sleeved shirts. Solzhenitsyn calls the SLON camps the “Arctic Auschwitz,” and the living conditions for prisoners were, even by Soviet standards, almost impossibly monstrous. Prisoners hid corpses under their bunks so as to keep getting extra rations, of which there were never enough. Lice posed such a problem they had to be swept off prisoners with brooms; handfuls of lice were used to keep precious (and rare) fires burning. Punishment, in the summer, took the form of prisoners’ being tied naked to logs so as to be devoured by mosquitoes, and, in the winter, being strapped to logs and rolled down a long stone staircase. Most of these SLON camps were former monasteries. The Soviet authorities loved using former monasteries as concentration camps. Why? “[T]hey were enclosed by strong walls, had good solid buildings, and they were empty.” Lenin had seen to that.This was, Solzhenitsyn reminds us, years “before any ‘personality cult’” that developed during Stalin.
What Stalin did, after Lenin succumbed to the last of several strokes in 1924, was take this system and make it worse by a factor of one million, a development that occurred along what Solzhenitsyn calls “a cannibalistically artless straight line.” During the three major waves of Stalinist oppression, most of the stubborn remnants of civilized Russian life that endured under Lenin ceased to exist. The Soviet Union, in the simplest available terms, went insane. Solzhenitsyn writes with appalled fascination of those strangest camp creatures, those true-believing Communists, who, though imprisoned for nothing, still wrote letters home that “my long sentence has not broken my will in the struggle for the Soviet government, for Soviet industry.” We learn of a Polish noblewoman, who devoted her life to the cause of Communism, trying to kill herself three times during her interrogation. Her interrogators successfully intervened three times, too—then shot her. Solzhenitsyn relates how, in the 1940s, during the third wave of Stalinist terror, a guard asked one prisoner what he had done for his sentence of twenty-five years. “Nothing at all,” the prisoner replied.“You’re lying,” the guard said. “The sentence for nothing at all is ten years.” “In all probability,” Solzhenitsyn writes, “this was an unprecedented event in world prison history: when millions of prisoners realize that they are right, all of them right, and that no one is guilty.” Under Stalin, the first wave of Gulag-bound prisoners were called “KRs” (kontr-revolyutsioner), or “enemies of the Revolution.” “As the years passed,” Solzhenitsyn tells us, “the word ‘revolution’ itself faded. Very well then, let them be ‘enemies of the people.’ That sounded even better.” (I should note, here, that one of the strangest things about The Gulag Archipelago is how bitterly funny it often is. But it had to be, one supposes. Because it is a book of such intense emotional intimacy, a lack of humor would make it virtually unendurable.) What did it take to be an enemy of the people? Criticizing the soup during wartime. Having “a negative attitude” toward the State. For those already imprisoned, getting caught with a spool of thread— thread!—was an additional ten-year offense, the same as treason. One could be arrested for being a “Socially Dangerous Element” or a “Socially Harmful Element,” for “Suspicion of Espionage” or “Contacts Leading to Suspicion of Espionage.” People were imprisoned for hanging around Intourist hotels, for being photographed standing near foreigners, or for staring too long at a railroad track or bridge. One man was sentenced to a “tenner” (that is, ten years, a decade) for telling a friend that there were good roads in America. Predictably, the denunciations began. Solzhenitsyn calls denunciations— which, like agricultural collectivization, have been a grisly and unfailingly disastrous hallmark of
every Communist regime—“the superweapon, the X-rays: it was sufficient to direct an invisible little ray at your enemy—and he fell. And it always worked.” Lovers’ quarrels, work quarrels, family quarrels: all could be resolved by charging that your enemy was an enemy of the people.Not even children escaped Stalin’s talons. The Soviet Criminal Code of 1926 permitted children from the age of twelve to be sentenced to the camps, though they were usually given moderate sentences, which is to say two or three years. By 1927, prisoners aged sixteen to twenty-four made up almost half of the Gulag’s population. By 1935, “the Great Evildoer [that is, Stalin] once more left his thumbprint on History’s submissive clay…. [H]e did not overlook the children—the children whom he loved so well, whose Best Friend he was…. [H]e invented a gift for them: These children, from twelve years of age… should be sentenced to the whole works in the Code.” This included capital punishment. We learn of a starving boy being caught with a pocketful of potatoes. Eight years. Another boy was caught with cucumbers. Cucumbers were not nearly as precious as potatoes. Five years, then.
Within this government of “insanity and treason,” people charged with crimes were not sentenced. Rather, they had imposed on them “an administrative penalty.” This was not necessarily a court sentence, but prisoners were nevertheless deprived of rank, titles, and decorations; all personal property; were brutally imprisoned; and were stripped of their right to correspond with their loved ones. “There was no appeals jurisdiction above it,” Solzhenitsyn laments, “and no jurisdiction beneath it. It was subordinate only to the Minister of Internal Affairs, to Stalin, and to Satan.”
Meanwhile, in the 1940s, in the West,“young men of our age were studying at the Sorbonne or at Oxford, playing tennis.” And, Solzhenitsyn does not need to add, probably being pro-Soviet.
The term Gulag is itself an acronym for Glavnoe Upravleniye Lagerei: “Main Camp Administration.” Concentrations camps had been used previously in Russia, especially during World War I, but always to hold POWs and foreigners. Shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution, Solzhenitsyn writes, and, again, beneath Lenin, humankind witnessed the first instance of concentration camps used against citizens of their own country—this, a decade and a half before Hitler. Indeed, to those with any German, that deceptively benign Lagerei might seem familiar. Das Konzentrationslager was the German term for “concentration camp,”the first of what turns out to be many similarities between the two systems of penological extermination. In 1928, it was concluded that the existing (and already horrific) Soviet penal policy was “inadequate,” and that “harsh measures” of repression should be applied to “class enemies” and “hostile-class elements.” Here was the Gulag’s guiding maxim:“In the new social structure there can be no place for the discipline of the stick on which serfdom was based, nor the discipline of starvation on which capitalism is based.”And so the Gulag was based on neither. Instead, as in Treblinka and Auschwitz, it was based on destroying its prisoners. Furthermore, prison workers, it was decided, would receive no payment for their work.This was pure Communist theory, incidentally.What does Communism call for? Industrialization. Equality. Jobs for all. But what of the many unpleasant jobs rapid industrialization requires? Who will do them cheaply, or, better still, for no money at all? Why, prisoners! Thus did the Corrective Labor Camps, which Solzhenitsyn calls “the Destructive Labor Camps” (a pun apparently better rendered in Russian), come into terrible bloom. Rather shockingly, it was Naftaly Frenkel, a Soviet émigré from Turkey of Jewish extraction, who perfected and honed the Gulag system, a point upon which Solzhenitsyn, understandably, lingers, giving later critics cause to accuse Solzhenitsyn of anti-Semitism (at worst) and anti-Semitic tendencies (at best).
In addition, both the Nazi and Soviet regimes adored euphemism. Soviet telegrams sent from camp to camp often referred to “boxes of soap”—human beings, of course— as in, “Send 200!” (When one innocent telegraphist realized this, she complained. She was promptly arrested for treason.) There are few wickeder phrases than Arbeit Macht Frei,but one would be hard-pressed to find in die Konzentrationslager anything as demonically comic as the Gulag acronym VRIDLO, or “Temporary Replacement for a Horse,” which was used to denote men tied up in reins and forced to pull carts.Yet the Soviets, following World War II, put into practice a few things they picked up from the Nazi camps. After the war, namesfor Gulag prisoners were no longer used, only numbers, a great Nazi innovation Solzhenitsyn calls “the substitution of… human individuality.”As the dead were piled up on carts like logs, their hands and legs tied “so they didn’t flop about,” and finally taken away, their numbers were unceremoniously read off by camp supervisors. Solzhenitsyn: “On the other hand, no one can accuse us of gas chambers.”
To the discomfort of many Jewish critics, writers, and Holocaust survivors (including, reportedly, his friend Elie Wiesel, who later defended Solzhenitsyn from charges of anti-Semitism on the grounds that he was “too intelligent” and “too great a writer”) Solzhenitsyn repeatedly stresses not merely the relation of the Gulag to the Nazi extermination camps but the Gulag’s evil superiority to the Nazi extermination camps:
These [Soviet] people, who had experienced on their own hides twenty-four years of Communist happiness, knew by 1941 what as yet no one else in the world knew: that nowhere on the planet, nowhere in history, was there a regime more vicious, more bloodthirsty, and at the same time more cunning and ingenious than the Bolshevik, the self-styled Soviet regime.That no other regime on earth could compare with it either in the number of those it had done to death, in hardiness, in the range of its ambitions, in its thoroughgoing and unmitigated totalitarianism—no, not even the regime of pupil Hitler, which at that time blinded Western eyes to all else.
According to one estimate (they vary incredibly), from 1917 to 1959, twenty million people went up in smoke through the chimneys of Soviet Communism, eight million more than the number of people lost to the various Nazi genocides, though, it should be allowed, Nazism had a far shorter lifespan. In Koba the Dread, Martin Amis became the most prominent recent writer to take up the issue of Nazism v. Communism, a debate he calls “the difference between the little mustache and the big mustache,” the big mustache being, of course, Stalin’s. Although many have written about the unities and discontinuities between the little mustache and the big mustache—among them Orlando Figes, Ian Kershaw, and Alan Bullock, all of whom Amis respectfully quotes—Amis, I believe, has uniquely captured the emotional difficulty of thinking about which regime could possibly be considered worse, an area, as Amis says, “saturated with qualms.” On one level, of course, it is an asinine question, the dope-addled dorm-room question of excessively bright history students. But the question is also, at its core, an unavoidably primal one. Whom does one root for, Amis asks, Stalin or Hitler, the USSR or Nazi Germany, “when you read about the war, about the siege of Leningrad—when you read about Stalingrad, about Kursk”? Is this not the sort of supremely difficult decision that conflict has always forced human beings throughout history—and yes, even today—to make? Whose side are you on? And how do you know? Amis knows: “Your body tells you whose side you are on.”
He is for the Soviets because he feels so, as do most of us.The question, then, is why we are the side of the Soviet Union. Figes, no Bolshevik apologist, believes it is a question of ideology, as Soviet Communism “was based on ideals of the Enlightenment… which makes Western liberals, even in this age of postmodernism, sympathize with it, or at the least obliges us to try and understand it, even if we do not share its political goals.” Or perhaps it is a question of failure and success. As Amis has it:“Stalin, unlike Hitler, did his worst. He did his worst, applying himself over a mortal span…. Hitler, by contrast, did not do his worst. Hitler’s worst stands like a great thrown shadow…. Had it come about,‘mature’ Nazism would have meant, among other things, a riot of eugenics on a hemispherical scale…. Josef Mengele’s laboratory at Auschwitz would have grown to fill a continent.” Both Figes and Amis have obviously put an estimable amount of thought into this question, but neither addresses what I will call the emotional secret of the Rightand the Left.
By “emotional secret,” I mean the inner and often hidden motivator within a system of thought, the emotional gears one never thinks to oil.The emotional secret of the Right is its brute, animalistic paganism, an ethos animated by what is little nobler than a mad, murderously competitive scramble for genetic and material resources. Nazism simply removed this secret from its sheath and, lo, found it was a sword. The emotional secret of the Left, on the other hand, is its basic hatred of achievement and its attendant obsession with class and status. These are generalizations, of course, but they help explain the consistent hesitancy of those on the Left to move against regimes or ideologies with claims of leveling the playing field, even when the leveling results in a mulch of flesh and bone. Soviet terror, however tragic, was really at the service of some larger social good. Similarly, Islamist terror, however vicious and arbitrary, is really the fight of poor brown people to drive back an unbeatable imperialist Leviathan using the only means they have. Those who made the argument that Soviet means were intended to achieve admirable ends have been proven wrong, tragically and undeniably wrong.But will we ever remember how wrong they were?
To be sure, some are trying to force us to remember many people’s long-ago failure to condemn totalitarian Communism. In 1993, Bill Clinton authorized the freeing up of public land near the National Mall in Washington, DC, to host a monument to those who had lost their lives to Communism. The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, the sponsors of the memorial, then set out to raise the private funds Clinton’s sponsorship hinged upon. They decided on a target of $100 million, or one dollar for every victim, which was quite a bit less than what the Holocaust Memorial cost. (In deciding upon 100 million victims, they counted those who lost their lives to Communist regimes in Cambodia and China: Communism, let us remember, was rabidly, not to mention explicitly,imperialistic.) After a decade of fund-raising, they have come up with less than half a million dollars, and the memorial’s future is, today, far from secure. In Russia itself the refusal to honor the victims of Communism is far worse, as Anne Appelbaum relates in her simply titled though magisterial new history Gulag. Rather than face up to the past, Appelbaum writes,“the goal has been to end discussion of the past, to pacify the victims by throwing them a few extra rubles and free bus tickets, and to avoid any deeper examination of the causes of Stalinism or of its legacy.” At one point in the second volume of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn imagines he “can hear you normal, free people, shouting at me from 1990.” But in 2004, at least, they are not shouting. They are saying very little about the crucible of Communism, the sacrificed generations, the decades of Western evasion. It is all thought rather embarrassing.What, then, of those who seek to downplay or, worse, ignore the real and determined enemies of every Muslim, Christian, Jew, and Buddhist on our planet who enjoys any measure of religious, sexual, and political freedom? What, I wonder, are their bodies telling them?
After a long respite, we in the United States once again live amid the voltage of inescapably political times, and while reading The Gulag Archipelago I could not help but underline and note sections that reminded me, however facilely, of the booby-trapped road down which the United States currently blunders. How I longed, reading Solzhenitsyn, for someone in some position of influence (perhaps the Russian-speaking Condoleezza Rice?) to slip before George W. Bush the passage in which Solzhenitsyn describes Genrikh Yagoda, the Soviet Commissar for Internal Affairs, using Orthodox Russian ikons as target practice before going with his comrades to the bathhouse. How are we to understand such a person?Solzhenitsyn asks. How are we to come to terms with such petty, boundless viciousness?
As the act of an evildoer? What sort of behavior is it? Do such people really exist? We would prefer to say that such people cannot exist, that there aren’t any. It is permissible to portray evildoers in a story for children, so as to keep the picture simple. But when the great literature of the past—Shakespeare, Schiller, Dickens—inflates and inflates images of evildoers of the blackest shades, it seems somewhat farcical and clumsy to our contemporary perception. The trouble lies in the way these classic evildoers are pictured. The recognize themselves as evildoers, and they know their souls are black…. But no; that’s not the way it is! 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…. Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions. This cannot be denied, nor passed over, nor suppressed. How, then, do we dare insist that evildoers do not exist? And who was it that destroyed these millions? Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago.
Solzhenitsyn goes on to describe phenomena found in physics (he was trained as a physicist) that occur at what is called a “threshold magnitude.” For instance, oxygen remains a gas until 183 degrees below zero. After that, “it liquefies and begins to flow”: its threshold magnitude has been crossed. “[E]vildoing,” Solzhenitsyn says, “also has a threshold magnitude. Yes, a human being hesitates and bobs back and forth between good and evil all his life. He slips, falls back, clambers up, repents, things begin to darken again. But just so long as the threshold of evildoing is not crossed, the possibility of returning remains, and he himself is still within reach of our hope.”
Here are words that all of us today might pause to consider, for we are all, as Solzhenitsyn insists, capable of evil. I am capable of evil, and you are capable of evil. Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz and Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn himself are capable of evil. Our capacity to recognize this is what separates us from all the beasts of the field.And I, too, would prefer not to think of Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein or Ayman al-Zawahiri as “evil-doers,” a childish word inappropriate to these frighteningly unchildish times,though all of them have certainly crossed Solzhenitsyn’s threshold magnitude for evildoing and then some. (Some will no doubt quibble over this apparent blending of secular socialist Baathism with Al-Qaeda’s agonistic and fanatical Islamism— until one realizes that both philosophies are, in the words of Paul Berman, “totalitarian death cults,” and that both have received crucial Muslim support by harkening back to the emotional fountainhead of a restored Islamic Caliphate.) But by making “evildoer” a central concept in the war on terror, George W. Bush has succeeded in doing virtually the impossible: he has transformed the struggle between those who believe in freedom and those who believe in fascist theocracy—a profoundly important struggle, simultaneously subtle and explosive, currently playing out in the hearts of human beings across the whole sweep of our planet—and turned it into little better than a comic book. In the evident theater of his mind, Bush himself is clumsy Billy Batson by day and soaring Captain Marvel at night. His thoughtlessness, his artlessness, his seeming disregard for the complexity of evildoing, his refusal to apprehend and honor a different sort of threshold magnitude toward which—thanks to real doers of evil and, yes, thanks to him—we all have been carelessly flung, has sullied and dishonored what any thoughtful person must now recognize as the central struggle of our time:to what extent can we be expected to alleviate the suffering of others? And if one believes we do have a responsibility to alleviate the suffering of others, how do we do so without going to war, which itself causes tremendous suffering? And how does one address this question without succumbing to cavalier He-Manism or moral infantilism? In 1917, a movement began that many believed was addressing this very issue. As Lionel Trilling later reflected, anyone who challenged the idea of Soviet good intentions throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s “stood self-condemned as deficient in good will.”Thus did so many well-intentioned people choose the wrong side. Yet even Solzhenitsyn is capable of sympathy for those initially swept up in the first, foamy rush of Soviet Communism. We should share that sympathy, and refuse to damn those who believed when they could not have known what their belief, in its application, truly meant. But his sympathy stops dead once their threshold magnitude was crossed, once they should have known better, as should ours.We should also realize that, through Solzhenitsyn, history has provided us all with an example, and a warning.
For what it is worth, and it is obviously worth very little, I was opposed to the war in Iraq. Like many of us, but not nearly enough of us, I loathe and distrust the Bush administration, and wait in vain for some beam of real leadership or vision to escape the moral black hole that rests, immovably, at its center. I was opposed to the war because I believed it was wrong to attack a country that had not attacked us and that was not immediately involved in an act of concentrated genocide. (Genocide seems resistant to suggestions that it is subject to any statute of limitations—until one realizes that, if it were not, every white person in North America would be guilty of it.) I was opposed to the war because of my own experiences in nations still hamstrung by the legacy of totalitarianism. Most of us, as Americans, simply cannot understand the psychic damage that living in a totalitarian society, when one delinquent whisper can shuttle you and your family to a dungeon, wreaks upon a culture. By design, totalitarianism creates a sick, fearful, insane citizenry. One does not “free” such people by declaring democracy any more than one cures mental illness by throwing open the doors to an asylum. (But what, then, does one do for such people? That is a very good question. I certainly have no answer.) Germany, Japan: these are the exceptions to the grave rule of totalitarianism.The hopeful examples they provide are virtually impossible to replicate, except, perhaps, in hopeful State Department memos. I finally did not trust the Bush administration to do the right thing in the aftermath of an Iraq invasion, especially not after Afghanistan, when the evildoers we had promised to apprehend were allowed to slither into Pakistan and the warlords were permitted to reestablish their fiefdoms. Most of all, I worried that, if they did not see through the various and highly necessary post invasion protocols, my generation could conceivably pay the price for this war every day for the rest of our lives.
But I did not march. I found I could not march. I could not stand within the crowd that gathered around the United Nations Plaza shortly before the war began when I knew the sight of it was providing a whole menagerie of Baathists with comfort. I could not find myself alongside those who, however inadvertently, would allow these men an additional daily surplus of torture and cruelty. I had, after all, just read Samantha Power’s unsparing and monumentally important book “A Problem from Hell,” which won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize. Power details the consistent Western failure during the twentieth century to stop various instances of genocide, including the Iraqi genocide against the Kurds that took place after the stalemated Iran-Iraq war in the late 1980s. I was, to put it most basically, incredibly confused. Confused about Iraq, about George W. Bush, about the gauntlet Samantha Power’s book had thrown down within me, and above all I was confused about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose moral clarity had paradoxically made a prism of my own moral feelings. I found myself less antiwar than anti-antiwar, which did not make me prowar but left me much less antiwar than I wanted to be. For The Gulag Archipelago had told me this: one must fight totalitarianism and never apologize for doing so. The sick brilliance of totalitarian regimes is that they are beyond diplomacy. They are removable only by war—provided that they do not crack from within, but patience seems a pathetic virtue when it could mean that millions of people will suffer for unknown decades to come. To say it was wrong to choose to fight one totalitarian regime in Iraq and not another in, say, North Korea or Turkmenistan or Saudi Arabia was the moral dodge of the professionally talking head. No, Baathism had nothing of Stalinism’s scale and a fraction of its ambition, but to oppose any fight against it was, in my confused mind, to risk standing condemned as a shameful and unforgivable fool.
To my disgrace, I had been fooled before. I received a contract to write a book about Central Asia in December 2000, which makes me one of the few people not employed by the Bush administration or the U.S. military whose career prospects actually improved after September 11, 2001. As a Central Asianophile, I had long been interested in the Taliban. I was even keeping a Taliban file. And while I hated their theocratic rule, I found myself agreeing with their young, unusually eloquent spokesman when he shot back at an angry Western journalist at a press conference following the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in March 2001.We are, he said (I have forgotten his name, and my Taliban file has been long packed away; no doubt he is dead now), a nation of six million war orphans. We are one of the poorest countries in the world. There are more landmines marooned throughout Afghanistan than in all the other countries of the world combined. And now we have your attention because of some statues? Thatseemed to me exactly right, though I of course recognized that the destruction of the Buddhas was barbarous. I also knew that, before the Taliban came to power, Afghanistan was essentially run by Kalashnikov-toting posses of bisexual rapists and professional warmongers lately known as the Northern Alliance. Thus, in my book, I planned on writing sympathetically about the Taliban. A few months after the September 11 attacks, I found myself in northern Afghanistan, in Mazar-i-Sharif, shortly after the city fell. There I spoke to young women with facial scars left by the cord-whips of Taliban mullahs. I spoke to an old man whose earlobe had been ripped off because he had been caught not praying. I visited the Fatima Balkhi School the day it reopened after four years of inactivity, and as classes began I walked around noting how the lights and wiring had been brutally ripped from the walls, how each door had been torn from its hinges, how every window was broken, and found a stairwell in which the girls’ desks and chairs had been smashed. I learned that my translator had hidden in a well for three days with his mother and father and sister while Mazar was taken over by the Taliban in 1997; his brother he never saw again. I had a prototypically long, dark night my first evening in Mazar, remembering my intention to write “sympathetically” about the Taliban. I had let my good liberal suspicion for claims of Western moral superiority—suspicions that are often legitimate—strike out my eyes to the obvious. I had been fooled.
It was my fear that a good number of antiwar protesters in the United States were being fooled. In fact, it was my fear that the majority of them were being fooled. I feared they were being fooled by a false and self-congratulatory protest mythology that takes as its emotional secret a belief in the unquenchable evil of the American military. I feared they were being fooled by Michael Moore, whose film Bowling for Columbine notes at its opening that “The United States bombed another country”—which got an irritatingly knowing laugh from every audience with whom I saw the film—without pointing out that the bombing to which Moore referred saved the lives of several hundred thousand innocent Kosovars skinnied and starved in preparation for their butchering at Serbian hands. I feared they were being fooled by Noam Chomsky, who, so far as I know, has never once apologized for or explained his 1977 Nation article,“Distortions at Fourth Hand,” cowritten with Edward Herman, which argued that what were then still only rumors of a systematic massacre being carried out by the Communist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia were merely Cold War propaganda, another false pretext for the United States to meddle in the affairs of Southeast Asia.We did not wind up meddling in the affairs of Cambodia, of course. Two million people died. I feared they were being fooled by misleading and in- accurate comparisons of Iraq to Vietnam, and I feared they were being fooled by some of the major antiwar organizers.
Actually, the last was not my fear. It was and is my belief, and that of a number of other concerned liberals. As Michelle Goldberg reported in a recent Salon article, many antiwar protestors had no idea what they were doing at antiwar protests.When one man at a rally in Washington in October 2003 said he did not believe the soldiers should be brought home just yet, Goldberg pointed out to him that the sign he was holding said exactly the opposite.“I didn’t even look at it,” the man admitted.“I was just waving it.” For the few remaining remnants of the antiwar movement to accomplish anything useful, they must abandon all notions of “bringing our soldiers home.”This would be the worst imaginable solution to the problems we, together with the Iraqis, now face. It would make what was, at best, the clumsiest intervention in world history into international vandalism of Visigothic proportions.
The rally Goldberg visited, like many others, was largely organized by ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War & Racism), a group that only halfheartedly attempts to hide the fact that it is a front organization for the Workers World Party, a group that, as Goldberg points out, lauds the fedayeen “uprising” against the U.S. military, even going so far as to celebrate, in one of its many editorials, the Iraqi children who “defy the heavily armed invaders, slinging stones against this vulnerable goliath.”As David Corn explains in his excellent LA Weekly report “Behind the Placards: The Odd and Troubling Origins of Today’s Antiwar Movement,” the Workers World Party split from the Socialist Workers Party in 1956 to support the Soviet invasion of Hungary. This is a group for whom “Remembering September 11” means September 11, 1973, when the U.S.-abetted coup against Chile’s Salvador Allende took place. (Allende’s replacement was, of course,Augusto Pinochet, a man currently looking down the barrel of numerous international charges of crimes against humanity.) A WWP editorial concerned with the other September 11 notes that “Afghanistan had a progressive revolution in 1978 that tried to carry out land reform and free women from feudal bondage…. Then, in December 1979, the Afghan government asked the Soviet Union for troops,” which is certainly one way to describe the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.“We don’t jump on the bandwagon when Third World leaders are demonized,” the WWP explains elsewhere on its website. Evidently not. They have praised North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il, one of the world’s last remaining Stalin-style dictators, for keeping his nation “from falling under the sway of the transnational banks,” and gone on the record to say,“Iraq has done absolutely nothing wrong.” Do they mean, like, ever? That is exactly what they mean.
ANSWER lists most of its members as belonging not to the WWP—though they do—but to the International Action Center, which was founded by Ramsay Clark, the former U.S. attorney general under Lyndon Johnson. What can one say about Clark, other than that he went screaming over his threshold magnitude in a supersonic jet when he took up the cause of defending Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian war criminal and mass murderer, as a brave opponent of U.S. imperialism?
At every rally ANSWER continues to organize there are donation buckets, and by rally’s end they have usually been filled by people who have no idea the lies the group is founded upon and now happily propagates. What is most shocking is the number of liberal writers, among them Katha Pollitt, who are fully aware of ANSWER’s provenance yet shrug that perhaps something good will come out of their stance. We tried that before with Stalinists, Ms. Pollitt. Things did not work out very well. Even ANSWER’s ideological enemies within the antiwar movement, as Corn writes, have had to concede that they are excellent organizers. “They remembered everything but the Porta-Johns,” one told Corn. But this should not be surprising,as Stalinists have always been excellent organizers.
So what can one lone person do or think about this lamentable war, with its almost Greek chorus of Stalinists and pacifists, thoughtless propagators, and often equally thoughtful opponents and supporters? I am not sure there is a clear way out of my or anyone’s anti-antiwar confusion; there is only the unfashionable stuff of gut feelings. Reading Solzhenitsyn helped me come to uneasy terms with my own. I believe that the war in Iraq was morally wrong, tactically dubious, and probably illegal, while, at the same time, and very nearly impossibly, I believe that the removal from power of Saddam Hussein was a great moral accomplishment, however large the windfall for Halliburton, and however insincere and dishonest the Bush administration’s motives for doing so. The war is far from over, of course, and all I can do now is hope for its success and freedom and peace for the Iraqis, which they are not likely to get without us and the reluctant cooperation of many other countries. That I detest the man conducting this war is finally immaterial.There is no other option. I may not like it, I may in fact hate it, but we as a nation have crossed a different kind of threshold magnitude, one of great potential good, and only skeptical and determined benevolence will prevent us from turning to vapor.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is not much read anymore. Many believe he no longer needs to be read, as the gravesite of Soviet totalitarianism quietly continues to grow its blood-fed daisies. None of Solzhenitsyn’s various American publishers even answered the messages I left inquiring after what his books have been annually selling.Although his reputation was punctured by the general critical failure of his still-unfinished Red Wheel cycle, it also suffered due to tectonically drastic shifts in literary taste. Not many of us anymore would think to read a book for the kind of old-fashioned, if highly black-edged, edification provided by The Gulag Archipelago. Solzhenitsyn, typically, anticipated this with some rue.“Truth must be told—and things must change!” he writes in Gulag. “If words are not about real things and do not cause things to happen, what is the good of them? Are they anything more than the barking of village dogs at night?” He goes on, “I should like to commend this thought to our modernists: this is how our people usually think of literature.They will not soon lose the habit. Should they, do you think?”
Solzhenitsyn was also wounded by, and never really recovered from, the aforementioned charges of anti-Semitism. These came both from within Russia (“this semi-literate provincial, who has finally found his vocation—anti-Semitic hackwork—has been sensationalized into an intellectual colossus”) and from without, mainly by leftist American and French academics (who we now know, thanks to opened KGB archives, were fed innuendo by the Soviet authorities, including the fool’s-gold nugget that Solzhenitsyn was himself a Jew whose real name was Solzhenitser). Jews occupy a complicated position in Solzhenitsyn’s work, and his portrayal of them is not always, let us say, fondly sunlit. As D. M.Thomas writes in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: A Century in His Life, “Undoubtedly two of the men Solzhenitsyn blamed most for the Revolution were Jews, the ‘weakly snakelike’ Bogrov, who ended what he considered Russia’s last best hope of progress; and the repulsively fleshy Parvus, who financed the Bolsheviks. They are not attractive portraits. But doubtless they were not very attractive personalities.” Solzhenitsyn himself has insisted he is not an anti-Semite and a few years ago published a book (which I have not read) about Russian- Jewish relations entitled Two Hundred Years Together, in an attempt to finally settle the issue. One is either prepared to believe him or one is not. Given the man’s humanity, so evident in his other work, I am. I hope I am not wrong.
In 1994, he left Vermont, where he had settled in the mid-1970s after some desultory post-exile wanderings in Europe, and returned to Russia at the age of seventy-five. While his books had sold in the millions immediately after the Soviet implosion, many younger Russians barely knew his name. His fellow Russian writers, as D. M. Thomas relates, were less than solicitous. “It’s better to have him speak than write,”Viktor Erofeyev said, when Moscow’s Channel 1 gave Solzhenitsyn his own fifteen-minute talk show. “He writes such ugly Russian. He is once again what he always was at heart—a provincial schoolteacher.” One of his talk-show rivals, the rock journalist Artyom Troitsky, wondered, “Why should anyone now care about The Gulag Archipelago? I’m afraid Solzhenitsyn is totally, totally passé.” On his talk show and in his public addresses, Solzhenitsyn quickly descended into the crankery that is apparent, now and again, in Gulag, such as when he argues that the spiritual heights many prisoners unexpectedly experienced in the camps “is too lofty for this age of self-interested calculation and hopping-up-and-down jazz.” He complained about buildings taller than a few stories. He complained about Russia’s new crony capitalism, how it was destroying Christianity, and he warned that if ethnic Russians in Central Asia were not protected, the Central Asian republics would unite with Turkey and give rise to a new Ottoman Empire, the historical nemesis of Old Russia.Well, James Joyce enjoyed having women fart in his face. At a certain point one simply allows great writers their oddities and lapses, especially those that come with age and exhaustion. I stumbled upon Solzhenitsyn’s talk show once, in 2001, in a hotel in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, which still receives Moscow’s Channel 1. It may have been a rerun. I am not sure. I understood virtually nothing of what he was saying, of course, but I sat down on my hotel-room bed and watched, marveling at his beautifully scraggly Russian voice, his strangely Amish beard, his fierce, Entlike face. I had not yet read The Gulag Archipelago, only his fiction, and that was years before, and I remember being startled, truly startled, that Solzhenitsyn was still alive. He seemed so primeval, and it struck me that he may have been one of the world’s last truly moral writers, a writer for whom morality was not a matter of what you believed in or even what you did, but what you were,in your heart, in your soul.In Gulag he writes that,in a world filled with pain,“nobody groans when another man’s tooth aches.” Should they, do you think? ✯