Thursday, February 05, 2015

Reading :: The Gulag Archipelago

The Gulag Archipelago
By Alexander Solzhenitsyn

I first read this book the summer after my 16th birthday. It details the author's experience in the Stalinist work camps, but it also details the experience of many others who communicated with the author in the work camps or, after his release, in secret conversations and letters. Taken all together, the book recounts the history of the work camps from 1918 (before they were officially formed under Stalin in 1930) to 1956 (after Stalin's death in 1953). And it is horrifying.

There's no way I can adequately summarize the book. But I picked it up again after two things happened.

First, a fellow researcher, who had been born in the Eastern Bloc, remembered its propagandic education and asked me whether this propaganda constituted the Soviet roots of activity theory.

Second, to better understand the roots of the notion of contradiction in activity theory, I read one of Evald Ilyenkov's books, The Dialectics of the Abstract and Concrete in Marx's Capital, which was published in 1960—four years after the timespan covered in the Gulag Archipelago, two years before Solzhenitsyn published One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Ilyenkov's book, like others during the time, quotes Marx, Engels and Lenin fervently and describes opposing viewpoints contemptuously. Was he a true believer, the kind that ascribes to this trio the sort of infallability a fundamentalist Christian does to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John? Was he trying to make sure that his books would pass the censors, as Bakhtin allegedly tried to do? Or was he — frightened?

I'm going to be reading and reviewing several Soviet-era books over the next few weeks, including some that were written during Stalin's time in power, so I wanted to ground myself in the historical background. I don't want to forget that these researchers had ample reasons to quote Marx et al often, reasons that did not necessarily have to do with free inquiry. And I wanted to remember how much of the infrastructure they enjoyed, how many of the programs in which they were involved, benefited indirectly from the unfree labor in these horrid labor camps. And that's why I decided to read The Gulag Archipelago a second time.

The book deserves far more attention, but here I'll just pull out a few quotes relevant to my particular investigation.

On p.29, Solzhenitsyn discusses how no one was safe from arrest by the secret police, who had to fulfill their quotas, and who were under no obligation to provide a trial. "Just as the intelligentsia had never been overlooked in previous waves, it was not neglected in this one. A student's denunciation that a certain lecturer in a higher educational institution kept citing Lenin and Marx frequently but Stalin not at all was all that was needed for the lecturer not to show up for lectures any more. And what if he cited no one?" (p.29)

In discussing the Gulag's "'discovery' that the personal confession of an accused person was more important than any other kind of proof or facts" (p.42), Solzhenitsyn describes how Vyshinsky, "availing himself of the most flexible dialectics ... pointed out in a report which became famous in certain circles that it is never possible for mortal men to establish absolute truth, but relative truth only. ... Therefore, when we sign a sentence ordering someone to be shot we can never be absolutely certain, but only approximately, in view of certain hypotheses, and in a certain sense, that we are punishing a guilty person." The solution was, rather than seeking absolute evidence (it's all relative) or witnesses (these are changeable), the interrogator could find such relative proof without even leaving his office, just by making the prisoner confess. (p.43). "In only one respect did Vyshinsky fail to be consistent and retreat from dialectical logic: for some reason, the executioner's bullet which he allowed was not relative but absolute ..." (p.43)

On p.215: "Engels discovered that the human being had arisen not through the perception of a moral idea and not through the process of thought, but out of happenstance and meaningless work (an ape picked up a stone—and with this everything began. Marx, concerning himself with a less remote time ('Critique of the Gotha Program'), declared with equal conviction that the one and only means of correcting offenders ... was not solitary contemplation, not moral soul-searching, nor repentance, and not languishing (for all that was superstructure!)—but productive labor." (p.215) Solzhenitsyn cites this claim as the rationale for the work camps—and he also says that Marx never had to work!

On p.325: He argues that the lie has become the form of existence. "There exists a collection of ready-made phrases, of labels, a selection of ready-made lies. And not one single speech nor one single essay or article nor one single book—be it scientific, journalistic, critical, or 'literary,' so-called—can exist without the use of these primary cliches."

Read it? Definitely. I'm glad I did at 16, and I'm glad I did again, to remind myself to look for those cliches in the next few weeks.

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