Solzhenitsyn and the Creation of the Gulag

excerpted from the book

The Politics of Cruelty

an essay on the literature of political imprisonment

by Kate Millett

WW Norton, 1994, paper

From the United Nations Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Torture, 9 December 1975, Article 1:

Torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted by or at the instigation of a public official on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or confession, punishing him for an act he has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating him or other persons.

The abolition of torture in one area, criminality, was a triumph for reform and the rights of the individual against the state, but its reappearance in another area, political dissent and subversion, is a greater triumph for state power over individual rights. Curbed in one place, the force of the state contracted J only briefly, then expanded into another arena with greater violence, brutality, and oppressive might: the suspected criminals tortured had been few in number; the number of "political enemies" was and is vast and endless. The offenses alleged against criminals were against a nearly universal social and moral code and the rule of law, through real and specific acts, capable of evidence and proof. The offenses of the politicals were far more theoretical, abstract, ideological, or heretical, sometimes even imaginary insults to power rather than to fellow citizen or moral principle. In this they resemble the uses to which the Inquisition in the twelfth century had, after many centuries of relative forbearance, reappropriated ancient Roman law's practices of torture. When the Inquisition ended, torture was reduced again to the torture of criminal suspects.

When this too was eliminated, the use of torture was transformed in the fields of political control, where it has spread and proliferated.

There was one great difference in the modern practice of torture: those who practiced it kept it secret. Not only was torture covert, it was still generally and expressly forbidden. This remains central to its practice today. Stalin and Hitler, building upon Lenin's model of total state power and its demands for security and surveillance, created a system that lives on in many parts of the world. Imitated by colonial powers and Western democracies as well, honed by technological advances, this system of rule is most notable in Central and South America, Iran, and South Africa, but Amnesty International locates its practices in parts of Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East as well. In 1985, Peters estimated that one out of three countries practiced torture; the figure may now be higher.

States which practice torture also resort to legal fictions and conveniences, the by now customary "emergency" statutes, which suspend constitutional rights, including the writ of habeas corpus, and facilitate arrest, detention, and interrogation, circumstances created for the practice of torture. Yet torture itself remains forbidden, therefore secret, therefore more powerful still.

Torture is the ultimate act of state power. In arrogating to itself the capacity to torture its citizens, the state has assumed absolute power over them. If, in addition to its other powers over the person-arrest, confinement, trial process, judgment, and sentence-it adds torture as well, it annihilates. Because torture cannot be withstood. It was for this reason, perhaps above all others, that the reforming spirit of the Enlightenment and the movement for the rights of man outlawed torture categorically.

Its reinstitution therefore is a return to absolute power, canceling the most fundamental reforms of the last two hundred years and threatening a world movement toward human rights and democratic governmental forms. Witnessing the return of torture in our time, we witness not only widespread suffering under barbarous force, but the overturning of hundreds of years of social and political development. Circumstances not only for pity but for terror.

Technology is of the essence. It is what distinguishes modern from earlier despotic conditions. Technology completes, even perfects the powers assumed by government, brings them toward an omnipotence previously imagined only in connection with the deity. The state now aspires to the condition of divine power, as its citizens, every day more subject, are inspired to fear and accept it with the unquestioning awe they once felt for God.

Omnipresent, God hears everything. How can this be translated into technological surveillance? The telephone is not without possibilities-given the power inherent in the control of transportation, information, and communications. Telephone records can be made available to the state that list all numbers called in or out, combined with the capacity to tap or listen in and record telephone conversations. If one were to add to this a means of identifying voices scientifically, as is the case with fingerprints, then powers of surveillance and therefore power itself would be much increased.


Solzhenitsyn and the Creation of the Gulag
To be arrested knowing you will be tortured is to know absolute helplessness before absolute power... This is government through fear, even terror: state terrorism, which is to say activity of respected and recognized authority. Not the activities of a few desperate individuals, but the collective force of the state, with all its attendant powers of police, army, weaponry, prisons; its resources in personnel and machinery, its control over roads, airports, borders, its technology in surveillance, its functionaries trained in deception and cruelty and indemnified in their functions. Vast, fearsome power.

Caged like an animal, reduced to a condition humanity imposes at will upon the animal world; you had never noticed it before, never objected, rarely pitied even. And now you are this.

And the animal within you, the final self, the basic kernel at the center of being, panics. Its faultless perception comprehends that this could be eternal. All objective conditions make it so: the steel door, the stone walls, the cement floor, all substances too obdurate for the human body's petty strength, the flesh unarmed, naked against these forces, fingers, teeth- you have no claws, nor would they be of use. You have entered the animal condition, or, more precisely, one lower down, you have become an object, a thing in a box. Inanimate except for the terrible whir of consciousness, itself nothing but suffering.

The great weapon of the mind is betrayed by the mechanism of the lock, conceived by another mind, executed by other hands, produced by machinery which is the function of both. A lock is a riddle solved only by a key. Which can operate only from the other side of the steel door, not your side. A key in other hands, not yours. Theirs.

Volition is gone entirely, will is useless. You are a creature now, their creature. And they are free to torment you. Any way they wish. They can now inflict any pain or deprivation upon you, and for any reason: amusement, boredom, habit, even simple routine, the routine by which you will be broken, piece by piece.

You will do exactly as they say; not only will you have no option to do otherwise, you will do it willingly, trembling, hoping to appease, propitiate, avoid further hurt and humiliation. Cowed animal that you are, you appreciate that defiance is useless, pride something you must save for yourself, conscious of it leaking away before the reality of your predicament as your comprehension of it builds moment to moment. You will hold up your finger just at the instant the eye appears in the judas glass, signaling your mortified need to urinate, defecate. But even the hope of not befouling your box with your own filth, even that possibility is their decision, not yours, a "privilege" granted at their whim.

In chronicling the Gulag from 1918 to 1956, Solzhenitsyn puts the total of those affected, including the kulak "resettlements," in the range of 10 million persons. The revolution took place in October; by November, the Cadets or Constitutional Democrats were already being rounded up. By December, there was a secret police (NKVD) in place; malingerers and intellectual saboteurs were being denounced. Extra-judicial reprisals were being carried out by the secret police, renamed the Cheka, combining arrest, interrogation, prosecution, verdict, and execution all within their own ranks and in secrecy. Through 1918 and 1919 the Right Socialist Revolutionary Party, the Social Democrats, the Mensheviks, and the Popular Socialists and all other political opposition, rivalry, and dissent were eliminated. Where actual resistance appeared, it was quashed: the Tambov peasants' rebellion, the Kronstadt sailors' uprising. Concealment of former social origins was cause for arrest among the middle and upper classes, the concept of preventative detention introduced as a kind of social prophylaxis. Then came the invention of plots, whereby other sectors of the population (the church, the military, the intellectuals) were brought into line through the persecution of scapegoats under the Central Committee's 1920 Decree Against Subversive Activity in the Rear. It was discovered in 1927 that the entire sector of engineers were actually "wreckers" plotting destruction; the trial of the Promparty and the pattern of large public trials and confessions produced by terror and torture followed.

By the late twenties, Stalin inherited this system of state terror only to improve and enlarge it. His first operation on a great scale was against the kulak or "well-off" peasant population, uprooting some 6 million, confiscating their land, transporting them in cattle cars, sending them to concentration camps to swell the ranks of slave labor achieving his vast building projects and canal systems. Or simply murdering them, setting a precedent of genocide for Germany to follow later with more elaborate system. All along, dissent or nonconformity of any kind was funneled into the Gulag, together with any individual who refused when asked to become an informer.

The result was a strange new ideological society living under fear and coercion, manipulated into policing itself, all modern constitutional safeguards long abandoned and the judicial process thoroughly suborned. Control established, it could only be improved upon and assured with exemplary purges: Leningrad was purged in 1937, the purge affecting every layer of the population and producing mass executions, one mass grave alone holding 46,000 bodies. Stalinist consolidation was crowned with the Moscow purge trials of 1937 and 1938. Interrogation rose to great heights then, theatrical confessions in court, absolute mortification urged upon the once powerful and significant figures of the revolution itself-Bukharin and the others-as one by one they accused themselves of crimes they could not possibly have committed.

The revolution had now become counterrevolution; it remained only to police the system and continue to supply it, even with fantasy, with paranoia of the West, uncovering subversion everywhere, often with farcical effect. But the principle was now firmly established that any dissent or even disagreement was treason, that treason was any offense against state power, state power having replaced the ideology of revolution. Furthermore, there was to be no distinction between intention and act. All this could be codified into law under the infamous Article 58 of the Soviet Criminal Code. Section 6 regarding espionage then created an apartheid of official secrecy and public ignorance that would become a model in many other places under the same rubric of "national security." It also introduced a potent xenophobia whereby contact with or interest in any outside place was in effect criminal. The labels of "terrorist" and "terrorist interests" were given their first blanket use, terms of great convenience, now worldwide.

The primacy of state power was given awesome dimension. While Stalin's own personal obsession, it was nevertheless also an impersonal principle that any system might apply. Most of all, Article 58 triumphed through Section 10 on propaganda and agitation, directed against any activity that sought to question or challenge state power. This could include any literary material, published or private communications, even conversations; any free speech was annihilated by this portmanteau device. Pervasive and invasive, it empowered the state to practice an untiring domestic espionage against citizens, gave rise to eavesdropping, informing, and denunciations. It permitted no private life or opinion, could cover words spoken between friends, even husband and wife. It could also censor personal letters: Solzhenitsyn's arrest and eleven years of imprisonment and exile were in punishment for a few sarcastic references to Stalin, whom he and a college friend referred to discreetly as "the Ploughman" in an exchange of letters while they were serving on the Russian front.

Politics of Cruelty

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