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
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
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
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.