Last of the Great Whistleblowers


Anne Applebaum has written one of the better obituaries for Alexander Solzhenitsyn in her column for the Washington Post:

"Even Solzhenitsyn’s expulsion from Russia in 1974 only increased his notoriety, as well as the impact of "The Gulag Archipelago." Though it was based on "reports, memoirs and letters by 227 witnesses," the book was not quite a straight history — obviously, Solzhenitsyn did not have access to then-secret archives — but, rather, an interpretation of history. Partly polemical, partly autobiographical, both emotional and judgmental, it aimed to show that, contrary to what many believed, the mass arrests and concentration camps were not an incidental phenomenon but an essential part of the Soviet system — and had been from the very beginning.

"Not all of this was new: Credible witnesses had reported on the growth of the Gulag and the spread of terror since the Russian Revolution. But what Solzhenitsyn produced was simply more thorough, more monumental and more detailed than anything that had preceded it. His account could not be dismissed as a single man’s experience. No one who dealt with the Soviet Union, diplomatically or intellectually, could ignore it. So threatening was the book to certain branches of the European left that Jean-Paul Sartre himself described Solzhenitsyn as a "dangerous element." Its publication certainly contributed to the recognition of "human rights" as a legitimate element of international debate and foreign policy.

"His manuscripts were read and pondered in silence, and the thought he put into them provoked his readers to think, too. In the end, his books mattered not because he was famous or notorious but because millions of Soviet citizens recognized themselves in his work: They read his books because they already knew that they were true."

It is a peculiar meme in Western Culture that, at some level, the evil of Stalin’s Soviet regime cannot be viewed on the same level as, say, Hitler’s Third Reich.  It sometimes takes the form of faint attempts to explain it away, or to see it as an aberration of the Soviet state, and generally ends in a change of subject.  This aura of lingering romanticism about the Soviet State among Westerners is odd and, I think, rather inexplicable.  A meme is probably the best way to describe it.

In Russia itself, the attitude is perhaps easier to understand.  No one likes to be reminded of their own sins, and no one likes bad news that is unlikely to gain them anything.  In her book, Gulag: A History, Applebaum describes the typical reactions of people she encounters in Russia once they discover that she is doing a historical investigation of the Gulag system.

"At first, my presence only added to their general merriment.  It is not every day one meets a real American on a rickety ferry boat in the middle of the White Sea, and the oddity amused them.  They wanted to know why I spoke Russian, what I thought of Russia, how it differs from the United States.  When I told them what I was doing in Russia, however, they grew less cheerful.  An American on a pleausre cruise, visiting the Solovetsky Islands to see the scenery and the beautiful old monastery — that was one thing.  An American visiting the Solovetsky Islands to see the remains of the concentration camp — that was something else.

"One of the men turned hostile.  ‘Why do you foreigners only care about the ugly things in our history?’ he wanted to know. ‘Why write about the Gulag?  Why not write about our achievements?  We were the first country to put a man into space!’  By ‘we’ he meant ‘we Soviets.’

"His wife attacked me as well.  ‘The Gulag isn’t relevant anymore,’ she told me.  ‘We have other troubles here.  We have unemployment, we have crime.  Why don’t you write about our real problems, instead of things that happened a long time ago?’

"In my subsequent travels around Russia, I encountered these four attitudes to my project again and again.  ‘It’s none of your business,’ and ‘it’s irrelevant’ were both common reactions.  Silence — or an absence of opinion, as evinced by a shrug of the shoulders — was probably the most frequent reaction.  But there were also people who understood why it was important to know about the past…"

This is toward the end of the book.  Just as interesting is how the book begins, with an observation on a bridge.

"Yet although they lasted as long as the Soviet Union itself, and although many millions of people passed through them, the true history of the Soviet Union’s concentration camps was, until recently, not at all well known.  By some measures, it is still not known.  Even the bare facts recited above, although by now familiar to most Western scholars of Soviet history, have not filtered into Western popular consciousness.

"I first became aware of this problem several years ago, when walking across the Charles Bridge, a major tourist attraction in what was then newly democratic Prague.  There were buskers and hustlers along the bridge, and every fifteen feet or so someone was selling precisely what one would expect to find for sale in such a postcard-perfect spot.  Paintings of appropriately pretty streets were on display, along with bargain jewelry and ‘Prague’ key chains.  Among the bric-a-brac, one could buy Soviet military paraphernalia: caps, badges, belt buckles, and little pins, the tin Lenin and Brezhnev images that Soviet schoolchildren once pinned to their uniforms.

"The sight struck me as odd.  Most of the people buying the Soviet paraphernalia were Americans and West Europeans.  All would be sickened by the thought of wearing a swastika.  None objected, however, to wearing the hammer and sickle on a T-shirt or a hat.  It was a minor observation, but sometimes, it is through just such minor observations that a cultural mood is best observed.  For here, the lesson could not have been clearer: while the symbol of one mass murder fills us with horror, the symbol of another murder makes us laugh."

I do not play the game myself, but a friend tells me that there is a similar controversy in Civilization IV concerning the presence of Stalin as a player character in this PC game and the absence of Hitler.  Here is a small flame war over it, with links to more flame wars.  Another friend, who is ethnic Chinese, resents the presence of Mao in the game.

Perhaps the greatest trick the Devil ever played, to paraphrase Kaiser Sose, was to convince people that he was Adolf Hitler, while men like Alexander Solzhenitsyn worked to convince us that things were otherwise.  To quote the man himself:

"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?”  – The Gulag Archipelago

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