The Gulag Archipelago
It must have been more than 32 years ago that I read the Gulag Archipelago 1918 - 1956 of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn for the first time. That was a decade after is was first published by Harper & Row in New York. The book can be characterized as 'samizdat'; forbidden in the USSR, cheered at in the West. But also in the West, there is a kind of 'samizdat'. The authors are called whistle blowers. Today Julian Assange is wanted by the Swedish, UK and USA government.
Let me be clear. This is no easy stuff. Solzhenitsyn is not a middle of the road Russian guy. He was an intelligent, distinguished man. A Nobel Prize winning author (1970). Both Russian and English are rich languages. So it happened regularly that my eye fell on words that I have never seen before. And not only Russian words -:) So many years later I have come to the point that no Engish text make me afraid anymore. I guess that this was one of the reasons that I understand much more now of it than I did when I first read it. More importantly, my understanding of democratic and non-democratic government has increased significantly since then.
What was the reason to re-read it? Well, this is world literature. And it is non-fiction. If you hesitate donating Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International, please remember that in 1937-1938 around 6 mln political prisoners were held in the Arkhipelag GULag. That would have been 75% of the total Dutch population! Major part was forced to do hard labor in Siberia: build railroad tracks, dams and make river deviations.
Solzhenitsyn himself was taken prison as an officer while conquering Eastern Prussia in WW-II. He talked about what he saw with others. And what he saw was that high rank Russian officers raped Polish and German wives. Het got eight years of prison. But not all he endured was bad. In a camp physical circumstances were definitely bad, but friendships were made too. And in the end so many scientists were taken prison in the USSR, that surprisingly they could set up regular meetings of high intellectual standards in some of the detention camps.
The Gulag Archipelago is different from many other books written in detention camps. Solzhenitsyn needs a pretty long historic introduction, describing what he calls 'the prison industry'. The October Revolution in 1917 caused a serious upheaval in Russia. Workers and peasant took over power. And they did certainly no half work. Contra-revolutionairy activity was quite easily rewarded with 5-10-25 years of imprisonment and even by death penalties. Strictly speaking the verdicts were fully in line with Russian law. But therefore the rules of the game had to be changed and the implementation speeded up. Lawyers and witnesses were expelled from the scene. Guilty or not, thousands of regime adversaries were taken prison in no time. Many of them had no idea what reason lay behind their trial. If you didn't know, torture would help you to confess. Under the Stalin regime Russian law served only one thing: state stability. It opposed everything which we take for granted in international law today. Yet Russian law makers and judges have not fully liberated themselves from the old dust in their cloth. Mr. Putin reminds them what services he expects from magistrates. The resemblance between Gulag judges and Dutch notaries is that they can punish you c.q. disinherit you without any witnesses or lawyers and without charge or even an explanation. Just because someone somewhere wants this to be done.
Yesterday night I saw a small part of a lecture on Dutch television. A Dutch professor in international terrorism held a monologue of over 90 minutes. She is young, clever, clear and fearless academic. Her name? Beatrice de Graaf. She approaches terrorism from a scientific point of view, leaving away emotions and stressing causal and logic relationships. Her conclusions are valuable for those who are open minded enough to understand the drivers of world terrorism. Which are not alway governments. Is she a whistle blower? No! She isn't. She has no political agenda at all. The only thing she is interested in, is the truth. If you ignore the truth, the conquest of terrorism will never succeed. She is honest enough to remind us that the West lives in glass houses and should not throw stones in Syria and Iraq. Would this kind of critics be allowed in the USSR? Definitely not. Not even today.
We may believe that the times of the Gulag Archipelago lay far behind us. Then be aware that the USSR has only collapsed 25 years ago, that there is still no consensus on Guantanamo Bay and that there are numerous countries where political activity is followed suspiciously by authorities. Big entreprises would benefit from professors like Beatrice de Graaf. No, not because employees terrorize employers or vice versa. It's much more subtile, as was much of the interrogation and intimidation of Russian people under communism. In big organizations managers are encouraged to do things they wouldn't do at home. They are rewarded for that with privileges. The first time a realized that was when I did my military service. Officers have better food and better beds than soldiers. Business life has its lease cars, bonusses and extra windows to look through. You need to please your communist party secretary, your officer or your boss. Depending on where your are. If not, your career may end soon. Not necessarily in a Gulag camp, but somewhere outside. Many big enterprises would benefit from brave men and women like Manfred Kets de Vries and Beatrice de Graaf. The roots of all evil are more universal than we tend to believe. For this reason alone I fought my way through 630 pages Gulag, which depicts the nasty history of a state that has collapsed only a quarter of a century ago. History is not to be forgotten!