Power Against Humanity

The Gulag in its harsh Soviet form has no longer a chance in our part of the world. It may, however, come back in a new guise, in a global “soft” version, in which terrorists have replaced the class enemy and the focus on freedom of consumption have replaced the ideals of communism.

A year ago, a second edition of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago was published by Premedia in Bratislava in a new translation by Igor and Dušan Slobodník. This, together with the 40th anniversary of the first publication of the original (YMCA Press Paris, December 1973), the Russian author’s 95th birthday and the 60th anniversary of Stalin’s death, gives more than ample cause to reflect on this epoch-making work, monumental in its range, content, significance and its impact on the social consciousness of the civilized world. Though I should point out on behalf of our cultural community that this work calls for a more continual reflection and should not rely on formal pretexts such as anniversaries.

Solzhenitsyn has left behind a timeless testimony, exposing the Gulag as the most hideous example of the exercise of political power over human beings. While history may have known regimes that were more monstrous, resulted in more casualties and wrought more havoc, nowhere else has the potential for the depravity of political power manifested itself in such a pure and undiluted form as in Russian communism. The Soviet Union’s state power targeted its own people, its own social and professional groups and entire nations—the very society it was supposed to govern and lead. Instead of doing that, for a full 38 years (1918 to 1956 by official accounts) it systematically decimated society, proceeding particularly methodically and single-mindedly to annihilate its elites, often including prominent members of its own ruling party. The Stalinist devastation of human beings is unprecedented and, one hopes, unsurpassable in its cannibalism, range and duration.

Morality vs. Power

Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago outlines the physiology and psychopathology of Russian communist repression. Political power and ideology feature only as a backdrop to the state terror, since the author had fathomed the character of Soviet power a long time before and feels no need to expound his views of the regime he is depicting. However, fifty years after its publication, The Gulag Archipelago challenges us to contemplate the causes and precepts that make it possible for state power to become so depraved and to rule for decades with impunity, without fear of the consequences and without encountering effective resistance. Even today, the appalling lack of humanity in the Gulag Archipelago continues to perturb us since it suggests that inhumanity may be encoded in political power in general.

If we wish to strip power structures of their ideological and propaganda disguise, we have to grasp the logic guiding the inhuman potential of political power. We work on the assumption that humanity is based on morality. Morality is a set of principles that lead us to do the right thing— neminem laede, immo omnes, quantum potes, iuva (hurt no one, help everyone as much as you can— the fundamental principle of Schopenhauer’s universal morality). Even when this is not expedient, I would add, to be more precise. An individual can be guided by moral principles, on his own or within a circle of those closest to him (the family) with whom he is connected by a multitude of common characteristics and ties. They may agree that acting morally is in their joint interest. However, this principle does not apply to larger communities, be they national or political: even if they profess morality in their basic documents it will be nothing but camouflage. For a national or a political community is a complex system comprising many and varied individuals, groups, interests and relations. It has only one interest as an entity or a subject, though, undoubtedly, it is a shared and dominant one: an interest in everything that is expedient and the rejection of everything that is inexpedient.

If we regard morality as the positive pole of humanity, an opposite negative pole must exist, which is an equally unique achievement of the human race. This negative pole is depravity, i.e. the opposite of morality. An individual who follows Schopenhauer’s principle and acts morally even when it is inexpedient, whereas an individual who does not hurt others both when it is expedient and, perversely, also when it brings him no gains. The potential for depravity exists within each individual and each political and power structure. An individual realizes this potential if, among other things, he lacks moral inhibitions; a political structure realizes it in the complete absence of checks and balances. A pathological process in the development of a social organism can be triggered by an evolutionary anomaly, a crisis, a war or revolution. In the case of Russia all three factors were at work simultaneously.

A politician is supposed to represent, govern and lead his community and in order to do that he needs to control it. To exercise control, he needs an effective instrument, namely power. The larger and more diverse a community, the greater number of subsystems and elements at various stages of development it contains, the more differentiated and less compatible their partial interests are; and the worse its performance of its basic functions (economy, social affairs, the rule of law, culture in the widest sense of the word), the more power is required to maintain and control it. This calls for a bigger and more diversified power machine which, in turn, needs to be controlled and the entire machinery has to be adapted periodically to renew the hierarchical dependencies of its individual elements and prevent them from turning into a threat to itself.

Basically, this system forms a pyramid: a vast area at the base with a corresponding height and volume, made up of megatons of material exerting a huge pressure on the base. At the same time, the pyramid of power is not a stone tomb in a desert but a living and insatiable structure. This has, naturally, nothing in common with morality, obeying as it does only the laws of power, albeit entangled in such a complex and changeable muddle of lines of force—influences, connections, compromising information, legal and corrupt relationships— that even the actors directly involved in it find it hard to read. The system draws its energy from mutual distrust and paranoia, and it is held together by fear, which suppresses at its inception any thought of change, however politically harmless, of any improvement, different option, view beyond the horizon. Fear, like deadly radiation, emanates from the peak of the pyramid where all power’s lines of force converge.

Russia is a Hyperbole

The above is a metaphor of Russia’s state power. Except that in the case of Russia, all metaphors are feeble and hyperboles impossible, for Russia itself is a hyperbole. It has all the parameters of a state structure, of a system that relies on totalitarian power to guarantee the survival of the state, i.e. itself. It is power relying on itself. Nothing stops it from becoming absolute and concentrated. Rule of law, political pluralism—i. e. a system of checks and balances that replaces the regulating principle of human morality in social structures—has been unthinkable in Russia, particularly under the Bolshevik Soviet Union, when unfettered and unlimited power was able to unleash its full potential for depravity. It began to eliminate its opposite pole: any hint of individuality, spiritual activity, above-average ability, morality, humanity. It set out to destroy everything it was supposed to govern, lead, direct, indeed control. As a precautionary measure. And this paranoid, sado-masochistic self-harming is precisely what makes it so depraved.

Friedrich Nietzsche has written beautifully on this subject but had he known Russian communism, the Soviet Union and the Gulag, he might have conceded that the will to power, which he declared to be the foundation of the world, was not, in fact, beyond good and evil, as he stated in his eponymous work.

A Laboratory of the Depravity of Power

The Gulag was the most effective tool for the exercise of hypertrophied power and, within its own absurd logic, this was also its goal. It was a source of fear and a way of preventively eliminating individuals and humanity. The Gulag physically annihilated millions, depriving further tens of millions of their morality, turning them into cunning animals capable of anything just to alleviate the unbearable living conditions. But not only inside the Gulag. The archipelago relied on a wide-ranging “infrastructure,” particularly sub-suppliers of “human resources.” To meet their political orders they followed draconian legislation (the “political” Article 58 of the Criminal Code), which would have made medieval inquisitors blush for being too human and adhering to the letter of the law. They formed a network of informants, all kinds of law enforcement bodies, bizarre kinds of tribunals, such as the NKVD 3-member Special Councils that had the authority to pass sentences, including the death penalty.

The network was responsible for exterminating some people on the spot but mostly for supplying the Gulag with counterrevolutionaries, enemies of the people, spies, saboteurs, diversionists etc., based on quotas centrally allocated to each region and following the political line decreed by the great strategist Stalin himself, who demanded an escalation of the class struggle after the proletariat’s ultimate victory in the socialist revolution. A network covering the vast country worked incessantly to make everyone aware of the existence and the threat of the camp hell, spreading fear along with amorality, which was the only way of succumbing to power and becoming its active lackey and thus avoiding the slaughterhouse and survive.

Tens of millions of victims, of destroyed, ruined, stigmatized lives… All cultural and spiritual life crushed, many generations’ education and training devalued. This is a tragedy without precedent in human history. Moreover, this wasn’t a case of one nation assaulted by another but rather a great nation that had abased itself, worshipping unfettered power that had usurped inhuman authority, by letting itself be fooled by its seductive disguise and giving it its full support. This seems to be the crucial reminder of the inhuman essence of absolute power, particularly one that pretends to stem from the people and to be exercised by the people’s representatives. Although, technically speaking, the Bolsheviks were pure usurpers whom nobody had elected, the masses marching resolutely under the red banner inspired by faith in the right cause, had arguably given them a stronger mandate than the 99 percent (one party) election victories in later years.

A Social Tragedy of Uncontrolled Power

Another thing we must not forget is that all political power naturally aspires to absolute victory. If it succeeds in crushing its rivals or if they eliminate themselves—as we have recently seen in the case of the right-of-centre parties in Slovakia or the Left in Hungary—it will rule without checks and balances. In our part of the world, victorious forces are rarely sufficiently enlightened and aware of the lessons of history to create such safety mechanisms within their own party structures, if they lack outside partners they could cooperate with. This is worth mentioning just in case we might feel tempted to dismiss the potential for power as a spent force, confident that we are out of the woods.

There is a further aspect of the Soviet tragedy that keeps it alive and relevant today, not just as a historical lesson. The brutality of power concentrated in the Gulag incited paralyzing fear in everyone outside the archipelago. Intimidation was, after all, one of the Gulag’s main purposes. We are talking of fear that was not just visceral, arising as it did from the awareness of the risk of sophisticated, longlasting physical and mental suffering not known in nature, either in terms of the suffering or the awareness. This force effectively expunged moral values from where they normally reside, i.e. in the mental set-up of individuals as well as in human relations.

For a Soviet citizen to hold on to human values—morality, decency towards oneself and one’s nearest and dearest, internal freedom, doubt as well as unorthodox emotions or proclivities— meant to risk the very existence of one’s family. To be on the safe side people had to get rid of this ballast of humanity. It was safer to compensate for the moral void and lack of values by unconditional acceptance, indeed religious faith, in the prescribed ideology, by loyalty to the state and devotion to the leader. It must be quite easy to rule masses of individuals brainwashed in this way. All you have to do is keep the fear alive. And the relevant authorities knew how to do that, under the wise leadership of their paranoid leader.

What makes this tragedy still relevant today is the fact that the ability of human beings to adapt mentally to such devastating conditions is passed on to their descendants and thus survives in society even after the pressure has relaxed. And if the pressure is long-term, the people internalize it to such an extent that they are no longer aware of it. Homo sovieticus responds to the sudden easing of pressure with pain and irritation. This was how broad masses of Soviet people reacted to Khrushchev’s thaw in the early 1960s, to Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost in the late 1980s, and to Yeltsin’s politically and organizationally bungled transition to capitalism. Ordinary people tended to interpret this as a sign of weakness and collapse of state power, and the economic decline that usually ensued only contributed to this perception. In the new millennium, Russia’s masses have been awarded the kind of political power and hierarchy of social relations to which they have become historically accustomed.

Humanity Survives

But beware: the more intellectually endowed among the Russians, who have experienced the loosening of the straitjacket, have had a chance to breathe some fresh air and to shake off their numbness, have now become highly sensitive and will respond to any fresh clampdown first with a groan, then with a cry of protest and perhaps even with an act of resistance. Or will they just grit their teeth and try to adapt again? That depends on a number of factors that determine the ratio between the intensity of the clampdown and resistance, power and humanity. After decades of Gulagization of society and debasement of the individual, Russians have become reacquainted with spiritual freedom, the ability to choose their own path and point of view, their own way of living, still limited by objective circumstances but no longer by humiliating fear. They have enjoyed an almost forgotten sense of personal sovereignty. Having straightened their backs, they have had a chance to glimpse again the full glory of their own and global culture, of the arts and thought uncorrupted by power, unsullied by considerations of class origin and crass materialism.

Political power, controlled by the most powerful and the least moral party has become consolidated and presents tried and tested, simple and problem-free certainties to broad masses of people, who are irritated by the complexity of the world and refuse to accept their share of personal responsibility for anything, including themselves. They prefer to delegate it back to political power. Nevertheless, prime human values antagonistic to power have trickled from debates in dissident kitchens and from samizdat out into the public space, triggering a revival of social discourse. This discourse continues to explore the fundamental conflict between the endeavor to honestly come to terms with the legacy of the Gulag, to reflect on the crimes of communism as a whole and Stalin’s reign of terror in particular in order to prevent its recurrence on the one hand, and the attempts to stay on the mentally undemanding, safe but undignified course by denying these crimes and appeasing social consciences on the other.

Although this debate continues unabated it seems that its human, moral aspect is sufficiently vital and won’t be silenced, let alone crushed. Global information technology has helped social discourse to thrive independently of political power, which is no longer capable of blocking the view beyond the horizon or uprooting the new general awareness of alternatives to everything, including power itself. Power may still feign arrogance and demonstrate its utter disdain for human beings, morality, even for the law and its arbitrary rule as the only thing that holds true, but it no longer dares to resort to brutal, largescale repression.

The Gulag in its harsh Soviet form no longer has a chance in our part of the world. It may, however, come back in a new guise, in a global “soft” version, in which terrorists have replaced the class enemy and the focus on security, a utilitarian quality of life and freedom of consumption have replaced the ideals of communism… People will always find a way of cutting noble humanity down to size and voluntarily sticking their heads into the yoke of power, this time wielded by multinationals or financial corporations. People who aim to “achieve something in life” in line with these priorities, have already become prisoners toiling in a “soft” version of the Gulag.

Different Yet Equal in Terms of Humanity

While Slovak and Russian societies are diametrically opposite, indeed contradictory in character (despite some similarities in grammar and vocabulary, but not the spirit, between the two Slavonic languages) this does not mean that we can have any certainty that the Slovaks are endowed with a higher degree of human and moral immunity to pernicious political power than Soviet, or present-day Russian, society.

For the smaller European nations, a comparison with the Russians is further fraught with difficulties when it comes to such intangible and irrational categories as the ways in which power is exercised and accepted (or not accepted) by the people. Apart from issues such as national character, level of civilization and intellectual level that are impossible to define, this is also related to another similarly complex factor, which might be termed the “threshold of suffering.”This varies from nation to nation, just as the threshold of pain varies between individuals or animals. The fact that Russians have a higher threshold of suffering does not necessarily signify mental fitness, moral resilience or heroism. It might just as easily be a sign of callousness, mental rigidity and moral inertia. And, conversely, the fact that our threshold of suffering is lower does not suggest the opposite of the same features. Each of us just happens to be historically conditioned to endure greater or lesser degree of hardship inflicted by power and our endurance is roughly similar depending on an adequately developed sensitivity. Russians and Slovaks experience suffering and joy in a similar way under their very different circumstances. Our degree of humanity—both spiritual and moral—is also roughly the same. Russia is a blown-up version of us, with more marked contrasts. If we make an effort to understand it, she can provide a useful model for thinking about ourselves.

The inclination to extremes in everything is a prime Russian characteristic. Russians lack self-restraint, they do not know where to draw the line, find it hard to appreciate compromise, the middle course and the average. They see the world in terms of red or white, victory or death, patriot or traitor, if you’re not with us, you’re against us. (A further perversion of this maxim under Stalin went: even if you’re with us, you’re against us!). That is why they are confrontational, indulge in arguments of principle and are not good at managing peaceful dialogue. They love superlatives, coming first, they have to be champions of the world. We Slovaks are the opposite: a nation of the average, moderate, modest, and unambitious but with a chronic sense of grievance, to which we give vent by grumbling. We do not feel the same respect for institutions and authorities as Russians do, we do not even worship at the altar of our long dreamt of national sovereignty and our people appreciate themselves more than they do principles, ideas and institutions. However, as soon as someone displays qualities that stick out from our own, our somewhat odoriferous (we can get used to it, of course), jealous, warm and comfortable average, we make sure to suck them back into the fold, devour them and stifle them, as a lesson to others who might feel tempted to stick out.

A Lesson That Has Not Lost its Relevance

The Russian people duly helped the political power destroy their own elites, not by softly stifling envy but rather by producing masses of informers in an atmosphere of snitching hysteria, when failing to inform on someone was a criminal offence. (Writer Sergei Dovlatov nailed it when he said: “Everyone curses Stalin, and rightly so, but may I ask who wrote those four million reports?”) The Slovak way of equalizing and minimizing human values is certainly more humane but that does not provide proof of our greater humanity. If anything, it is an indication of moderation on the part of our political power, which can rely on its people to rein in its own oppositional human potential. It is questionable whether—given this very limited potential—we would be able to put up honorable resistance if faced with a new instance of a depravity of power, including of our own petty variety. Over the past century, we have both soared to great heights and sunk quite low as human beings. It would be a good sign if we were able honestly to face both aspects of our character and stopped trying to relativize and equalize everything in an attempt to justify our own moral indifference. For this is the breeding ground for the depravity of power of every stripe, and it is particularly conducive to the one party rule. It is high time we came to our senses.

Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago can serve as a powerful trigger for this reflection. It is not only the wealth of genuine documents it contains, but especially its power of artistic expression that invites profound and responsible reflection. It works by a congruence of fundamental literary features, particularly its scope, which is in accord with the magnitude of the topic, the number of human casualties, moral and material destruction, its direct impact on the nature of our civilization and the timeless exposing of the vulnerabilities of humanity.

The magnitude of this work further highlights the morbid character of reality, which makes it palatable only for those with a strong stomach, just like reality itself. Solzhenitsyn connoisseurs have famously recommended that one should not read the book in one go or chronologically; being an epic of sorts (a documentary epic?) it can be dipped into at any point, guaranteeing a profound reading experience. It contains a fascinating number of human stories, all authentic, tragic and enthrallingly told. Many of these stories are worth a novel in their own right; each and every one of them is unique and inimitable.

The author’s personality dominates everything, though not as a moral example or authority, even though Solzhenitsyn likes to cast himself in this role. An attentive reader will sense falsehood in certain details, which reveal that the man documenting the Gulag is himself, to some degree, the Gulag’s mental product. The superiority with which the author presents himself suggests delusions of grandeur and martyrdom. He has a tendency to raise suffering to the highest moral pedestal, presenting it as a recipe for moral superiority—that of the author personally and of Russia as a nation. He shows animosity towards the West, its democracy and culture (not redeemed by suffering); in later years he also expressed hostility to human rights (how ironic, coming from someone who used to be a dissident, a term that in the USSR was synonymous with a defender of human rights!); a tendency to idealize pre-revolutionary tsarist Russia in order to present a starker contrast between the past and the Soviet dark age; and, last but not least, nationalism and sophisticated anti-Semitism.

However, in the Gulag Archipelago these flaws are not yet as pronounced and paramount as to disqualify the book from being Solzhenitsyn’s crowning achievement. His views and ideas became more worrying with advancing age and along with his character flaws turned Solzhenitsyn into a contradictory figure, to put it mildly. The cultural phenomenon of the author as a seamless as well as contradictory personality is in full harmony with the dissonant effect of this monumental work of literature.

Peter Birčák

A graduate of the Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow, he has translated several books by Russian authors and written articles on Russian literature and translation. Between 2006 and 2009, he was the head of the Slovak Institute in Moscow.

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