A Scent of the Gulag

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

Jane Spencer

In his masterpiece, The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn gives ten characteristics of life in communist Russia under the terror of Stalin’s dictatorship. Living in the constant shadow of probable arrest, the Russian people became gradually diseased with these mentalities:

First, “constant fear.”  The soviet regime swept through the country, arresting and condemning millions as a result of Stalin’s paranoia.  Solzhenitsyn describes that “there was no minute when people were not being arrested… [moreover, they lived in the expectation of] purges, inspections…dismissal from work…expulsion or exile…The aggregate fear led to a correct consciousness of one’s own insignificance and of the lack of any kind of rights.”

Second, “servitude.” Passport difficulties and restrictions in the workforce tied people to their location so that they couldn’t travel or move around easily.

Third, “secrecy and mistrust” replaced the “former openhearted cordiality and hospitality.” Now, fear of being associated with anyone under suspicion or of betrayal even by friends and family cast the shadow of mistrust over everyone.

Fourth, “universal ignorance.”  Solzhenitsyn calls this the “cause of causes” of the success of Stalin’s dictatorship; the lack of trust between citizens caused so much “misinformation” that people weren’t properly aware of the countless arrests and injustices.

Fifth, “squealing.” The government recruited informers to such an extent that “in every group of people…there would be an informer or else the people there would be afraid there was.” One of the most tragic and calculated effects of this was its “weakening ties between people [and] continuing the stability of the regime.”  

Sixth, “betrayal as a form of existence.” To save one’s own skin and protect one’s own family, it was safest to develop a thick skin towards the misfortunes of others; “not to notice the doomed person next to one, not to help him, to turn away one’s face, to shrink back…and in the hustle of a big city people felt as if they were in a desert.” Solzhenitsyn describes that the regime exterminated anyone who boldly resisted, leaving everyone else laboring under a “picture of monotonously obedient freedom” which masked the “dying soul of the people.”

Seventh, “corruption.” Since it became nearly impossible to live without lying and betraying others, “people survived only in a superficial, bodily sense. And inside…they became corrupt.”

Eighth, “the lie as a form of existence.” Solzhenitsyn observes that since the people surely weren’t stupid enough to believe the propaganda which they had to accept in order to survive, their life became one long lie: they had to applaud what they knew to be false. He describes the agonizing dilemma for parents: “Your children were growing up! ...you had to decide… whether to start them off on lies instead of the truth (so that it would be easier for them to live) and then to lie forevermore in front of them too; or to tell them the truth, with the risk that they might make a slip…you had to instill in them from the start that the truth was murderous.”

Ninth, “cruelty.” As the crowning result of a life lived by betraying others and surviving at their expense, kindness became nearly extinct. “How could one possibly preserve one’s kindness while pushing away the hands of those who were drowning?”

And tenth, “slave psychology.” The people lived with the constant impression that the state was “setting the dogs onto [them];” they existed only to serve the communist ideal, or be exterminated.

While we in America have no concept of a darkness this heavy, we can’t ignore Solzhenitsyn’s plea to those in the free West to be on guard for toxic attitudes which kill souls and transform society into a zombie.  Slavery can be as subtle as a habit of thought.

The atmosphere created by riots, political turmoil, and a pandemic is the perfect environment for such habits.

Who hasn’t felt tempted to shoot a suspicious glare at someone who walks up close to us without his mask? Or worse, happens to cough in a public setting? After all, he might contaminate us… we’d have to leave work, to quarantine, to miss school…and we are afraid.  

And how easy it becomes—when we’re afraid—to level accusations; to make our neighbor feel as guilty as possible because he dared to disobey the countless ordinances, because he tried to open his business to support his family, or simply because he happened to get sick?

Our neighbor becomes a very risky business. And yet, if we were to lose our charity as we “stopped the spread,” we would have killed the patient to cure the disease. Like Solzhenitsyn’s Russia, our survival of covid would be merely physical, masking a decayed mentality.

Moreover, who hasn’t felt intimidated into supporting popular groups whose ideologies he hates? Oppressive social pressure can easily enslave us—at best, it keeps us from speaking the truth boldly, and at worst, it bullies us into publically condoning wrongs.  

Are we as free as we claim to be, when we are afraid to voice conservative values and stand up against the rising tide of Liberalism?

While our society currently enjoys more freedom than Soviet Russia, we can ask if we see ourselves reflected in the mirror raised by history.