Book Review: The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn: Part One: “The Prison Industry,” Chapter Eleven, “The Supreme Measure”

Capital punishment has been a hotly debated legal remedy in justice systmes dating from Hammurabi nearly 4,000 years ago to present-day Western liberal democracies. It is no surprise, then, that even the Soviet Union’s position on the death penalty changed through the course of its existence.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, of course, did not know that the USSR would fall in his lifetime when he wrote The Gulag Archipelago. What he did know is that the Soviet regime had a penchant both for changing its mind about laws, using confusing terms to obfuscate the true meaning and intent behind legislation, and in general had many, many ways to get rid of those it perceived as enemies.

FIrst, Solzhenitsyn details a brief history of capital punishment in Russia, beginning with Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich Romanov in the mid-17th century to his own era, concluding that the longest spell Russia ever had without capital punishment was during the reign of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna (1741-1762). The Bolsheviks, for their part, had a funny habit of abolishing and then reinstituting the death penalty whenever it suited their needs. But stuff like that only happens in an authoritarian dictatorship, and never in a liberal Western democracy, right?

Empress Elizabeth Petrovna

Another thing that totally never happens in liberal Western democracies is euphemisms for laws. For example, at one point the Soviet regime decided to call capital punishment “the supreme measure,” and decided that it was not punishment, but a “social defense.” Until it was decided that the death penalty was a punishment again. And the list of crimes for which death was the penalty steadily increased. “But all of this is simply temporary,” Solzhenitsyn bitterly notes, “until complete abolition. And that’s how it’s described today too.”

So what are the figures, then? How many people had the Soviet regime executed since the Revolution? I’ll just give a taste, since the numbers are mind-boggling: between 1937 and 1938, the best Solzhenitsyn can tell is nearly 1,000,000. 

Yet to this day, Stalin and the USSR in general have their defenders. These numbers are overreported! These numbers are propaganda! Stalin purged lots of horrible people and made Russia a better place to live! Solzhenitsyn just had a personal axe to grind!

Given that any of these statements may be true, does that excuse the millions of innocent lives caught up in the meat-grinder?

After Solzhenitsyn’s introduction, he gets into the mindset of the condemned man as he faces the improbable, implacable, and unbeatable brunt of the machine:

In our happy, blind existence, we picture condemned men as a few ill-fated, solitary individuals. We instinctively believe that we could never end up on death row, that it would take an outstanding career if not heinous guilt for that to happen. A great deal has still to be shaken up inside our heads for us to get the real picture: a mass of the most ordinary, average, gray people have languished in death cells for the most ordinary, everyday misdemeanors . . . 

Whether our destiny holds a death cell in store for us is not determined by what we have done or not done. It is determined by the turn of a great wheel and the thrust of powerful external circumstances.

An example of these circumstances came during the siege of Leningrad in World War II. Imagine you are the highest ranking leader at the time, Andrei Alexandrovich Zhdanov. Imagine that, after the siege, you are hauled before your superiors and asked why, if Stalin uncovered plots in 1919 during a similarly difficult time, how come YOU didn’t in 1942? So you round up an engineer in the middle of the night–let’s call him Ignatovsky–and accuse him of all sorts of horrible crimes. Of course he’ll talk and name names!

Andrei Zhdanov

So what do you do in a death cell? What’s it like? Since so few come back to tell us after their execution, Solzhenitsyn pieces it together as best he can from those who did survive via having their sentences commuted to a long time in prison or the Gulag, and even from executioners and interrogators themselves.

The Organs were well aware of the terror that being on death row created. Every turn of the cramped, overstuffed cell’s lock brought fresh terror among the prisoners . . . only for the guard to bark at some ungodly hour some frivolous order, like move that stuff from here to there, or as in one example Solzhenitsyn gives, to take things off of the window sill. Cold, overcrowded cells, hunger, and a lack of medical attention–after all, why patch up those who were about to die?

But if they were about to die, why were so many kept in their cells for months or years? Didn’t the meat-grinder work faster than that? The reasons for this, Solzhenitsyn tells us, are quite sickening and demonstrate the tension between two different groups–the interrogatory and judicial apparatus, and the prison administration. After the chosen criminals had been condemned, their sentences entered into the official record, and then duly imprisoned, the judicial apparatus lost interest. Their job was done, and the death row inmates became the problem of the jailers.  “And that administration,” according to Solzhenintsyn, “which was closely associated with Gulag, looked at prisoners from the economic point of view. To them the important figures were not an increase in the number of executions but an increase in the manpower sent out to the Archipelago.”

Why do inmates allow themselves to be executed, Solzhenitsyn wonders. If they’re going to be killed anyway, why not resist? Why not try to overpower the guard when he comes in, as he gives examples of having happened before. Is the real culprit as to why death row inmates in the USSR meekly waited for their slaughter hope? After all, many of these men sent petitions for appeal and reconsideration of their death sentences. And some of them had been granted in the past. Maybe this time theirs would be? One never knew, after all.

Does hope lend strength or does it weaken a man? If the condemned men in every cell had ganged up on the executioners as they came in and choked them, wouldn’t this have ended the executions sooner than appeals to the All-Russian Central Executive Committee? When one is already on the edge of the grave, why not resist?

But wasn’t everything foredoomed anyway, from the moment of arrest? Yet all the arrested crawled along the path of hope on their knees, as if their legs had been amputated.

This is a bit unfair, and easy for Solzhenitsyn to say as he was never in this position, but it’s a powerful point nonetheless. Violence works, as we’re seeing in the United States today. To get what you want, you have to scare the shit out of your enemy and make them fear brutal physical pain and death . . . and deliver on those threats often enough to make the other side reconsider. But many men, even condemned men, have families they love and want to see again. So anything that may give them this hope will stay their hand. I find this utterly understandable and not worth condemning these already dead men for.

Sometimes resistance or a show of anger works, though, and in this chapter Solzhenitsyn reveals what happened to our friend Vlasov, last seen in the Kady show trial described in Chapter Ten. He was not shot. He was not hanged. His forty-one days of waiting to be shot had finally got to him and when a particularly poncy Soviet official named Chinguli came to the cell Vlasov was in to ask who there had been involved in the Kady affair, the irascible Vlasov stood up and yelled “What kind of colonial officer is this? Get out of here, you murderer!” And spat in Chinguli’s face.

His sentence was commuted to twenty years in prison and five years of disenfranchisement.

A reasonable rabbit ought not to behave in that fashion . . . But there is a limit, and beyond it one is no longer willing, one finds it too respulsive, to be a reasonable little rabbit. And that is the limit beyond which rabbits are enlightened by the common understanding that all rabbits are foredoomed to become only meat and pelts, and that at best, therefore, one can gain only a postponement of death and not life in any case. That is when one wants to shout: “Curse you, hurry up and shoot!”

His sentence commuted, Vlasov is said to have wondered if the supreme measure would still be needed after his twenty years were up, no doubt wryly commenting on the fact that, at this rate, there’ll be so few people left alive in the Soviet Union that to execute any more would make the whole system collapse. “At the time,” says Solzhenitsyn, “it seemed quite inconceivable: after twenty years. Strangely, they were still needed even after thirty.”

Takeaways:

  • All regimes use laws and the naming of laws to hide their true meaning and purpose: the PATRIOT Act, the Affordable Care Act, and so on.
  • Capital punishment, and any form of justice, really, not swiftly and failry administared, becomes yet another instrument of state torture and terror, psychological as well as physical. 
  • It’s been said before, but it bears repeating until every single man, woman, and child in the United States understands it: if the regime wants you to be a criminal, you will be made into a criminal.
  • Uncertainty and unpredictability before the law is the death of a functional civilization that respects its citizens. If the ruling class hates you and your kind, there is a different set of laws that operates for you. Double standards are the only standards of a failed state, and are a good tell that your state is in the process of collapse; it doesn’t matter how long such a collapse lasts because such a system is unsustainable.
  • It is easy to say that those with nothing to lose should lash out and not accept their fate, but those with a lot to lose–and hope to maybe see their families and loved ones again–often think differently. As it is impossible for us to know what we would do unless we are in that situation ourselves, the condemned deserve our sympathy, not our scorn. 
  • At the end of the day, violence is the only thing that speaks the language your oppressors will understand. This applies to all identity groups, ever, throughout the course of human history. Ignore the efficacy of violence at your own peril.

10 comments

  1. Back in 1995, I was a foreign exchange student at an international college in the Netherlands. One of my professors was Russian and he assigned The Gulag Archipelago to us as well as made us watch a movie called The Chekist. It was only available in Russian and so he translated it while we watched it.

    It was a haunting experience because the movie itself, which I understand is extremely difficult to find in the US now, is psychologically harrowing.The single most disturbing movie I have ever watched. But a couple of the more astute students (I, sadly, am not one of them) realized during the professor’s narration, after taking into account his age, which was mid 80’s, that he was personally acquainted with what happened in the movie. He later told us that his parents and one grandparent were executed by the Chekists during the Red Terror.

    If you aren’t familiar, the Chekists often meted out executions in a far more efficient manner than Solzhenitsyn is describing here: Chekists came to a town, read a list of names and rounded those people up. Sometimes a crime would be listed, but many times not. They took them to a building, had the condemned strip naked and would place five against a wall at a time. Then 5 Chekists (In Russian, the plural is Cheka I think), would put a bullet into the back of the skull of every man woman and child (age didn’t matter). They did this millions of times, in teams all across Russia. The movie describes how one of the Chekists goes insane after thousands and thousands of executions.

    I bring this up because its a different aspect than what Solzhennitsyn speaks of, and something the professor spoke about in regard to the author’s observations about why people didn’t just fight back if they were going to die anyway: many of them were so psychologically beaten down, their families killed outright, or disappeared and presumed executed. Would they escape only to have the Cheka or Levrenty Beria’s people show up a week later, two weeks two years? What was the point? The Russian fatalism can paralyze people psychologically.

    Good post Alexander. Needed now more than ever.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Whoa that sounds like an intense movie. I have no doubt there’s some truth in it. Solzhenitsyn goes over some numbers in this chapter, more than I related, and says something to the effect that the numbers are so overwhelming they make you numb.

      The psychological torture put on prisoners in the Soviet Union was demonic. I too found Solzhenitsyn’s criticism—although mild—of prisoners who DIDN’T fight back, unfair for these same reasons. I think it’s more than just Russian fatalism; that fatalism was a logical response to the Soviet system.

      Glad you liked this post. It’s taking me a long time to go through this book but I’m enjoying blogging about it.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Whoa. That sounds quite similar to the Einzengruoppen troops the SS death squads. I wonder just wonder how much practices and exerperiences the NKVD and SS/Gestapo traded during the Soviet-Nazi pact. How many SS/Gestpo thugs went to work of the postwar chekhists. i’d be totally unsurprised if the ex SS guys working for the NKVD and as freelacers for Mideast dictatorships crossed paths and traded techniques… once again.

      xavier

      Liked by 2 people

  2. It’s a heavy book, both psychologically and intellectually. But it’s a necessary book, now more than ever.

    When I was young and dumb, I read it because it was assigned and I was so shallow and consumed by whatever Dutch girl I was hanging out with or what team I was playing in our soccer league, that I breezed through it, for lack of a better term. I read it. I comprehended and remembered enough for the tests. But I promptly forgot it as soon as I was able and it wasn’t until my 30’s, when I matured enough to really get things that the import of that book hit me in a way it hadn’t when I was 20. But hit me it did!

    Liked by 1 person

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