Book Review: The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn: Part One: “The Prison Industry,” Chapter Twelve, “Tyurzak”

For the last chapter in Part One of The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn does a deep dive into the interim gray area between imprisonment and banishment to the gulag. Previous chapters had dealt with the day-to-day of prison life under Soviet rule, but tended to be pre-trial confinement, as well as the experience of a Soviet interrogation. Here, we learn about tyurzak, i.e., TYURemnoye ZAKlyucheniye: prison confinement, as well as TON, the official abbreviation for Special Purpose Prison (Tyurma Osobogo Naznacheniya). 

Solzhenitsyn begins with yet another example of how life was arguably easier under the Tsars. In prisons, he explains, the inmates were able to successfully agitate for greater privileges and more humane conditions. As political prisoners, many of them were of a socialist bent, yet still the Tsarist forces were relatively lenient and granted concessions in response to many of the prisoners’ demands, including more time outdoors, the ability to communicate with each other and organize, to write to their families and receive more aid packages, access to books (including political books), and even the ability to have small garden plots. 

One prisoner explains this phenomenon as due “to some extent by the humanitarian attitudes of the individual prison superintendents, and also by the fact that the ‘gendarmes became friendly with the prisoners,’ got used to them.” Solzhenitsyn sees merit in this, and also the prisoners’ “dignity and adroitness in conducting themselves,” but chalks it up mostly to the spirit of the times, this breeze of freedom, which was sweeping through society.”

Vera Nikolayevna Figner Filippova, a revolutionary political activist whose prison experience under the Tsars informs a part of this chapter.

One tool the pre-Soviet prisoners used quite effectively was the hunger strike. It worked quite well in the Tsarist days, mostly due to the aforementioned “humanitarian attitudes” of those running the prisons, but once the Soviets took power, and the political prisoners fought to retain their rights, the efficacy of this tactic quickly evaporated:

From our experience of the past and our literature of the past we have derived a naive faith in the power of a hunger strike. But the hunger strike is a purely moral weapon. It presupposes that the jailer has not entirely lost his conscience. Or that the jailer is afraid of public opinion. Only in such circumstances can it be effective.

After the Bolshevik triumph, the Tsarist prisons were mostly left intact. This was a good thing to the new regime, as there were plenty of political prisoners who needed to be housed somewhere. And  the new crop of prison guards, who one can imagine are similar to the secret police’s interrogators, the Bluecaps,  seemed to be immune to the voluntary starvation of their prisoners:

Decades passed and time produced its own results. The hunger strike–the first and most natural weapon of the prisoner–in the end became alien and incomprehensible to the prisoners themselves. Fewer and fewer desired to undertake them. And to prison administrations the whole thing began to seem either plain stupidity or else a malicious violation.

When, in 1960, Gennady Smelov, a nonpolitical offender, declared a lengthy hunger strike in the Leningrad prison, the prosecutor went to his cell for some reason (perhaps he was making his regular rounds) and asked him: “Why are you torturing yourself?”

And Smelov replied: “Justice is more precious to me than life.” 

This phrase so astonished the prosecutor with its irrelevance that the very next day Smelov was taken to the Leningrad Special Hospital (i.e., the insane asylum) for prisoners. And the doctor there told him:

“We suspect you may be a schizophrenic.”

So much for your faith in the humanity of your oppressors and the inalienable nature of your so-called “rights.” Like it or not, the Russians under the Soviets; you, me, all of us here in the so-called “free world” exist at the sufferance of the state, that is, the people with the guns. Pray that their baleful eye is never turned on us. 

In any event, when the Soviets decided they wanted to break the will of the prisoners, they had several ways that employed psychological as well as physical methods. These are described by Solzhenitsyn as (1) patience, (2) deception, (3), forced artificial feeding, and (4) a new view that hunger strikes were the continuation of counter-revolutionary activity and should be treated as such. But at the end of the day, the prevailing Soviet attitude regarding hunger strikes was “If you want to kick the bucket, go ahead!” 

You, a spoiled westerner: “I’m going on a hunger strike!” The State: “Good riddance.”

The prisoners’ rights were rolled back. “Muzzles” were put on the windows so prisoners could not shout. Light and air were regulated. Hour-long outdoor daily walks turned into half-our walks turned into fifteen minute walks where prisoners were mandated to keep their heads down (no looking at the sun, after all). The garden plots and any other vegetation in the prison yards were torn up and paved over. Food was reduced in quality and quantity. Communications with the outside were drastically curtailed, as were accessible books. You could write what you wanted, on tiny pieces of paper, but it would then be looked over by prison officials. And so on. 

And there were, of course, punishment cells for unruly prisoners. What would a Soviet jail be without solitary confinement?

As you can imagine, prisoners’ ability to speak and act with one voice was an important way to win battles with prison administrators. It should come as no surprise that the Soviets recognized this and did everything they could to atomize and demoralize prisoners. It didn’t help that the various factions–social revolutionaries, communists, Trotskyites, and so on–turned against each other as the screws tightened. 

And so, the largely unseen and unknown struggle of Russian prisoners for their rights and more humane conditions was squelched by the iron boot of Soviet totalitarianism. Yet these old, repurposed Tsarist prisons and retrofitted monasteries were but rest stops on the way to the gulag. 

Takeaways:

  • You are spoiled by your belief in your inalienable rights. The authorities do not care about your rights. The second they decide you don’t have any, your life will turn into hell.
  • Character matters. We see this with the stark contrast between life under the Tsarist regime and live under the Soviet regime. For all its faults, at least in Solzhenityn’s telling, life as a serf was preferable to live under the Soviets. At least the Tsars and those working for them had humanity.
  • You need to stick together and act as one to get anything done. Nothing can get done by an individual agitating for this or that. This is why radical individualism is celebrated by the State, any State, because it keeps large groups of unified people split apart without any need for the State to actually do so. It’s far better to brainwash the citizenry to think they should do everything on their own.
  • Moral weapons only work against an enemy that still has any morals. You can also extrapolate this to conclude that facts and reason only work on reasonable people. 

8 comments

  1. Alexander

    A few takeaways
    1) Totalitarian regimes sure manufacture acronyms like toasters eh?
    2) the jailers attitude sure seems to give credence that free will, morals and ethics are superficial, relative and constructed but that’s the devil tricking us
    As you noted character counts.
    3) note all the subterfuges by the regime to atomize, discourage humiliate demean and just behave as the vindictive pricks they are to ensure #2 is reality.
    And yet.. and yet

    xavier

    Liked by 2 people

      • Alexander

        Yeah but divide and conquer eventually spreads to the elites and causing the system’s downfall.
        Soharb Ahmari and Andrian Vermuele are resuscitating the notion of the common good back into American conservatism.

        They’re quite explicit about being anti Enlightenement. That’s interesting because just 2 days ago, I got an from Sophia Institute press about a book precisely Rethinking the Enlightenment as its title.

        If there’s one thing the pandemic, lockdown and now American elections is the idea of the common good is making a comeback. From now on any policy has to answer 2 questions: does it help or hurt citizens? Does it contribute to their betterment or degradation?

        We’re about to see a realignment with the middle and working classes pacting together with the dissident elites (aka the populists) to fight globohomo (aka the new aristocracy)

        We’re regressing to early modern Europe circa 1500-1640 when the middle classes and the king allied themselves against the aristocrats

        xavier

        Liked by 1 person

      • I hope the common good makes a comeback. This “do what you want, every individual for themselves” attitude leads to anxiety and isolation, and let’s those who stay organized and together to run roughshod over the rest of us.

        Like

      • Alexander

        We need to guard against many things but the most important is to prevent the realignment from Harding to become yet another rigid caste. I’m extremely sensitive about hierarchy and I advocate flexibility in the form of meritocracy. You aren’t entitled to your status because of who your ancestors were. The new elites aren’t exempted from earning your bread by the sweat of your brow (aka noblesse oblige and servant leadership)

        xavier

        Liked by 1 person

      • The thing is, the concept of “meritocracy” gets perverted to where it just becomes an aristocracy in all but name that’s called a “meritocracy” to trick everyone not in the club that things are above-board.

        They’re not.

        I could deal with an aristocracy if it had any sense of honor and actually cared over those it’s in charge of. But it’s not. To our ruling regime, people like me are nothing but an ATM for tax revenue and potential fodder for prison or the grave if I get in the way of their plans.

        Like

  2. Alexander
    .
    Yup. I lived in Singapore and saw it first hand how meritocracy just becomes another aristocracy without the noblesse oblige.
    I’ve always been a monarchist and I’d like to see a a return to a Christian based monarchy like from the middle ages.

    But in any case if we can’t have kings then let’s better our society. We be confessors

    xavier

    Liked by 1 person

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