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As a global phenomenon, the scale and character of communism is only now coming into focus. The opening of formerly inaccessible archives and landmark books such as The Black Book of Communism have helped to establish empirically the extent and brutality of Communist totalitarianism. But what about Communist terror as it was personally experienced by the dissidents, the so-called obstructionists who stood in the way of the Communists’ efforts to create the new man of the ...
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As a global phenomenon, the scale and character of communism is only now coming into focus. The opening of formerly inaccessible archives and landmark books such as The Black Book of Communism have helped to establish empirically the extent and brutality of Communist totalitarianism. But what about Communist terror as it was personally experienced by the dissidents, the so-called obstructionists who stood in the way of the Communists’ efforts to create the new man of the socialist utopia?
From the Gulag to the Killing Fields is another landmark volume—and the only one of its kind. Edited by renowned scholar of communism Paul Hollander, it gathers together more than forty dramatic personal memoirs of Communist violence and repression from political prisoners across the globe. From these compelling accounts several distinctive features of Communist political violence can be discerned. The most important, argues Hollander, is that communism was "violence with a higher purpose"—that is, it was devised and undertaken to create a historically superior social system that would not only abolish scarcity, exploitation, and inequality, but would also create a new and unique sense of community, social solidarity, and personal fulfillment.
Nothing, of course, was allowed to stand in the way of this effort to radically and totally transform the human condition—least of all human beings. But, as Anne Applebaum notes in her foreword, human nature persisted: "Every person who entered the camps discovered qualities in themselves, both good and evil, that they hadn’t previously known they had. Ultimately, that selfdiscovery is the true subject of most camp memoirs, and the true subject of this book."
The political violence and repression produced by Communist systems in the twentieth century was one of the most consequential and destructive phenomena of history. Yet relatively little is known about them, especially in comparison with the Holocaust, the other major chapter in political violence of our times (and all history). The collapse of Soviet communism has made no significant difference to this state of affairs.
Arthur Waldron wrote:
The twentieth century was remarkable not only for the number and scale of the atrocities it witnessed but also for the slowness with which these frightful events were recognized for what they were, let alone condemned. Of these crimes, which began with the mass murders by Lenin and Stalin ... and continued through the Nazi Holocaust and the democides in China and Cambodia, only the Nazi horror is regularly acknowledged and truly well known.
While there is a vast literature on the Holocaust (as well as photographic documentation, surviving physical evidence, memorials, and museums), and while it has justifiably stimulated a huge and continued outpouring of research, moral outrage, and soul searching, the mass murders and other atrocities committed in the Soviet Union under (and after) Stalin have inspired little corresponding concern and interest. It is not because there is insufficient information about these matters. (A further indication of this limited interest has been the extremely modest review attention given to Alexander Yakovlev's impassioned indictment of Soviet repression, A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia, published in 2002.)
Even less is known about repression in the other Communist states (with the possible exception of Cambodia under Pol Pot), and no definitive Western social scientific or historical studies are available on these topics. It is hard to escape the conclusion that, as one writer recently noted, "communism ... is the deadliest fantasy in human history, and even Americans, for all our struggles against it, have not yet looked it full in the face." For different reasons, in the former Soviet Union too there has been a reluctance to confront the past. Given these circumstances, this volume is a new attempt to draw attention to and document these matters.
There are various ways to approach the subject. Statistics could be presented about those killed, imprisoned, deported, and otherwise brutalized in the different Communist states. Official policies and statements regarding the struggle against "the enemies" of these states could be described at length. Archival materials, when available, can be mined for data and information.
Instead, I have chosen here to illuminate repression in Communist states through the recollected personal experiences of the surviving victims. There are several reasons for taking this approach. In the first place, these personal accounts are readily available (and have been for a long time); secondly, many of them are not merely of documentary value but also of considerable literary merit. Thirdly, the personal experiences and the qualitative specifics of victimization provide a superior way to grasp the human costs and consequences of these historical events and processes. Such experiences, when clearly articulated and eloquently recalled, tend to be more informative and memorable than quantitative data and scholarly analysis-though of course the latter too are vital for a full understanding of the phenomenon.
The experiences related in the selections to follow include arrest, interrogation, trials, transportation to the place of detention, varieties of physical mistreatment, life in the prisons and camps, various types of labor, circumstances of death, and impressions of the social, psychological, and demographic characteristics of the victim groups and those in charge of them.
These memoirs (even in excerpted form) help the reader to form a vivid picture of the dimensions and human consequences of the political repression engaged in by Communist states. These accounts are also timeless repositories of the processes of suffering, coping with injustice, and adjusting to hopelessness, as well as reflections of human bonding and solidarity, of the relationship between the powerless and the powerful, and the insoluble problem of facing death, especially when it is violent and unnatural.
The amount and types of repression here considered preclude comprehensive treatment in this volume. The use of excerpts is a compromise and cannot be a substitute for reading the entire works from which they are drawn; on the other hand, few readers, even if in search of painful enlightenment on the subject, can be expected to locate, sample, and read the vast literature that is available. Limiting the collection to one volume, even if substantial, is thus a necessary practical compromise; many volumes of such materials could be assembled in search of comprehensiveness and to do justice to the subject matter.
More specifically, this anthology seeks to accomplish the following:
(1) to make available for the general public as well as for specialists a substantial comparative historical sampling of the experiences and facts of political victimization in Communist states. No such collection or sourcebook exists at the present time;
(2) to bring together in one volume personal (autobiographical) and historical as well as social scientific information (as provided in this introduction) about these events and policies and the institutions created to carry them out;
(3) to narrow the gap between information and analysis that is available about the political violence perpetrated by Nazi and Communist regimes and thereby make it possible to compare, and better understand, the two major political outrages of our century;
(4) to stimulate research about the political violence that occurred within different Communist systems, extinct and surviving-an especially compelling task since it is difficult to identify a single American scholar specializing in Communist political violence, either as a comparative endeavor or as one focused on a particular Communist system. Robert Conquest is the only exception: see his pioneering studies of political violence in the Soviet Union, such as The Great Terror, The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities, Kolyma: Arctic Death Camps, and The Harvest of Sorrow. Anne Applebaum has joined him of late in this endeavor.
(5) to honor the memory of the tens of millions who, in different parts of the world, suffered and perished in the past century as a result of both the intended and the unintended consequences of the pursuit of power and political utopia by Communist political systems. As Martin Malia puts it, "at a time ... when historical writing is turning increasingly to retrospective affirmative action, to fulfilling our 'duty of remembrance' to all the oppressed of the past," there should be room for compassion for these victims of inhumanity as well.
But of all the reasons for this undertaking, the desire to fill a gap-both moral and informational-may be the most compelling. The Western awareness of repression in Communist states remains very limited, even in this post-Communist era when new sources of information have become abundant. Much information was also available before the collapse of Soviet communism (as the dates of publication borne by many selections in this volume indicate), but it attracted little attention and led to little sustained reflection regarding the moral, historical, and political significance of these matters.
Treating Communist mass murders as comparable to the Holocaust need not cast doubt on the uniqueness of the latter. Nonetheless, when close to one hundred million people die in order to achieve certain political ends, a new threshold in political violence is crossed that stimulates comparison with the other mass murders of our times.
There are good reasons why relatively little has been learned in the West about Communist political repression. These systems not only withheld information about their policies and institutions of repression but sometimes went to great length to misinform and deceive international public opinion about them. The Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Vietnam (and possibly other Communist states as well) created atypical, model penal institutions for the benefit of visiting delegations from abroad, facilities in which inmates (mostly nonpolitical criminals) were treated humanely and their rehabilitation was the ostensible goal.
One such project was described and praised at length in a volume produced by Soviet writers (thirty-four of them, including Maxim Gorky, Vera Inber, V. Kataev, Alexei Tolstoy, and M. Zoshchenko). It was the building of the Belomor canal-carried out by forced laborers without the benefit of any machinery. Gorky in particular "toured concentration camps and admired their educational value." He visited the Belomor project in the company of Yagoda (head of the political police) and congratulated him for its splendid educational accomplishments. Amabel Williams-Ellis, author of the introduction to the American edition of the book on the Belomor Canal, called it a "tale of the accomplishment of a ticklish engineering job ... by tens of thousands of enemies of the State ... guarded ... by only thirty-seven GPU officers.... [O]ne of the most exciting stories that has ever appeared in print."
In support of this official denial and concealment, the once famous Alexei Stakhanov, originally a "simple" coal miner (after whom a mass movement to increase production was named in the Soviet Union), sent an indignant letter to the British socialist publication Tribune to rebut allegations about the Soviet penal system and especially its characteristic feature, forced labor. He was specifically indignant about David J. Dallin and Boris I. Nicolaevsky's Forced Labor in the Soviet Union (1948), the first study of this subject. Stakhanov (or whoever composed the letter to which his name was appended) wrote in the inimitable style of self-righteousness and injured innocence peculiar to the Soviet propaganda of the times: "You can hardly imagine what indignation and disgust such vile and utterly false tales about our country arouse in a man like myself, who has devoted and is devoting all his efforts to serve his country." The authors he denigrated had "published a disgusting book piled high with all sorts of monstrous fabrications about the Soviet Union."
Witholding or suppressing information about Communist human rights violations was not limited to Communist states. Victor Serge (a former Russian Communist and émigré) found it difficult in the 1940s to publish his memoirs in the United States because they were critical of the Soviet system. And in the 1970s, reported Shirley Hazzard at the time, "the embargo imposed upon Solzhenitsyn's writings in his native land has been ... reproduced on the international territory of the United Nations,... which banned the sale of his Gulag Archipelago from bookshops on United Nations premises."
The defectors' and refugees' accounts of Soviet repression and the camp system were often publicly questioned by Western supporters of Communist states-and sometimes not only by such sympathizers. The best-known (although now forgotten) case was that of Victor Kravchenko, a Soviet government official who defected to the United States after World War II and wrote two books about his experiences in the Soviet Union. The latter included information acquired in the course of his career as manager of various industrial enterprises located near labor camps, some of which enterprises used convict labor. Kravchenko was subjected to especially vicious attacks in France by local Communists and Soviet officials. He was also regarded with undisguised contempt in the United States by numerous liberal journalists and intellectuals.
In the 1970s Noam Chomsky scornfully dismissed "the tales of Communist atrocities" that had been related by Cambodian refugees. In a similar spirit, J. Arch Getty deplored the use of defectors' accounts in historical research. More recently, Nicholas Kristof, a correspondent for the New York Times, cautioned against taking at face value the uncorroborated reports of former inmates of North Korean camps who had managed to escape from that country during the famines of the mid-1990s.
By contrast, few (if any) questions were raised about the reliability or authenticity of the reports of the survivors of Nazi concentration camps, nor has it been suggested that the personal accounts of the victims of racial discrimination (in this or other countries) are to be approached with reservations given their subjective nature.
The enormous literature describing Communist repression made it difficult to decide which authors to choose and which parts of their volumes to excerpt here. The following considerations were paramount:
(1) representativeness; I intended to provide readings by eyewitnesses from as many Communist states as possible, preferably every one of them, in order to document that while the instances of repression here examined are best known in the Soviet setting-thanks largely to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn-they were not confined to it but rather existed in every Communist state, though not always simultaneously.
(2) I sought writings that would shed light on different aspects of political violence and coercion, e.g., procedures of arrest, extraction of confessions, and conditions of life in prisons and labor camps, as well as excerpts informative about both victims and victimizers;
(3) I also sought selections that would illuminate the nature of repression in different periods and among less-known victim groups and settings (e.g., Albania, North Korea, Romania, Yugoslavia).
(4) The identity and literary reputation of the authors was also taken into account; other things being equal I was inclined to select writings by major, recognized figures familiar to at least some Western readers. The quality of the writings played an important part in my decision regardless of the author's renown.
Reading these accounts may prove difficult for some readers, as they graphically illustrate and remind us of the unfathomable and distressing capacity of human beings to inflict pain and suffering on one another, often cheerfully and enthusiastically, some times vindictively, more often matter-of-factly and indifferently.
Contemplating the matters detailed in this voume also provides an opportunity to reconsider the concept of evil, which is especially appropriate since, as Lance Morrow has written,
In enlightened political conversation, the word "evil" had been disreputable for a long time-and still is, to a large extent, despite 9/11. The word "evil," in many minds, still smacks of an atavistic, superstitious simplism, of a fundamentalist mindset....
The secular, educated, cosmopolitan instinct ... tends to shun the word "evil" and, as an optimist and creature of the Enlightenment, approaches the world's horrors as individual problems that can be solved....
It is always one's hope that information leads to better understanding, and that the latter may influence political attitudes and behavior. To search for meaning even-or especially-in the most horrendous and bewildering events and atrocities appears to be a deeply rooted human impulse: we are instinctively reluctant to believe that such events hold no meaning or provide no lessons.
II: The Question of Moral Equivalence
Unlike Nazi Germany, Communist states did not attempt to eradicate, in a premeditated, systematic, and mechanized fashion, any particular ethnic group or class of people. This policy was nonetheless compatible with the systematic mistreatment of particular ethnic groups suspected of disloyalty. Major examples include the Soviet treatment of Baltic and Caucasian ethnic groups and the so-called Volga Germans and the Chinese treatment of Tibetans. There is a second important difference: Communist regimes, unlike the Nazis, did not seek to murder children.
Excerpted from From the Gulag to the Killing Fields Copyright © 2007 by Paul Hollader. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted May 29, 2007
This book was outstanding. It is quite long, but the way it is organized allows you to read a few chapters and come back to it later. The life stories of some of these people are terrifying. It is a strong dose of reality to those that prefer to believe the standard mythology given to places like Cuba, and other communist/totalitarian states. I used the many life stories in this work on a research paper I wrote last semester on communist systems. It would be wise for those who say that they supoprt human rights, and at the same time, hold up Fidels Cuba 'or communism/socialism in general'as a role model in health care and other social programs.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.