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The First Gulag

Writers and reporters naturally reach for the strongest word—the most vivid, the most colorful, the one most likely to grab the eye. In the age of the sound-bite anything less may be overlooked. And some of the time this may be legitimate. But there are also words we are obliged to treat with special care. These are terms that carry such historical freight that reckless or frivolous use not only shows the superficiality of the writer, it disastrously debases their moral meaning and true significance.

One such word is ‘Holocaust’. Brendan O’Neill, deputy editor of the website Spiked, has written extensively about what he calls ‘Holocaust relativism’ and the cheapening of the term by all and sundry: those interested should hunt him up.

Another word is ‘Gulag’. Nowadays anyone coming across a system of detention they disapprove of is inclined to describe it in this way. Not long ago Abu Ghraib was supposed to be an “American Gulag”. The real Gulag was however a great deal worse than even the nastiest jail in Iraq. As Anne Applebaum states in her indispensable history of the Soviet camp system (Gulag: a History, 2003), during the many long years of their operation from 1923 the vast network of Russian labor camps may have cost around 2.7 million lives.

The best book to read on the matter is by Anne Applebaum. The best film or video introduction to the real Gulag I know of, as opposed to the notional ‘gulags’ floating around in the overheated minds of journalists, is a remarkable documentary film by Marina Goldovskaya, The Solovky Power.

The following article is about that film. With the title ‘Hollywood Meets the Zeks’ it appeared originally in the 2005 Summer web edition of The New Criterion.

The Solovky power

Made in 1987-88 when political controls were crumbling, providing a historical analysis of the origins of the Gulag in “the Solovky” (shorthand for the entire complex of penal institutions in the White Sea Solovetsky archipelago as a whole), The Solovky Power belongs to the extraordinarily small number of distinguished documentary films treating Soviet, rather than Nazi, concentration camps.

It is a work of considerable artistry. Serious documentarians drawn to this subject matter have had difficulty maintaining an aesthetic balance between outrage and art. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) set a high and exacting standard, while some would say that the much earlier and admittedly very different Night and Fog, by Alain Resnais, leaned to overly poetic artifice. At all events it is in this elevated company that Goldovskaya’s The Solovky Power belongs—a film equal to its tragic subject that honors both the cinema and the dead.

In the chapter “The Archipelago Metastasizes” of The Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn himself wondered ironically why, when “the peaked roofs of ugly camp watchtowers became the most dependable landmarks in our landscape… they were not seen in either the canvases of our artists or in scenes in our films”.

But of course we know perfectly well why no Soviet films contained a record of such things. The film director or artist who made a record of the watchtowers and barb wire would end up inside, and quickly too. Less clearly understood is the absence of almost any photographic evidence at all of a documentary kind about the Soviet camps, since we have all seen footage taken of Belsen and Buchenwald. Yet the reason is painfully simple: no victorious army ever smashed through the gates of Vorkuta, or into the Kolyma camps, or the Solovky itself, at the height of their operations, allowing photographers to expose their infamies to the world.

* * *

“With an iron fist we shall drive mankind to happiness”. Inspired by this slogan, the administrators of the Solovky organized the dispersed system of local camps, on separate islands, which provided the geographical basis for Sozhenitsyn’s “archipelago”. Those held there at first were quite a distinguished group. Discussing the composition of the prison population, Anne Applebaum says of the Gulag overall that “Even in 1938, the year the Great Terror raged among Moscow and Leningrad intellectuals, those with higher education in the camps still numbered only 1.1 percent while over half had primary education and a third were semiliterate.”

But it wasn’t like that on the Solovky in the early days, when a high proportion of those imprisoned were intellectuals charged under Article 58. The inmates ranged from engineers to theologians, from historians and economists to poets, writers, and playwrights. They included the archaeologist Nazimov, Father Pyotr of Voronezh, the poets Alexei Gastev and Nicolai Serov, and the renowned Pavel Florensky, religious philosopher, mathematician, and cultural historian.

Most of course were long dead by 1987, the year when Marina Goldovskaya was interviewing survivors; but two literate and articulate witnesses were still available, both of whom figure in Anne Applebaum’s history, and this makes a world of difference to a film in which spoken evidence is a vital resource. One of them was the respected and revered literary scholar Dmitri Likhachev. The other was Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, accused in 1936 of a conspiracy to kill Kaganovich, and ultimately forced to serve 20 years in “confinement and exile.”

At one point she was moved east to Magadan, and at a transit camp in Irkutsk there was a large mirror. Not since their arrest four years before had she and her fellow prisoners once seen their own reflections. They rushed to look. But at first she could find nothing there.

Then suddenly I saw my mother. A sad exhausted face. Grey hair. It turned out to be me!

As she recounts this episode, we see before us the photograph of a handsome young mother of two small children, about the time when she was first seized and taken away, juxtaposed with a picture of her own mother aged about fifty or so, looking as grey and exhausted as described: and we also see, in the 80-year-old woman now talking about these events before Goldovskaya’s camera, the poignant facial vestiges of each.

Evidence and documents

The main Solovetsky island in the White Sea was 60 kilometers off the Russian coast, nearly 1000 kilometers north of Leningrad. Very few escaped and lived to tell the tale. In winter, captured escapees were stripped, shot, and their frozen corpses kept on public view. But in one of the only recorded instances of a successful escape, two White Guards got off the island in May 1925, made their way to the West, and in 1926 produced books about their experiences.

This was highly embarrassing for the Soviets. In government circles there was a feeling that some response was required, and in 1927-28 the GPU ordered the making of a propaganda film to correct the rumors that were spreading far and wide. Eminent figures like Maxim Gorky were recruited to appear and reassuringly report that everything on the Solovki was just fine.

Although a lot of footage was shot, no finished film was ever released. And like so many of the prisoners photographed, the film disappeared without trace. Unlike them, however, a print of high quality was found alive and well in a Soviet film archive 60 years later, and this forms the basis of much of Goldovskaya’s own enterprise.

The subtitle of The Solovky Power is “evidence and documents”. This is important. For though the original propaganda footage consists of communist disinformation from first to last, the graphic evidence of the camp that it unavoidably includes becomes a useful tool for eliciting, from survivors, a true account of camp life. While a videotape of the old Soviet black and white film plays in one corner of the room, aged witnesses sit in another corner and comment mockingly on what they see. A scene of the camp admission procedure, with prisoners being courteously received as if at a hotel, provokes an outburst from the writer Oleg Volkov, who well remembers the sickening “fleapit” he was put in and the rain of lice falling on him as he tried to sleep.

Reception at the Solovky was indeed something you didn’t forget. Prisoners were brutalized in ways designed to break the strongest spirit. Men were made to run round and round a yard high-stepping with “knees up” until they dropped; the least remonstrance brought a savage beating with staves; and the helplessness of their situation, beyond the reach of law, was again and again emphasized by guards who shouted at each batch of rookie zeks:

This isn’t Soviet power! It’s Solovki power! A prosecutor never set foot here! Nobody lags behind on the march, and a single step to left or right is considered an escape!

Need one add that Kurilko, the commandant who both devised and enforced this rule of terror, and ensured that numerous prisoners were murdered when they fell behind or tottered out of line, was himself eventually charged, incarcerated, and shot? Other scenes from the past show a visit by Maxim Gorky in 1929. Along with his daughter-in-law (who Applebaum notes was conspicuously dressed as a chekistka in “leather jacket, leather jodhpurs, high boots and a leather cap”)

Gorky duly announced that on the Solovky the Soviet government had built a corrective institution of a refreshingly new kind. In some rooms, he wrote, there were “four or six beds, each decorated with personal items and on the windowsills there are flowers… No, there is no resemblance to a prison, instead it seems as if these rooms are inhabited by passengers rescued from a drowned ship.”

But it doesn’t seem like that to the surviving “passengers” looking at those scenes today. Shots of table linen and comfortable beds with sheets make them howl with mirth. A scene of camp guards judiciously tasting the prison food (Is it too hot or too cold? Too sweet or too sour? Should it perhaps be returned to the kitchen as unsatisfactory and replaced?) produce from today’s living witnesses explosions of bitter scorn.

The gulag as a model of the Soviet system

A leading argument of The Solovky Power is that the system of slave labor devised on the islands not only served as a punitive model once the Gulag “metastasized”, as Solzhenitsyn put it, but can be seen as evolving into the definitive system of “high Stalinism” within the Soviet Union as a whole. In the narrator’s words:

The more we examine the evidence of the time, the more we begin to clearly understand that the Solovky was a state in its own right. A primitive totalitarian power with its own government, its own emblems, its own attributes of authority. It had ministries of a kind, too. The information and investigative section; the culture and education section; and an economic section.

It had its own privileged class, the Chekists. The line of authority was well-defined from the all-powerful chief of the camp down to the heads of sections, guards, group overseers, and at the very bottom the convicts, who had no rights at all.

There is more than just plausibility to the idea that the principles of the gulag empire, first worked out at the Solovetsky Islands, were spread throughout the Soviet world as a whole, so that in Stalin’s day the only difference between one side of the barbed wire and the other was a small matter of relative amenity.

Both inside and outside the camps the climate of fear was universal, because spying itself was universal and nobody could be trusted day or night. Within the camp, at least one dependable friend could make the difference between life and death. As for the world outside, especially as it affected escapees, things might be even worse. Whereas in Czarist times sympathetic citizens would feed and shelter fugitives, under Stalin they were certain to be turned in. No-one could risk not handing them over.

According to Applebaum, tribal peoples like the Eskimos and Kazakhs “became professional bounty hunters, searching for escaped prisoners in return for a kilogram of tea or a bag of wheat. In Kolyma, a local inhabitant who brought in the right hand of a runaway” (or even the head, from some reports) “received a 250-ruble prize, and the prizes seem to have been similar elsewhere.”

Then consider the “theory of labor” propounded by Matvei Pogrebinskii, named in the film as “an officer of the OGPU, and a writer of sorts”, according to whose book The Human Factory, “humans were nothing more than raw material and should be subject to the same factory processing.” On this severely materialistic account of Soviet Man, what difference did it make if one was inside or outside the prison walls?

Related to this was the little matter of getting shot. According to communist theory a zek who tried to escape was only partly seen as avoiding punishment. More importantly, as the property of the state, and a valued economic unit, for a slave to pretend to be free labor and move away from his workplace in “the human factory” defied a basic obligation of Soviet citizenship. Yet the case of the “free” citizen who tried to run the gauntlet and find freedom in the west was no different. Whether inside the penal microsystem, or inside the wider Soviet system as a whole, state property that grew legs and showed a perverse will of its own received the same penalty—a bullet.

The parricide as hero

Catriona Kelly’s recent book, Comrade Pavlik: the Rise and Fall of a Soviet Boy Hero, tells the tale of the boy who achieved Soviet stardom as an informer by denouncing his father. As she herself makes clear, so much mythology came to surround the case that one might easily think this kind of thing never really happened. But it did. At the Solovky there was an even worse case, and it was all too real.

Comrade Uspensky was the son of a priest when the Revolution happened, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn gives space to his story. In Solzhenitsyn’s words, under the new regime “What did he have to look forward to? Security questionnaires, restrictions, exile, persecution. And there is no possible way to erase this from one’s record, no possible way to change one’s father. But no, Uspensky discovered there was a way: he killed his own father and declared to the authorities that he had done it out of class hatred!”

Perhaps he hoped to impress the Party and obtain a reward, much as the Eskimos and Kazakhs were rewarded for bringing in bits and pieces of dismembered escapees. But if so it didn’t happen. Alarmed by such homicidal zeal, the police sent him off to the Solovky, where, at the time of the next mass execution, he received an assignment: on October 28, 1929, he and some others shot dead 300 inmates in one night.

Goldovskaya’s team tracked Uspensky down, and Dmitri Likhachev is shown handling a pile of recent 8 x 10 inch black and white photos showing a respectably dressed but stooped and aged man. He is seen in the streets of an anonymous city, or going into his apartment house, or shopping—always with his eyes considerately blacked out by the filmmaker to obscure his identity. It is a measure of the contrast between the madness of communist fanaticism and the natural humanity of normal men and women that Likhachev, who only narrowly escaped being shot that night himself—he hid in a woodpile while the massacre took place—implores the filmmaker not to reveal the mass murderer’s name:

He’s still alive, and he’s older than me. It is terrible. I understand that he has a wife. Children and grandchildren. I pity them. Please don’t say what his name is. (Perhaps Likhachev is referring to a modern pseudonym: any reader of Solzhenitsyn could easily find the name Uspensky, RS) Of course he isn’t the only one. Knowing the scale of Stalin’s repressions, you can imagine the number of people who took part in them. They still live among us. Why name only him?

Anne Applebaum does not appear to have seen The Solovky Power. At least there is no reference to it in her index, and nor is there any mention of its director, Marina Goldovskaya. This would be of no great interest except that Applebaum prefers the figure of 50 shot, taken from official camp archives, to the figure of 300 given by Solzhenitsyn, on the one hand, and by Likhachev, the young man in the woodpile, on the other. From the vividness and transparent authenticity of the account given by Dmitri Likhachev in the film, I suspect most people would incline to go with the higher figure.

Sources: The basic resource, supplementing Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s famous three-volume The Gulag Archipelago, is Anne Applebaum’s book Gulag: a History (Doubleday, 2003)

Posted in For the Record.