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Lessons Learned From "The Gulag Archipelago": What if They Come for You?

Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.

The cover of Gulag Archipelago.

The cover of Gulag Archipelago.

An Introduction to The Gulag Archipelago

The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is a historical record of the Soviet-era work camps, the police state, subtle oppressions and outright torture under the Russian government between the First World War and 1956.

The title "Gulag Archipelago" refers to the network of gulags or work camps where political prisoners (and undesirables labelled as such to meet deportation quotas) were sent, none of which appeared on maps nor were publicly acknowledged as existing despite the millions sent there. It was a separate society, hidden from view, though people were taken off the streets and dragged from their homes at night and sent there, many never to return.

There are a number of lessons we can learn from these true stories of oppression, apart from the dangers of a dictatorship and police state.

About Arrests

  • You have a chance of evading arrest in public if you yell, shout and make a scene. If you go quietly, you have no chance of escaping the system.
  • If you escape, don’t go home. They will come back at night and take you then.
  • Arresting officers don’t care about your innocence, though anything you say then may be used against you later.
  • When officers have arrest quotas or the administration has numbers of prisoners to be sent to the camps each month, they will deliberately take anyone and everyone they have in their hands and ship them off.
  • Arresting people in the middle of the night is preferred with the non-violent. They are roused from their sleep, at their worst mentally, and there are few witnesses to the event, while even fewer neighbors will get out of bed to watch, much less help.
  • The truly violent and sincere threats to the state are arrested away from family and friends to minimize the odds they destroy things or pass items off, as well as reduce the risk that someone comes to their aid.
  • The high-ranking and important people who are being arrested are given a cover story for their disappearance first. The officer isn’t arrested in front of his men. Instead, he’s given a transfer to another assignment, the party member awarded a vacation far away and only arrested after he’s on the train.
  • If people met the arresting apparatchiks with violence, attacking them with hot pokers and hammers and canes such that they risked their lives every time they arrested someone, the arrests would have stopped. Because of the silent compliance and sheepish cowardice, a sizable fraction of the population was sent to the camps, including a quarter of one major city.
  • Those who had been abroad were seen as compromised, including soldiers. The entire Russian legion returning from France after World War 1 was arrested and sent to the camps for that reason.
  • True saboteurs and spies are executed on the spot in wartime unless interrogated and sent to the camps until they can be traded for valuable people.
  • The release of a very few, maybe one percent, allowed everyone else to think that the other 99% were truly guilty. The fact that far more arrests went on and that those released were watched to see who associated with them was ignored.
  • Those making arrests have ample opportunity to take items for themselves by not listing them in the inventory of items seized. Those who protest the theft are irrelevant criminals, making up charges against those searching for evidence of crimes against the state, assuming their accusations are not a crime in itself.
The Russian system of internal checkpoints and passports to travel between "states" made escape difficult but not impossible.

The Russian system of internal checkpoints and passports to travel between "states" made escape difficult but not impossible.

What Puts You in the Bulls-Eye

  • You can get turned in due to a joke, a sarcastic comment, a friend who is on the other side politically, or too close to someone who is already in custody.
  • You will get turned in based on the lies of people who hate you, those who covet your property, the high-ranking man you turned down for sex. Denouncing a boss creates room for a promotion while giving you points toward getting that job. Criticizing your professor for not being politically correct enough ends his lectures and opens up his job.
  • The village apparatchiks, “the village soviet”, turned people in to make quotas, punish those who didn’t obey every order, and didn’t meet quotas.
  • Judges care about their quotas and the official process, not the person’s innocence.
  • Teaching religion was a crime, classified as counter-revolutionary propaganda. In theory, one could be religious in private, but teaching one’s children faith was always a crime.
  • The religious were arrested en masse during religious holidays.
  • People were arrested and tortured in the hope that the state could garner their loot. If you gave up the gold, you got water! If you had no gold, they didn’t care if you died. Greed enabled such atrocities and encouraged the torture of people simply in the hope of loot.
  • When the state is tied to ethnicity, being of the wrong ethnicity gets you classified as associated with the enemy. The Russian party members and war heroes of German descent learned that in World War 2, as the Romany were arrested for crimes against the state and sent to the camps to make quota.
  • Standing by scientific theories that did not have political backing was a crime. In the 1940s Soviet Union, holding to Mendel’s genetics was a reason to be sent to the work crimes. Today, global warming/climate change/climate disruption theory supporters debate making criticism of any aspect of the politically backed theory a criminal offense.

Interrogations and Confessions

  • It was standard to threaten someone with severe penalties if they didn’t confess or sign a pre-written confession and then use the confession to sentence them to the maximum penalty.
  • Rewards for faster work and higher pay for night work guaranteed torture without explicit orders for it to be used. Those who failed to process people fast enough were kicked out, if not denounced, and sent to the camps themselves.
  • Torture didn’t have to be physical. Denial of sufficient food, water and sleep could be enough to torture someone into a false confession.
  • If there were shortages or failures in a particular area, criticizing the government was a crime, so the person in charge or a mid-level supervisor was held to blame. When offered the chance to blame the government’s quotas or rules, the person blamed themselves for a lesser penalty than blaming the state.
  • Interrogators and officers could lie, but the accused could be punished for lying, even if it was only a contradiction stammered out of confusion or trying to say what the guard wanted instead of the truth. Today, you can watch the video “Don’t talk to police!” about how this is used in real life, where cops can lie to you to entrap you but cannot say what you said or what another said that would prove you innocent.
  • The interrogator wants a long list of names; that’s a measure of his success.
  • Interrogation attracts the sadists, which leads to the results the overlords want.
  • Interrogators don’t care if you die since it can help their reputation with other prisoners and management.
  • Only the person who doesn’t care if they are crippled or killed, acts as if they are detached from all relationships and obligations, can resist the interrogation. Any fear can and will be used against you. So will pain, anxiety, confusion and physical deprivation, but this matters less if you do not care if you die.
  • People will turn you in to save themselves or to get even for perceived slights. The only hope you have of dealing with some of them is denouncing them first or getting into public quarrels regularly with them so that their testimony is suspect.
Like modern activists who lecture us on slavery in the 1800s but ignore the thousands of years of slavery beforehand, those who idealize communism ignore the work camps and millions dead in the Gulag Archipelago.

Like modern activists who lecture us on slavery in the 1800s but ignore the thousands of years of slavery beforehand, those who idealize communism ignore the work camps and millions dead in the Gulag Archipelago.

History Lessons From the Gulag Archipelago Book

  • Labor camps were utilized en mass because the leaders thought of them as free labor. The lowered productivity of the slaves in the camps, the cost to transport and (minimally) care for them, and the cost of administration were all ignored. But the fear of being sent to the camps did keep revolt and public dissent to a minimum, so they were kept going even when they were not the profit centers Stalin thought they were.
  • Parents would renounce their faith and their partners in the hope of not going to the camps and keeping the children out of the orphanage. And wives were periodically arrested for not renouncing their husbands.
  • In times of food shortages, hoarding food was a criminal offense. Even children were sent to the camps or put to death for swiping food to live, though their rations were not enough to live on.
  • Anything could be made a crime under rules forbidding the weakening of the power of the state. And they were.
  • Seeking to bring past murderers of the regime is easily silenced by shouting down those who try to bring up the atrocities by relegating it to a past we shouldn’t bring up, despite the social gatherings where the decade's past wrongs of enemies are denounced.
  • Ideology gives the evil-doer the steadfastness and certainty to keep going. Moral busybodies know no rest, for they cannot stop until the world matches their vision. Evildoers that find sanction in an ideology gain permission for their acts, a moral basis for evil deeds others might shun or condemn, and energy to keep going when a mere criminal might be sated with a dozen bodies.
  • When the state believed convict labor was free or that killing people by working them to death was best for society, the courts would find people guilty regardless of the evidence because it was the job of the judges to do so.