This will be a somewhat complex blog because I am going to intertwine comments on Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago with the 20th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
I'm reading The Gulag Archipelago right now and have just returned from a discussion of the dissolution of the Soviet Union conducted by five genuine experts: Former U.S. ambassadors and students of Soviet Affairs Tom Pickering, Mark Palmer and Arthur Hartman and veteran journalists Marvin Kalb and Ted Koppel.
Let me put it this way: The Gulag Archipelago is the clear prelude to and explanation of why the USSR crumbled as it did. It is a detailed, almost novelistic account of industrialized terror that began in 1918 and extended right through Stalin's death. Solzhenitsyn lets the incidents, episodes, tactics, and horrors speak for themselves with the power of a train engine. He is dry, brutally honest, and a faithful witness to sadism beyond comprehension, and the fact that he can go on and on underscores his veracity. He couldn't have made these things up. This was paranoid Russia executing itself over a period of decades, drawing Russians into the machinery of imprisonment, stamping out the most trivial forms of rebellion against the system, and yielding agonies that are something like black humor--at least in Solzhenitsyn's hands.
I won't get into a comparison of the Holocaust with Stalinism. I'll just note that millions upon millions of Russians (and other nationalities living within the USSR's sphere of control) died under Stalinism while trapped in the continental-scale Gulag...or en route to it.
As a writer, Solzhenitsyn, who suffered horribly within the Gulag, is relentless, sardonic, sarcastic, and merciless towards the USSR's jailers. Comparable writing shows up in some of William Manchester's books, some of Norman Mailer's books, and only a few others: it never lets up, there's always another miserable feature of the torment to document.
How, you ask yourself, could Solzhenitsyn have had the personal strength, indeed power, to survive to tell the tale, and many other tales?
If you are interested in this kind of writing, or Russia, or the USSR, or the general issue of inhumanity underpinned by genocidal cunning, then The Gulag Archipelago is an indispensible book.
Now, to today's discussion: Vladimir Putin just having had himself reelected, was the demise of the USSR for naught? Most of the panelists struck notes of hope, focusing on Putin's surprisingly narrow margin of victory. There seemed to be a rough consensus that social media, a globalized younger generation, and Russia's economic strength (build on oil and gas reserves) may slowly...slowly...bring about a post-Putin era wherein an autocrat does not rule Russia.
But there were two dissents. Ambassador Hartman related a wonderful story about preparing to go to the USSR in the mid-1980s and first consulting with the sage of Soviet affairs, George Kennan. Implicitly disavowing the wisdom of his own writing, Kennan told Hartman to forget what had been written about Russia in the last 50 years. Instead, he advised Hartman to go back to the memoirs of Russians in the early part of the 1800s. There he would find the core of Russia's self-doubt and need for domination from within. So Hartman did not join the others on the panel (Koppel was pretty skeptical, too) in thinking fair thoughts about Russia's future. He said there wasn't a general liberalism afoot in Russia; people who were making money just wanted to be left alone; people who weren't making money just wanted to make money; everyone wanted certainty in power.
A young Russian then stood up and said he agreed 100% with what Kennan had told Hartman and what Hartman said now.
The magnitude of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago adds weight to these dissenting views. The issue isn't entirely "soul," but something persists through centuries of snow that seeks complete control over a disparate populace, and that populace knows itself and its history better than we in the West know it.
So should we continue to work hard to make nuclear superpower Russia less dangerous, even though the Cold War is over and the USSR dissolved twenty years ago?
The answer, all agreed, is yes.
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