Anything Goes

There’s something quite odd about Solzhenitsyn’s biography. It is alleged that the state took custody of Solzhenitsyn in 1945 when government authorities intercepted a private letter criticizing about Stalin’s war strategy (which ultimately led to the defeat of Nazi Germany). We are provided with photos of Solzhenitsyn in GULag garb, however these were staged photographs; there are no photos of Solzhenitsyn in the GULag. So where was he sent exactly? Because of his background in mathematics and physics, he was sent to a military research installation, often referred to as a sharashka, where he worked on secret state projects. Referred to as zeks, prisoners sent to these research stations were engineers and scientists. Living conditions were much better in the sharashka than in the camps where manual labor was said to be performed. Solzhenitsyn wrote about his experiences in the sharashka in The First Circle.

I find it quite fascinating that Solzhenitsyn was sent to a secret military research installation. This places him among the zeks who produced such weaponry as the Soviet’s atomic warheads. The reality of the conditions of the sharashka are out of phase with the image Solzhenitsyn projects in the staged photographs of his time in the GULags and in his writings. I also find it interesting that, after his release, Solzhenitsyn became a high school teacher in Kazakhstan, teaching mathematics and physics.

Given Solzhenitsyn’s personal experience, along with his penchant for wild exaggeration, several questions emerge. First, why would Soviet authorities permit a dangerous dissident – a dissident so dangerous that he was imprisoned for eight years – to work in a high security Soviet military installation administered by the Ministry of State Security? Why would authorities release a dissident who possessed extensive knowledge of highly classified state projects? Why didn’t they just kill him? He knew too much, after all. He had already been gone for eight years. They could have told his family he died of pneumonia. Yet he was not only allowed to live, but he was allowed to teach high school students math and physics. Why would Soviet authorities allow a dangerous dissident to teach high school students?

Also curious is the apparent fact that, in 1950, while at an camp in Ekibastuz in Kazakhstan (where he allegedly worked as a bricklayer, experiences that are supposed to form the basis of his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich), he was discovered to have a tumor which was removed. The cancer spread and, near death, he was treated at a hospital in Tashkent and was cured of cancer. He writes about these experiences Cancer Ward. Why would a homicidal state apparatus, a thoroughly diabolical machine of repression responsible for mass murder, not only have failed to execute this dangerous dissident live, but would cure him of cancer? Why not let him die? Forget pnemonia, you have the cancer-ridden corpse of the man. Send back photos and a report to his family. Case closed. Instead, a dangerous dissident is allowed to work at a highly classified state research installation, cured of cancer, released from prison and appointed to teach high school students math and physics.

Then there’s the matter of the second round of persecution. Nikita Khrushchev, in his effort to delegitimate Stalinism by “revealing” Stalin’s crimes, found Solzhenitsyn’s gift for embellishing experiences useful, and the state pushed One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich on the Soviet public. How does such openness about state repression happen in a totalitarian regime? How is it possible, in a state that is supposed to have killed millions of people, that such a novel could not only appear but be actively promoted by a totalitarian state? Why would Soviet leaders make a czarist and committed anti-communist a national figure?

When Solzhenitsyn started to get on the bad side of Soviet authorities, the writer feared traveling to Sweden to accept the Nobel Prize in 1970 because he believed the Soviet authorities would refuse to let him come home. It’s surprising that the Soviet state would even allow Solzhenitsyn to leave the country in the first place. Why would the Soviet authorities want Solzhenitsyn outside Russia where he would run about spreading his gospel of anti-communism? Why wasn’t he sent back to the GULag? Is it because that would be too obvious? Surely a state as evil and secretive as the Soviet state could have arranged for Solzhenitsyn to have disappeared. If the Soviet state is indeed responsible for the deaths of the tens of millions, many of them political dissidents not nearly as dangerous as Solzhenitsyn, why leave the man alive?

In 1974, with the publication of The Gulag Archipelago in 1972, Leonid Brezhnev said that by law the state could put Solzhenitsyn in prison for treason. “This hooligan Solzhenitsyn is out of control,” he said. The state did indeed convict Solzhenitsyn of treason (the US convicts its citizens of treason, as well). However, instead of imprisoning him, they sent him to West Germany. From Germany, he moved to Vermont, USA, where he became quite a celebrity, freely bashing the Soviet system to the delight of the cold warriors.

This is quite puzzling. As a child, stories of Russian defectors were a routine matter. Athletes and intellectuals were among those escaping persecution behind the Iron Curtain and they became living testimonials to the desire of Russians to escape the daily oppression of the Soviet state. Ayn Rand told Americans that nobody smiled in Russia (she also claimed to have escape when in fact she traveled freely from Russia). All Russians wanted to get out of the country, I was told. Yet Solzhenitsyn’s emancipation from a society that had imprisoned him is treated as a horrible punishment. He was exiled. How does being let loose from the most oppressive state society in history, as the Soviet Union is typically described, come to be described as an act of state oppression? They didn’t imprison him. They didn’t kill him. They simply let him go.

Perhaps it will help to note the character of claims about the Soviet Union and then compare these to the facts in the Soviet archives, an archive that is quite extensive (massive bureaucracies are marvels of record keeping), show that during 1934-53, the GULag population varied from just over 500,000 in 1934 and just over 1.5 million in 1951. Compare these figures with the 2.3 million prisoners in the United States in 2007. The US GULag system has averaged more than two million persons for several years now. Most of the prisoners are nonviolent drug and property offenders. Most of the prisoners sent to the GULags in the Soviet Union were murderers, robbers, and rapists. The vast majority of the prisoners sent to the GULags were released after serving their time, the length of their sentences comparatively shorter than the length of sentences for prisoners in the United States, with around 80 percent of Soviet prisoners serving fewer than five years in prison. Except for the war years, which were exceedingly tough on the Russian people (23 million Russians were killed by the Nazi war machine), death rates in the Soviet GULags was comparable to the death rates in US GULags. This doesn’t say much for the Soviet GULags, but, on balance, they weren’t as bad as US prisons. Nor was their primary purpose political. Moreover, compare the actual numbers reported in the archives to Solzhenitsyn’s claims of 7-8 million toiling in the GULags annually. At one point in the GULag Archipelago he claims that one-fourth of Leningrad was taken to the camps as political prisoners.

Solzhenitsyn’s exaggerations are commonplace among anti-communists. Close examination of the archives finds that authors such as Anton Antonov-Ovsenko, Roy A. Medvedev, Ol’ga Shatunovskaia, Dmitri Volkogonov, and Robert Conquest widely exaggerate the horrors of Soviet repression. As researchers pointed out in the report “Victims of the Soviet Penal System in the Pre-war Years” (American Historical Review, Vol. 98, No. 4, pp. 1017-1049):

Mainstream published estimates of the total numbers of “victims of repression” in the late 1930s have ranged from Dmitrii Volkogonov’s 3.5 million to Ol’ga Shatunovskaia’s nearly 20 million. The bases for these assessments are unclear in most cases and seem to have come from guesses, rumors, or extrapolations from isolated local observations. [T]he documentable numbers of victims are much smaller.

Let’s compare claims to facts. Antonov-Ovsenko claims that that between 1937-38, Soviet authorities arrest 18.8 million people. Medvedev claims 5-7 million. Shatunovskaia claims 19.8. What do the documented numbers? Around 2.5 million. The only one who came close was Volkognov, and he exaggerates by more than a million. Conquest claims that the 1938 camp population was 7 million. Actually, it was under two million. Antonov-Ovsenko claims that the 1938 camp and prison population was 16 million. Conquest puts the number at half that. The record shows that it was one-eighth that figure (two million). Conquest puts the 1952 camp population at 12 million. The record shows that it was 2.5 million. Conquest puts the 1937-1938 camp deaths at 2 million. In fact, the record shows 160,084 camp deaths.

What about executions? Between 1937-1938, Ol’ga Shatunovskaia claims that 7 million were executed. Robert Conquest claims 1 million. Documents shows the figure is 681,692. Executions between 1921-1953, according to Antonov-Ovsenko, numbered seven million (a number exceeding the 5-6 million Jewish deaths under Hitler). The archive reports 799,455. That’s bad enough without exaggerating. The problem of course is that Hitler looks a lot worse in comparison. The propagandists need to get the death counts into the millions. They benefited for quite some time from the fact that there were no records with which to check their claims. Now we have the numbers. So what’s the tactic now? To attack those who argue from facts as Stalinoid apologists.

The Foreign Office, and its Information Research Department (IRD) was a secret worldwide British propaganda network operating against communism and mostly in the Third World. Modelled on wartime psychological warfare operations (PSY-OPS), it employed and associated with right-wing journalists and academics. It distributed its materials through embassies throughout the capitalist world. The idea was not only to prevent peoples living under capitalist oppression the opportunity to consume information about the successes of the socialist world, but to misinform them about socialism and communism. This is known as “black propaganda.” The operation paralleled that of the CIA’s disinformation campaign about the Soviet Union.

Robert Conquest, the man arguably most responsible for creating the massive distortions about the Soviet Union that are now taken as truth by a great majority of people, was a leading “scholar” for IRD. He worked with the Foreign Office until 1956. He then took his propaganda operation into the public domain with a series of books blatantly exaggerating and even inventing atrocities in the former Soviet Union. It seems that IRD proposed that Conquest combine the “data” he had gathered into a book. He produced a ready-made series of eight books called “Soviet studies.” The publisher was Fred Praeger. That’s the same Praeger who published books filled with disinformation at the request of the CIA.

Given what we know, why should we still be seeing in the press statements such as the following? “Mr Putin is a former agent of the KGB which, according to Solzhenitsyn, was responsible for the repression of an estimated 60 million people under the Soviets.” And this: “In 1945, military censors found letters to a friend in which he criticized Stalin. That cost him eight years’ detention in the Gulag camps, where tens of millions people perished.” And this: “He arrived from the east in Magadan, a northern city at the centre of the most brutal chain of camps. He bowed to touch the earth in a tribute to the millions who perished in the camps.”

Think about it. If the corporate news media was about telling the truth, we would have read very different things about Solzhenitsyn and the context in which he worked and became a celebrity. Instead we are given myth. It follows, then, that the corporate media is not about truth telling, but about manufacturing ideology.

Russian Penitentiary System

Today, Russia has over 1,200,000 prisoners serving time in it’s 840 prisons.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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