Gulag (August 22, 2013)

[Part 10 of 14.  Solovki 2013]

I have taught the history of the GULAG—the forced prison system of the early years of the Soviet Union—for many years now.   And as many of my students will attest, I often have a hard time getting through the discussion without tears in my eyes.   For all the years I’ve studied the past and wrestled with what it means to be human, I’ve never quite come to terms with the horrifyingly deep capacity of humans to unleash terrible and unspeakable cruelty on other humans.   We are gluttons for our own doom, and particular gluttons for the doom of others.

Yet, for all the years teaching and reading about the Gulag, I had never actually visited the site of one.   I’d seen prisons, to be sure, but never a camp.  And I was intrigued to be there to feel it and sense it.

Solovki plays a special role in what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously called the “Gulag Archipelago.”   It was in many ways at Solovki that the Gulag got its start and also began its horrifying expansion.  It was also at Solovki that the idea filtered into the minds of certain members of the Soviet leadership that the camps could be economically profitable.   They never were, it turns out, but the idea of profit from penal labor was held onto tightly and ever hopefully.

The monastery was shut in 1920—not an unexpected decision from an atheist state.   But then what to do with the marvelous buildings and infrastructure?   The monastery had been used for centuries as a place of banishment and exile for opponents to the tsarist regime and to the Orthodox Church—and some prisoners had lived for decades cramped into tiny, dark, stone cells.   There had never been that many prisoners, and the prison function was always a minor part of the larger monastic religious purpose.   However, it set a precedent and it was not a huge leap of imagination to turn the entire monastic complex into a prison camp.

In 1923, Solovetskii Monastery became known as the Solovetskii Camp of Special Importance (SLON in its Russian acronym, a word that means “elephant” in Russian.  There were endless plays on words.)

The camp saw some 80,000 people come to it, about half of whom perished there and are now part of the Solovki ecosystem.   [There are archeological digs going on in the mass graves—but I noted that the tour guide was uninterested in taking us there.]

The types of prisoners that came to Solovki tended to be elite ones:  political opponents of the Bolsheviks (especially members of other socialist parties), former tsarist nobles, officers of the Imperial Army or of the White Army that fought the Bolsheviks in the Civil War, great Russian intellectuals and cultural icons.   In the words of one tour guide:   “the very light of the Russian nation.”

And they were horribly mistreated.   The savagery of humanity was once again on nauseating display.   Who would do these things, I kept asking myself, and how can we avoid a repeat?   (And just how naïve a question is that?)

Cold, poorly clothed (if clothed at all), jammed into cells to sleep, and then marched through the islands to carry out various forms of work (logging in particular) with insufficient food and clothing, and broken, inappropriate tools) .   Daily life was extraordinarily hard and abusive.

On Sekirka, one of the hills of Solovki, a Church stood (with a lighthouse on top) and during the Gulag period it was used as a place of special punishment.


As Roy Robson descries in his book:  “there, men were made to sit perfectly still atop the “perch” or “pole”—about an arm’s width wide—for hours on end, stripped almost naked, teetering on the high-ceilinged, unheated Church of the Beheading of St. John.   Though they shivered and caught frostbite, the slightest movement was reason to falling off and a beating.  At night, the prisoners lay three or four atop another, hoping to stay warm.”

Savage creatures we humans are.   And there are so many hundreds more of these savage stories.

Dead or almost dead bodies were strapped to a log and sent careening down the staircase on the far side of the hill.   365 stairs to the bottom.

Ironically, these stairs had long before had a different meaning.   They were the way that pilgrims would walk up to the Church, and the word was that for every step one walked up a sin was forgiven.  With the Gulag, it was the world turned upside down.

Here the human-nature relationship was also transformed.  The cold climate, geographic location, and very physical characteristics that had kept humans from the islands for so long (and had made the archipelago such a good place for monks seeking solitude and fortitude) met up with human aspirations to punish and torture those who might challenge the dominant political ideology.  Over the centuries, people had come for fish and in search of God.  Now they came because they were arrested and forced.   Now they came for the pain that Solovki’s nature—manipulated by humans—might unleash on other humans.

Pilgrim stairs, Gulag stairs. Sekirka. Solovki.  Looking down.

Pilgrim stairs, Gulag stairs. Sekirka. Solovki. Looking up.

I went to see Sekirka with a group of Russian tourists, and it was fascinating to watch them as they came face to face with the horrors of their history.   All peoples and countries have moments of horror in their history, where violence and cruelty shine through.   We humans share this tendency.   What is different is how we then deal with the memories and the legacies of the cruelty, and how do we make amends.

The guide spared no horrible detail for the group.  And there were tears all around as she told story after story of torture and the wanton brutalization of some humans by others.  I don’t know what these tourists knew or didn’t know about the Gulag and Solovki before arriving, but they left with their souls weighed heavy by the knowledge.

Interestingly, the tour guide never at any point discussed any details about the Gulag system that didn’t directly relate to Solovki.   So, any sense of the larger political context wasn’t discussed—of the Bolshevik efforts to hold power, later of Stalin, the purges, collectivization, forced deportations, or of the larger Gulag system that stretched across the whole Eurasian landmass.

The focus here was only local; on the terrifying treatment of the people who came to Solovki between 1923 and 1939.

But perhaps that was enough.

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