Episode 2: 20th Century Slavery

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we review and discuss the firsthand
testimony of those who lived through the horrors of Communism over the past century. This is
Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of
Portland, Oregon.

If you’ve been following the news, you may be aware that the United Nations has recently
passed some courageous resolutions affirming the radical idea that slavery is a bad thing.
While we naturally agree with this, it’s always frustrating that in such discussions, some of the
largest mass enslavements in human history are ignored: those created under 20th-century
Communism. The best-documented of these is probably the “Gulag” system of slave camps
created by the Soviet Union, which reached its greatest heights in the 1940s and 1950s, but
lasted from only a few years after the Russian Revolution until the Soviet regime’s eventual

The most well-known chronicler of the Gulag was Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, a fascinating
historical figure. He started out as a mostly loyal Communist citizen, serving as an officer in the
Soviet army during World War II. But near the end of the war, in 1945, he was arrested for
making comments critical of Joseph Stalin in a private letter, and condemned to the Gulag labor
camps. Millions died in those camps due to being forced to do excessive amounts of labor with
inadequate food, clothing, and housing, but Solzhenitsyn miraculously survived, and during a
brief thaw after Stalin’s death was able to publish an autobiographical novel about life in the
Gulag, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”, in 1962. The authorities soon clamped down
and stopped him from publishing further works in this vein, but the worldwide fame created by
this novel protected him to some degree from the Communist authorities.

After “Ivan Denisovich”, other Gulag survivors from across the Soviet Union began contacting
Solzhenitsyn and sharing their stories. Combining his story with those of many correspondents
to piece together a complete picture of the Gulag system, Solzhenitsyn created a massive
documentary work, “The Gulag Archipelago”. He managed to smuggle it out to the West and
get it published in 1973, though it would not see official publication in his own country until 1989.
That’s not surprising— far from merely a report of isolated abuses, it was a comprehensive
analysis of how the Gulag was an integral component and result of the Communist system.
It’s a fascinating read, by the way; at first I was skeptical that a 2000-page book on Soviet slave
labor camps could hold my attention, but once I started, I literally couldn’t put it down.
Although they may have mostly not been bought and sold explicitly (but in some cases they
were), it’s hard to argue against applying the word “slavery” to the Gulag inmates. Here’s some
of Solzhenitsyn’s description of his camp after first arriving:

“In all the rooms bare multiple bunks… were installed… Two stories of four wooden panels on two cross-shaped supports placed at the head and feet. When one sleeper stirred… three others rocked."

"They did not issue mattresses in this camp, nor sacks to stuff with straw. The words ‘bed
linen’ were unknown… no sheets or pillowcases existed here, and they did not issue or launder underwear. You had what you wore, and you had to look after it yourself… In the evening, when you lay down on the naked panel, you could take off your shoes. But take into consideration that your shoes would be swiped.”

Later Solzhenitsyn describes the work he was assigned, digging in the clay pits, after his failure
as a ‘work foreman’ to successfully drive his brigade to achieve desired targets:

“The work norm there was well known: during one shift one worker was to dig, load up, and deliver to the windlass six cars full of clay— eight cubic yards. For two persons the norm was sixteen. In dry weather, the two of us together could manage six and a half. But an autumn drizzle began. For one day, two, three without wind, it kept on… It was not torrential, so no one was going to take the responsibility for halting the outdoor work. …

"Boris was weaker than I; he could hardly wield his spade, which the sticky clay made heavier and heavier, and he could hardly throw each shovelful up to the edge of the truck…  We loaded as much as we could. Penalty ration? So it would be a penalty ration! The hell  with you! …three times a day that same black, unsalted infusion of nettle leaves, and once a day a ladle of thin gruel, a third of a liter. And the bread… they gave fifteen and a quarter ounces in the morning, and not a crumb more during the day or in the evening. And then we were lined up for roll call out in the rain. And once again we slept on bare bunks in wet clothes, muddled with clay, and we shivered because they weren’t heating the barracks…

"Borya was coughing. There was still a fragment of German tank shell in his lungs. He was thick and yellow… I looked at him closely, and was not sure: would he make it through a winter in camp?”

Now I expect some of you will be arguing that all countries make prisoners do labor to some
degree. But we can’t forget that these were people who haven't committed anything we would
consider a crime— even mildly questioning the government in a private conversation or letter,
reported by an informer or spotted by a censor, could get you sent to these camps. That’s
aside from the mass deportations of regions and ethnic groups thought to be possible threats to
the authorities. And in the last episode we saw how large classes of innocent victims were sent
away just due to their neighbors’ jealousy. In such systems, nobody can dare to publicly
discuss these conditions or advocate for their improvement, unless they are ready to join the
ranks of the enslaved.

One might also argue that there were labor camps for prisoners already, under the Tsars, so the
Gulag was not a major change. But as Solzhenitsyn points out, those Tsarist labor camps
were not designed as death camps— for example, at a mining camp where the Tsar’s work
requirement was 118 pounds per day, Gulag slaves were given a norm of over 20 times as
much, and sentenced to reduced punishment rations if they failed to deliver. Millions died in the
Gulag camps from overwork, malnutrition, and other aspects of the poor conditions; nothing
remotely close to that could be said of the previous prison camps.   He also points out that when 19th-century writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s famously described the  bleak life at a labor camp in his book “The House of the Dead”, Tsarist censors were worried that due to its depiction of prisoners who had clean clothes, limited workdays, and spare recreational time, they might reduce the value of labor camps as a deterrent to crime. While life in a Russian labor camp could never be said to be pleasant, the brutal slave camps that killed millions of prisoners only arose under Communism.

As is typical wherever there is slavery, any remotely attractive female prisoners of the Gulag
were essentially forced into prostitution. They were destined to serve whichever of the
“trusties”, or special prisoner-supervisors favored by the guards, they were allocated to, as soon
as they arrived in camp:

“In the camp bath the naked women were examined like merchandise. Whether there was water in the bath or not, the inspection for lice, the shaving of armpits and pubic hair, gave the barbers, by no means the lowest-ranking aristocrats in the camp, the opportunity to look over the new women. And immediately after that they would be inspected by the other trusties…. the Archipelago hardened, and the procedure became more brazen…. And then the trusties decided among themselves who got whom.”

“…And what of it if you loved someone out in freedom and wanted to remain true to him? What profit is there in the fidelity of a female corpse?”

Because Communism superseded all previous systems of morality, it was easy for officials to
rationalize arbitrarily cruel treatment. Anyone who dared to stand in the way of their perfect
new system of government deserved whatever they got. And why not get some use out of
them, forcing as much labor as they could before the prisoner’s inevitable death?

Solzhenitsyn and his fellow prisoners certainly considered themselves to be slaves. On one
occasion, a Gulag construction brigade found themselves transporting a large number of
handcuffs which the guards had forgotten to count, and decided to preserve a lasting record of
their condition:

“… out of 125 pairs of handcuffs, our lads carried off 23! There, in the work zone, they started by smashing the cuffs with stones and hammers, but soon they had a brighter idea: wrapping them in greased paper, so that they would last better, and bricking them up in the walls and foundations of the buildings on which they were working that day… together with ideologically uninhibited covering notes: “Descendants! These houses were built by Soviet slaves! Here you see the sort of handcuffs they wore!”

As you would expect in this short podcast, we’re really just touching on a tiny sampling of the
many details included in thousands of pages of The Gulag Archipelago. But an inescapable
conclusion is that the tens of millions of prisoners condemned to labor camps for so-called
“political crimes”, and sentenced to decades of forced labor in unbelievably substandard
conditions, should be considered “slaves” in any meaningful sense of the term. And while the
Soviet Union may be gone, existing governments such as China and North Korea maintain
networks of Gulag-inspired camps to this day.

[closing conversation]

So next time you are discussing the moral calamity of slavery, don’t just dwell on events of the
1800s and earlier. Think a bit about what has happened, and is still happening, in socialist and
Communist regimes throughout the world.

This concludes your Story of Communism for today.


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