Episode 6: Willful Ignorance

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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.

You’ve probably heard news reports of numerous cases where some celebrity visits a brutal dictatorship, is given an official, prearranged tour by its leaders, and comes back to announce how successful and prosperous they are.   Naturally, if given enough time and budget to prepare, anyone can create a pretty facade no matter how dismal the actual reality.    I doubt too many people are really fooled by such staged events, but if the celebrity enters with an initial idea that they are there to show how great the system is, they will easily have their preconceived notions confirmed.   Today we are going to discuss one of these cases.    Our topic is author Maxim Gorky’s visit to the Solovki Island labor camp, one of the founding camps of Stalin’s Gulag, as retold in Volume 2 of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.

The Solovki camp was a remote logging camp, on an island in the North Sea, built around an old monastery repossessed by the Soviet state.   It can be looked back on as a prototype for the Gulag, as it was one of the regime’s earliest prison camps, and it pioneered many of the worst elements of that system.   They put undersupplied prisoners in overcrowded conditions, made unreasonable labor demands, and freely tortured prisoners when they disobeyed or failed to work hard enough.   The guards introduced many cruel torments when the inmates failed to fall in line:

“And here.is how they kept the punishment cells: Poles the thickness of an arm were set from wall to wall and prisoners were ordered to sit on these poles all day. (At night they lay on the floor, one on top of another, because it was overcrowded.) The height of the poles was set so that one's feet could not reach the ground. And it was not so easy to keep balance. In fact, the prisoner spent the entire day just trying to maintain his perch. If he fell, the jailers jumped in and beat .him… [p.36]
“Or they might put the prisoners on a sharp- edged boulder on which one could not stay long either. Or, in summer, "on the stump," which meant naked among the mosquitoes. And then they could put whole companies out in the .snow for disobedience. Or they might drive a person into the marsh muck up to his neck and keep him there. And then there was another way: to hitch up a horse in empty shafts and fasten the culprit's legs to the shafts; then the guard mounted the horse and kept on driving the horse through a forest cut until the groans and the cries from behind simply came to an end. “ [p.38]

Unfortunately for the Soviet leaders, they made one key mistake:   due to its convenient location, they decided to sell surplus lumber from Solovki to foreign ships arriving at the nearby port at Kem.   One day when prisoners were loading a foreign ship, a prisoner who secretly could speak English managed to tell his story to some sailors.   They hid him on the ship, carefully concealing him when the incensed guards came to search for the missing prisoner, and managed to successfully transport him to England.   Once there, he published a book, called “An Island Hell”,  about the abuses at Solovki.    This book created a bit of a public outcry, though leftist intellectuals were quick to dismiss it as nonsense.   But Stalin decided they had to do something about this bad publicity, and promised that a commission led by Maxim Gorky would investigate.

Maxim Gorky was an internationally known author, and had been seen as one of the guiding lights of the Russian Revolution.   He had written numerous novels sympathetically portraying Russia’s poor, and had been a long-term socialist and early friend of Lenin.   After the Revolution, however, he was very critical of Lenin’s growing authoritarianism, and ended up leaving the country.   In 1932, Gorky apparently was growing increasingly homesick, and Stalin offered him an amnesty and promise of a high-paying position if he would return.   Some have insinuated that what Gorky really wanted was a life of wealth and luxury— despite his success as an author, his work was not generating enough profit in the West to offer him a truly elite lifestyle.    In any case, Gorky returned to the Soviet Union, where he was given awards and a mansion, but remained in favor with both the international community and with Stalin.   Thus, he seemed like a perfect candidate to report the truth about Solovki.’

Now of course, the Western intellectuals who trusted Gorky were being a bit naive— there’s no way anyone under Stalin’s power could really be free to say something negative, if applicable, about the Soviet regime.   Nevertheless, the officials of the prison camp were ordered to make things appear pleasant and humane, so Gorky could report back to the international community with positive findings.   For the purpose of Gorky’s visit, model areas of the prison were set up with improved conditions, supplies, and the healthiest-looking prisoners.    But it was hard to time these things precisely back then, and they had an almost comical near- disaster during Gorky’s journey to the camp: 

On Popov Island the ship Gleb Boky was being loaded by prisoners in underwear and sacks, when Gorky's retinue appeared out of nowhere to embark on that steamer! … Where can this disgraceful spectacle— these men dressed in sacks— be hidden? The entire journey of the great Humanist will have been for naught if he sees them now. Well, of course, he will try hard not to notice them, but help him! … only a worthy son of the Archipelago could find. a way out of this one. The work assigner ordered: "Stop work! Close ranks! Still closer! Sit down on the ground! Sit still!" And a tarpaulin was thrown over them. "Anyone who moves will be shot!" And the former stevedore Maxim Gorky ascended the ship's ladder and admired the landscape from the steamer for a full hour till sailing time - and he didn't notice! “  [p, 61]

That crisis having been successfully averted, Gorky and his entourage were then led to meet with the model prisoners.   Indeed, they seemed healthy, happy, and well-fed, as far as Gorky could tell.   Everyone played their proper role initially, except for a minor glitch:

And what was there to see there? It turned out that there was no overcrowding in the punishment cells, and-,-the main point-no poles. None at all. Thieves sat on benches … and they were all ... reading newspapers. None of them was so bold as to get up and complain, but they did think up one trick: they held the newspapers upside down! And Gorky went up to one of them and in silence turned the newspaper right side up! He had noticed it! He had understood!  [p.62]
Gorky then moved on to the “Children’s Colony”, where the younger inmates were held, and began making polite conversation with the prisoners. But everyone was shocked as one of them, a teenage boy, went off-script:

And all of a sudden a.fourteen-year-old boy said: "Listen here, Gorky! Everything you see here is false. Do you want to know the truth?  Shall I tell you?" Yes, nodded the writer. Yes,_he wanted to know the truth. ..   And so everyone was ordered to leave, including the children … and the boy spent an hour and a half telling the whole story to the lanky old man. Gorky left the barracks, streaming tears.  [p.62]
After his talk with the boy, Gorky continued his tour.   He undoubtedly knew the boy would be punished severely after he left.   With his fame and power, couldn’t Gorky have arranged to take the boy with him, or at least threaten the guards and try to extort a commitment for his safety, at least until he could follow up?    But he did none of those things, finishing his tour as if nothing had happened.    What happened in the prison afterwards was as you would expect:  as soon as Gorky was gone, the boy was shot.    His name was not even recorded for posterity— none of the surviving prisoners who told the tale could remember it.   And as for Gorky?  

And he did publish his statement, and it was republished over and over in the big free press, both our own and that of the West… claiming it was nonsense to frighten people with Solovki, and that prisoners lived remarkably well there and were being well reformed.  [p.63]
Solzhenitsyn thought that Gorky’s primary motivations were his luxuries and perks as a senior member of Stalin’s regime, similar to what we saw in Sidney Rittenberg’s reflections on his life under Mao in China, which we discussed a few episodes ago.  A more sympathetic interpretation might be that Gorky simply acted out of fear, not seeing any way he could get the truth out without ending up as in such a camp himself.   However, there are some other reports of a different nature:  Gorky was a broken man after Solovki, and descended into depression and eventual death out of guilt over his actions that day.   The tale of Gorky’s last days is actually a fascinating story in itself, which we may explore in a future episode.    

<closing conversation with Manuel>

In any case, next time you hear about a celebrity traveling to a socialist or communist country and praising their virtues, think really hard about what they are saying.  Did they really spend enough time there, out of the control of their official handlers, to make an informed judgement?  And are they so committed to the ideology that they would conceal the truth, like Gorky did, if directly confronted with it?

This concludes your Story of Communism for today.