The Gulag Archipelago: Volume One (ch 4-6)

For those of you following along with me in The Gulag Archipelago, here is my next installment. I am about a chapter away from halfway through the first volume. I no longer need my notebook to scribble down pertinent facts to keep track of where I am at. The whole GPU, OGPU, NKVD, SMERSH issue is behind me. Essentially, whatever they called the Russian secret police at the time of the protagonists’ arrest, he’s imprisoned now and the letters mean little.

Now the alphabet comes in the form of V– or Y–, in the sense that secrecy was so extreme in the prison system that when the guards came to collect a prisoner for interrogation, they only did so by offering up the first letter of the name of the prisoner they were after. If they asked whether Volov was present in a particular cell, and he wasn’t, then the officials have admitted to prisoners in a non-related cell that Volov had been captured. As such, they inquired instead, “Is there anyone V– here?”

Volov? Victor? Vladimir? Captain of State Security Yezepov? Was there anyone with a Y–? As prisoners were being shifted about from cell-to-cell, prison-to-prison, and freedom-to-exile, the number two past time (the first being ignoring how hungry you are) was to glean whatever information you could from your fellow prisoners – especially when they were new to your cell. (If all I had to do all day was stare at a brick wall, shiver, and maybe get a book to read during the hours they allowed me my glasses, I’d probably get excited about someone new coming in the door as well.) However, it is also noted that the interrogators were given an allowance of cigarettes to give out in reward for confessions and information offered up from nasedka (stool pigeons). Someone was always listening. Even in prison, the pressures of interrogation and further punishment did not relent.

What I suspected of the bluecaps and being decent people overall though pressurized to immoral behavior by prevailing circumstances was mostly accurate. Apparently, low totals in the collection of new prisoners was not an option, for “Stalin could never be convinced that in any district, or city, or military unit, he might suddenly cease to have enemies.” If enemies could not be found in high enough numbers, then confessions enough to generate an appropriate number had to be concocted and claimed. If not, then interrogators whom did not meet their quotas could be arrested under Section 10 as subversive to the state.

One interesting point in chapter four was learning that works by authors such as Dmitry Merezhkovsky and Panteleimon Romanov, whose works were banned by the state, were available as reading material in prison.

The phrase “Ivan plen nicht” also stood out. It means “Ivan no prisoner” and was apparently used by German soldiers in reference to Russian POWs. Solzhenitsyn states that “There is war, there is death, but there is no surrender.” He explains this to mean that there was a sentiment in Russia that it was acceptable for soldiers to go to war and die in the service of their country. The country itself would remain. However, if those soldiers were to escape death and face captivity, then their only hope of returning home would be to face a conviction.

Why? Because it is impossible for anyone to disprove that they were colluding with the enemy while in a foreign cell.

As it was, prisoners at home were responsible for proving that they were not guilty. “As always, the interrogation began with the hypothesis that you were obviously guilty,” Solzhenitsyn states, about a hundred pages from noting that “it was clear to the interrogators at least that the cases were fabricated.” Accused, without the capability of leaving prison, could only gather witnesses among themselves by mail as a resource for proving their innocence. Apparently there was quite the campaign of inquiries and responses shuttling from institution to institution.

This segment of The Gulag Archipelago is getting a little convoluted. (The rationalizations within the text have always been, so I refer to the act of reading it here.) There are a few places were Solzhenitsyn’s running personal commentary in the form of footnotes takes up over three-quarters of the page. So if you’re wondering why I’m reaching for half-way, it is because of super teeny-tiny footnote text.

Regardless, the protagonist has made a couple “friends”, and it is oddly more comfortable spending time with him in his cell despite the living conditions. Chapter five is titled “First Cell, First Love”, insinuating that every cell a prisoner spends time in is always judged in comparison to their first. I find that I am getting a feel for the differences between incarcerations as well. The tone of the novel has side-stepped outrage a time or two, and is now seeming more informative. It is clear that for all of the neglect for human rights and needs this novel retells, that the individuals involved are treated as complex, multifaceted people even though the political philosophy of the time did not want to allow for that.

Surely with the lionshare of this work still to go, moral outrage has plenty of room to resurface.

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