Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Forced Labour Camps In Russia (1963)

Book Review from the November 1963 issue of the Socialist Standard

So there were forced labour camps in Soviet Russia after all. Remember those days during Stalin's reign when this was hotly denied by the servile Communist parties, when even to suggest it was to get yourself called a liar, social fascist, reactionary imperialist, or whatever other term of abuse happened to be fashionable at the time? Well, that's all gone now that Alexander Solzhenitsyn has told his story.

His novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Gollancz, 18s.), describes the appalling conditions in one such camp, where the prisoners were made to toil over twelve hours a day outdoors despite the sub-zero temperatures of the Siberian winter, Their food rations were utterly inadequate, their clothing pitifully thin and ragged. It was indeed an achievement merely to survive from one day to the next.

This was one of many "special" camps, as they were known, set up by Stalin's Security Chief Beria (who was later executed when Khrushchev rose to power). It was organised for those serving from eight to twenty-five years under the notorious Article 58 of the old Criminal Code, but lucky was the man who served only the sentence originally imposed on him. For the authorities had a very convenient habit of adding another term quite arbitrarily, just as soon as the first one has expired. And then perhaps there was exile after that, if he was still alive.

There were many "crimes" for which he could be incarcerated. The hero—not really an inappropriate term—is sent for a ten year stretch on a trumped up charge of spying. Solzhenitsyn himself can speak with some authority here, because he spent eight years in a camp in Kazakhstan. His offence? Making remarks derogatory to Stalin.

This story first appeared in the Russian literary journal Novy Mir (New World) in November last year, and this in itself is significant of a trend in the Soviet Union since the death of Stalin. There has been a tendency to relax the iron fist somewhat, but although thousands of prisoners have been released and allowed to return home, it seems to be the first time that such writing has been allowed to be published. One might almost call it a tacit official admission of the existence of the labour camps.

But more than that, Khrushchev has striven to destroy the image of Stalin for ever, something he had to do if he was to consolidate his own power and gain support for the economic and political changes he knew must come. In the light of this, it was not surprising that Solzhenitsyn was allowed to publish his novel, although it was a sensation when it appeared and caused heated discussion and controversy throughout Russia.

Perhaps there will now be other such novels to push the lid a little further off the Soviet cauldron. Who knows, we may even get a glimpse of life in some of the camps which exist now in that unhappy country. Where else, we wonder, would the thousands of youngsters have gone after being torn from their homes and forcibly transported eastwards, following the 1956 Hungarian revolt? The Russian ruling class can be just as ruthless under Khrushchev, when their interests demand.

For the time being though, it is well to read this book and reflect on the horrors which capitalism is capable of inflicting on us. Solzhenitsyn is a promising writer who has a direct and simple, yet telling style, which even in the first few pages gives us a fair picture of the brutality and degradation of camp life. But perhaps the outstanding tragedy is that it has all been perpetrated in the name of Socialism so that, welcome though the truth now is, the job of the real Socialist is just as hard as ever.
E. T. C.

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