Saturday, July 23, 2011

Solzhenitsyn, a modern Cassandra

At long last, I have finally started to pore through The Gulag Archipelago, by Solzhenitsyn.

It begins with a chapter on the concept of arrest, and I am not sure it is possible to be anywise conscious of what is happening around us, today, and not get an icy chill in your veins upon reading this bit of history.  Just consider the following:

The kind of night arrest described is, in fact, a favorite, because it has important advantages. Everyone living in the apartment is thrown into a state of terror by the first knock at the door. The arrested person is torn from the warmth of his bed. He is in a daze, half-asleep, helpless, and his judgment is befogged. In a night arrest the State Security men have a superiority in numbers; there are many of them, armed, against one person who hasn't even finished buttoning his trousers. During the arrest and search it is highly improbable that a crowd of potential supporters will gather at the entrance. The unhurried, step-by-step visits, first to one apartment, then to another, tomorrow to a third and a fourth, provide an opportunity for the Security operations personnel to be deployed with the maximum efficiency and to imprison many more citizens of a given town than the police force itself numbers.

In addition, there's an advantage to night arrests in that neither the people in neighboring apartment houses nor those on the city streets can see how many have been taken away. Arrests which frighten the closest neighbors are no event at all to those farther away. It's as if they had not taken place. Along that same asphalt ribbon on which the Black Marias scurry at night, a tribe of youngsters strides by day with banners, flowers, and gay, untroubled songs.

But those who take, whose work consists solely of arrests, for whom the horror is boringly repetitive, have a much broader understanding of how arrests operate. They operate according to a large body of theory, and innocence must not lead one to ignore this. The science of arrest is an important segment of the course on general penology and has been propped up with a substantial body of social theory. Arrests are classified according to various criteria: nighttime and daytime; at home, at work, during a journey; first-time arrests and repeats; individual and group arrests. Arrests are distinguished by the degree of surprise required, the amount of resistance expected (even though in tens of millions of cases no resistance was expected and in fact there was none). Arrests are also differentiated by the thoroughness of the required search; by instructions either to make out or not to make out an inventory of confiscated property or seal a room or apartment; to arrest the wife after the husband and send the children to an orphanage, or to send the rest of the family into exile, or to send the old folks to a labor camp too.

Now, consider:

There are more than fifty thousand no-knock warrants in the US every year.  Fifty thousand.  That is over one hundred and thirty every day of the calendar year.  And that number is several years old, now.  In this country, where we moralize about other countries and their "police states", while denying the existence of our own.

The denials are loud.  They are numerous.  And they are spookily familiar, both in the types of excuses offered and the absurd tenacity with which people insist on the further empowerment of their attackers.  As if the War on (Some) Drugs has brought about any sort of measurable societal change other than the explosive growth of a police state (at absolutely staggering cost).

Solzhenitsyn again:

If...if... We didn't love freedom enough. And even more--we had no awareness of the real situation. We spent ourselves in one unrestrained outburst in 1917, and then we hurried to submit. We submitted with pleasure! (Arthur Ransome describes a workers' meeting in Yaroslavl in 1921. Delegates were sent to the workers from the Central Committee in Moscow to confer on the substance of the argument about trade unions. The representative of the opposition, Y. Larin, explained to the workers that their trade union must be their defense against the administration, that they possessed rights which they had won and upon which no one else had any right to infringe. The workers, however, were completely indifferent, simply not comprehending whom they still needed to be defended against and why they still needed any rights. When the spokesman for the Party line rebuked them for their laziness and for getting out of hand, and demanded sacrifices from them--overtime work without pay, reductions in food, military discipline in the factory administration--this aroused great elation and applause.) We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward.

Sure, that's Solzhenitsyn talking about Soviet Russia...but that icy tingle in your veins, that says he could be speaking today, about us, is there, isn't it?

For some years now I have regularly re-read Fahrenheit 451, perhaps once a year, and never fail to be amazed at how much it reads not like fiction, but like a depressing documentary--and moreso each time.  It has been my metaphorical standard.  The thing is, here I am beginning just the second chapter of Solzhenitsyn's most well-known work, reading passages like this:

It is well known that any organ withers away if it is not used. Therefore, if we know that the Soviet Security organs, or Organs (and they christened themselves with this vile word), praised and exalted above all living things, have not died off even to the extent of one single tentacle, but, instead, have grown new ones and strengthened their muscles--it is easy to deduce that they have had constant exercise.

I do not understand how any of my countrymen could possibly read things like this, within the context of the history that it describes, while also being aware of what has been happening here, and not feel alternating waves of icy chill and nausea at history in the very process of repeating itself.

I suspect I may be quoting a bit more of Mr. Solzhenitsyn as things, ah, "progress".  And I mean that in every possible entendre you can imagine.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've been reading that book as well.

I agree with you. We are inexorably heading there.