The Compassionate, Nonviolent Gulags
What do you think of when you read the term “gulag”? Do you think of torture? Death? Mass incarceration? A reign of terror?
Or a compassionate, nonviolent “reeducation program”?
Apparently, that is what some students in a prominent London university believe the Soviet Union’s gulags were like. The lgbtq Society at Goldsmiths University in London went on a pretty bizarre Twitter rant on September 10 about how the gulags were actually great.
They tweeted: “Here’s a mini thread to clarify what a ‘gulag’ is, for those who only have heard it being used as a buzzword and why sending a bigot to one is actually a compassionate, non-violent course of action.”
The tweet series continued:
So … gulags. First myth to debunk: “u work until u die in gulags!!!!” The Soviets did away with life sentences and the longest sentence was 10 years. Capital punishment was reserved for the most heinous, serious crimes.
Why? The penal system was a rehabilitary one and self supporting, a far cry from the Western, capitalist notion of prison. The aim was to correct and change the ways of “criminals.” If it couldn’t be done in 10 years, it couldn’t be done at all.
Much like wider Soviet society, everyone who was “able” to work did so at a wage proportionate to those who weren’t incarcerated and, as they gained skills, were able to move up the ranks and work under less supervision.
Educational work was also a prominent feature of the Soviet penal system. There were regular classes, book clubs, newspaper editorial teams, sports, theatre & performance groups.
So according to the Goldsmith University lgbtq Society, the gulags were a summer-camp-like system of reeducation where people were paid well, had a good life, and enjoyed art and culture.
When I read this story, it was hard to know whether to laugh or be angry. Their reasoning was so bizarre that I had to wonder if they were joking. But if you read that series of tweets, it doesn’t seem like it. Since then, the group has taken the tweets down, and the university’s student union has apologized. But as far as I can tell, the lgbtq Society was serious about this. Its members genuinely believe that the Soviet gulags were nice, happy prisons.
I don’t know where they got that idea. They must have gotten it from somewhere—probably their professors. They certainly didn’t get it from studying the true history of the gulags.
I hope that only a tiny minority of people today are as extreme as this lgbtq group at Goldsmiths University. But consider the growing socialist movement in the United Kingdom and United States. Consider politicians like Jeremy Corbyn and John MacDonald who are basically out-and-out Communists. Consider the rise of socialism in America, with people like Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. The vast majority of people who support those politicians probably still know that the gulags were horrific. But if we understood this history better, these people would have zero support.
Editor in chief Gerald Flurry wrote in an August 2008 Trumpet article titled “Remember Solzhenitsyn’s Warning”:
Few people are aware of the flood of horror and bloodshed that started after the 1917 Russian Revolution and continued until Stalin’s death in 1953. The Communist regime caused the deaths of about 66 million people from 1917 to 1953—a period of 36 years! (That figure does not include the 31 million who died in World War ii—about one fifth of their population.) The Soviet Union was slaughtering its own people.
One prisoner by the name of Shostakovich gave this testimony: “I was remembering my friends, and all I saw was corpses, mountains of corpses. I’m not exaggerating, I mean mountains. … I’m grieving all the time.”
This history is worth looking at because it gives us a powerful warning about what is happening in the U.S. and UK right now.
Here is a look at the facts, to clarify what a gulag is.
The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University sponsored a project titled Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives. This presentation, which is available online, was backed by serious and credible bodies like the National Endowment for the Humanities and the United States Department of State. It delves into the history of the gulags, providing firsthand accounts of life in these forced labor camps.
One section of the project gives the individual stories of some of those who were sent to gulags. These were ordinary people—everyday men and women who were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, who had the wrong family or political associations, or who said the wrong things to the wrong people. Some were turned in by government officials; some were turned in by friends. Some were turned in by their own children. Some simply disappeared one night and were never seen in their hometown again. Some received 25-year sentences in the gulags for their “crimes.”
Olga Adamova-Sliozberg was arrested for being the wife of a political prisoner. Nina Pavlovna Aminova was arrested for criticizing Joseph Stalin and the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky in a private conversation with her co-workers. Anna Andreeva spent nine years in a gulag because her husband publicly criticized the government. She was interrogated for weeks and not allowed to sleep. Susanna Pechuro was sent to the gulag as a 17-year-old schoolgirl for reading banned books. Alla Tumanova was also arrested and sent to the gulag as a 17-year-old because she was a member of an anti-Soviet youth group.
George Bien was arrested at age 16 for owning a radio set with earphones, which was deemed suspicious. Alexander Dolgun, a U.S. citizen working at the United States Embassy in Moscow, was arrested for being a “socially dangerous element.” Gustav Herling, a Polish man, was sent to the gulags for trying to illegally cross over Soviet territory. Jacques Rossi, a Frenchman, was a committed Communist who became a secret agent for the Soviet government in his 20s. He was later arrested and sent to the gulag on charges of espionage for France, England and the United States.
Thomas Sgovio moved from the U.S. to the Soviet Union when his father was deported for being a Communist. Years later, Sgovio was arrested and sent to the gulag for trying to return to the United States. Lev Razgon, a writer, was sent to the gulag for “spreading slanderous rumors.”
Edward Buca was sent to the gulag because he fought for Poland. By the end of World War ii, Russia was technically an ally of Poland against Germany. But after the Iron Curtain came down on Eastern Europe after the war, huge numbers of Polish soldiers like Buca were punished and sent to the gulag.
What about the great, educational, well-paid work in the gulags? Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives says this about the work in these labor camps:
Prisoners performed back-breaking physical labor in inhospitable climates and received food rations that barely sustained their nutritional needs. …
Armed guards and attack dogs accompanied many prisoners’ daily march to their gulag worksite. Icy winds battered their poorly clothed and barely fed bodies. Prisoners will die this day digging in the mines. Prisoners will die this day digging a 140-mile canal with the most primitive tools. Prisoners will die in the forest and in construction. Only the lucky will avoid hard labor in a workshop, a cafeteria or an office.
Gulag labor was inefficient and often lethal. Officials distributed food according to labor output, forcing prisoners to work long, hard hours trying to complete often impossible quotas, so that they might receive a full food ration. But even full rations often failed to provide enough calories to ensure health and survival. Exhaustion and starvation constantly accompanied prisoners. Many returned from work dead—carried on the backs of their fellow prisoners who then had to extend their workday to dig graves for the fallen.
Let’s look at some statistics about these prison camps. The Black Book of Communism contains some astonishing numbers. According to their rough estimates, on Jan. 1, 1935, there were nearly 1 million prisoners in the gulag system. By early 1941, that had doubled to nearly 2 million. Cumulatively, 7 million people entered the gulag system between 1934 and 1941.
During the 1930s, there were 720,000 executions in the camps, 680,000 of which took place between 1937–1938. There were 300,000 known deaths in the gulags between 1934 and 1940. Those are just the reported deaths; most deaths were not reported. There were another 600,000 registered deaths of deportees, refugees and “specially displaced.” More than 2 million people were forcibly moved, deported or exiled from the Soviet Union in this time period.
Does that sound “compassionate,” “nonviolent” or “self-supporting” to you?
Many Days, Many Lives estimates that 1.6 million people died in the gulags, although the real death toll is probably much higher:
[C]amp authorities had many ways to hide true death figures, including releasing prisoners who were on the verge of dying. In this way, a prisoner reduced to the point of death by labor and starvation would die outside the camp and thus be excluded from official gulag mortality statistics. Many of the unmarked graves will never be found. …
Millions of people did survive the gulag. Whether among the 20–40 percent of the camp population released on a yearly basis throughout the Stalin era, or among the 2–3 million who went home after Stalin died, perhaps as many as 16 million who entered the gulag came out alive.
But the gulag even destroyed the lives of those who survived it. Families were torn apart when spouses were pressured to divorce their “enemy” relatives. Children were taken away from prisoner mothers, often never to be reunited again. The gulag exacted a physical and psychological toll from which many would never recover.
This is something that happened to millions of ordinary people! These weren’t just senior politicians, army generals or hardened criminals. You could have had a conversation at work one day, then found yourself in a gulag the next day. Many Days, Many Lives continues:
Upon release from the gulag, many inmates were denied permission to return to their former homes and were forced either to live in remote exile or to live no fewer than 100 kilometers from the Soviet Union’s largest cities. With a notation of their imprisonment in their official identity documents, former gulag inmates were discriminated against in employment and access to housing. Government officials, fellow citizens and even former friends treated them as pariahs, greeting them with suspicion at best, hatred at worst.
Socialism gives vast amounts of power to the government. It calls for nationalizing big industries, exactly like Sen. Elizabeth Warren is advocating in the U.S. The government takes control over all business. This is considered a good thing because the government will be benevolent and ensure everyone is equal, we are promised.
Socialists will put forward a compassionate argument. Everyone has a human right to eat, they say. Thus the government should ensure everyone has enough to eat. But give the government power over the food, and you have given it power to decide who should not eat. Give someone that power, and they will misuse it.
Look at the example of the Holodomor, the deliberate starvation of millions of people in Soviet Ukraine in the early 1930s. Stalin decided that the kulaks, a class of relatively wealthy landowners in Ukraine, were enemies of the state. So he declared that they must be “deprived of the means of existence.” They were. Soldiers destroyed their farms and denied them food.
Soon, the war of kulaks expanded. Stalin feared that Ukraine would rebel against the Soviet Union, so he decided to starve the Ukrainians into submission. He systematically took away food and the means of growing food from these Ukrainian farmers, until the whole country of Ukraine was literally starving.
In Ukranian, Holodomor means “murder by hunger.” By using food as a weapon, Stalin killed more people in Ukraine than Hitler killed in the Holocaust! Nazi Germany built gas chambers and more to kill 6 million Jews. But under communism, you don’t even need to do that. Government control of the economy means you simply don’t feed those you want to erase.
This kind of terror is needed for communism to function. It doesn’t work without it. Under communism, there is no incentive to work. You receive the same result whether you go to work and waste time or whether you work hard. The motive of building a better life for yourself and your family and those around you is explicitly excluded in communism. In its place, the motivation is fear. When Nikita Khrushchev succeeded Stalin, he was less harsh than his predecessor. The fear subsided. But without that motivation, production fell and the economy stalled.
America’s Founding Fathers understood that this proclivity to abuse power is a fundamental flaw in human nature. George Washington warned about the selfishness of human nature: “It is vain to exclaim against the depravity of human nature on this account; the fact is so, the experience of every age and nation has proved it.” Instead he warned that “no institution” that refused to take the selfishness of human nature into account “can succeed.” The great political thinkers of Britain’s history understood this. The Bible teaches this even more forcefully—Jeremiah 17:9 tells us that human nature is evil. Verse 5 says, “Cursed be the man that trusteth in man ….”
Britain’s and America’s political systems were developed with human nature in mind. As Washington said, history teaches us that human nature does not behave benevolently when granted enormous power over others.
“[H]istory is the most important subject that you can study,” said Mr. Flurry in last weekend’s Key of David program. He added that “without a solid understanding of history, I believe I can prove to you, that that causes people to be much more easily deceived.”
Today, we see a generation of college students so ignorant of history they can praise the gulags themselves. This generation of college students has been duped by so many bizarre beliefs, many even more novel and off the wall than communism.
This is why a lack of understanding of history is dangerous. Without this context for our lives, we will believe all kinds of strange things—even if they have been disproved in the past.
But the ultimate understanding of history comes from the Bible. It is the only source for the real foundations of our nations and of this world. That is the history we really need to be grounded in to be immune from the fables of mankind. For more on this subject, be sure to watch Mr. Flurry’s Key of David program “The Ultimate Understanding of History.”