I don’t remember learning about the gulag system in school – at least, not in any real, informative way. Occasionally, someone would throw out a sensationalist number, saying something along the lines of “Stalin was responsible for the deaths of 12 million Soviet citizens” and might follow it up with “through the use of the gulag system.” What was the gulag system? No clue. I’m sure at some point someone must have called them prison or labor camps and said that political prisoners were sent there (along with any other criminal, dissident, or unfortunate soul), but I honestly don’t remember that much context. It wasn’t even until this past week that I learned the word “gulag” is actually an acronym. I thought it was a real word.
Reading Gulag Voices: An Anthology, edited by Anne Applebaum, was a complete shock. I’ve been doing research on the Soviet Union for the past year and lived in Ukraine for two years so I knew something about the Soviet Union’s history of cruelty and disregard for human life, but I had no idea the gulag was so horrible. I had formed a mental picture of people being rounded up locally, given their sham trials, and then shipped off to Siberia where they worked. Sure, they couldn’t leave, and, yes, they were prisoners, but for some reason I thought their lack of liberty was their worst deprivation. It never occurred to me that every waking moment of their lives was brutality. That they would be given food in proportion to how much they could work (and if they got sick, would be given less and less and less). That women in mostly-male camps would be subjected to a line of orderly rapes. That children born in the camps would be denied human interaction and tied in place. That officials on the outside would pressure families to give up on the people inside the system. That the deaths of 25 – 30 people a night was common and unworthy of comment. I just never put together why millions would die in these camps. I couldn’t imagine such vast, state-sanctioned indifference to human suffering.
As a white, middle-class citizen of the United States, I have an almost innate trust in my government and our treatment of people, especially US citizens. Aging has mostly been one shock after another from learning that I actually do have white privilege to understanding that we’ve been indoctrinated into supporting our country to finding out that as private citizens we are basically at the mercies of people with more clout, more money, and more guns – and that we’re expected to respect and support those people. It has been a terrifying and disabusing education.
G. Willow Wilson’s memoir The Butterfly Mosque was yet another such education, especially in the section where she talks about being targeted by Homeland Security. Sometime in 2005, Ms. Wilson was identified as a potential terrorist threat, probably because she was a moderate journalist who had converted to Islam and was living in Cairo with her Egyptian husband. At least two of her close friends were interrogated by the FBI, and all of their phones and emails were tapped. Upon coming home to the US in the summer of 2005, she had to put together a call-list for her friends and families to use in case she was forcibly detained. Upon arriving to customs, two strange and as-yet unexplained events occurred:
As I stood there, a man in a camel-colored trench coat walked by, like some noir archetype, and without pausing took a picture of me with his cell phone. For a split second our eyes met and I wondered if I should say something. But he turned away and continued briskly down the corridor. It was so bizarre I wondered if I had imagined it. I was still feeling dazed when my turn came at passport control. I handed my documents over to the man working at the booth in front of me. He ran my passport, looked at the computer screen, frowned, looked up at me, looked back at the computer screen, and said, “Whoa.” I felt a stab of nausea: this was it. But the man simply asked me a series of questions about my residency in Egypt, stamped my passport, and let me through. (pg 223 – 224)
As Ms. Wilson says elsewhere in her memoir, she had always felt safe and protected as a US citizen, and it had never occurred to her that her own government might target her. It was so disorientating and unsettling that she had a series of violent nightmares, among other problems.
Ms. Wilson and the authors of the essays in Gulag Voices share several similarities. They are educated. They are literate. They are keen observers of the world around them. And, by and large, they didn’t do anything wrong. In fact, many of them tried to help the people around them and do good. And yet they were still targeted by the state.
It is terrifying to think that at any moment your government can declare you a threat and take care of you – and that you’ll have no means to stop them. Sure, you can write letters and go on a hunger strike like some men in Anatoly Marchenko’s essay “The Cooler” did, but the official answer will be, “Your protest is unjustified… You have made a complaint, you are complaining about us to the higher authorities. Well, you can write away – it’s your right. But all the same it is we who will be examining your complaint.” (Gulag Voices, pg 179) How can you defend yourself when those persecuting you are those who are supposed to be (and in fact are the only ones who can be) protecting you?
US citizens, especially white US citizens, think that as long as we don’t do anything wrong we will be protected. We still believe the lie that only those who do bad will be punished while those who work hard will be rewarded. It is becoming increasingly more difficult to believe that lie. Look at corporations and Congressmen calling people demanding a higher minimum wage lazy. Look at the state of Tennessee, who demanded that people on welfare be drug-tested (an astonishing less than 1% were found to be taking recreational drugs). Look at the CIA Torture Report, which blatantly disregarded human rights and committed violations that were punished during the Nuremburg Trials. Look at the NYPD, who refused to do their jobs in December 2014 because New York’s mayor sympathized with the harassment black youth face by police officers. Look at West Virginia, who this week tried to pass HB 2881, which would have nullified all existing LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination ordinances and resolutions and made any future efforts of local government to protect LGBT people from discrimination illegal (Thankfully, due in large part to community outrage, it was suspended indefinitely and basically killed.). Look at the controversy over net neutrality and how, even though it was upheld this week, you already have corporations like Verizon throwing temper tantrums and trying to recruit congressmen to bypass the FCC. The people running our country, those who should have our best interests in mind, are currently trying to undermine our civil liberties, our constitutional rights, and our physical well being. We are currently on the edge of a dictatorial and oppressive state where you can be locked away or killed just because some authority figure doesn’t like you. I’ll say it again: it’s terrifying.
As our leaders and authority figures commit ever more shady and harmful actions, reading books like Gulag Voices and The Butterfly Mosque becomes even more important. They become not the idle intellectual exercise of bored and voyeuristic intelligentsia but near-manuals on what to expect and how to react to it. They are the signal-light that tells us we’ve been violated and beaten down. They put into context how wrong our world is and, with any luck, how to get around it: how to be sneaky when necessary, how courage and insolence can open doors, how to make life-saving connections, and how to save yourself when the world you trusted betrays you. They show us that refuge and freedom are a luxury and that there are some people who have never had them and never aspired to have them.* They show us how far we can fall if we do not speak up early enough.
* This line was paraphrased from The Butterfly Mosque, pg. 222.