Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘gulag’

long walkFirst published in 1956, mine’s a used 2010 reprint in paperback, presumably intended to cash in on publicity for the Peter Weir movie, “The Way Back” – 2011 – and which is allegedly based on true events. It’s a best seller, half a million copies sold, and translated into 25 languages. But there’s a problem with it.

We begin with the narrator, Slavomir Rawicz, a Polish officer, wrongly arrested for spying by the Russians after the invasion of Poland in 1939. He’s tortured into signing a false confession which results in his being sentenced to 25 years hard labour in the infamous Gulag system and is sent to one of the remotest labour camps in northern Siberia from where he escapes with a group of fellow captives. But instead of heading east, the more obvious and shorter route to freedom, via a boat to Japan, they go south, walk four thousand miles, through Siberia, across the Gobi Desert, the Himalaya and eventually find sanctuary in British India.

Apart from being an epic of adventure and survival, this would be one of the earliest known accounts of life in the Gulags, perhaps the more famous being Alekzander Solzenystin’s “Day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch (1966)”, so it might be considered quite a find for anyone interested in that period of Soviet history. Solzenystin’s story, though based upon his own harrowing experiences in the Gulag around the same period, is sold purely as literary fiction, whereas the Long Walk is sold as heroic fact.

However,…

Rawicz’s arrest and torture, also his transportation by railway cattle-wagon to Siberia ring true enough, but his depiction of events at the camp began arouse suspicion, suddenly reading more like a boy’s own comic-book story, especially when held up against Solzenystin’s forensic descriptions of actual camp life in “Ivan Denisovitch”. Then we are sold a somewhat simplistic escape, implausibly aided by the commandant’s wife, to say nothing of being persuaded malnourished men could travel thirty miles a day, on foot, over trackless tundra in the teeth of a Siberian winter. And then there’s the eerie encounter with a couple of Yetis.

All of this gave me pause, so I set the book aside and did some digging.

Sure enough there’s been considerable controversy about the veracity of this story ever since publication. Ghost-written by Daily Mail reporter, Ronald Downing, the suspicion is that the pair have spun us all a bit of a yarn. Later documentary evidence suggests Rawicz was actually released from the Gulag in 1942, that while the early part of the book might be based upon the facts of his arrest and torture, the escape is pure fiction.

Or is it?

Well, here’s where we leave the text of the story and turn instead to the story of the story, as traced by researchers working on the film adaptation. They became aware of the controversy early on and wanted to get to the bottom of things, like was it a true story or not? Their researches duly turned up another man living in Cornwall called Witold Glinski. Glinski claims to have been the one who actually made the journey, that he never spoke a word of it to anyone, except to British officials on his arrival in India. The explanation for his silence, he said, was on account of one of his fellow escapees, a murderer who’d threatened him and, on settling in England, he’d not wanted to draw attention to himself for fear of his life.

On subsequent publication of Rawciz’s “true story”, Glinski recognised the gist of his own escape, including details of his companions, though with much added that was implausible. It was then he recalled being accosted by a pair of chancers back in the 1940’s, wanting to know how he came to England, and whom he suspects were actually Downing and Rawciz. He told them nothing but speculates they had somehow got hold of the transcript of his interview with officials at the Polish embassy, and wanted to pass the story off as Rawciz’s. That said there is no evidence to support Glinski’s claims either, so we’re still left wondering.

There is however tantalising evidence that someone did indeed make that incredible journey, this being from the account of a retired British intelligence officer who recalled interviewing a group of ragged men who had come out of the Himalaya, claiming to have escaped from Siberia, an account corroborated by a Polish engineer who had acted as translator.

While much has obviously been lost in the fog of war, on balance it seems likely the story is true at its heart, though it’s less likely we’ll ever know the real identities of the men who took part, or what happened to them afterwards. The only thing that seems certain from here is that Rawciz was not one of those men, and it’s for this reason his character was written out of the movie.

I didn’t finish the book, felt a bit cheated by it actually, and didn’t get past that encounter with the Yeti. Still, it’s a remarkable tale in many ways, though not for the obvious reasons.

Personally, I would rather have had Glinsky’s version of events.

Read Full Post »

IMG_20190412_223801

A day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 1918-2006 was a Russian writer, intellectual, and Nobel Laureate, also a decorated officer with the Soviet Army during the Second World War. He was arrested in 1945 for comments he made in a letter to a friend in which he criticised the prosecution of the war, and Stalin’s part in it. Although he counted himself a patriot and was loyal to the revolution, he was betrayed as a subversive and spent the next eight years in a prison system that amounted to slave labour, one in which millions perished. Solzhenitsyn survived and wrote about it, an act for which he was eventually exiled.

His magnum opus, a three volume work called the Gulag Archipelago, appeared in 1973. It was not intended as a political work, though it certainly earned him the rank of political dissident, and made him a fresh target for the Soviet authorities who even tried to poison him. It was more an historical expose and a careful analysis of the Gulag system, also a study of mankind, and of himself.

The work is important because Solzhenitsyn teaches us the Gulag and the system that gave rise to it is not a peculiarly Soviet thing, rather it’s something at the heart of us all. Call it a weakness or an inherent tendency, given the right circumstances, the Gulag can occur anywhere. Also, not only can we all fall victim to it, but – important point this – we can all fall in as perpetrators and accomplices.

Solzhenitsyn observed that evil could not simply be identified in a small percentage of the population, because then the bad people might easily be isolated from the rest of us, then destroyed and evil along with it. But it doesn’t work like that; evil persists throughout time; the camp-guards, the interrogators, the torturers, they could be any one of us, and the trick of evil is to prevent us from imagining a scenario whereby we might indeed be drawn into committing those extremes of harm to our fellow beings.

The Gulag system was a vast network of camps spread across the entire Soviet Union, and from which no one was safe. If labour was needed, quotas would be sent out, the state security apparatus would then pursue the necessary arrests, and victims would be found, guilt concocted as needs be and verified by confession signed under torture. Incarceration would then last eight, ten or twenty five years. Terms were nominal though and in reality many were worked to death in unimaginably harsh conditions.

We learned of the camps in 1966 on the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s first book, “A day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch.” This is a short book, but sharp, like a lance through the brain, and tells, as the title suggests, of just one day in the camp-life of prisoner Ivan Denisovitch. The men wake, they march out to work on building a power station, then they march back. Falsely accused of being a German spy, Denisovitch has lost everything, or has he? What is it that defines a human being and grants him purpose, and meaning? What is it that redeems him?

The story could merely have been a raging indictment of the system, which in part it is, but in the main it’s an observation of humanity, of its adaptation to extraordinarily harsh circumstances and how small things can take on a massive significance in a man’s life. On his return march, Denisovitch comes across a scrap of broken band-saw blade and smuggles it into camp. It’s a triumph, one that lights up his day, and he will spend the coming weeks painstakingly grinding it on a stone to fashion a knife – not to harm others, or to facilitate his escape, but merely because a knife is a useful tool to have in camp life, and under such reduced circumstances, it bestows more dignity on a man than a fancy car or a beautiful house.

Remarkably , “A day in the life” was published in Russia, with permission of the State. But by then Stalin was dead, and there was a change of mood, a certain rapprochement between the State and its people. But Solzhenitsyn was already working secretly on his next book, the altogether more explosive Gulag Archipelago.

The three volume, unabridged version is perhaps a little too much for the average reader, though an important source for scholars, in that it goes into great detail. It names names, places, dates. But there is also an “approved” abridged version, and this is more suited to the general reader. The book documents Solzhenitsyn’s own confinement, the horrors and the humiliations he both suffered and witnessed, also what he learned by a process of self reflection and from the observation of his fellow prisoners, how they coped, how they held body and soul together, how they protected their dignity. His conclusion was as profound as it was unexpected, that he could not view the Gulag as an alien system, one that had been unjustly imposed upon him by some external agency, that indeed he was in some way responsible, not only for his confinement within the system, but for the very existence of that system in the first place.

The psychoanalyst Carl Jung, warned us that man himself was the danger, not just some men but all men – that we carry within us the seed of our own destruction, that evil follows us around because we are unable to see it in our own hearts, and that without at least a rudimentary process of self reflection that dark seed will grow to do untold damage either to us, personally, or to those around us.

In the absence of religion, we think we can entrust the development of the psyche and the control of our excesses by a secular ideology, be that Marxism or Free Market Capitalism, but there’s something in us that seeks what, for want of a better term, we must call spiritual growth. There is a religious function within us that seeks knowledge of ourselves and our place in the universe. If ignored, we fall prey to the shadow forces within us; we are easily seduced, easily manipulated by the darker archetypal patterns of behaviour; a newspaper headline screams “death to the traitors”, and we see red, and wish death upon all traitors, however loosely they be defined. Only reflection bids us pause, bids us think, and grants sufficient space for the better side of our nature to win through.

Religion once fulfilled that role, but given the mess of the last few centuries it’s clear it didn’t do a very good job in sparing us from ourselves. In the absence of religion, psychoanalysis and various self help movements offer an alternative, but we’ve had a century of those and things only seem to be getting worse. Perhaps then evil is like any other pestilence that circles the world. It’s simply a fact of nature and, like Solzhenitsyn achieved, by a process of strenuous and unrelenting self analysis, all any of us can do is recognise the potential for evil in our own hearts and find the best way of subverting it, even if it takes us to the end of our days.

Read Full Post »