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From the Gulag to the Killing Fields
Personal Accounts of Political Violence And Repression in Communist States
Edited By Paul Hollander
ISI Books
HC, 845 pp, US$35.00
ISBN: 1-9322-3678-3

Omnibus of evil

By John W. Nelson
web posted July 10, 2006

From the Gulag to the Killing FieldsLong a committed anti-Communist, William F. Buckley Jr. once asked, "How many books about the horrors of life under Communism am I supposed to read? How many ought I to read?" That is to say, once you know that Marxism leads inevitably to the Gulag, how many descriptions of the Gulag do you need? Thanks to the efforts of Paul Hollander, the answer to Mr. Buckley's question is now: one.

At over 800 pages, From the Gulag to the Killing Fields rivals 1999's Black Book of Communism in both size and importance. But whereas the latter buttressed its indictment with a wealth of data gathered from newly opened Soviet archives to present a kind of "balance sheet" of government-sponsored crime, Hollander's work focuses less on the raw facts and figures of human suffering (numbing in its magnitude) and more on the individual circumstances of life under totalitarian rule, the objective being to "illuminate repression in Communist states through the recollected personal experiences of the surviving victims." The result is a chilling anthology as literary as it is ghastly – and one that immediately clears the air of any lingering works of socialist realism to say nothing of less "artful" forms of persuasion regularly on offer from the true-believers on the Left desperate to convince themselves of the enduring value of the Marxist creed. [1]

While all of the excerpted works have previously appeared in print, Hollander's service lies in bringing them together for the first time in one volume to form a veritable canon of dissident literature. (I hesitate to write "portable.") The bulk of the anthology is devoted, not surprisingly, to life in the former Soviet Union and its East European satellites. And if many of these "counterrevolutionary" writings (to use the Communist catch-all) are already well-known – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Janusz Bardach's Man is Wolf to Man, Arthur London's The Confession, to name just a few – many more deserve to be.

Paul Ignotus's Political Prisoner, for example, recounts the brutality of the Hungarian political police in whose headquarters "bodies of the victims were made liquid with an acid and then let down the drains into the sewage of the city." Mike Dennis's history of the Stasi (one of the few selections that's not a personal memoir) reveals that the DDR's state security forces – "worse than the Gestapo" in the opinion of Simon Wiesenthal – shared another passion besides sadism, namely, collecting and cataloging every scrap of information they could find, a practice that reached its apex in a library of smells: "a few hundred glass jars containing bits of dissidents' dirty underwear, so trained dogs could sniff and match the smell to an antigovernment pamphlet found on the sidewalk." Anatoly Marchenko's My Testimony vividly describes the inhuman conditions in the Soviet labor camps which drove many prisoners to acts of self-mutilation to evade the day's work detail; when camp surgeons weren't tending to slit wrists, removing ground glass from eyes, or opening up stomachs to extract spoons, barbed wire, or whatever else could be ingested, they were busy removing tattoos in a manner that gives new meaning to socialized medicine:

"All they did was cut out the offending patch of skin, then draw the edges together and stitch them up. I remember one con who had been operated on three times in that way. The first time they had to cut out a strip of skin from his forehead with the usual sort of inscription in such cases: ‘Kruschchev's Slave.' The skin was then cobbled together with rough stitches. He was released and again tattooed his forehead: ‘Slave of the USSR.' Again he was taken to hospital and operated on. And again, for a third time, he covered his whole forehead with ‘Slave of the CPSU [Communist Party of the Soviet Union].' This tattoo was also cut out at the hospital and now, after three operations, the skin was so tightly stretched across his forehead that he could no longer close his eyes. We called him ‘The Stare'."

Beyond the descriptions of the routine physical and mental torture, a recurrent theme in many of the accounts is the typical event preceding the prisoner's journey to the camps: the sudden arrest by the secret police, a fate which could befall anyone for any reason, including party loyalists (exemplified by Stalin's show trials of the 1930s.) The arrests were followed by interrogations that continued unabated for months or even years – as long as it took to reach their predetermined end: a signed "confession" detailing crimes never committed and naming recruiters or accomplices whom the accused never had (things which became easier to "remember" the longer they were deprived of food and sleep or subjected to less mundane forms of coercion.)

As the authors of an included study on the Soviet purges and forced confessions explain, "the collection of ‘evidence' incriminating nearly every inhabitant of the country, and in particular everyone in an important position, was not just an arithmetical consequence of the methods employed; it was also a deliberate NKVD [the secret police from the 1930s through WWII] policy, providing a pretext for the arrest of any Soviet citizen at any time." (Soviet humor of the period has a new prisoner lamenting his sentence to a more seasoned cellmate: "Twenty-five years!" he cries. "For nothing!" "Nonsense," replies the other prisoner. "For nothing you get ten years.")

Every anthology invites criticism of the editor's selections, but one would be hard-pressed to find fault with any of the works Hollander has assembled. Those familiar with the long history of Soviet Communism will have their own ideas on what readings would have made a worthy addition – Natan Sharansky's Fear No Evil comes to mind –, but it would take more than one volume of this size to do justice to the dissident literature of the Soviet bloc, as Hollander knows all too well. That, however, is not his intent. As the sweep of the title indicates, From the Gulag to the Killing Fields collects personal accounts from every country that experienced the forceful imposition of Communism and suffered its murderous consequences, and readers will have little cause for complaint with the material Hollander has chosen to represent China, Cuba, Cambodia, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, and North Korea (although in the last case, there is still only one memoir of that country's prison camps available in English: Kang Chol-Hwan's moving The Aquariums of Pyongyang.)

Most striking about many of these accounts is how closely practices in other countries resembled the Soviet model. Jorge Valls's tale of his time in a Cuban prison, Twenty Years and Forty Days, emphasizes the authority of the state security forces: "They are the ones who decide whether a person will be investigated, arrested, kidnapped, or executed. A Cuban citizen can be arrested anywhere, at any time, without anyone knowing, and kept locked away at State Security for a few hours or a few years." In Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk, Palden Gyatso describes the interrogations conducted by the Chinese Communist officials who took over his monastery. "Once accused," he writes, "there was no defense." Pressured to denounce his teacher as a spy, he quickly realized that "it did not matter to the Party whether the confession was genuine or not. All that mattered was that it proved to the Party that one more enemy of the people had been eliminated."

Conditions in the Chinese labor and "reeducation" camps (Lao Gai) were no better than those in the Soviet Gulags and often quite worse. Pu Ning's Red in Tooth and Claw tells of the regular incidents of cannibalism in the camps during the famine years (and the slightly less repellent practice of scooping waste from the latrines "to pick out the undigested grain that remained in the excrement.") The most disturbing accounts by far, however, are those from Cambodia, where in their own quest to create the "new man" the gleeful killers of the Khmer Rouge had stripped state-sanctioned brutality of any didactic pretense ("violence with a higher purpose" in Hollander's derisive phrasing) and conducted a nightmarish campaign of levelling butchery fully in accord with the Party's avowal that each person was like "one grain of rice in a huge bowl – no different from any other grain and insignificant by itself." So much for hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, rearing cattle in the evening…

Considering the subject matter, I trust I won't be misunderstood when I say that none of the excerpts in From the Gulag to the Killing Fields makes for enjoyable reading. The same cannot be said for Hollander's superb introductory essay. To describe it as required reading would be to resort to a cliché, but the required reading list of many a high-school student could benefit from any essay that addresses so well a subject about which so many know so little. Hollander's own account of an informal poll he took in September of 2000 at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (where he is professor emeritus of sociology) attests to as much: not one student in a class of 300 had been taught about the history of Communist repression in high school, and just four of them had even heard the word "Gulag." (One shudders to think how many students know the word now only in conjunction with fevered denunciations of Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib.)

The central theme in Hollander's introduction is the troubling history of the West's ongoing confrontation with Communism. From the U.N.'s prohibition of the sale of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago in bookstores on its premises during the 1970s – the same august institution that failed to pass a resolution condemning the Khmer Rouge but sets its sights on Israel quicker than you can say "Zionism is racism" – to Nicholas Kristof's wariness in the New York Times regarding the veracity of the tales told by North Korean refugees in the mid-1990s, the tendency to downplay, disregard, or even excuse Communism's "revolutionary excesses" still persists. (Says Hollander: "Mr. Kristof evidently forgot or never learned that refugee reports of Communist repression proved to be accurate in virtually all cases over a long period of time.")

For Hollander the larger issue is the basic lack of awareness – or, sadly, interest – in the West regarding the inherent criminal dimension of Communist regimes, and he illustrates this by contrasting the contemporary reception of Communism with the other scourge of the twentieth century: Nazism (an equation which roiled the Party faithful in France when it appeared in The Black Book of Communism.) Yes, he admits, there were "morally significant difference[s] between the Nazi and Communist approach to liquidating undesirable groups," but there were many similarities as well, and it does nothing to either diminish the uniqueness of the Holocaust or redeem elements of National Socialism to recognize that the scale of mass murder committed under the hammer and sickle was greater than that carried out under the swastika. And yet, Communism remains morally defensible and intellectually fashionable (in all senses of the word) for many who would never dream of mining Nazism for nuggets of political wisdom. As Hollander observed in The National Interest, "academics today are not attempting to parse the populist elements of Nazism from its genocidal practices in the way ideologues cull communism's egalitarian message from its sordid applications."

Having escaped the horrors of Communism in his native Hungary, Hollander has always had more than just a scholarly interest in his subject, which explains the reasons and the passion behind his work. In his biographical introduction to The Truth That Killed by Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov (best remembered today by his murder on a London street corner with a poison-tipped umbrella courtesy of the Bulgarian secret police), he chides those intellectuals who believe that "Marxism was a noble theory poorly implemented." In contrast, he points to Markov, who wrote with a conviction born of experience: "I know of no other political religion which has had a stronger impact on the baser human instincts and passions, which has given such encouragement to human vice generally, as the Communist ideology." Fortunately for us, Hollander has a similar message to tell.


[1] Hollander tackled this lot earlier this year in The National Interest (see "Clinging to Faith." Spring 2006, 107-113.) Among the leftist luminaries cited are Princeton's Cornel West ("Marxist thought becomes even more relevant after the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe than it was before.") and historian Eric Hobsbawm, who famously admitted that even if he had known that "millions of people were dying in the Soviet experiment," his support for it would not have wavered since "the chance of a new world being born on great suffering would still have been worth backing." (If Hollander hasn't read Mark Goldblatt's impressions of the last MLA convention, he'll be chagrined – but by no means surprised – to learn of the "highly credentialed academic" who thinks "the term ‘Stalinism' has gotten a bad rap and needs to be reclaimed by the intellectual Left." Good luck with that.)

John W. Nelson can be reached at jwnelson2@hotmail.com.

Buy From the Gulag to the Killing Fields at Amazon.com for only $22.05 (37% off)

Other related essays:

  • Where death lives by Steven Martinovich (August 8, 2005)
    Kang Chol-Hwan's The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag is a powerful indictment of a nation that has essentially made the concept of shared humanity illegal, writes Steven Martinovich

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