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Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Gulag Archipelago

The New York Times has a brilliant review by Edward Rothstein of a traveling exhibition on the Soviet gulags, exposing the outrageous attempt of some Neo-Soviet sympathizers and anti-Americans to rationalize the murder of 20 million Russians by Stalin’s work camps and direct executions. They are making bizarre claims such as that the plight of American women before receiving the vote is somehow similar to that of starving gulag prisoners, who scrambled in the ice to eat prehistoric amphibians. It’s must reading for all Russia watchers, who must ask themselves the question: If a Russian wrote “it’s a joke” on a ballot for president in 2008, because he had no real options and President Putin were going to be reelected to a third term regardless of the Constitution with a 70%+ majority, and if that Russian were arrested and sentenced to 8 years in prison, would anybody really be surprised? Would anybody really lift a finger to protect him? How different, if at all, is today’s Russia from Stalin’s Russia? How far are Russians, to put it bluntly, from having 10,000-year-old salamanders back on the menu? These neo-Soviet enablers are just the very folks this blog was born to offer battle. All like minded citizens are invited to join the fray. Apparently, there is not one single word in the exhibit asking whether Russia is now back on the road to the gulag archipelago. One question, La Russophobe notes, that even the review does not ask is how many Russians have seen an exhibit like this, however flawed.

Here is Rothstein's review:

An American-made shovel, two translucent toothbrushes, the Russian word for "comedy" — sometimes it is in the small things that large truths are found. For in a compact exhibition at Ellis Island devoted to Soviet-era prison camps — "Gulag: Soviet Forced Labor Camps and the Struggle for Freedom" — how much can possibly be shown to reflect the experiences of 18 million human beings who were imprisoned in these camps over the bloody course of the 20th century?

With the retreat of the cold war into memory, what can be done in so little space to give some sense of the kind of regime that created these slave-labor camps, beginning with Lenin's utopian calculus, climaxing with the megalomaniacal plottings of Stalin and still sputtering on until the Communist system itself began to splinter in the 1980's?

In "The Gulag Archipelago" — an epic account of the camps' world of death, pain and venality — even Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn could begin with only small things. A 1949 issue of the journal Nature, he recalls, told of the discovery of ancient creatures — salamanders — frozen in the ice of the Kolyma River. They were so well preserved that their flesh, tens of thousands of years old, was devoured by the excavators. "With relish," he writes.

What caught his attention, though, were not the well-preserved creatures that were found, but the fact that in that frozen wasteland, the excavations must have been done by prisoners in one of the most notorious of the Soviet Union's labor camps, where near-starvation did not permit much delicacy about paleontological research.

So look to the salamanders, objects that make the horror palpable. They are crucial in this exhibition, designed to be seen by visitors who have come to this island museum in celebration of very different kinds of displaced persons: immigrants who, with dedication and ambition, have sought better futures in the United States. An introductory panel explains that the National Park Service, which administers the Stature of Liberty and Ellis Island, collaborated with Amnesty International USA and the Gulag Museum at Perm-36, a former labor camp, to tell this story of repression and its legacy, even as a freer, more democratic society is being sought in Russia.

As it turns out, in this exhibition, perhaps because of some discomfort caused by the blunt force of this morality tale, small things tell large truths more plainly than larger arguments. Had it been even smaller, the exhibition would have been still more powerful.

Before considering its failings, though, begin, as this exhibition does, with the camps themselves. In the first part of the show, amid the photographs of laborers, the diagrams of living quarters, the pock-marked map showing the archipelago of camps, there are the relics. The shovel, for example, was provided by the United States to help the Soviet Union during World War II, but it was, like many other supplies, routed to the camps, where the glories of manual labor had been celebrated in the propaganda clips shown here on television monitors. Shovels like this one, found not far from where the prehistoric salamanders were devoured, were luxuries.

From 1931 to 1933, in fact, 100,000 prisoners were set to work using the crudest of hand tools to dig a 141-mile-long canal in 20 months that would link the White Sea and the Baltic Sea. The canal turned out to be too narrow and too shallow to serve much purpose, but it provided a propaganda bonanza for Stalin, supposedly demonstrating Soviet citizens working alongside one another, transforming the world.

There are also drawings here from Stalin-era camps, including one by Evfrosiniia Kersnovskaia, showing naked women being inducted into camp life, stumbling across the snow: "Above our heads the stars twinkled," the former prisoner writes, "below our bare feet lay frozen excrement."

Evidence of the "crimes" that led to such fates is also compelling. On a 1949 ballot on which citizens were supposed to proclaim their support for the single party candidate, Ivan Burylov, a beekeeper, had scrawled his intemperate commentary, "Comedy." It cost him eight years in a prison camp. As for the toothbrushes, they are relics from the 1960's and early 70's, when a husband and wife, both arrested as dissidents, could communicate only by inscribing such ordinary objects with nearly invisible messages of affection

So, in spareness and simplicity, the scale of the gulag is suggested. There are also a few displays showing how readily many in the former Soviet Union are now forgetting that past and resurrecting Stalin's reputation, while other displays show how the Perm-36 camp was turned into a museum to stave off those delusions.

Then something else happens. In the last third of the exhibition, the small objects disappear, and big concepts take their place. But in their way, they, too, seem eager to slight the gulag past.

The exhibition's text reads:

"Brutal systems have played a prominent role in many countries, including the United States. Although slavery ended after the American Civil War, its consequences persist. The repercussions of the Holocaust in Europe and apartheid in South Africa reverberate even today. Similarly, Russians face the legacy of the gulag. How can citizens in these countries face up to the horrors of the past?"

It turns out that the gulag museum is part of an association it helped establish in 1999, the International Coalition of Historic Site Museums of Conscience, described as "a network of organizations committed to teaching and learning how historic sites and museums can inspire social consciousness and action."

That coalition now has 14 sites, which range from a 19th-century workhouse in Britain to a slave house in Senegal, from the Theresienstadt concentration camp in the Czech Republic to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York. Not to be left out, the National Park Service has its own displays about "civic engagement" and points out that three of its sites are "accredited members of the coalition": the Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, N.Y.; the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site in Hyde Park, N.Y.; and the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta.

No doubt noble sentiments are at work in this roster, but as a result, all specificity and judgment disappears; conscience consumes everything and contains nothing. To make a grand rhetorical gesture, encompassing all human injustice when one particular example seems inconveniently egregious, has become a museum ritual, a political tic.

When I visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam several years ago, the somber concreteness of the Annex and the dread fate of its inhabitants were nearly erased by a final multimedia display in which the Holocaust was calculatedly eclipsed by invocations of every contemporary example of racial and social injustice the museum could formulate. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, in Cincinnati, did the same thing with American slavery, ending its account with a potpourri of international injustices, as if recruiting activists for a litany of causes.

In the gulag show, on a smaller scale, the approach is the same. The particulars of the past, so carefully presented, are suddenly tossed aside, and all differences in nature and scale are eliminated. Stalin really does get off easy. The coalition claims a higher moral vision. Actually, it cheapens injustice, leaving everyone equally guilty and equally innocent. Are 19th-century English workhouses and New York tenements comparable in any way to the gulag? Is the plight of women before receiving the vote similar to the starving of Kolyma prisoners, who scrambled in the ice to eat prehistoric amphibians?

Harvard University's National Resource Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies is developing curriculum packets for this exhibition. (After July 4, it will go to Boston University, and then to Independence, Calif.; Atlanta; Poughkeepsie, N.Y.; and Washington.) The educational material I was sent is careful and informed, but here and there are whiffs of this homogenized conscience:

"Are there lessons to be learned from a study of the gulag that might apply to prison systems in countries like the United States?" the curriculum proposes asking students. "For example, should prisoners in this country be forced to work jobs such as picking up trash on the highway?"

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