Gulag Day
By: Jamie Glazov
Thursday, September 12, 2002

How should we commemorate the victims of communism?  The latest in our series of Jamie Glazov symposiums.

An initiative to establish an International Memorial Gulag Day is presently under way. For the first time in history, a date will be chosen in which the millions of victims of socialism will be remembered world-wide. Frontpage Symposium has invited a distinguished panel of five experts to discuss the significance of Gulag Day. The five are Vladimir Bukovsky, who spent twelve years in Soviet prisons, labor camps and psychiatric hospitals for his fight for freedom, and whose works include To Build a Castle and Judgement in Moscow; Eduard Kuznetsov, who spent most of the 1960s and 1970s in Soviet prisons for writing forbidden prose and who, in June 1970, was arrested for "treason" after attempting to highjack a Soviet plane to Israel; Yuri Yarim-Agaev, who, despite ongoing KGB harassment and detention, actively participated in dissident activities, including the campaigns in defense of Sharansky, Orlov, Sakharov and other dissidents; Paul Hollander, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and author of Political Pilgrims, Anti-Americanism and most recently Discontents: Postmodern and Postcommunist; and Richard Pipes, a Professor Emeritus at Harvard, who is one of the world's leading authorities on Soviet history. He is the author of 18 books, the most recent being Communism: A History (Randolm House, 2001).

The symposium interlocutor is Frontpage Magazine's associate editor, Jamie Glazov.

Question #1: Gentlemen, what is Gulag Day? What do you think is, or should be, its main significance?

Kuznetsov: The main significance of Gulag Day is to immortalize the memory of the victims of communist regimes. It means that it's not just enough to declare that some appointed day (let's say November 7, the day that Lenin signed the decree institutionalising concentration camps) is Gulag Day. Instead, it should signal the obligation to start establishing the memorial of all victims of communist terror, which must include all kinds of documentation, the deconstruction of the models of concentration camps, the names of victims and so on.

Hollander: Of course having Gulag Day — especially if it is recognised by some important body/ authority (i.e. UN, U.S. Congress etc.) would be most useful to remind international public opinion of its existence.

Yarim-Agaev: At the moment the role of Gulag Day will be more proactive - to remind people about an unfinished business of finishing with communism. Later it will hopefully turn into a commemoration day for the victims of communism and into in a constant reminder of the tragic past which shall never return.

Bukovsky: Contrary to what one might expect, the idea of establishing an International Gulag Day was suggested not by any former Gulag's inmate, nor by any Russian, Pole, Hungarian, Czech or Chinese, but by an Italian organization Comitatus pro Libertatibus, The Freedom Committees, a group of Italian intellectuals with libertarian views. Like so many other people today, they felt the crimes of communism were neither universally condemned, nor even sufficiently remembered at present.

Furthermore, we all share an uneasy feeling that it happened not by an accident or default: the present-day Establishment, be it in the West or in the East, is doing its best to suppress public memory of communist Gulag, either by silencing down the truth, or by promoting some blatantly revisionist distortions of the 20th century history. So, I guess, our Italian friends thought that annual commemoration of Gulag will serve as a kind of antidote, at the very least helping the younger generations to focus their attention on the facts so carefully hidden from them.


Question #2: Do you agree that the global purpose of establishing the Gulag day should be promoting the understanding that the Gulag is an inalienable and even a fundamental part of any communist regime? In other words, Gulag Day must not be limited only to the Soviet experiment, but to every socialist experiment. Right?

Kuznetsov: Absolutely. Gulag day must represent the victims of all socialist atrocities.

Hollander: I agree that forced labor camps were essential parts of most communist systems at any rate during much of their existence. They served both political and economic purposes: intimidation, elimination of potential opposition and cheap labor.

Yarim-Agaev: Gulag is a fundamental fact of any communist system. The history says it. It also follows from the uniformity of the totalitarian system, — if you have something in one of those countries you must have it in any other. Communism is absolutely identical in the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Korea, and will be the same in any other country, which, God forbid, may decide to install this system. And I can guarantee that they will have their Gulag. Hence the Gulag Day must not be limited to the Soviet Union.

I also suggest limiting our discussion to communism no matter to what extent it is related to socialism in general, and how much the members of this panel disagree with the latter. Our goal should be the universal condemnation and prohibition of communism. Communism should be declared a totally unacceptable political system no matter how it comes to power, whether by a violent coup or a majority vote. By itself this would be a dramatic result with the enormous political consequences. That is why it will be so hard to achieve it. Yet, I believe that this task is feasible and fully justifiable. I cannot say it about socialism per se. And for all practical purposes of making our world better, the universal condemnation and prohibition of communism would mean much more than hundreds of debates about disadvantages of socialism.

Bukovsky: Of course, you are right. This is why we all agree that remembering the results of that experiment is so important, and will be so relevant in the decades to come. One hopes that those enormous human sacrifices will not be in vain, that humanity will learn something as a result and, at least, try to avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future. Yet, this is precisely why this idea is bound to meet a very stiff resistance from the Establishment. Let us face it: we did not win the Cold War conclusively, and the socialist Utopia is still a dominant political idea among the so-called "educated classes". They still see only the "bright side" of it, while stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the dark one. They still insist on their "right to have a dream", refusing to see that one man's dream is another man's nightmare. I guess Nazis also had a nice dream of an Aryan paradise, but somehow we do deny a right for such "dream" to anyone now, bearing in mind the cost of it to all of us.


Question #3: Why do you gentlemen think that Nazism's atrocities have all been denounced by the whole world, but the atrocities of socialism are still played down?

Kuznetsov: There are a lot of reasons for this double standard. The main one is that the ideology and practice of socialism are still very influential factors in the whole world till this day. For supporters of the ideology, who refuse to be chastened by history, it's impossible to concede that socialism is the mother of communism, which, in turn, is the synonym of Gulag.

Hollander: I wrote a fair amount about this matter. To summarize it: Marxism made communist systems more respectable; communist systems have been viewed as idealistic in their origins. The World War II alliance between the U.S. and USSR also made the latter more respectable.

Nazism did not have a respectable ideology or ideals; its racism delegitimated it. It was also defeated in a major war and all its wrongdoings could be investigated and documented. Also, communist systems did not have Nazi-style extermination camps — in the sense that more people died because of conditions in the camps, not because of execution.

Bukovsky: There are several reasons for it, some of which I already mentioned above. First, Nazism was much more open about its ultimate goals right from the start, and it did advertise its reliance on brutal force. Military conquest was Nazism's chosen method, and this practically forced the reluctant West to confront it. Second, the Nazi sympathisers were not dominating the Western Establishment at the end of WWII, or even at the start of it. Third, Nazism was defeated conclusively, while communism was allowed to "reform" itself and to escape scot-free. Finally, and most importantly, popular perception assigns Nazism to the Right, and Communism to the Left — thus predetermining the attitude of our Left-leaning world. In reality, both are just not-too-different versions of socialism and this "perception" was fabricated by the Comintern propaganda in the 1930s. See, for example, Stephen Koch's excellent book, Double Lives, Harper/Collins 1995.

Pipes: This is indeed puzzling. Messrs Kuznetsov and Hollander are right, in my opinion, that the ideology of Communism is more "respectable" and its ideals more noble. Another factor is that the Nazi concentration camps were occupied by Allied forces and the whole horror of what transpired there became visible. The Gulag, by contrast, was quietly dismantled. There were no trials of Soviet citizens responsible for these atrocities, which also pushed them from the front pages.

Yarim-Agaev: The reason number one is that the communism is not completely defeated yet. We have a quarter of the world still ruled by this system, a great part of the post soviet countries where old party nomenklatura still holds power, and a big chunk of western "academic and cultural elite" which still worships this cult. Mind you, China and Russia are among five permanent members of the UN Security Council.


Question #4: Do you think it is feasible and worthy still to try to organize Nuremberg-type trials against the crimes of communist regimes?

Kuznetsov: It's absolutely worthy, but not feasible for the time being, precisely because of the way socialists continue to control language and impose historical amnesia. If we mean that the trial should have some binding judicial meaning, it would be very difficult to implement in the present political climate. Nonetheless, a public Nuremberg-type trial would be a very important step in the right direction.

Hollander: Such trials would certainly be enlightening and just, but it requires political will in the countries concerned. It would be difficult to have them, especially as time goes by. There is as much justification for them as there was for Nazi war criminals.

Yarim-Agaev: The Nuremberg trials were preceded by the complete victory over nazism and its unconditional surrender. Nothing of this kind has happened to communism yet. One has to apprehend a criminal before trying him. The trial in absentia when the criminal is at large and still armed and dangerous is a sign of weakness, as it was with the Moscow tribunal. After communism is fully defeated, however, it should be certainly brought to the Nuremberg type trial.

Bukovsky: The right moment for this was in 1991 - 1992, and it was missed. Sadly, the further it recedes into the past, the less likely becomes such a trial. I don't believe I will see it in my lifetime. What we can and should try is to organise an international public tribunal. But before even that is feasible, we ought to remind the world what Gulag was about.


Question #5: Wait a minute. Yuri, I am not sure if I misunderstand one of the implications of your answer to Question #2 regarding socialism. Do you agree that the very idea, the very notion, of socialism necessary spawns terror and Gulag in its application? Once you begin to consider eliminating inequality, curing the flaws in humans, "solving" the tragedies inherent in the human condition, making humans into Gods (as Nicholas Berdyaev prophetically warned against), you are already paving the road to the Gulag Archipelago. Right? What do the other guests say?

Yarim-Agaev: Yes, if developed to its logical end — communism. No, if contained by a strong democratic political system. The most typical representatives of socialism are England and Sweden, and there are no Gulags. Neither do they exist in the rest of socialist western Europe, nor in America, which, as many would argue, became a socialist country too. Is there potential danger of developing socialism in any of those places into communism? Yes. Is it imminent? I don't know. Has it already happened? No.

Yet, it happened in Russia, China and many other countries. And in all places where communism came to power we have Gulags and atrocities, which are well documented and can be proved beyond reasonable doubt. We have a very strong case against communism, which can be tried and won in a court of law. We do not have such a case against socialism in general. There is a difference between a criminal caught red-handed and a potential criminal. The first can and must be instantly tried and imprisoned. The second should be retrained in all other possible ways.

Now we face a dilemma: either to separate a well-built case against communism, to win it and to get a guilty verdict, or to say that communism is merely an extreme form of socialism, which we have to deal with in its entirety. The second option does not provide us with a legal case. It does with the intellectual, philosophical, political, but not legal. Yet many western conservatives fully emerged in the battle with the immediate socialist opponents, and for whom communism is far away in time and space, would merely chip away pieces of this monolithic case and use them as tokens in their political debate. This is a luxury we cannot afford, however. Too many people paid with their lives and freedom to build this case and it should not be dropped and spared in this way. And nothing can help more in the general debate with socialism than winning this case clearly and decisively.

Kuznetsov: I think that the idea of some kind of socialism is a natural part of any normal human being. There is a rather old wisdom: "If you are not a socialist in your 20s, it means you don't have a heart, but if you are still socialist in your 30s, it means that you don't have brains". But it doesn't mean that even after your 30s you are absolutely free (or should be free) from some kind of pro-socialist inclinations. The answer is in key (at least for me) one word: balance.

The danger of socialist's intentions: I would say that even a non-aggressive type of governing socialism inevitably builds structures (political, economic, public etc.) which in case of some cataclysm could easily be converted (intentionally or not) in totalitarian structures. It means that inside the ideology and practice of socialism (even a liberal sort of it) there is hidden a potential danger. Socialists are good only in opposition (if we speak about states with a parliamentarian system).

Bukovsky: Every form of socialism, even the most benign one, creates a corresponding version of Gulag. Here in the West a milder version of it was created long ago and is slowly evolving into a harder kind. We call it "intellectual Gulag". Just try to publicly express your honest views on race, gender, "lifestyles", global warming, ozone holes etc., and you will become a pariah. No publisher will touch your books, no university will offer you a job. This, however, is just a beginning. With an emergence of such newspeak notions as "hate crime" and "hate speech", we came much closer to a real Gulag than ever. Thus, British Home Secretary David Blanckett has tried to introduce a new criminal law this Spring, making "hate speech" a criminal offence punishable by up to 7 years of imprisonment. Fortunately, it was blocked by the Parliament. But the fact that it was possible in Britain at all, and that the Secretary was not forced to resign in disgrace, tells a lot to any of us who lived under a totalitarian regime.

Hollander: I agree that there is a crucial connection between the pursuit of equality and socialism and its degeneration into totalitarian terror.

Pipes: My impression is that socialism in practice necessarily involves repression and terror. The reason for this is that its central plank — the abolition of private property — runs against the acquisitive spirit common to all living creatures. To deprive people of what they own, requires a repressive apparatus; to keep them from reacquiring property calls for redoubling this apparatus. It thus becomes a permanent feature of every socialist/communist regime. Lenin defined "the dictatorship of the proletariat" as one that is constrained by no laws and rests directly on coercion, and such it turned out to be.


Question #6: Gentlemen, when you sit back and think of all the horror that socialism spawned in the 20th Century. ...when you think of all the misery, torture, collectivization, terror famine...when you think of all the millions of lives lost...when you read something like Robert Conquest's The Harvest of Sorrow...I don't know...often I am at a loss for words, just staggered, depressed and stupefied. We know "why" this happened in a technical sense. But I want to ask the same question in a deeper sense: why?

Yarim-Agaev: It takes books to answer this question. Maybe the best way to answer it briefly is to give my definition of this system: communism is a dictatorship of the intellegentsia. This half-educated class with little knowledge but "great theories" is very dangerous when it gets into power. It starts to implement those theories mercilessly and fanatically. This class can be opposed and checked only by an empirical wisdom of the middle class. So, those countries, which have the strongest middle class, are most immune to communism. Russia was not. The culture of the nation is also very important. More scholastic and mystical culture of Russia or Germany makes them more susceptible to pseudo-theories than empirical culture of Anglo-Saxon nations.

Kuznetsov: Why? In order to answer the question in short you can't avoid simplification of this very complicated issue. But in any case, I'll try to note the most important (in my opinion) factor in the historical process which made possible the horror of communism and nazism. It seems that in the second half of 19th century, and the first half of 20th century, that mankind (at least the Western part of it)lived in a mythological period. Now the West (in comparison to the East) has entered into a pragmatic era (with all its pluses and minuses).

Bukovsky: All it takes for the Evil to triumph is for a few good people to keep silent. The biggest accomplice of the totalitarian crimes is human conformity. There is always a certain percent of crackpots and fanatics in our world, but they are normally kept in check by the sound majority. The trouble comes when this healthy reaction becomes muted at the times of some disasters, crises, catastrophes such as a World War, economic collapse and moral confusion. Then, in the extreme conditions, otherwise normal human beings would accept the "lesser evil" as they see it. Bit by bit, they would compromise with the "reality" thus becoming a part of the totalitarian machinery. In no time the lunatic fringe runs the show because the road to hell is always paved with small compromises. Are you asking how does this happen? Well, you can observe its development right in front of you in the United States with "political correctness". Or in Europe with imposition of the European Union. And it does not even require a threat of imprisonment, let alone of the execution.

Hollander: As to the ultimate WHY? Several factors: the sense of entitlement derived from the idealistic goals; a more general human capacity to dehumanize other human beings (in this case the enemies of the wonderful ideals); perhaps also unintended consequences as in the case of the spreading terror during the Purges, waves of mutual denunciations etc.; and possibly also the low regard for human life in a highly stratified society.


Question #7: My father spent his life fighting the Soviet regime. A significant and priceless part of my upbringing entailed sitting at the table in our home listening to the profound intellectual conversations he conducted with family and friends. One of the questions my father often posed has never left my consciousness: if you were given the chance to go back in time, to late 19th century Russia, and you were given a loaded gun....and you were put in the presence of the young Vladimir Lenin, would you shoot him dead?

At one time, my inclination was to answer "no" to this question, because I was afraid to play with history. Today, I must say, with full certainty, that put into the hypothetical situation my father described, I wouldn't hesitate one second in pulling the trigger. Please forgive me if I put you on the spot with perhaps an uncomfortable and unconventional question: how about you?

Bukovsky: I am really sorry I was not given such an opportunity.

Yarim-Agaev: I would have not. For two reasons. First, only God knows with absolute certainty what will happen in the future, and I am humble enough not to assume this role. Second, such an act would have merely created one more communist martyr, and possibly would have even helped communism to get to power, rather than stopping it. Unfortunately, not one personality, but much deeper historical reasons brought communism to power in Russia and other countries. As to putting somebody on the spot, I can remind you that the mummified corpse of Lenin still rests in peace in the mausoleum in the center of Moscow, symbolising the eternal nature of communism. This reminder, however, should not be interpreted as an invitation for some eager person to go and destroy it. At the moment it would look as an act of desperation hardly appropriate for the victor. What would be more appropriate is to move this mummy away from the mausoleum and place it as an exposition in the museum of Gulag.

Hollander: We will never know how much difference shooting Lenin might have made. But certainly his death early in his career would not have been a great loss for humanity — to say the least.

Kuznetsov: If you speaking about Lenin you mean all revolutionaries of his type (cynical, blood-thirsty and so on) then maybe I would pull the trigger, but only together with the people that were more guilty, more responsible for (though indirectly) promoting the revolution — the most part of the Tsarist government. Only by removing from the historical arena both of these groups could you give a chance to such reformists as Stolypin. This could have saved Russia from the revolution.


Question #8: Gentlemen, in his essay, "The Meaning of Left and Right" in The Politics of Bad Faith, David Horowitz looks at the history of the last 200 years from the vantage provided by the complete and utter failure of socialism. History proves that the left is not a "progressive" force, but a destructive and reactionary one. As a result, Horowitz argues that the categories of our historical interpretation simply need to be reversed. In other words, the very idea of socialism should be associated in society's mindset with monstrosity, bestial crimes and malign and nihilistic destructive intent. But will this ever happen, as it should? Unfortunately, as long as inequality exists — as the human condition necessitates, there will always be the poisonous thought of socialism, and there will always, therefore, be future Gulags ready to sprout. What do you think of this?

Yarim-Agaev: Socialism should be challenged with all intensity in both the political and intellectual arena. Unfortunately, conservatives, who have abundant resources, do not do this job well. They underestimate the role of ideology in modern society. Having said that, once again, I urge to use different methods in dealing with socialism in general and communism in particular. The latter should be tried, sentenced and declared a criminal and unacceptable political system and such a verdict will be the best argument against socialism in general.

Kuznetsov: As I already note in the answer to fifth question, in my opinion some kind of inclination to socialism's utopian ideas is an implicit part of any normal human being. And what is more, the socialist type of thinking (the mythologival one, looking for simple and quick answers to all questions) is peculiar to people with a dominant power of the left cerebral hemisphere, which produces q flat, black and white, simplistic picture of the world (in comparison to function of the right hemisphere which gives a picture of the reality in all its connections, dimensions, colours and so on).

It is impossible to eliminate the left hemisphere from man's brain and it is therefore impossible to eliminate socialist ideas. It seems that there is only one realistic way to try to diminish the influence of socialists: to keep them (and temptations of your own left hemisphere's activity) in check.

Bukovsky: I hope not, particularly if the mankind finally draws a lesson from the past experiments of this kind. Inequality will always be around, but hopefully our reaction to it might become different.

Hollander: Hard to know what will happen to the ideals of socialism. It is true that inequality nurtures this ideal and it would be better to get rid of the ideal. But it is hard to imagine a modern world in which inequality is serenely accepted or taken for granted.

Interlocutor: Eduard Kuznetsov, Yuri Yarim-Agaev, Vladimir Bukovsky, Paul Hollander and Richard Pipes, thank you for joining Frontpage Symposium. It was a pleasure.


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Jamie Glazov is Frontpage Magazine's editor. He holds a Ph.D. in History with a specialty in Russian, U.S. and Canadian foreign policy. He is the author of Canadian Policy Toward Khrushchev’s Soviet Union and is the co-editor (with David Horowitz) of The Hate America Left. He edited and wrote the introduction to David Horowitz’s Left Illusions. His new book is United in Hate: The Left's Romance with Tyranny and Terror. To see his previous symposiums, interviews and articles Click Here. Email him at jglazov@rogers.com.