Thursday, June 07, 2007

Utopian thinking

At the TLS, Kate Brown reviews books on the Siberian gulags by Lynne Viola, Nicolas Werth and Tomas Kizny:

Lynne Viola argues that Soviet leaders ordered reports because they begrudged the lost economic potential of famished labour forces. Nicolas Werth lays the blame on a stubborn insistence on engineering a utopian world, despite all evidence of its failure. They are, of course, both right. Economic rationale drove the creation and elevation of the special settlements. And ideology propped them up. Ideologically and physically, kulaks and “social undesirables” were expendable in the drive for socialism. But I am not wholly convinced that these were the only reasons for the excess of documents chronicling government-issue nightmares. I have sat in the tiny reading room in the Moscow “special archive”, and read the accounts from Gulag agents in the field. Many of these are dry texts, ground out at the end of a wearying day. But others are startling in their immediacy and poignancy. There is something to the full-throated disgorging of horror in these reports that emits a mournful human cry. The men express shock, sorrow but also offence at being forced to witness and take part in human degradation and destruction. In other words, in 1930, the utopian visionaries reconceived industry, agriculture and penal detention, aspiring to remake “The World” in the image of socialism. In 1933, local security officers inherited the violence and suffering of the dystopia these visionaries inspired. I have often thought that some of these “company men”, the dutiful Soviet security officials, were trying, however feebly and hopelessly, to make their world a little less awful.

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