Will the Real Gulag Please Stand Up?

June 6, 2005

While I am sympathetic with the American Left’s outrage over Amnesty International’s slander of Soviet gulags by likening them to the United States’ incomparably evil prison detention center at Guantanamo Bay, I thought I would review Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s description of the Soviet Camps in his classic, “Gulag Archipelago.”

Since Amnesty International’s executive director, William Schulz, is indignantly standing by his assertion that “The U.S. is maintaining an archipelago of prisons around the world, many of them secret prisons …” I decided to reminisce with Mr. Schulz and his ilk, who are doubtless avid readers of this column, about the “Archipelago” Solzhenitsyn exposed.

In the first place, it might be noted that prisoners of the Soviet camps were generally not those who had declared war on modern civilization, who had taken up arms against the state, or who had aided, abetted and collaborated with those who were at war with the regime. They were not arrested on the battlefield while waging war against the mother country.

No, they were often just political prisoners, whose sin might have been merely to criticize the repressive government — sometimes in private correspondence. Solzhenitsyn, relating his own arrest, wrote, “I knew instantly I had been arrested because of my correspondence with a school friend, and understood from what direction to expect danger.”

The prisoners of the gulag were those who dared dissent from a government that obliterated the very notion of liberty, whereas those at Gitmo are most likely ones who are opposing freedom and democracy in the United States, the Middle East and the rest of the world.

If the Left could bring itself to take a hiatus from its hyperbole in redefining “torture” so as conveniently to encompass the detention practices of the U.S. military in Guantanamo and elsewhere, perhaps it could rediscover the true meaning of torture by perusing the pages of Solzhenitsyn’s gripping account.

If they want to understand what real torture-minded interrogators have been known to do, they could begin with the chapter on “The Interrogation.” The chapter begins, “If the intellectuals in the plays of Chekhov who spent all their time guessing what would happen in 20, 30, or 40 years had been told that in 40 years interrogation by torture would be practiced in Russia; that prisoners would have their skulls squeezed within iron rings; that a human being would be lowered into an acid bath; that they would be trussed up naked to be bitten by ants and bedbugs; that a ramrod heated over a primus stove would be thrust up their anal canal (the ‘secret brand’); that a man’s genitals would be slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot; and that, in the luckiest possible circumstances, prisoners would be tortured by being kept from sleeping for a week, by thirst, and by being beaten to a bloody pulp, not one of Chekhov’s plays would have gotten to its end because all the heroes would have gone off to insane asylums.”

Nor were these isolated, extreme, or extraordinary events being practiced “by one scoundrel alone in one secret place only, but by tens of thousands of specially trained human beasts standing over millions of defenseless victims.”

Oh, yes, and lest we forget, the interrogators of the Soviet camps were not trying to extract information from their subjects for such laudatory purposes as preventing the further slaughter of innocent human beings such as the victims of the Sept. 11 massacres. “Throughout the years and decades, interrogations under Article 58 were (SET ITAL) almost never (END ITAL) undertaken to elicit the truth, but were simply an exercise in an inevitably filthy procedure: Someone who had been free only a little while before, who was sometimes proud and always unprepared, was to be bent and pushed through a narrow pipe where his sides would be torn by iron hooks and where he could not breathe, so that he would finally pray to get to the other end. And at the other end, he would be shoved out, an already processed native of the Archipelago, already in the promised land. (The fool would keep on resisting! He even thought there was a way back out of the pipe.)”

If I had the space, I could recount the list of 31 torture techniques enumerated by Solzhenitsyn, which was only a partial list: “Is there much left to enumerate? What won’t idle, well-fed, unfeeling people invent?” — but I trust you get the point.