Category Archives: Other Voices

Threshold of evildoing

This post is a fragment of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, Part I, Chapter 4 (The Bluecaps), translated from the Russian by Thomas P. Whitney.

Thanks to ideology, the twentieth century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions. This cannot be denied, nor passed over, nor suppressed. How, then, do we dare insist that evildoers do not exist? And who was it that destroyed these millions? Without evildoers there would have been no Archipelago.

There was a rumor going the rounds between 1918 and 1920 that the Petrograd Cheka, headed by Uritsky, and the Odessa Cheka, headed by Deich, did not shoot all those condemned to death but fed some of them alive to the animals in the city zoos. I do not know whether this is truth or calumny, or, if there were any such cases, how many there were. But I wouldn’t set out to look for proof, either. Following the practice of the bluecaps, I would propose that they prove to us that this was impossible. How else could they get food for the zoos in those famine years? Take it away from the working class? Those enemies were going to die anyway, so why couldn’t their deaths support the zoo economy of the Republic and thereby assist our march into the future? Wasn’t it expedient?

That is the precise line the Shakespearean evildoer could not cross. But the evildoer with ideology does cross it, and his eyes remain dry and clear.

Physics is aware of phenomena which occur only at threshold magnitudes, which do not exist at all until a certain threshold encoded by and known to nature has been crossed. No matter how intense a yellow light you shine on a lithium sample, it will not emit electrons. But as soon as a weak bluish light begins to glow, it does emit them. (The threshold of the photoelectric effect has been crossed.) You can cool oxygen to 100 degrees below zero Centigrade and exert as much pressure as you want; it does not yield, but remains a gas. But as soon as minus 183 degrees is reached, it liquefies and begins to flow.

Evidently evildoing also has a threshold magnitude. Yes, a human being hesitates and bobs back and forth between good and evil all his life. He slips, falls back, clambers up, repents, things begin to darken again. But just so long as the threshold of evildoing is not crossed, the possibility of returning remains, and he himself is still within reach of our hope. But when, through the density of evil actions, the result either of their own extreme degree or of the absoluteness of his power, he suddenly crosses that threshold, he has left humanity behind, and without, perhaps, the possibility of return.


The Cruelty of the Victor

As victors of WWII prepare to celebrate VE Day, it is worth remembering what this day meant for the vanquished, despite their unconditional surrender. In this post, an excerpt of James Baque’s “Other losses”, fourth chapter.

The spirit of Goethe, a holy spirit, keeps me alive.

Anonymous prisoner

At night, searchlights threw blinding light over the men lying in the shadowy holes. They watched uneasily the dark shapes standing high above them on the paths lit by the searchlights. Men shuffled along the slippery banks between the holes all night, lining up for water. Charles von Luttichau[1] lay in his hole curled up next to one of his brother officers wondering if he could get himself released before he was shipped to France. Men cried out in their nightmare sleep. He resolved to try again with the guards the next day. “I am half-American,” he thought, rehearsing his English. “My mother is American. I gave myself up to you. I don’t belong in here. I am half-American.”

He had not been captured in battle but was convalescing at home when he decided to surrender voluntarily to U.S. troops about to occupy his house because otherwise he might be accused of plotting further underground resistance.

“We were kept in crowded barbed wire cages in the open with scarcely any food,” he has said of his camp at Kripp near Remagen on the Rhine.

The latrines were just logs flung over ditches next to the barbed wire fences. To sleep, all we could do was to dig out a hole in the ground with our hands, then cling together in the hole. We were crowded very close together.

Because of illness, the men had to defecate on the ground. Soon, many of us were too weak to take off our trousers first. So our clothing was infected, and so was the mud where we had to walk and sit and lie down. There was no water at all at first, except the rain, then after a couple of weeks we could get a little water from a standpipe. But most of us had nothing to carry it in, so we could get only a few mouthfuls after hours of lining up, sometimes even through the night. We had to walk along between the holes on the soft earth thrown up by the digging, so it was easy to fall into a hole, but hard to climb out. The rain was almost constant along that part of the Rhine that spring. More than half the days we had rain. More than half the days we had no food at all. On the rest, we got a little K ration. I could see from the package that they were giving us one tenth of the rations that they issued to their own men. So in the end we got perhaps five percent of a normal U.S. Army ration. I complained to the American camp commander that he was breaking the Geneva Convention, but he just said, “Forget the Convention. You haven’t any rights.”[2]

Within a few days, some of the men who had gone healthy into the camp were dead. I saw our men dragging many dead bodies to the gate of the camp, where they were thrown loose on top of each other onto trucks, which took them away.[3]

One 17-year-old boy who could see his village in the distance used to stand weeping near the barbed wire fence. One morning the prisoners found him shot at the foot of the fence. His body was strung up and left hanging on the wire by the guards as a warning. The prisoners were forced to walk by the body. Many cried out “Moerder, moerder [murderer, murderer]!”[4]  In retaliation, the camp commander withheld the prisoners’ meager rations for three days. “For us who were already starving and could hardly move because of weakness, it was frightful; for many it meant death.”[5]  This was not the only time when the commander withheld rations to punish prisoners.

[1] Von Luttichau, who survived three months at Kripp, later moved to Washington. He has written military history for the U.S. Army.

[2] Interviews of the author 1987-88, with von Luttichau of Washington, D.C.

[3] The statement by Charles von Luttichau of Washington, made to the author in May 1988, is confirmed by many other prisoners. The rainy spring is confirmed by a Canadian Army war diary including weather reports for north Germany for the period. The rapid onset of death is confirmed by the study in the U.S. Army Medical History of the ETO for May-June (Appendix 1). The space allotment is confirmed by several U.S. Army reports of overcrowding in the Rhine cages in the spring of 1945. The implication of common graves is confirmed by evidence from postwar discoveries. See note 16.

[4] Gertrude Maria Schuster, Die Kriegsgefangenenlager Galgenberg lind Bretzenheim (Stadt Bad Kreuznach, 1985), pp. 40-41.

[5] Gertrude Maria Schuster, op. cit.


They’ve brought the fascists!

This post is a fragment of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, Part III, Chapter 6, translated from the Russian by Thomas P. Whitney. A parallel between the Western world and the part of the world going through the communist experiment. The similarity with what happened in Romania during 1947 – 1964 is staggering.

Borya was coughing. There was still a fragment of German tank shell in his lungs. He was thin and yellow, and his nose, ears, and the bones of his face had grown deathly pointed. I looked at him closely, and I was not sure: would he make it through a winter in camp?

We still tried to divert our minds and conquer our situation with thought. But by then neither philosophy nor literature was there. Even our hands became heavy, like spades, and hung down.

Boris suggested: “No, to talk … takes much strength. Let’s be silent and think to some purpose. For example, compose verses. In our heads.”

I shuddered. He could write verses here and now? The canopy of death hung over him; but the canopy of such a stubborn talent hung over his yellow forehead too.[1]

And so we kept silent and scooped up the clay with our hands. The rain kept coming. Yet they not only didn’t take us out of the clay pit, but Matronina, brandishing the fiery sword of her gaze (her “red” head was covered with a dark shawl), pointed out to the brigadier from the edge the different ends of the clay pit. And we understood: they were not going to pull out the brigade at the end of its shift at 2 P.M., but would keep it in the clay pit until it fulfilled its norm. Only then would we get both lunch and dinner.

In Moscow the construction project was halted for lack of bricks.

But Matronina departed and the rain thickened. Light red puddles formed everywhere in the clay and in our car too. The tops of our boots turned red, and our coats were covered with red spots. Our hands had grown numb from the cold clay, and by this time they couldn’t even throw anything into the car. And then we left this futile occupation, climbed up higher to the grass, sat down there, bent our heads, and pulled the collars of our coats up over the backs of our necks.

From the side we looked like two reddish stones in the field.

Somewhere young men of our age were studying at the Sorbonne or at Oxford, playing tennis during their ample hours of relaxation, arguing about the problems of the world in student cafés: They were already being published and were exhibiting their paintings. They were twisting and turning to find ways of distorting the insufficiently original world around them in some new way. They railed against the classics for exhausting all the subjects and themes. They railed at their own governments and their own reactionaries who did not want to comprehend and adopt the advanced experience of the Soviet Union. They recorded interviews through the microphones of radio reporters, listening all the time to their own voices and coquettishly elucidating what they wished to say in their last or their first book. They judged everything in the world with self-assurance, but particularly the prosperity and higher justice of our country. Only at some point in their old age, in the course of compiling encyclopedias, would they notice with astonishment that they could not find any worthy Russian names for our letters-for all the letters of our alphabet.

The rain drummed on the back of our heads, and the chill crept up our wet backs.

[1] That winter Boris Gammerov died in a hospital from exhaustion and tuberculosis. I revere in him a poet who was never even allowed to peep.  His spiritual image was lofty, and his verses themselves seemed to me very powerful at the time. But I did not memorize even one of them, and I can find them nowhere now, so as to be able at least to make him a gravestone from those little stones.


Romanian revolution through the eyes of a French journalist

We are commemorating 24 years since the revolution in December 1989. This post is an excerpt of the book Un mensonge gros comme le siècle. Roumanie, histoire d’une manipulation (A lie as big as the century : Romania, history of manipulation) written by Michel Castex (Albin Michel, 1990).

Premier envoyé spécial de l’Agence France-Presse à entrer à Bucarest, lui aussi par la filière bulgare, Ricardo Uztarroz avait eu deux jours avant le même sentiment d’étrangeté : « Quand je suis arrivé à Bucarest, je m’attendais à plonger en pleine guerre civile. Première surprise. J’ai traversé tout le centre-ville à pied. La foule était dans les rues. Pas de combats. C’était une atmosphère de kermesse, accrue par le temps printanier, le froid n’est arrivé que quelques jours après. J’étais avec trois autres journalistes, un Roumain nous guidait. On a demandé à aller jusqu’à l’Intercontinental, mais on nous répond, non, non, il est sous le feu, il y a des combats très durs dans le secteur. On nous propose alors d’aller à l’hôtel Bulevar, juste en face de la poste centrale. On y arrive à pied, par des petites rues. On s’installe. On demande aux gens de l’hôtel ce qui se passe exactement, on n’a rien vu en traversant la ville. Ou est la guerre ? Ils nous disent qu’il y a des combats, mais circonscrits à quelques zones bouclées par les blindés de l’armée. J’en voyais deux, en effet, qui bloquaient la rue menant à la poste centrale et à la place de la République. La, déjà, je me suis dit, c’est pas Budapest 56, mettons qu’il y a des poches de résistance, mais les militaires ont l’air d’avoir la situation en main. Le soir, on voyait bruler la bibliothèque. Plus tard, je suis parti avec un type de Reuter, d’abord à l’Intercon car on voulait des chambres, toute la presse était là, et pour les communications c’était le seul endroit. Il n’y avait pas de chambres, mais l’hôtel n’était pas sous le feu. Ensuite, nous voilà partis voir l’incendie de la bibliothèque. Quand on arrive, cent cinquante badauds regardaient le spectacle. Tout d’un coup ça se met à tirer au-dessus de la foule, des rafales des balles traçantes. On se jette à terre. Je perds de vue le gars de Reuter. Quand je retourne à l’hôtel Bulevar, une automitrailleuse est installée au carrefour ; elle tire sans interruption vers la poste centrale, d’où on dirait que ça riposte. Je me dis, impossible de traverser le carrefour, je vais à l’Intercon, et j’ai enfin une chambre. Toute la nuit ça tire. Le matin ça s’arrête. Je fais un tour de la Place de la République. Tout est calme, c’est dimanche. Une chose me frappe, il y a plein de casiers de bouteilles d’alcool vides à coté des soldats. Dans la journée, les fusillades ont repris. Sur les toits j’ai vu des soldats tirer, en s’abritant derrière des cheminées, mais impossible de discerner les cibles. Vers 15 heures, retour au calme. Là, j’ai commencé à réfléchir. C’était le contraire du Salvador, ou j’étais comme envoyé spécial fin novembre-début décembre pour la grande offensive de la guérilla. Au Salvador, tu voyais sans arrêt des ambulances pour ramasser les blessés, des morts partout. Ici, rien. On nous disait qu’il y avait plein de morts et de blessés, tu n’en voyais pratiquement aucun, et la foule restait massée un peu partout. Je me disais, ils sont fous ces Roumains. J’ai parlé avec Alfonso Rojo, c’est le directeur adjoint d’El Mundo, le quotidien de Madrid. Lui aussi était tracassé : il m’a dit : C’est curieux cette guerre qui ne fait pas de morts, hein ? Et il m’a raconté une drôle d’histoire. Il était allé à l’Agerpress et là, au comptoir de la réception, il voit un type de la Securitate qu’il connaissait avant. Il lui parle, lui demande s’il n’est pas arrêté, l’autre lui dit que non, qu’il coordonne la nouvelle police. Le soir, on revient place de la République avec deux copains. On est pris sous le feu d’armes légères. Mais quand j’y repense aujourd’hui, c’était curieux, on avait l’impression que les tireurs ne voulaient pas tuer. Ils arrosaient le milieu de la rue, pas des deux côtés, ou les gens s’abritent et sont susceptibles d’être touchés. De retour à l’hôtel, je rencontre Jacques Lebas, de Médecins du Monde. Il m’annonce une conférence de presse pour le lendemain à 9 heures, à l’hôpital d’urgences. Je lui demande ce qu’il pense du bilan des victimes. Il me répond : ça ne correspond pas du tout à la gravité de la situation qu’on croyait trouver en arrivant. Le soir, j’étais de plus en plus perplexe. Il y avait des tirs très intenses donnant l’impression de combats acharnés, mais je ne voyais pas de morts. Très étrange, vraiment ; je me souviens, j’ai même fait une note pour le dire à la rédaction en chef. »


Dehumanization – then and now

While for many people communism is a matter of the past, the dehumanization experiment continues. These days, instead of torture other more subtle means are employed to reduce the human being to the condition of a mere object. Pleasure replaces pain as conditioning instrument. The experiment proves to be successful. Sheeple are obsessed with feeling good. And they call it happiness.

The following is an excerpt of Dumitru Bacu’s book The Anti-Humans. Student Re-education in Romanian Prisons. The original Romanian manuscript was published in 1963 under the title Pitești, Centru de Reeducare Studențească.

“The Communists apply to human beings the well-known principle of conditioned reflexes that explains much of the behaviour of animals.

These reflexes, which are the basis of Socialist medical science and psychology, are often called “Pavlovian reflexes” after the Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov, who was the first to conduct systematic experiments, chiefly on dogs, to determine the exact nature of this neurophysiological reaction. Actually, however, the phenomenon that Pavlov investigated was well known for centuries and extensively used in practice to train animals. The most famous of Pavlov’s experiments was performed by giving a dog a chunk of meat at the ringing of a bell. After this has been done several times, the dog’s reflexes are so conditioned that the animal will salivate abundantly when it hears the bell although he has no meat before him. For many centuries before Pavlov, however, conditioned reflexes were used; for example, by gypsies to produce dancing bears. A small bear cub is walked over a sheet of metal under which there is a slow burning fire. As the sheet metal becomes warm, the soles of the little bear’s feet begin to pain him and he lifts one foot after another, shifting his weight alternately to cool the soles of his feet. While he is doing this, drums are beaten. After this training has been repeated several times, the neurological association between the sound of the drums and the movement of the feet is established, and ever thereafter, the bear, although full grown, will begin to “dance” whenever he hears the beating of the drums. Such, reduced to its simplest terms, is the procedure for producing conditioned reflexes in irrational animals.

When the Communists apply this technique to their human subjects, they must first reduce their victims to the condition of animals.

When one destroys in man the moral and intellectual foundation of his being, his consciousness of personal identity and superiority, and thus deprives him of control over his own faculties by reason and will, man ceases to be a superior being. There is no longer any difference between man and animal. He will submit, as do animals, to biological impulses.”


Animal Farm revisited

Soon we will celebrate 23 years since December 1989; 23 years of slow and painful awakening to reality, learning that the world I lived in until 1989 was an Animal Farm and sometimes asking myself: was I one of the “fine upstanding beasts” that Orwell writes about? It is noteworthy that in an excellent Romanian version of the book, the Romanian translator has graciously preferred to translate “very stupid” by “discouraging naïveté”.

“There were many more creatures on the farm now, though the increase was

not so great as had been expected in earlier years. Many animals had been

born to whom the Rebellion was only a dim tradition, passed on by word of

mouth, and others had been bought who had never heard mention of such a

thing before their arrival. The farm possessed three horses now besides

Clover. They were fine upstanding beasts, willing workers and good

comrades, but very stupid. None of them proved able to learn the alphabet

beyond the letter B. They accepted everything that they were told about

the Rebellion and the principles of Animalism, especially from Clover, for

whom they had an almost filial respect; but it was doubtful whether they

understood very much of it.”

George Orwell, Animal Farm


Lettres de Russie. La Russie en 1839

It is interesting to compare George Manu’s perspective on the Russian political regimes with what Astolphe Louis Léonor marquis de Custine wrote in his “Lettres de Russie” published in 1843.

We chose for this post an excerpt of the English version published in 1855 by Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, under the title “Russia – abridged from the French of Marquis de Custine”.

Those who are interested in the original version will find in this post the corresponding fragment from “Lettres de Russie. La Russie en 1839” published by Gallimard in 1975.

 

The patriarchal tyranny of the Asiatic governments, in contact with the theories of modern philanthropy, the character of the people of the East and West, incompatible by nature, yet united together by coercion in a state of society semi-barbarous, but kept in order by fear, present a spectacle that can be only seen in Russia, and, assuredly, one which no man who thinks, would regret the trouble of going to contemplate.

The social, intellectual, and political state of present Russia is the result, and, so to speak, the résumé of the reigns of Ivan IV, surnamed, by Russia herself, the Terrible; of Peter the first, called the Great, by the men who glory in aping Europe; and of Catherine II, deified by a people that dreams of the conquest of the world. Such is the formidable heritage over which the Emperor Nicholas holds sway – God knows to what purpose, and our posterity will know also!

 

Klin, petite ville à quelques lieues de Moscou, ce 6 août 1839

 

………La tyrannie patriarcale des gouvernements de l’Asie en contact avec les théories de la philanthropie moderne, les caractères des peuples de l’Orient et de l’Occident incompatibles par nature et pourtant violemment enchainés l’un à l’autre dans une société à demi-barbare, mais régularisée par la peur; c’est un spectacle qu’on ne peut observer qu’en Russie; et certes, nul homme qui pense ne regrettera la peine qu’il faut prendre pour venir l’examiner de près.

L’état social, intellectuel et politique de la Russie actuelle, est le résultat, et pour ainsi dire le résumé des règnes d’Ivan IV, surnommé le Terrible par les Russes eux-mêmes; de Pierre Ier, dit le Grand, par des hommes qui se glorifient de singer l’Europe, et de Catherine II, divinisée par un people qui rêve de la conquête du monde et qui nous flatte en attendant qu’il nous dévore; tel est le redoutable héritage dont l’Empereur Nicolas dispose…. Dieu sait à quelle fin!… Nos neveux l’apprendront, car sur les faits de ce monde un homme de l’avenir sera aussi éclairé que la Providence l’est aujourd’hui.