Uses and Abuses of Tarps

by Belle Waring on May 31, 2019

It took me so long to find this quote. I remembered that it was Solovki, yes! And that Maxim Gorky was the visitor! And the tortures with the logs, and being staked out for the mosquitoes, and rolling the prisoners down the stairs, and the brave boy who told all, all! to Gorky and was left behind to be shot the moment Gorky’s ship left the horizon empty and barren! And the tarps. But could I find the quote? I damn sure could not. I was in the position of Edward Gorey’s Mr. Earbrass who starts up in the night having thought of the perfect lines for an epigraph: “His mind’s eye sees them quoted on the bottom third of a right-hand page in a (possibly) olive-bound book he read at least five years ago. When he does find them, it will be a great nuisance if no clue is given to their authorship.”

I had to read before and after many instances of the mention of Gorky I will tell you what. But virtue prevailed! The Solovetsky Archipelago is almost certainly what the name of the Gulag Archipelago comes from, as Solzhenitsyn considered it the mother of the Gulag, and the primary site before the cancer metastasized. The Soviets, eager to show that the camps are actually rather nice if you think about it sent Maxim Gorky to investigate. He was newly-returned to the Soviet Union and probably disinclined to rock the boat which currently supplied him with some vast apartment and a dacha (irrelevantly, haven’t we all sort of wanted a dacha? They sound great. Perhaps Trump will get one eventually.)


[In summer 1929] The rumor reached Solovki before Gorky himself—and the prisoner’s hearts beat faster and the guards hustled and bustled. One has to know prisoners in order to imagine their anticipation! The falcon, the stormy petrel was about, to swoop down on the nest of injustice, violence, and secrecy. The leading Russian writer! He will give them hell! He will show them! He, the father, will defend! They awaited his coming almost as a universal amnesty.

The chiefs were alarmed, too; as much as possible they hid the monstrosities and polished things up for show. …and they set up a “boulevard” of fir trees without roots, which were simply pushed down into the ground (they only had to last a few days without withering.) It led to the Children’s Colony…

Only in Kem was there an oversight. On Popov Island the steamer Gleb Boky was being loaded by prisoners in underwear and sacks when Gorky’s retinue appeared out of nowhere to embark on that steamer! You inventors and thinkers! Here is a worthy problem for you given that, as the saying goes, every wise man has enough of the fool in him: a barren island, not one bush, no possible cover—and right there, at a distance of 300 yards, Gorky’s retinue has shown up. Your solution? Where can this disgraceful spectacle—these men dressed in sacks—be hidden? The entire journey of the great Humanist will have been for naught if he sees them now. Well, of course, he will try hard not to notice them, but help him! Drown them in the sea? They will wail and flounder. Bury them in the earth? There’s no time. No, only a worthy son of the Archipelago could find a way out of this one. The work assigner ordered, “Stop work! Close ranks! Still closer! Sit down on the ground! Sit still!” And a tarpaulin was thrown over them. “Anyone who moves will be shot!”

Such creativity! And the need to give Gorky one slender reed on which to lean for his glowing reviews of the labor re-education camps! Even his choice of fiancee seemed to augur his judgments: “The famous writer embarked from the steamer in Prosperity Gulf. Next to him was his fiancee dressed all in leather—a black leather service cap, a leather jacket, leather riding breeches, and high narrow boots—a living symbol of the OGPU shoulder to shoulder with Russian literature.” (Why is this such a popular totalitarian dictatorship way to dress? I mean, it looks bad-ass; actually I guess I’ve gotten much of the way there in the past. And it’s more plausible than waxed yellow chintz with cabbage roses—the SS would have looked way less threatening in that. Up to a point, I guess, at which it would have become creepy by association.)

The government can’t have been in any way disappointed with Gorky’s write-up, which is sickening in a way that presages his really disturbing book about the White Sea Canal. (In it he claims that not one prisoner died during the digging of it, when dead prisoners were more or less piled on the future banks, having perished from starvation and cold.) “There is no impression of life being over-regulated. No, there is no resemblance to a prison; instead it seems as if these rooms are inhabited by passengers rescued from a drowned ship.” Ah, yes. And Stalin killed him anyway, after a bit, out of a paranoid excess of caution! Or, I mean, he died of pneumonia, suddenly. Let this be an improving lesson both to those who employ tarps to cover that which would trouble another’s peace of mind, and those who so wish to be fooled they will look at a tarpaulin and see that nothing, absolutely nothing can be wrong.

{ 43 comments }

1

oldster 05.31.19 at 11:26 am

Fascinating stuff, Belle. Makes me wonder whether I speak from above or below the tarp.

But who is the author of the long quotation?

2

Aardvark Cheeselog 05.31.19 at 1:06 pm

@1 I’m pretty sure that passage is from volume 1 of Gulag Archipelago.

Yep, see here, p65.

3

Aardvark Cheeselog 05.31.19 at 1:13 pm

While looking for confirmation about that quoted passage being Solzhenitsyn, I found that there appears to be an entire book devoted to episodes like this.

4

Jacques Distler 05.31.19 at 1:37 pm

5

Belle Waring 05.31.19 at 1:42 pm

Sorry yes, I knew it was in the Gulag Archipelago, I just couldn’t find it. I had an awkward pdf and actually transcribed much of this rather than copy-pasting it but nonetheless it’s pretty correct.

6

Jacques Distler 05.31.19 at 1:45 pm

Quoted from Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, of course (which does not seem to be available online).

7

Robert H Smith 05.31.19 at 2:14 pm

Brilliant, Belle.
…let’s pull tarps from ships and shit for the next two years.

8

steven t johnson 05.31.19 at 2:23 pm

How perceptive we are, who know what to ignore without tarps! How noble we are, who are gladdened in our soul by the glorious return of Solzhenitzyn’s Russia! How wise we are, who have conceived the “totalitarian dictatorship!” How just we are, who know how much worse ancient sins were than ours!

9

Belle Waring 05.31.19 at 2:35 pm

steven t. johnson: mmmm…I’m just going to come out and say Trump’s America is better than Stalin’s Soviet Union, particularly with regard to killing millions of people in a vast archipelago of labor camps. Not great, and the number of people dying in camps is not zero, which is terrifying, but uh, better than this set of ancient sins. Yeah. Feel safe in this judgment.

10

marcel proust 05.31.19 at 2:44 pm

I just this week had great luck searching for the source of a passage that had be xeroxed and sent to me decades ago (don’t ask: I really should go through papers and throw things out more often, like ever). I don’t know the availability (I access it through my college library), but it worked spectacularly after google was no help at all.

https://www.hathitrust.org

11

William Timberman 05.31.19 at 3:15 pm

Feel safe in this judgment.

In this judgment, yes. In the future of such judgments, no. Nowhere is it written that this set of ancient sins will stay ancient forever. I grant you Trump is a buffoon who couldn’t organize a cross-burning, let alone a gulag archipelago. But what if, like John the Baptist, he is merely preparing the way…?

12

musical mountaineer 05.31.19 at 4:35 pm

Belle, if you persist in tolerating steven t johnson’s flagrant ironies, I shall have a word with the management about you.

13

dilbert dogbert 05.31.19 at 6:34 pm

I shared this with the US Border Patrol. They needed advice on how to use tarps when reporters, congress critters and mr rump visits the kids cages.
The US Navy uses tarps very effectively.

14

stephen 05.31.19 at 7:11 pm

Belle Waring@8

Arguably, you could go further and agree that Trump’s America is enormously better than (in no particular order) Mao’s or Xi’s China, Hitler’s or even Wilhelm II’s Germany, Jefferson Davis’ Confederacy, Pol Pot’s Kampuchea, Mussolini’s Italy, Lenin or Stalin’s Russia, Franco’s Spain, Robespierre’s or Louis XIV’s France, Sargon’s Assyria, Aztec Mexico …

Not clear where that gets us, though. Not to the point of actually admiring Trump, though I don’t for a moment suppose you ever would.

15

Belle Waring 06.01.19 at 12:02 am

OK mountain mountaineer, because I wouldn’t want that. I hear the management is acidly sarcastic, liable to come down on you like a ton of bricks, and employs flagrant double-standards when other people reply in kind. That’s, like, a rumor.

16

JAFD 06.01.19 at 1:16 am

Hasn’t anyone here ever seen The Battleship Potemkin ???

17

J-D 06.01.19 at 4:09 am

steven t johnson

How superior we are, who can demonstrate it by our gibes and sneers!

William Timberman

In the great crimes of nations, the only role for which the leader is required is to order that they be done. Trump’s plenty smart enough for that; if anything is protecting against even worse US misdeeds, it’s not Trump’s lack of nouse.

18

Belle Waring 06.01.19 at 4:56 am

Lack of noose, maybe?

19

SusanC 06.01.19 at 11:26 am

It would seem that the current US wouldn’t bother with the tarp, in most cases .e.g. We all know about GITMO.

20

steven t johnson 06.01.19 at 2:10 pm

Saying something true isn’t a gibe and sneer.

Years ago I read an story in a discussion of Shostakovich’s book Testimony, about how someone (Shostakovitch?) was furious that a foreign visitor put him on the spot by asking about how things were really (insofar as a single individual could know.) The implication was that of course the person lied. I’m pretty sure the person to be mad at about the lie was the person who lied, not the person who was fooled. The person who was fooled tried to find out. Fairly enough, I think, the person who didn’t ask the foreigner about how things were there in foreign parts, and what the visitor’s rulers were up to, wasn’t really so sensitive to right and wrong. If someone asks you flat out if their partner is cheating on them, do you lie to them, then abuse them for asking you?

I do wonder who told the story about the tarps. Given the insistence that Stalin was worse than Hitler, it hardly seems likely the death camps belched out any survivors from under the tarp. And it hardly seems likely that the guards would have profited from giving away the game. I suppose it’s to be expected that I wouldn’t understand, though. I thought the men under the tarp would have thought, they don’t want Gorky to see me alive, how much less would they want Gorky to see them shoot me, or even wonder why I’m never heard from again.

It seems to my ears so much like the story the pastor told in his sermon about how the White Finns heard hymns from the Red Finns they executed the next morning. An edifying story of unknown provenance that isn’t really so edifying as the tell thinks.

21

J-D 06.02.19 at 12:56 am

steven t johnson

Saying something true isn’t a gibe and sneer.

A true statement can also be a gibe; but your gibes were not true statements.

Fairly enough, I think, the person who didn’t ask the foreigner about how things were there in foreign parts, and what the visitor’s rulers were up to, wasn’t really so sensitive to right and wrong.

On my visits to foreign parts, I don’t recall ever asking people I met about what their governments were doing, and if you’re suggesting that I should have, I can’t understand why.

If someone asks you flat out if their partner is cheating on them, do you lie to them, then abuse them for asking you?

Nobody has ever asked me that question, but I would not abuse anybody for doing so: however, I fail to perceive the relevance of the point to this discussion.

I do wonder who told the story about the tarps.

That is an excellent point. It makes me wonder whether somebody invented the story: the suggestion is highly plausible.

Given the insistence that Stalin was worse than Hitler, it hardly seems likely the death camps belched out any survivors from under the tarp.

Nobody in this discussion has insisted that Stalin was worse than Hitler: that’s something that has not happened, outside your imagination. Perhaps you need to keep your imagination in better check? That said, it’s a matter of historical record that some people survived Hitler’s camps and that some people survived Stalin’s camps (Solzhenitsyn himself among them).

And it hardly seems likely that the guards would have profited from giving away the game.

Sometimes people tell stories about their experiences with no expectation of profiting by doing so.

22

Belle Waring 06.02.19 at 2:52 am

steven t johnson: stop trolling, you’re being tedious.

We can’t by any means be certain no one emerged from beneath the tarp alive to serve out the rest of his 10-year-sentence in Solovki and return home–in fact, quite the opposite. Of three hundred or so men someone almost certainly did. When Stalin lashed out at random at one point and sentenced anyone who had already served his ten years to a further ten years, many, many men got right back on the train, headed back to Siberia, and came back at the end of that as well! They fared much better than new prisoners, being experienced, and many prisoners in relatively early going had served time in the tsarist camps also. Humans are very resilient and chance is merciful; seven or eight walked even out of Belzec–how much more did they emerge from camps that killed them brutally, en masse, in huge numbers but incidentally, as it were, no one having bothered even to develop a policy to kill them? No one retuned alive from the deported families allegedly headed to internal exile who were instead pushed out of the doors of an open train, still alive, into the snow of Siberia, to watch the train disappear into the white. So no one but the guards could say. But did some of them tell the tale? Again, almost certainly; they weren’t all ideologues and many were serving under terrible compulsion.

Solzhenitsyn had many second- or even third-hand accounts, of course, but also first-hand accounts, many gathered later and many in the camps themselves. It’s possible to conceive of him as someone with an axe to grind, but it seems an odd way of looking at it, and on the whole I’ve always been inclined to believe him and his sources, while acknowledging that any given episode might be embellished. I mean, how not, the book is ten trillion pages long. And he certainly polished the stories, he is an excellent writer. But the idiosyncratic types of tortures employed at a given camp seem the sort of thing easily verified as there are multiple survivors and it would have been grimly memorable. In some cases it is precisely the absurd that rings true: for me, the detail of the cut fir trees stuck into the ground like so many flowers torn up by a child playing “garden” is so strange and somehow disturbing that I can’t but believe it.

23

steven t johnson 06.02.19 at 2:36 pm

J-D@21 But it is true that people in the US routinely ignore what is in plain sight, if they cared to look. It is true the restorationist governments littering the world are deemed to be glorious advances for humanity or freedom or something. It is true that “totalitarianism” is bullshit. And it is true that dredging up somebody else’s supposed sins in the past are a useful diversion from contemplation of the death toll from the US government. Your comment was the untrue one.

Don’t believe the suggestion you think anyone visiting the USSR at any point in its existence shouldn’t be expected to ask for criticism of the government. Do believe you really think they were morally required to.

Sorry to say, it is plausible you really don’t understand the relevance of the rhetorical question.

” That said, it’s a matter of historical record that some people survived Hitler’s camps and that some people survived Stalin’s camps (Solzhenitsyn himself among them).” Very few people survived Hitler’s death camps, those largely due to the end of the war. Most people survived the Soviet labor camps, even though the USSR survived. Your equation of them is absurd at best. It rests on the notion that Stalin was worse than Hitler, so his camps had to be just as bad, but larger. The rightward turn in these times involves an ever more shameless commitment to the propaganda of Joe McCarthy, J.Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, Ayn Rand, von Mises, von Hayek, the list is endless. “What about?” Stalin serves as a tarp, as a justification for the millions killed by the US in un-tarped homicidal crusades.

“Sometimes people tell stories about their experiences with no expectation of profiting by doing so.” Sometimes people tell lies about their experiences with no expectation of profiting by doing so. You have no point here. You cannot honestly demand inflammatory stories, even about enemies, must be accepted without question.

As to “trolling,” this is even more meaningless than saying “boring.” Plainly here it can’t mean something like redbaiting. I suppose four sentences in one post, then one sentence and three paragraphs can be unwelcome if uncomfortably relevant.

As to the stories, the belated concession Stalin’s labor camps weren’t Nazi death camps was made to show that the story could be related by survivors. The problem is that according to the unstated premises of the story, the survivors were under just as much compulsion as the guards. So, again, why speak? The real answer, because the terror somehow had some sort of relationship to an outside threat, and like the French revolutionary terror, when the outside situation changed, things inside changed too, does not bear the requisite hate for Stalin as worse than Hitler.

The story about the families pushed out into the snow? Everybody who looked out a window after the snows melted would see all those bodies (or later skeletons.) I suppose they were careful to push the families out into thin layers of snow, so the impact would cause death. And I suppose they were careful not to push them out too close to a village, lest the survivors limp in, seeking refuge. Truly, that kind of careful planning is exactly like Nazis. It is gratifying that no guards ever were so weak-minded as to think maybe they were giving the families an informal release.

24

JimV 06.02.19 at 8:45 pm

They weren’t “death camps”, they were forced-labor camps. Hitler’s rationale was that Jews and other non-Aryans should be exterminated by his sort of people. Communism under Stalin still had the rationale that people could be educated by learning how the other half lived via hard labor. Stalin no doubt would rather have killed the prisoners, but without the trappings of communism he had no justification to rule.

Finally, the idea that the prisoners under the tarp would think, as Steven Johnson suggested, that they could disobey the command not to move because they wouldn’t be shot while Gorky was there, and therefore get to live for the next hour or so, and based on this postponement of consequences decide to move, is about the most ridiculous thing I have ever seen. I can only charitably hope SJ was drunk or high or otherwise temporarily mentally incapacitated when he wrote that.

25

Belle Waring 06.03.19 at 5:48 am

steven t johnson: I am entirely free not to approve comments, but the reason I let almost everyone through all the time is to facilitate discussion. If you won’t participate seriously in a pleasant debate then there really is no reason for you to be here. And suggesting that people relating the horrors of Stalin’s work camps are Red-Baiting McCarthy-ites, and are of necessity claiming Stalin is worse than Hitler is the absolute definition of trolling. As for the prisoners in the snow, this was a well known way of eliminating members of ethnic groups, allegedly on the way to, for example, the newly created area meant to be an internal homeland for the Jews. So, individuals were sent to labor camps, but families and entire villages were executed–kulaks liquidated, in what must have been the cheapest way. They did use teenagers in the camps but infants and young children would have been more trouble than they were worth, I think. The idea that it would be difficult to find an area vastly far from any village, or that someone would notice the corpses later seems to me to indicate a deep lack of understanding of a) just how huge Siberia is, b) and the consequences of anyone noticing anything while on a train to Siberia, namely, zero. “I saw a bunch of corpses!” “Enjoy the view, zek.”

26

bad Jim 06.03.19 at 8:14 am

The Soviets lost between 10 and 26 million people around the time of the Great Patriotic War. Germany lost 5 million, perhaps not counting Jews. China lost 3 million then, but during the Great Leap Forward they managed to lose 30-55 million, due perhaps more to carelessness than malice.

Pol Pot could claim around 2 million. In Rwanda, 1 million tops. But these are impressive totals for such small countries. The Irish famine was also only in the 1 million death range, enough to move some of my ancestors to America. The Bengal famine of 1943 was 2-3 million out of a population twenty times that size, a trifle in comparison. Wait, what?

27

Peter T 06.03.19 at 11:32 am

In the period 1990 to early 2000s the Soviet archives were open to scholars. The NKVD and predecessors did keep records, and they show that the gulag was eminently survivable and most people did fairly short terms. BUT – the general experience is not the particular. There’s plenty of room for tarps, the horrors of Kolyma, the bones lining the White Sea canal along with all those who did their time and went back to building socialism.
There’s also a fairly widespread desire to blame Stalin for everything that happened. No question he was a ruthless man, and quite prepared to have people killed. But the sad truth is that lots of cruelties were not central but local, neglect or the ordinary malice so common in police, guards and anyone else let off the leash.

28

J-D 06.03.19 at 12:49 pm

steven t johnson

But it is true that people in the US routinely ignore what is in plain sight, if they cared to look.

Indeed they do, as indeed do people all over the world, but the relevance of the observation to this discussion is not apparent. Also not apparent is the relevance of any of the following sentences to this discussion:

… It is true the restorationist governments littering the world are deemed to be glorious advances for humanity or freedom or something. … And it is true that dredging up somebody else’s supposed sins in the past are a useful diversion from contemplation of the death toll from the US government. … I suppose four sentences in one post, then one sentence and three paragraphs can be unwelcome if uncomfortably relevant. …

No meaning is communicated to me by any of the following sentences:

… It is true that “totalitarianism” is bullshit. … Don’t believe the suggestion you think anyone visiting the USSR at any point in its existence shouldn’t be expected to ask for criticism of the government. Do believe you really think they were morally required to.

Sorry to say, it is plausible you really don’t understand the relevance of the rhetorical question. … The rightward turn in these times involves an ever more shameless commitment to the propaganda of Joe McCarthy, J.Edgar Hoover, Richard Nixon, Ayn Rand, von Mises, von Hayek, the list is endless. … The real answer, because the terror somehow had some sort of relationship to an outside threat, and like the French revolutionary terror, when the outside situation changed, things inside changed too, does not bear the requisite hate for Stalin as worse than Hitler. …

Your comment was the untrue one.

I don’t know which of the statements I made you consider to be untrue.

Very few people survived Hitler’s death camps, those largely due to the end of the war. Most people survived the Soviet labor camps, even though the USSR survived. Your equation of them is absurd at best.

I did not equate them.

Stalin serves as a tarp, as a justification for the millions killed by the US in un-tarped homicidal crusades.

This may be true in some cases: but it is not the only explanation for every occasion on which mention is made of Stalin, his deeds, or his misdeeds.

Sometimes people tell lies about their experiences with no expectation of profiting by doing so. You have no point here. You cannot honestly demand inflammatory stories, even about enemies, must be accepted without question.

I don’t demand that it be accepted without question; I don’t accept that it should be rejected without question. My point was that it’s possible that the story was repeated by the guards: I add that it may be a false story told by the guards and it may be a true story told by the guards.

As to “trolling,” this is even more meaningless than saying “boring.”

This remark is not clearly addressed to anybody except me: but I did not use the word ‘trolling’ or the word ‘boring’.

As to the stories, the belated concession Stalin’s labor camps weren’t Nazi death camps was made to show that the story could be related by survivors.

This remark is not clearly addressed to anybody except me: but I did not assert that Stalin’s camps were death camps and it’s not clear how it could be meaningful to describe somebody as conceding the falsehood of a statement that person never asserted in the first place.

The problem is that according to the unstated premises of the story, the survivors were under just as much compulsion as the guards. So, again, why speak?

People tell stories (both true and false) for many reasons. Why not speak? Whether the story about the tarp is true or false, obviously somebody did tell it: therefore any argument that leads to the conclusion that nobody had any reason to tell the story must be faulty. If the reason for telling the story was to make Stalin seem bad, that doesn’t settle (one way or the other) the question of the story’s accuracy; if the reason for telling the story was to make the US seem good by comparison, that still doesn’t settle (one way or the other) the question of the story’s accuracy.

The story about the families pushed out into the snow? Everybody who looked out a window after the snows melted would see all those bodies (or later skeletons.) I suppose they were careful to push the families out into thin layers of snow, so the impact would cause death. And I suppose they were careful not to push them out too close to a village, lest the survivors limp in, seeking refuge.

This remark is not clearly addressed to anybody except me: but I did not mention that story. However, I observe that Belle Waring has commented on it further.

29

steven t johnson 06.03.19 at 2:07 pm

Jim V seems to think that three hundred people are guaranteed to all think alike. This is not nearly as plausible as a tarp big enough to cover three hundred people. It’s like saying nobody in a public place with people around will ever refuse to get into the van despite the gun pointed at them. Of course Jim V may be using his superpowers to read dead men’s minds, which he claims when he informs us Stalin didn’t actually want a canal built but it was just an excuse to kill as many people as possible without openly executing them.

There is actually a very good reason for three hundred people to agree, though, not to risk it: The knowledge that bad as it may be overall, each still has a very good chance of surviving. The problem with simply saying this, is that Solzhenitsyn, the OP and Jim V still insist that Stalin is as bad as Hitler. This means given the fantastic numbers cited Stalin was worse. It is routinely asserted that Stalin killed more people than Hitler, and it is very much a minority opinion that this is not true. I believe these figures are copied from extreme right wing sources that can be usefully labeled “McCarthyite.” I think the true figures are horrifying enough, but the point of the false figures is to insist Stalin was worse than Hitler.

Although formally the OP concedes the labor camps were not death camps, when insisting the families in the snow story simply has to accepted by all right thinking people (and not just right-wing thinking ones,) the coy observation that anybody seeing the corpses were either zeks doomed to never return to testify, or were hardened ideologues who carefully checked to make sure they weren’t accidentally giving the family a slim chance to get to shelter and would never tell either. This contradicts the formal concession that Stalin’s labor camps weren’t death camps.

As to the inconvenience of children in camps, I remember stories about children being put into orphanages or sent to relatives when there parents were arrested, which I thought was pretty bad. If I pretend to be a psychopath, I can see getting rid of children and infants, but it seems to me the sensible thing to do would be to simply tell the parents the children were being sent to the children’s camp. Then the trouble would be gone but the labor of the parents could be extracted before they were murdered, as they must be. It’s annoying enough that most families would still have other relatives asking questions eventually, but parents would mostly not give up.

The less said about the claim that the area beside the train tracks must be the size of all Siberia, the better. What a throwing arm those guards had!

As to the definition of trolling? The only plausible definition seems to me to be personal abuse. At this time the Ukrainian government, which incorporates fascists, especially in the armed forces, has repeatedly claimed Stalin to be worse than Hitler, just as McCathyitish types claimed too. Denunciations of Stalin that insinuate he was just as bad as Hitler (except obviously worse, because bigger numbers,) is a part of that context.

Further, the point of the story is not to denounce Stalinist work camps, it is to denounce people for being fooled about Communism. There’s a reason the animus is against people fooled by tarps rather than people fooled by a tour of Theresienstadt. The OP is a denunciation of political correctness. Like all such denunciations, it is aimed at the left, not at a real problem. My very first sentence pointed out that today “we” who are blessed with a free press routinely ignore all sorts of horrifying things. Consider the fascist government in Ukraine. (If it’s not fascist, neither was Franco Spain.) Denouncing people who were fooled about Stalin while ignoring fascism in Ukraine? There are no tarps there!

You really want to see the difference between a pointed comment and trolling? Compare my first comment to J-D response. What I wrote was true, what he wrote was a trivial personal attack.

30

politicalfootball 06.03.19 at 7:49 pm

steven t johnson says:

I do wonder who told the story about the tarps. Given the insistence that Stalin was worse than Hitler, it hardly seems likely the death camps belched out any survivors from under the tarp.

There ought to be a name for this particular bit of trollery. STJ is an ardent foe of the proposition that Stalin was worse than Hitler, but posits the opposite to support a separate frivolous argument.

Still, I think STJ shows us something interesting about his thought process. Look at his sentence again: It isn’t Stalin’s real-life depredations that make the prisoners’ survival unlikely, it’s “the insistence that Stalin was worse than Hitler” that makes such survivors improbable. Reality doesn’t matter. It’s what we insist is true that counts.

J-D gets it, but overlooks a contradiction here:

Nobody in this discussion has insisted that Stalin was worse than Hitler: that’s something that has not happened, outside your imagination.

J-D struggles with the paradoxical nature of STJ’s trollery. In fact, STJ was insisting that Stalin was worse than Hitler. Therefore, someone in this discussion was doing that. Trolls believe they can make things true by saying them. Non-trolls are often caught off-guard when trolls are right about this.

We all know the spirit in which J-D was responding. J-D believes that STJ doesn’t really think that Stalin is worse than Hitler, and J-D wanted to respond as though STJ was making an argument in good faith.

But STJ isn’t arguing in good faith, and it’s unwise to give someone the benefit of the doubt when there is no doubt.

Moreover, we have no reason to believe we know STJ’s actual opinion about Stalin and Hitler. All we have is his words to go on, and he’s not a reliable witness.

I’m not convinced that people like STJ believe in anything at all beyond their own ability to bullshit people.

31

Roderick Bell 06.03.19 at 11:11 pm

When I first read Belle Waring’s quoted tarp account, I immediately thought of Nabokov’s “Bend Sinister” (writted about 1945). A totalitarian government is trying to no avail to ingratiate itself with the protagonist, a famous intellectual in the country. They kidnap Krug’s son to gain a hold over the father, but accidentally kill the child in a bureaucratic mix-up when he is sent to The Institute for Abnormal Boys.

In the meantime, Krug is being feted by grotesquely clueless state functionaries who esconce him in a small film room (or something), and begin showing a vile pornographic film that features “little people” for the viewers’ dilectation. Nabokov contrives to allow Krug’s great mind to slip the bonds of that particular earth, but not until he compasses the enormity of the vacuum at the center of the soul of such a state. As only Nabokov can do–or so I thought before this–the story is at once hilarious and horrifying.

32

Belle Waring 06.04.19 at 1:29 am

Bend Sinister is amazing!
steven t johnson, you are about a millimetre away from getting whacked with the banhammer. Tone it the fuck down if you want to be able to comment again on any of my threads in the future. Also, my eyes are rolling so far that I look like a white-eyed demon and all my sight is filled with the sudden red-blackness of the back of my head.

33

steven t johnson 06.04.19 at 3:49 pm

Turning aside from the insults and nonsense, then have a pleasant discussion on the real world relevance of the OP. This is China and the Uighurs. Clearly the point is that anyone who doesn’t accept the official view is abusing tarps. Even questioning the official account is moral depravity.

34

Sasha Clarkson 06.04.19 at 9:54 pm

Having popped into CT for the first time in many months, I find this discussion very interesting.
Firstly – what constitutes a “tarp”?
Here’s a metaphorical one: in December 1937, during the Great Putge, my great-grandfather Adolf Weinberg was arrested in the early hurs of the morning, and never seen again by his family. he was convicted of “correspondence with an enemy power” and sentenced to imprisonment “without the right of correspondence”. The records later revealed that he was shot in the cellars of the Bankova NKVD building in Kiev, five minutes walk from his home on Luteranskaya.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Without_the_right_of_correspondence

20 tears before the truth was admitted, I read Robert Conquest’s book, ‘The Great Terror’, which revealed the truth. My mother did not want to believe it, and I did not press her. We discovered the truth on her first post-WWII (and post Soviet) visit to Kiev in 1992. Why the deception? My own guess was that those so sentenced were too old or too frail to be worked in the camps, and Stalin’s Soviet state wanted to “put a tarp” over the real statistics on executions.

“Stalin no doubt would rather have killed the prisoners” – I’m not so sure – Stalin’s state used prisoners as a source of Labour.

My mother’s uncle by marriage was given a seven year sentence in 1932 for being a Trotskyite (I believe he actually was one, unusually) his sentence came to an end in 1939, and he was given the option of another seven years and volunteering to fight in the Red Army on the Finnish front. He chose the latter, obtained a clean passport, and was then rejected by the Army because of his myopia. He became a free man and rejoined my great aunt (who was, with her 10 year-old adopted war-orphan son, shot by the SS towards the end of WW2).

Was Stalin “worse than Hitler?” Can one meaningfully make that kind of judgement between two mass murdrers? But they were different undoubtedly, because they had different goals, priorities and backgrounds. As the facebook relationship stated used to say “it’s complicated” ….

35

john burke 06.04.19 at 10:24 pm

OT but important and I don’t know how else to call attention to it: the site has been hijacked in some way so that on my aggregator app (Feedly) articles appear which are cut-and-paste nonsense, but when I click the link to CT I get 404. Can anybody do anything about this?

36

Dave Maier 06.05.19 at 1:33 am

For what it’s worth, here’s Anne Applebaum, in “Gulag: A History,” which I read over the winter. Nothing about tarps, but we do have this (I have omitted the description of Gorky’s fiancée’s getup):

“Numerous memoirists recall the occasion of Gorky’s visit to Solovetsky, and all agree that elaborate preparations had been made in advance. […] But the memoirists are divided as to what Gorky actually did when he arrived. According to [prisoner Dmitrii] Likhachev, the writer saw through all attempts to fool him. While being shown around the hospital ward, where all of the staff were wearing new gowns, Gorky sniffed “I don’t like parades,” and walked away. He spent a mere ten minutes in the work colony—according to Likhachev—and then closeted himself with a fourteen-year-old boy prisoner, in order to hear the “truth.” He emerged weeping, forty minutes later.

Oleg Volkov, on the other hand, who was also on Solovetsky when Gorky visited, claims the writer “only looked where he was told to look.” And, although the story of the fourteen-year-old boy shows up elsewhere—according to one version, he was immediately shot after Gorky’s departure—others claim that all prisoners who tried to approach the writer were repulsed.

[…] But although we cannot be certain of what he actually did or saw on the island, we can read the essay he wrote afterward, which took the form of a travel sketch. […] Gorky […] writes admiringly of [all kinds of things]. […] At one point, he seems to hint at the legendary encounter with the fourteen-year-old boy. During his visit to a group of juvenile delinquents, he writes, one of them brought him a protest note. In response, there were “loud cries” from the children, who called the young man a “squealer.” […]

Later, Gorky allegedly said that not a single sentence of his essay on Solovetsky had been left “untouched by the censors’ pen.” We do not know, in fact, whether he wrote what he did out of naïveté, out of a calculated desire to deceive, or because the censors made him do it.” [pp.42-4]

She also says, later on, “Stalin was totes worse than Hitler, so suck it, commies!”

[Note: I made that last bit up.]

37

Matt 06.05.19 at 4:45 am

On Gorky, “We do not know, in fact, whether he wrote what he did out of naïveté, out of a calculated desire to deceive, or because the censors made him do it.”

If you know a bit about Gorky, it seems extremely unlikely that he was as naive as presented above. He spent a good deal of time after his return to Russia preventing maltreatment of individuals (and cultural items) by revolutionaries, not without some danger to himself. He was also fully aware of the sorts of violence and cruel behavior people are capable of. (See his autobiographical works.) I think that official “modification” of his reports is the most likely, though of course we can’t know for sure. (If I had to choose, I’d expect Gorky to be more honest than Solzhenitsyn, for what that’s worth.)

38

MFB 06.05.19 at 7:14 am

I’m inclined to agree with Steven T Johnson. Not because I think that his arguments are directly valid (what is the point of raising the “Stalin worse than Hitler” issue, except for rhetorical obfuscation?) but because the whole thread has been derailed into an anti-leftistcheerfest, which is exactly what Johnson was accusing it of being in the first place.

If we take the original post seriously, it is basically saying that people who wish to believe that a regime which is doing evil things is not doing evil things, will be easily hoodwinked. That’s not exactly the news, but it’s worth remembering. So a humane and intelligent person like Gorky was deceived into thinking, because he wanted to believe it, that the Soviet labour camps were not brutal and corrupt – because, as an enthusiast for Russian leftism, he knew that one of the cardinal ideas of Russian leftism was that the Russian prison system needed to be reformed in a humane manner.

Of course, if we take this as an example of psychological error, rather than as “Russians and leftists are horrible people”, then we can find it useful. For instance, I didn’t want to believe that the ANC’s prison camp in Angola in the 1980s was a horrible place (although, having some experience of South African prisons at the time, I didn’t imagine that it was paradise on earth) so if I’d visited it I could probably have been fooled into giving an unfairly glowing portrait of it. I suspect that most people reading this website can find similar examples.

The point is, of course, that you should be more critical of your own institutions, ideologies and political leaders. Those who think that this is a useful tool to use against political enemies – in the original post, the reference to Trump seems a bit of a giveaway, suggesting that the original post’s writer actually had much less insight into the tragedy recounted in it than should have been the case – are misguided; in a sense, this is even worse than Gorky’s disaster.

39

Dave Maier 06.05.19 at 1:16 pm

Thanks to Matt for more about Gorky. It does seem (to me, sometimes) that historians (like journalists) often render the bottom line as “we don’t really know” when in fact we (just about) do. (That can even come off as “ha, I’ve done sooo much reading I just don’t know what to think!”) The Applebaum book is good though, esp. if (like me) you haven’t plowed through Solzhenitsyn. She has one on the terror famine which looks pretty grim.

Like john burke, I also have received many nonsensical posts allegedly from CT (henry in particular) in the past day or so. They really are quite remarkable if you read them. One of them is about “deposition,” and in this one the paragraphs alternate, first taking the word in the legal sense and then in the chemical one, so it comes off as advice into how to prepare, the night before, for … chemicals being deposited on the riverbank.

40

David J. Littleboy 06.05.19 at 3:07 pm

“(If I had to choose, I’d expect Gorky to be more honest than Solzhenitsyn, for what that’s worth.)”

I wasn’t going to say this, because I mistrust my judgement, but for what it’s worth, I heard Solzhenitsyn speak in the 1970s and my impression was that what he was unhappy about was not the existence of the Gulag, but that it was the wrong people who were being imprisoned there. That was a long time ago, but I remember it because I enjoyed the older Russian authors and was trying to decide whether or not to read Solzhenitsyn, and I chose not to based on (my impression of) what he said.

It seemed as though all the lefties back then thought he was wonderful, so I’m likely dead wrong. (And am perfectly willing to be corrected and told what to go read.)

41

Petter Sjölund 06.05.19 at 4:58 pm

She also says, later on, “Stalin was totes worse than Hitler, so suck it, commies!”

That actually sounds like something Anne Applebaum would say, if not in those exact words.

42

JimV 06.05.19 at 7:38 pm

stj @20: “…I thought the men under the tarp would have thought, they don’t want Gorky to see me alive, how much less would they want Gorky to see them shoot me, or even wonder why I’m never heard from again.”

and @29: “Jim V seems to think that three hundred people are guaranteed to all think alike. This is not nearly as plausible as a tarp big enough to cover three hundred people. It’s like saying nobody in a public place with people around will ever refuse to get into the van despite the gun pointed at them. Of course Jim V may be using his superpowers to read dead men’s minds, which he claims when he informs us Stalin didn’t actually want a canal built but it was just an excuse to kill as many people as possible without openly executing them.”

Taking points in order, you’re the one who claimed that all the men under the tarp would think the same thing, or rather that you think that they would. If you meant some of the dimmer bulbs rather than all of them it would have been easy to make that clear. As to the danger to the state of Gorky never hearing of some of them again, that would assume Gorky knew all of them to begin with which seems far-fetched, and that he would expect to hear of all of them again, also far-fetched.

I don’t know where you got 300 people under the tarp. The OP says 300 yards, for a distance between groups, but does not say how many workers there were.

The van example is not relevant because the consequences of being forced into a van by strangers at gunpoint are unknown and therefore possibly worse than running away, whereas the consequences of sitting still under a tarp under the conditions of the story are that after a while the tarp will be removed so you can be put back to work. (Recall that according to your scenario the prisoners knew that they were being put under the tarp to conceal them from Gorky.)

I don’t know if Stalin wanted a particular canal built or not. My general impression is that he was a narcissist megalomaniac who like to have opposers killed, and did so in many instances. Maybe his desire for certain public works outweighed that impulse in some cases, whereas I attributed his partial clemency to his desire to maintain some legitimacy for his rule. I should not have attributed motives to him, regardless of what I think they were, I grant you that.

I don’t know whether Hitler or Stalin was worse, or even what the criteria should be. I do believe both were very bad. I don’t think I have an ideological axe to grind, but incredibly murky attempts at reasoning bother me, and sometimes I decide that pointing it out might be an incentive to get the perpetrator to improve. As in, I’ll try not to impute motives to people I don’t know next time.

43

J-D 06.05.19 at 9:39 pm

MFB

… the whole thread has been derailed into an anti-leftistcheerfest …

That would be bad if it had happened, but it hasn’t happened. You just made that up.

Comments on this entry are closed.