The Remains Of Stalin’s Dead Road
June 23, 2019 6:24 AM   Subscribe

In Russia’s arctic wilderness the remnants of one of the Soviet Union’s most tragic gulag projects now lies largely forgotten. Photojournalist Amos Chapple went to see it.
(Gulag previously.)
posted by adamvasco (46 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
Great photographs!
posted by Dip Flash at 6:46 AM on June 23


Those photos are so powerful and disturbing. Like Ivan Albright paintings come to life.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:47 AM on June 23 [1 favorite]


“Also, from the men's area we threw little bottles with a certain liquid with which the poor women hoped to become ‘mommies’ and get themselves out of penal labor.”
😲
posted by TedW at 7:14 AM on June 23 [3 favorites]


The cruelty
posted by growabrain at 7:27 AM on June 23 [3 favorites]


None of us are so far removed from the capability to be this cruel. I think it's important to know this. I think, especially for any leftists out there working, any activists. It takes a conscious effort not to go the easy route of punishment and revenge. And I'm saying this as someone who is so sensitive and emotional that I can't bring myself to kill bugs. I'm shameful to admit this, I've arrived at the idea of labor camps on my own. Of course I didn't think of them as this cruel, this inhumane. But, if there is a revolution, or restructuring, what do we do with people like Jobs? Like the thousands of trust fund kids out there. I mean, the disparity in the US is so severe that even the upper middle class is so far removed from the working class they have no idea how we function? These people are incapable of empathizing because they have no frame of reference. Journalists writing about how it's hard for a family of 4 to live on 250,000. It's like the men who tell women to just "hold it in" when it comes to periods. The best way to teach them would be real-world experience. Like the stunt not that long ago when politicians tried to live on food stamps for a laughably short amount of time.

I still have to squash the deep down desire to show people what it's like to be poor, to do manual labor, to not have any options and work 12 hours a day in any weather imaginable. My father never finished 10th grade, or maybe he did but didn't keep going after that. My mother got pregnant and the only option for him was construction. His body is broken now. He's constantly in pain. It's appealing to think of trump doing this, of devos, of any of the other republicans who want to make it harder and harder for poor people to even exist. So I just remind myself that I want to live in a world where this doesn't ever happen, not even to my enemies.
posted by FirstMateKate at 9:03 AM on June 23 [34 favorites]


The photographs are very beautiful. It’s obvious that a considerable amount of work went into traveling to a remote patch of forest with some unremarkable-looking tumbledown buildings and a disintegrating railway that have been all but forgotten, despite their being a reminder of one of the greatest crimes of the 20th century.

And some of the details of the story were horrifically bleak - imagine inseminating yourself with a stranger’s sperm for a chance at escape, or being bitten to death by insects (I would imagine that the exposure and the prisoner’s state of weakness contributed, although I know that biting insects at those latitudes are hard to imagine - friends in northern Finland hike in beekeeping veils over the summer).

On the other hand, it feels ironic that this was produced by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. These organisations are holdovers from the Cold War, broadcasting propaganda (in the literal, rather than pejorative sense of the world) into parts of the world that suffered under Soviet oppression, contrasting that with the freedom of the press and individual freedoms available in the US and Western Europe. That mission seems harder to maintain, given that the US is now establishing its own system of internment camps, while half-heartedly denying that they have that function.

Not labour camps, not death camps - not yet. But it’s apparently fine if people die in them. Both encouraged and justified, in fact. And that means that the big step has already been taken. It’s small steps from here on.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 9:19 AM on June 23 [10 favorites]


FirstMateKate: My father never finished 10th grade, or maybe he did but didn't keep going after that. My mother got pregnant and the only option for him was construction. His body is broken now. He's constantly in pain. It's appealing to think of trump doing this, of devos, of any of the other republicans who want to make it harder and harder for poor people to even exist.

For some reason this is making me think of the meeting between Molotov and Bevin in which Molotov went on and on about "the working class" until Bevin put his calloused hands down on the table beside Molotov's elegant hands and... well, I'm having trouble remembering exactly how it went, and I can't seem to find anything other than incidental references to it.
posted by clawsoon at 10:46 AM on June 23 [9 favorites]


But, if there is a revolution, or restructuring, what do we do with people like Jobs? Like the thousands of trust fund kids out there

By the time Stalin was putting his people in the gulags do you think it was trust fund kids and captains of industry he was after? They were toast before 1920! Worrying only about the rich would have gotten yourself purged under Lenin, let alone Stalin.

You don't stop there if you want to maintain your revolution. It's the ideological criminals and dangers to the stability of the state that you'd be sending to "work camps" for re-education. And of course any fellow leftists that don't quite adhere to the flavour of leftism you subscribe to. That's why there were so many camps!
posted by Mirax at 11:05 AM on June 23 [21 favorites]


The young leftists that I know, who are kind and thoughtful people outside of politics, are unapologetically supportive of socialism and have no plan for how to deal with the abuse, power grabbing and revenge cycles that would result from any revolution, let along a socialist one in the United States. There's some reference to the landlords deserving it, but generally a feeling that their side would never. This is not credible, because I'm already seeing angry pile-ons against capitalist "bootlickers" and other divisive attacks against simply regular people who don't share their politics. Marxism is not a magic pill against shittiness.

Trumpism raised the temperature, but the left's response, as always, turns its anger inward as much as it turns outward. Violence feeds violence.

This is quite sad just a few years out from the Occupy calls to unify the 99 percent.

I'm way more concerned about Trump's internment camps and the global rise of right-wing populism, but the solidarity against that movement on the left hardly feels like solidarity at all.
posted by Skwirl at 11:10 AM on June 23 [23 favorites]


You can, and should, get socialism democratically. Dictatorial socialism, like dictatorial capitalism, turns out bad. Somehow revolutionary vanguard parties always end up with psychopaths in charge of them. I don't know why, but they do.
posted by clawsoon at 11:18 AM on June 23 [6 favorites]


I'm glad there has recently been increased awareness of the horrors of Stalinism. The atrocities committed in the Soviet Union are still treated with a sort of "but they had good intentions" kid-gloves, which prevents people from seeing it as the epically brutal system that it was. Perhaps this is because the Soviet Union never tried to conquer the world, at least not as overtly as Hitler. Or maybe because it was never conclusively defeated as Hitler was.

What I know is that I was not taught about ANY of this in public school or my high brow university. I never knew about the liquidation of the kulaks, the holodomor, the famine of 1932, or the extent of Soviet era slave labor until I learned about it in my early 30s, through random shit like this on the Internet. We learned details of Nazi horror in high school. We read Marx, Luxembourg, Lenin, and Gramsci in college. But somehow the slavery and genocide of probably tens of millions of Soviet citizens never made it into any curriculum.

This is a major accounting problem. Sure, you can say "that wasn't real socialism" or that it's about the system being "dictatorial" rather than any particular content of its founding ideologies, but frankly I'm not convinced. Until we understand that revolutionary socialist regimes can, and frequently have, produced genocidal outcomes within a short time of taking power, I am not convinced that these outcomes could not be repeated.
posted by andrewpcone at 11:44 AM on June 23 [15 favorites]


Another thought. When we learned about the Holocaust in school, we were taught a variety of warning signs, as well we should be. If someone talks about glorious national rebirth, get scared. If someone starts scapegoating some minority group for society's ills, get scared. If a not-quite-the-government paramilitary group starts to exercise social control with the passive acquiescence of the state, get scared. When suddenly everything gets slathered in flags and patriotic sloganeering, get scared. The idea, I gather, is that if we recognize these warning signs, we can prevent another Third Reich.

But no such instruction is ever given about how to identify early warning signs for Maoism or Stalinism. What are the red flags we are supposed to look for, to prevent the government starving out whole regions of the country, or slaughtering farmers dubiously accused of hoarding? What are the early warning signs that if things continue on their current course, the state will execute 8 million landlords, or that ideology-drunk student mobs will publicly lynch professors by the tens of thousands?

I don't know the answers to those questions, and certainly none of my educators gave me any insight there. But I know that until images like the ones in the FPP are in school textbooks, and we say "never again" as resolutely to Stalinism as we do to Nazism, the answers to those questions will not become the axiomatic guidelines that the anti-fascist warning signs are at least among educated progressive folks.
posted by andrewpcone at 11:54 AM on June 23 [7 favorites]


We learned details of Nazi horror in high school. We read Marx, Luxembourg, Lenin, and Gramsci in college. But somehow the slavery and genocide of probably tens of millions of Soviet citizens never made it into any curriculum.

How old are you and where did you go to school? I grew up in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, and there was no lack of instruction about how evil the Soviet Union was. Even outside of history class - I read both One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich and Darkness at Noon in high school English. I wonder if this changed after the Cold War ended.
posted by Daily Alice at 12:04 PM on June 23 [21 favorites]


How old are you and where did you go to school?

I am 35. I went to school in Houston Independent School District, then University of Chicago.

Absolutely zero mention of any atrocity in the Soviet Union. The words "gulag" or "holodomor" did not come up at all, not even once.
posted by andrewpcone at 12:07 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]


But no such instruction is ever given about how to identify early warning signs for Maoism or Stalinism. What are the red flags we are supposed to look for, to prevent the government starving out whole regions of the country, or slaughtering farmers dubiously accused of hoarding? What are the early warning signs that if things continue on their current course, the state will execute 8 million landlords, or that ideology-drunk student mobs will publicly lynch professors by the tens of thousands?

Well, according to my high school education and the politicians who were popular at the time, signs of inchoate Stalinism included "socialized medicine", free school lunch for poor children, and excessive government regulation of, well, anything, but especially energy production. And insufficient dedication to the recitation of our daily loyalty oath was very highly suspect indeed.
posted by Daily Alice at 12:09 PM on June 23 [32 favorites]


I feel that in the 90s and even up through the 00s there was an effort to shift to a more positive perception of Russia. Even when Russians turned up as bad guys in Hollywood movies they were criminals rather than The Borg. The prevailing idea was that they'd become good democrats, good capitalists, later on good allies in the War on Terror, etc. Likewise, I remember seeing the surge in comparisons between the USSR and Putin's regime during Obama's Administration, when things started to more visibly go south between our two countries.

I definitely don't remember much specific about Soviet atrocities in school (before hitting college) - the USSR was never portrayed positively, but there wasn't much detail about what precisely went on there. I do remember one of my teachers in high school had a particular thing about the Cultural Revolution in Mao's China, so I think I actually learned a lot more about how awful that was.

Also 35, as a data point.
posted by AdamCSnider at 12:21 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]


Sure, you can say "that wasn't real socialism" or that it's about the system being "dictatorial" rather than any particular content of its founding ideologies,

Did the workers own the means of production? No? Then it wasn't communist. What it was is open to debate, but if the meanings of words are important, then communism it was not.

(And I say this as someone who is not the least bit interested in defending communism.)

I realize it's traditional in America -- on both the right and the nominal left -- to talk about the various colours of American "socialism" as if they were points tightly clustered with Marxism-Leninism on the broad spectrum of political-economic possibility. But an even deeper-rooted tradition is to defend the indefensible status quo by constructing a frightening false dichotomy around the alternatives. I expect to see that happen in every thread about Stalinism and I'm never always disappointed.

I mean, Christ, Putin's Russia has more in common with Stalin's Russia than any extant "socialist" democracy. The insinuation is just fucking nonsense.

---

Anyway, as a part-Ukranian whose family tree ends abruptly in 1923, when my grandfather's brothers were massacred (Why, or by whom? Nobody knows.) and he fled to Canada, this story is a tragic reminder of all of the suffering that occurred during that period in history, and the photographs are beautiful. So thank you for posting it.
posted by klanawa at 12:25 PM on June 23 [27 favorites]


But no such instruction is ever given about how to identify early warning signs for Maoism or Stalinism.

Well for starters just don't vote for anyone named Stalin or Mao.
posted by sammyo at 12:47 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]


I'm a lazy boy, but I engage in the simple expediency of categorising every smoking 19 year old in a big black coat who advocates protracted people's war as a Maoist, and find it most efficacious.
posted by AnhydrousLove at 1:00 PM on June 23 [4 favorites]


BBC did a thrill documentary series called World's Most Dangerous Roads. Pretty much what you would expect for the most part, but the episode on Siberia touched on the gulag, the prisoners being the ones who built said road, or died trying. For that, it's worth watching. (We saw it on Netflix, should be easily available.)

But no such instruction is ever given about how to identify early warning signs for Maoism or Stalinism. What are the red flags we are supposed to look for, to prevent the government starving out whole regions of the country, or slaughtering farmers dubiously accused of hoarding?

Since you ask - look for signs that a political movement or party views any and all political opposition as a nuisance to be gotten rid of, and permanently. That said movement or party or its members (claim to) hold views consonant with your own should bring you no comfort.

what do we do with people like Jobs?

Don't buy their products.
posted by BWA at 1:02 PM on June 23 [7 favorites]


This is not credible, because I'm already seeing angry pile-ons against capitalist "bootlickers" and other divisive attacks against simply regular people who don't share their politics. Marxism is not a magic pill against shittiness.

The revolution is orthodox. You sound like a bootlicker apologist.
posted by tclark at 1:15 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]


andrewpcone: But no such instruction is ever given about how to identify early warning signs for Maoism or Stalinism. What are the red flags we are supposed to look for, to prevent the government starving out whole regions of the country, or slaughtering farmers dubiously accused of hoarding? What are the early warning signs that if things continue on their current course, the state will execute 8 million landlords, or that ideology-drunk student mobs will publicly lynch professors by the tens of thousands?

A thing about all of the successful Communist revolutions that I know about (Russia, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Ethiopia, Angola, Yemen, Cuba, etc.) is that they happened in countries whose economies were dominated by peasant agriculture, with only the beginnings of industrialization. A large mass of oppressed, near-starvation subsistence farmers helps to dramatically turn up the violence against elites if they ever manage to win. (There tends to be even more violence if they lose, as in the slaughters of peasants after the Jacquerie and German Peasant's Revolt, but I digress.)

Veblen offered another hypothesis in 1921 in The Engineers and the Price System [PDF], focusing on the problems of revolution in advanced industrial economies. We have an economic system where, as the Great Depression showed us, we can't make bread unless we make everything else, and hardly any of us farm anymore, so he argued that a massive revolutionary reorganization of ownership of the means of production in an advanced industrial economy is likely to starve itself out before it gets very far.

Most successful Communist revolutions followed by massacres also happened in states which had been weakened by invasion, civil war, or colonialism. (I can't think of one where that doesn't apply, though there might be one I'm missing.)

As for early warning signs, if your nation is taken over by a party that regularly purges itself of undesirables who don't have working class or poor peasant backgrounds, you might be in for a massive Communist purge.
posted by clawsoon at 1:34 PM on June 23 [10 favorites]


(My own suspicion is that the practise of regular purging in Communist parties is one of the reasons that they were inevitably taken over by psychopaths. The fact that pre-revolution Communist parties had to maintain high levels of secrecy and vigilance - paranoia, almost - in clandestine cells in the face of attempts by security forces to infiltrate them probably gave the psychopaths extra room to maneuvre in the purging game, and put those psychopaths at or near the top of the Party heap by the time the revolution succeeded.)
posted by clawsoon at 1:56 PM on June 23 [5 favorites]


I'm 29, and Stalin's history was not taught in any of the (advanced placement) history classes that I took in a minor metropolitan area in Virginia. I was in my 20s before I'd ever heard the word "Holodomor".

Even more chilling is that I'm 4th generation Ukrainian/Russian jew (my great-great grandmother and father were both born in Ukraine, but their parents were born in either Russia/Ukraine) on my father's side. I grew up being told that we were "russian", but not much more than that. Doing what research I could find, it seems they fled after surviving the genocide and antisemitism of Nicholas II, and arrived in New York around 1908-1910, leaving behind rather large families (I think my 3rd great grandmother was a middle child of 9 or so). They had aunts and uncles and cousins that stayed behind, and I have no idea if they made it through the however many next decades of jewish genocide. But I guess, that's part of genocide, isn't it? Destroy all ties.
posted by FirstMateKate at 2:59 PM on June 23 [4 favorites]


Somehow revolutionary vanguard parties always end up with psychopaths in charge of them. I don't know why, but they do.

In the short term, revolution (of the not-entirely-democratic sort, which isn't in your control as the leader since the opposition who just lost at the ballot box can choose to take up arms) always causes enormous amounts of suffering, kills hundreds or thousands of people at the very best, and is otherwise generally horrific in a way that eclipses even Trump's concentration camps and our post 9/11 warmongering.

In the long term, outcomes may improve, possibly even dramatically, but there is always an interregnum. As a revolutionary leader, you are literally killing people. Maybe the ends justify the means, but it's still happening. Anyone who isn't a sociopath to begin with would quickly develop the ability to selectively turn off empathy or go insane.
posted by wierdo at 3:16 PM on June 23 [4 favorites]


Absolutely zero mention of any atrocity in the Soviet Union. The words "gulag" or "holodomor" did not come up at all, not even once.

A pro-Soviet/Russian magazine has been sold on newsstands in the US since Oct. 1956. It's been called 'USSR','Soviet Life', now 'Russian Life'. I've only seen it for sale a couple of times near colleges. Remember it being ... very upbeat; 'best foot forward', you might say. I doubt that it ever mentioned gulags.

Interestingly, a magazine called 'Amerika' was sold in the CCCP from 1944-94. I'd bet that the founders of 'Radio Free Europe' (still in business!) didn't approve of either.
posted by Twang at 3:31 PM on June 23


Absolutely no-one is arguing that revolution isn't a wretched, bloody affair

But I think the "direct deaths" for US imperialism since 9/11 is a solid half million, half of that civilians, and I think "direct deaths" is probably a fairly restricted category - certainly more so than we apply to the total casualties of any revolution, which we normally fold famine and disease into.

I do not think we have a revolution where the timing is close enough to be comparable, let alone any other factors, but I had a glance around for a death toll for the Bolivarian revolution. I didn't find one, but that itself suggests to me it wasn't a half-million.
posted by AnhydrousLove at 3:37 PM on June 23 [3 favorites]


One of the biggest-picture considerations of Stalinism I've read is Barrington Moore Jr.'s much argued about book Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy.
Moore argues that there have been three different types of modernization distinguished by the changes in class structure that accompany development...

The first type Moore calls "bourgeois revolution," in which a violent revolution abolished the domination of the traditional landed elite and brought capitalist democracy to England, France, and the United States. The second is "revolution from above," the process in Germany and Japan by which the traditional landed elite defeated popular revolution and preserved its dominant position during industrialization, a process which culminated in fascism. The third type is "peasant revolution," which in Russia and China saw the traditional elite abolished, not by a revolutionary bourgeoisie, but by a revolutionary peasantry which cleared the way for modernization. All modernizing societies have undergone a version of one of these three types, Moore argues, providing case studies of England, France, the United States, Japan, China, and India.
In all cases, labour power and agricultural production are used to create the machines of industrial revolution and then to feed them. A "surplus" gets squeezed out one way or another, whether it's slaves feeding cotton mills or political prisoners building railways. (Fascism is a bit odd in that it turned to slave-like labour after showing that industrialization was possible without it.)

The one group of nations he explicitly ignores are the small nations of Europe which industrialized without revolution or war. I'd really like to read a study of that: How did they do it? How did they extract the necessary "surplus" to build industrial economies without killing or enslaving millions of people?
posted by clawsoon at 4:55 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]


How did they do it? How did they extract the necessary "surplus" to build industrial economies without killing or enslaving millions of people?

You're talking about Europe? Across some time period between say 1500 and 1900? Because the answer, unless I'm really missing something, is they killed or enslaved millions of people. They just tried not to do that bit in particular in Europe, so far as possible.
posted by AnhydrousLove at 5:02 PM on June 23 [9 favorites]


You're talking about Europe? Across some time period between say 1500 and 1900?

Post-1850 industrialization, mostly. The capital-intensive heavy industry that gave us a lot more stuff than any other people have ever had before.

Because the answer, unless I'm really missing something, is they killed or enslaved millions of people. They just tried not to do that bit in particular in Europe, so far as possible.

But was that true of, like, Norway and Denmark and Czechoslovakia and... uh... you know... all the other ones like Belgium Spain the Netherlands
posted by clawsoon at 5:58 PM on June 23


Last time I checked, historians were still fighting hard over what degree economic growth and industrialization was dependent on (broadly speaking) Doing Terrible Things To People. There's always going to be an enormous element of counter-factual argument about it. There are some clear examples (Scandinavia, for example, or Japan in the Meiji period before they started launching external colonization campaigns against their neighbors) for quite rapid and effective economic growth and industrialization campaigns that don't seem to involve mass suffering of the sort you see in other areas (slavery, extermination of native peoples, enormous displacements of rural populations), but on the other hand these examples were all of states developing within a globalizing world-order - was the world-order itself dependent on DTTTP, and the examples just free-riding?

It's one of Those Moments in historiography, like the early Christian Church or the French Revolution, where you have enough information to make serious arguments possible, not enough information to actually settle the issue, and deep, deep emotional and often political commitments being worked out in an nominally objective debate about historical facts.
posted by AdamCSnider at 7:38 PM on June 23 [8 favorites]


andrewpcone: I am 35. I went to school in Houston Independent School District, then University of Chicago. Absolutely zero mention of any atrocity in the Soviet Union. The words "gulag" or "holodomor" did not come up at all, not even once.

I wonder if growing up in an Evangelical church made the difference for me. Atheism was bad, and the Soviets were atheists, so it was important to know about the bad things the atheist Soviets had done. I don't remember any sermons about it, but I do remember reading this children's book about smuggling Bibles into the Soviet Union that I borrowed from the church library. And my dad would occasionally mention that his Aunt Lydia had gone through some horrific stuff escaping from Stalin's Soviet Union, though he never went into detail.

I don't remember if I was taught about Stalinist atrocities in high school - maybe? probably? - but I definitely heard about them in college from a Czech history professor. I wasn't surprised at any point, though, perhaps as a result of that Bible-smuggling book. I heard about it early enough that it never felt like a revelation for me that the Soviets did Very Bad Things.

"Holodomor" gained wide currency more recently, as the Ukrainian diaspora and then independent Ukraine made an effort to have it acknowledged and publicized, so I'm not surprised that neither I nor you heard about it when we were growing up. The first public monument to the Holodomor wasn't constructed until 1983. The International Commission of Inquiry Into the 1932–33 Famine in Ukraine didn't deliver its report until 1990 (and the conclusions weren't 100% in support of the idea that it was a genocide). The Ukrainian parliament didn't officially recognize the Holodomor until 2006. And, to bring the point home, my browser is underlining Holodomor in red as a word it doesn't recognize.
posted by clawsoon at 7:38 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]


AdamCSnider: Last time I checked, historians were still fighting hard over what degree economic growth and industrialization was dependent on (broadly speaking) Doing Terrible Things To People.

This is a question I'm very interested in. Do you have any reading recommendations for recent work that either sums up the field or argues for one side or another of it?

It's one of Those Moments in historiography, like the early Christian Church or the French Revolution, where you have enough information to make serious arguments possible, not enough information to actually settle the issue, and deep, deep emotional and often political commitments being worked out in an nominally objective debate about historical facts.

Very well put.
posted by clawsoon at 7:46 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]


Back to the pictures... they make me think of the building of the Panama Canal, except pointless.
posted by clawsoon at 8:06 PM on June 23


This is a question I'm very interested in. Do you have any reading recommendations for recent work that either sums up the field or argues for one side or another of it?

The Great Divergence by Kenneth Pomeranz makes the case that the European colonization of the Americas (with all the awfulness that entailed, although he doesn't dwell on it) was critical, creating a positive feedback loop without which Europe's history would have looked much more like East Asia's - too many people, too little land and food (although he puts it rather less simplistically than that). It's much more USA-specific, but The Half of It Has Never Been Told makes the case that the USA was much more dependent on slavery for economic growth, in the North as well as the South, than is usually recognized.

Immanuel Wallerstein's world-system analysis is an epic attempt to demonstrate that you really can't look at Western Europe's industrialization (or America's) on a national level or as the outgrowth of a few simple factors - you have to look at the system which emerged in early modern Europe in which a "core" of growing mercantile states/regions (northern Italy, England, parts of France, the Low Countries) drew in raw materials from a periphery (Eastern Europe, the Baltic, the west coast of Africa and parts of the Americas), a system which both locked different regions into different paths and led to the system's expansion (India gets brought into the periphery, North America joins the core, etc.). He's drawn a lot of criticism over the years, but I still find a lot there that's worth thinking about.

On the other side of things, Joel Mokyr and Deidre McCloskey are arguing that specific cultural and intellectual patterns in Western Europe were the driving force behind economic growth and industrialization, and seem to me (I'm still working my way through McCloskey, my knowledge of Mokyr's work is mostly second-hand) to be at least implying that the nasty stuff could have been avoided. I can remember Niall Ferguson making a similar but much simplified case, which didn't impress me much.
posted by AdamCSnider at 8:45 PM on June 23 [4 favorites]


I remember my junior high history (I think) teacher circa 1983 or 1984 handing out some story basically showing how the Russians, after they took over America, basically converted a classroom of kids to communism and atheism (without having to resort to "the stick") and implied that this happened/would happen in classrooms, etc. across the country. So while they might not have taught us about Russian gulags in school, they weren't exactly teaching us that Russians were "good guys" either. (I won't ask how many U.S. politicians and Upstanding Citizens, then or now, would have actually been pro-gulag as long as they were only used for Certain People...)
posted by gtrwolf at 8:49 PM on June 23


some story basically showing how the Russians, after they took over America, basically converted a classroom of kids to communism and atheism

I seem to recall being assigned this in about Junior High, too. That would have been about 1975 or so.

It's The Children's Story by James Clavell.

FWIW I read every page of The Gulag Archipelago, and most of the rest of Solzhenitsyn's work, and some other related work, avidly and multiple times during the mid 1980s and thereabouts. So I felt pretty well versed at least in the broad outlines of what was going under Lenin and Stalin and later on as well.

But I also felt the general outlines were pretty common knowledge at the time. I mean dissidents like Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, Sharansky etc were very well known and in the news routinely. Solzhenityn's Nobel Prize and the whole controversy around it, Solzhenitsyn's subsequent expulsion, and so on, were very well covered in the press--international sensations, really.

Like nowadays we see, say, the general outlines of what is going on in North Korea routinely in the news. You know it is a repressive regime and there are camps and purges and penalty camps and starvation in certain segments of the population and so on. Various dissidents leave the country and tell certain pieces of the story. You might not know all the details, but you certainly know the outlines, if you're paying attention at all. You're not just floating along thinking, "North Korea is some totally awesome socialist paradise with no internal problems whatsoever."

We certainly had that same type of information in the 1970s & 80s about the Soviet Union. The "Gulag Archipelago" was a very well known term and camps and crackdowns on dissidents, intellectuals, political rivals, etc were very, very well known, publicized, and discussed.
posted by flug at 10:27 PM on June 23 [8 favorites]


Don’t they teach University of Chicago grads that the signs of socialism are democratic elections and and the recipe for curing it is deposition through assassination of elected leaders with the help of the CIA. And once you’ve removed the socialism, install economists trained at the august institution to run the new economy, and to keep it in line with American interests.

I guess they probably wouldn’t teach that, though, since their education on Leftist thought and history ends with Gramsci.
posted by durandal at 2:26 AM on June 24 [1 favorite]


I am 35. I went to school in Houston Independent School District, then University of Chicago.

It's really hard to believe you could make it through the University of Chicago without an evils of socialism message. It's practically their core message.
posted by srboisvert at 4:45 AM on June 24 [4 favorites]


"But no such instruction is ever given about how to identify early warning signs for Maoism or Stalinism."

Cult of personality + populism + xenophobia + paranoia, which are all synergistic. I think these are the dangers and warning signs that are independent of left/right political distinctions. And it doesn't require that this describes the majority, but just a motivated large minority with access to institutional power which a big portion of the rest of the population will habitually accept.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:36 AM on June 24 [2 favorites]


A dirge for viewing the pictures: Red Army Blues by The Waterboys
posted by srboisvert at 7:05 AM on June 24


then University of Chicago.

Absolutely zero mention of any atrocity in the Soviet Union. The words "gulag" or "holodomor" did not come up at all, not even once.


Did you...take any classes touching on modern times? Because, um, University of Chicago.

I'm just really not aware of anyone who took history at all, say, pre-1991, not knowing about the purges, the gulags, the famines. The Cold War made sure of that. We covered it in AP Euro; pretty sure I read Darkness at Noon in high school. It's a long way from 1935.
posted by praemunire at 10:25 AM on June 24


>But was that true of, like, Norway and Denmark and Czechoslovakia and... uh... you know... all the other ones like Belgium Spain the Netherlands

Just to be nitpicky, and because it's some interesting but little noted history - Norway and Denmark were as one until after the Napoleonic wars. Before then, the Danish East India Company had quite the little trade network going on, eventually sold to the UK. (One notable trading post under Raghunatha Nayak, the King of Thanjavur was Tranquebar.)

The Danish West India Company had footholds on some of the Caribbean islands, St Croix, St Thomas and St John, which the US bought in 1917.

Czechoslovakia didn't exist until 1918, being part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before that, but the ruling Hapsburgs had made a late, and short lived, entry into the global trading scramble through the Hollandish part of the empire, specifically the Ostend Company.
posted by BWA at 2:06 PM on June 24 [3 favorites]


I'm surprised that no one has pointed out that the American landscape is absolutely littered with similar remnants of disused construction projects and ramshackle housing from regions depopulated by the fickleness of commerce rather than bureaucracy.

Of course, several of them have been transformed into tourist attractions. That's less feasible in northern Siberia (for the foreseeable few decades.)
posted by likethemagician at 6:45 PM on June 24 [1 favorite]


It's really hard to believe you could make it through the University of Chicago without an evils of socialism message. It's practically their core message.


The teachers of multiple of my core classes were self-described Marxists. Never was I told that socialism was evil, or anything remotely similar. I was aware such ideologies were prominent in the econ department and business school, but I never studied those things.

Did you...take any classes touching on modern times? Because, um, University of Chicago.


"European Civilization" ended with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. I took other classes about the 20th century, but none were about Russia. The primary text oriented classes treated Lenin as a Brilliant Author Of Foundational Texts, and made no mention of the Cheka, much less anything Stalin did. Stalin wasn't a Brilliant Author Of Foundational Texts, you see, so he and his atrocities didn't get mentioned in class. At all. Even once.

In my experience, University of Chicago was a lot less about Leo Strauss and Milton Friedman than it was about the worship of distilled theory at the expense of its pesky implementation details. This supports an econ department that can divorce the virtues of capitalism from its ugly history. It also supports those who study "social thought" in their extolling the architects of genocidal regimes because some they had interesting riffs on dialectical materialism.
posted by andrewpcone at 9:45 PM on June 24 [1 favorite]


I recently read "Survival in the Killing Fields" by Haing Ngor. The book outlined his grueling experiences working for the Khymer Rouge in a farm work camp in Cambodia in the mid 1970s. Amongst the things that happened to him; most of his family being executed, his wife dieing in child birth, both his small toes being cut off (for calling his wife Honey).

His description of stealing the co-operative rice husking machine while the cadre gave his daily boring speech about the communist party and workers paradise; was the only grain of enjoyment I got from reading the 515 page book.
posted by Narrative_Historian at 1:18 AM on June 25


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