Gulag Archipelago: Chapter 1 Arrest

The first theme of chapter one is the shock and outrage of arrest. The moment of arrest is a life crisis where it appears that everything you once believed is wrong.

“The Universe has many different centres as there are living beings in it. Each of us is a centre of the Universe, and that Universe is shattered when they hiss at you: ‘You are under arrest!’

“If you are arrested, can anything else remain unshattered by this cataclysm?

But the darkened mind is incapable of embracing these displacements in our universe, and both the most sophisticated and the veriest simpleton among us, drawing on all life’s experiences, can gasp out only: ‘Me? What for?’

And this is a question which,though repeated millions and millions of times before, has yet to receive an answer.

Arrest is an instantaneous, shattering thrust, expulsion, somersault from one state to another.” (Pages 3-4)

I suspect one reason I did not make progress with GA when I was younger was because I did not have personal experience of the feeling Solzhenitsyn is talking about. I had not had my assumed reality and expectations shattered; I had not been thrust from one state into another. Life was still very safe and predictable. This of course changes in most people’s lives as they grow older. Apart from arrest in a totalitarian state, some analogous experiences might be diagnosis with a serious illness (self or loved one), being a crime victim, a severe accident or injury.  In my case I think being told we might never be able to have children was my most profound displacement. It altered all my assumptions and how I saw my place in society.

That’s a start to understanding “Arrest.” But a few more paragraphs in you see something far more malevolent is at work than disease or accident or even crime. The tone feels frantic, rushed. It’s as if the writer is struggling to note every outrage and atrocity but barely has he noted one but he has to move on to the next one. He seems torn between adequately documenting each arrest and indignity and pausing long enough to explain what is happening.

“The traditional image of the arrest is also what happens afterward, when the poor victim has been taken away. It is an alien, brutal, crushing force totally dominating the apartment for hours on end, a breaking, tipping open, pulling things from walls, emptying things from wardrobes and desks onto the floor, shaking, dumping out and ripping apart— piling up mountains of litter on the floor— and the crunch of things being trampled by jackboots. And nothing is sacred in a search! During the arrest of the locomotive engineer Inoshin, a tiny coffin stood in his room containing the body of his newly dead child. The “jurists” dumped the body out of the coffin and searched it. They shake sick people out of their sickbeds, and they unwind bandages to search beneath them.” (5)

Other items confiscated in an arrest might be  antiquarian documents (“a decree on ending the war with Napoleon”, “a proclamation of public prayers against cholera”) ancient Tibetan manuscripts, an alphabet a scholar created for a tribe of people called  the Yenisei Ostysks.

At this point, if the reader can detach enough she might notice that the arrests are not put in any kind of context: there is no mention of what crime these people have committed, which is something we would rather expect to be told when arrested. A policeman is supposed to say why the arrest is happening and to read our rights. It appears the people being arrested have no idea either. Midway through the chapter, Solzhenitsyn spells it out:  “For several decades political arrests were distinguished in our country precisely by the fact the people arrested were guilty of nothing and were therefore unprepared to put up any resistance whatsoever. There was a general feeling of being destined for destruction, a sense of having nowhere to escape from the GPU-NKVD.” (11) You get a sense of lives being ripped apart, scattered, and only an occasional name —“Nina Aleksandrovna Palchinshaya” or perhaps an occupation —“engineer” —- floating up like flotsam to mark that a life existed. It’s overwhelming and disorienting.

The chapter develops the theme of parallel realities. Although there might be no rational reason for the arrest, there is a logic to how the arrests occur. Even as one kind of order is crumbling (the state of affairs in which one might expect to mourn a dead child, or write a scholarly article in peace) another order is forming, one in which people are arrested as efficiently as possible. Night arrests are effective because people are disoriented from sleep, and the arrest is not as visible to neighbours. Depending on how much resistance is expected, people can be arrested in a multitude of ways, some of which are elaborately choreographed. “One has to give the Organs their due: in an age where public speeches, the plays in our theatres, and women’s fashions all seem to have come off assembly lines, arrests can be of the most varied kind.” (9-10). Although it couldn’t last: “In the strained and overloaded years of 1945 and 1946, where trainload after trainload poured in from Europe,to be swallowed up immediately and sent off to Gulag, all that excessive theatricality went out the window, and the whole theory suffered greatly.”

Midway through the chapter Solzhenitsyn addresses the obvious question: why was there not more resistance? Some of it was ignorance, some was denial: but it would seem that the arrests were so illogical, so detached from reality that people didn’t understand they could resist. 

“By and large, the Organs had no profound reasons for their choice of whom to arrest and whom not to arrest. Their quotas might be filled on an orderly basis or wholly arbitrarily. In 1937 a woman came to the reception room of the Novocherkassk NKVD to ask what she should do about the unfed unweaned infant of a neighbour who had been arrested. They said:  “Sit down: we’ll find out.” She sat there for two hours—-whereupon they took her and tossed her into a cell. They had a total plan to be fulfilled in a hurry, and there was no one available to send out into the city— and here was this woman already in their hands!” (11)

Some did resist, and Solzhenitsyn details a few cases. However, this statement seemed to apply to most: “A person who is not inwardly prepared for the use of violence against him (or her) is always weaker than the person committing the violence.” (14) One might add, a person who tries too hard to justify or rationalize what he sees (or senses) taking place around him is usually weaker than the person who is not afraid to act unjustly or irrationally. At least in the short term. 

“Resistance should have begun right there, in the moment of arrest,” says Solzhenitsyn.  “But it did not begin.” (15)

In the next part of the chapter Solzhenitsyn discusses his own case, as he was arrested while in the military. Not only did he not resist; he had to guide the counter intelligence agents to the prison because they did not know where it was. “I kept silent for one other reason,” he says. “Those Muscovites thronging the steps of the escalators were too few for me, too few! Here my cry would be heard by 200 or twice 200, but what about 200 million? Vaguely, unclearly, I had a vision that I would one day cry out to 200 million.” (18)

Solzhenitsyn describes his arrest as “the easiest imaginable.” Due to the kindness of his commanding officer, he even learns why he was arrested: he had written letters to a school friend on the Ukrainian front.

He is confined with a tank crew inside a tiny hole in the ground. The tank crew tell him they are there because they got drunk and broke into the bath of a woman  who was “the property” of the army Chief of Counterintelligence.

Among the various horrible details of this chapter is a description of how women are used as spoils of war. “For three weeks the war had been going on inside Germany, and all of us knew very well that if the girls were German they could be raped then shot. This was almost a combat distinction. Had they been Polish girls or our own displaced Russian girls, they could have been chased naked  around the garden and slapped on the behind: an amusement, no more. But just because this one was the “campaign wife” of the chief of counter intelligence...” well, bad luck to this tank crew. (21) 

Chapter 1 ends with the master sergeant barking “Out for toilet call! Hands behind your backs!” 

“.....Back of the barn was a small square area in which the snow had been trampled down but had not yet melted. It was soiled all over with human feces, so densely scattered over the whole square that it was difficult to find a spot to place ones two feet to squat. ....Two machine gunners pointed their machine pistols at us as we squatted, and before a minute had passed the master sergeant brusquely urged us on:

“‘Come on! Hurry it up! With us they do it quickly!’

One of the tankmen, a senior lieutenant, asks quietly: ‘What do you mean, with us?’

“‘In SMERSH counterintelligence!’ The master sergeant shot back more proudly and resonantly than was called for.

“‘.. And with us we do it slowly,’ replied the senior lieutenant thoughtfully. His helmet was pulled back, uncovering his still untrimmed hair. His oaken, battle hardened rear end was lifted toward the pleasant coolish breeze.

“‘What do you mean, with us?” The master sergeant barked.

“‘In the Red Army,’ the senior lieutenant replied very quietly from his heels, measuring with his look the cannon tailer that never was.”

There is something strangely dignified about the tank man squatting there taking a dump, and refusing to be rushed. The scene sticks with me because it is so unexpected. When we imagine “speaking truth to power,” or fighting tyranny, I think we generally picture ourselves in some heroic situation where we can look good. Maybe we face opposition but there are also people there who offer praise and encouragement, who say nice things like “be the change you wish to see in the world.” 

I think one of the points of this chapter is that when you face the worst evil of all, it’s not remotely like that. It’s humiliating, and isolating, and terrifying, and we are probably terribly and guiltily aware of what stupid cowards we really are. And if you are going to “resist,” then that is when you do it, because there probably won’t be a better time. If you are going to be brave, it might as well be while you are shitting with a gun pointed at your head.

Maybe another reason I never made it last chapter 1 for all those years was because that image was enough to think about for a few years at least. 

But this time I did make it past, so—-onward!


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