The Gulag Archipelago: What India Can Learn From Soviet’s Dark Past

 The Gulag Archipelago: What India Can Learn From Soviet’s Dark Past

Image: Tom Balmforth

Social Prophylaxis – A situation where society is paralyzed into inaction – akin to a phenomenon which renders the society “indifferent” to its surroundings.

The term was one of the first foundation stones in Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s disturbingly beautiful work – ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ – an epic that stretches over six volumes detailing crimes of the Soviet states from 1918-1956, pretty much covering the length of both world wars. The reader might be confused by this obscure reference to the Soviet State in an article concerning India. The reason to do so is to recount history, not passively – like many of us do – but actively. To recount it actively is to look at those parts that carry a resemblance to the present and illuminate those pages from history books that are less traversed by eyes of the present.

However, I must forewarn the reader that the Gulag Archipelago is a dense, psychologically heavy, and massive undertaking stretching over numerous pages.

In 1918, the Soviet State was turning into a vigilance state. It was beginning to show tell-tale signs of what a surveillance state meant – which no doubt would have inspired George Orwell to pen 1984, in 1949. In a time span of three decades, the Gulag touched (read destroyed) the lives of 18 million people and killed close to three million. This started in 1918 and peaked in 1927, before continuing on until 1956, in the middle of which it coincided with Nazi Germany. However, though we know a lot about the Third Reich, nobody talks about this. Nobody talks about this because evidence was carefully erased. As though those three million never existed. Scores of political theses and literary works were destroyed. Any attempt made to recount the atrocities were stifled, lest the future generations catch a glimpse of what humans are capable of.  But fortunately, one of those works survived. And that was all that was needed. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s work sent shock waves across the world.

Introduction to The Gulag

The Gulag Archipelago was a prison system designed by the Soviet State to hold political prisoners, i.e. anyone who expressed discontentment at Stalin (The Great Leader) or the Socialist State. It was done to curb any sort of discontentment expressed against the establishment and to erase these elements from society either by imprisonment (multiple times) or by death/exile. It must sound familiar already to the reader of post-independence India, but we must not stop here because this was the foundation stone of this atrocity. In his works, Solzhenitsyn goes into excruciating detail into how this conviction-arrest-imprisonment-death system worked but we shall focus on one specific aspect of his work called Article 58.

Article 58

Article 58, established in 1927 was designed to hold accountable those who were suspected of undermining the Soviet State in any shape or form. So that the letter of the law ensured there was nothing ‘illegal’ about the arrests. Now, I must caution the reader that what you are about to read is not fiction. This happened. In the 20th century, amidst human consciousness, morality and righteousness. Article 58 was stated as follows:

Article 58-1: Definition of counter-revolutionary activity:

“A counter-revolutionary action is any action aimed at overthrowing, undermining or weakening of the power of workers’ and peasants’ Soviets . . . and governments of the USSR and Soviet and autonomous republics, or at the undermining or weakening of the external security of the USSR and main economical, political and national achievements of the proletarian revolution”

There are fourteen addendums to this article. Every addendum represents the all-encompassing brutality of the law which led to the imprisonment of eighteen million Russians. Never mind actions, even your thoughts were not spared under this law. Article 58 was the USSR’s smoking gun. Its weapon against the masses. No one was spared. Because no one knew who would be arrested. The sheer mechanical cruelty with which it was carried is something to be in awe of. People were lifted from everywhere – their homes, places of prayer, offices and gatherings. The weird part about the arrests were that they were mostly made in the night, unless unavoidable. When the rest of the masses were asleep. And they were made not all at once, but individually with precision. Why poke the bear? Why risk mass arrests and drawing attention to oneself when such action could be carried out efficiently, swiftly and without bloodshed under the veil of night?

The arrests went like this: met with your friends over drinks at a pub casually? Do you remember what you spoke? No?  – Then you were plotting against the State, here is fifteen years jail. Who are the people you know? No, literally, who are the people you know? They all get ten years. Went abroad to the US to study? What did you study? Can you prove you did not commit treason whilst there? No? Ah, well, here is ten years.

Entire family trees were imprisoned. And the action was not limited to the proletariat. Social class did not excuse you from the wrath of the State. Farmers were killed and imprisoned by scores. Why? Because they were trying to usurp Soviet wealth. By cultivating their own land and selling their own produce, they were going against the tenets of Socialism, promoting ‘evil’ capitalism and thereby committing treason. If you were caught, for example, ‘stealing’ some corn from your own farm you got fifteen years. Fifteen years. Even if we excuse the irony here that the very person who harvested the crop is not allowed to partake in its produce, think about the term of that sentence. Let that sink in.

For a second, imagine the manpower you would need, just the sheer strength of police force you would have to employ to arrest over 18 million people. Of course, these arrests were not made in a year. But 18 million is no joke. Definitely not in the 1920s. So almost everyone was police. Even ordinary citizens were police. Your friend, your neighbour, your schoolteacher, your student – anyone. “Big brother has eyes everywhere. You thought you were talking to a friend? Think again, Comrade. Your ‘friend’ ratted you out”. Which was to be expected, was it not? People are not virtuous. This should be all but evident to us. We never have been. Given an inkling, the slightest notion that you are working for a greater good, anyone is capable of anything. If you think you are the poster child of human virtuosity, then realize that there were many before you who have thought that and there will be many after you who think that. The cruel irony here is that the whole idea of the Socialist Soviet State was dependent on that notion. And what happened? Citizens turned on citizens. The idea of employing citizens as police is called Gendarmerie. This must already sound vaguely familiar to my fellow Indian – is it not?


The next paradoxical outcome of the system was that no one was spared. Even those within the system – those that thought they were immune, untouchable. Decorated army general? But why were you the first one to stop clapping when the speech about our Great Leader ended? Are you plotting against him? Of course you are – twenty years.  Because the thumb rule in the USSR was – If you look hard enough, you can make a case against anyone. If you look hard enough, anyone is a criminal. Which means you are safe…until you aren’t. This is the grave miscalculation of those who endeavour to split society into them and us. They think ‘as long as I am with us nothing can happen to me’. Think again. As them gets smaller in number, the pool of prey gets smaller. And when separation on the first degree is done, it starts on the second degree, then the third and so on. And this goes on till no one is left except the ghostly remains of a civilization.

After reading all this, the reader might ask – so what was the rest of the population doing at this time? Surely it cannot be that the entire population of USSR at that time was ignorant?

I have only got unpleasant news. Two things are true. First, and the most important of all is that citizens did indeed ignore or turn a blind eye – at least the very fact that this saga exists in history proves that – to all of the happenings around them. Second, a lot of this was done in secrecy – the arrests, the killings, the prison camps and a majority of people that were themselves involved in the barbaric act. I must make myself very clear, lest I sound like I am defending the wilful ignorance of the majority of the population, I am not. I am simply stating what happened. And what happened is that the citizens of Russia and the then USSR were in no shape or form different. They were not brutes that lacked moral consciousness and sense of basic empathy. In fact, this is the mind-bender. How is it, that a population of normal, peace-loving people turn into monsters? I will refrain myself from going into theology, but I suffice it to say that under the right circumstances (i.e. wrong circumstances) anyone, is capable of anything. And wilful ignorance of an entire generation of people is not outside the ambit of that theory.

I will not go into the gruesome details of prison life in the Gulag or how people were tortured and the accounts of many of those who went through those experiences because that is not relevant to our thesis. Our thesis rests on the indicators of a Surveillance State and those are as follows – a) the establishment of archaic laws, b) Increased Surveillance c) Inability to question authority, d) Wilfully ignorant population and e) Ban of artistic expression aimed at political ideology.

What India can learn

I have recounted those which I believe will resonate with the reader living in India, CE 2020. Juxtapose the above with our current political and socio-economic situation. Here, for the sake of clarity we must digress to understand why it is, that I am drawing these comparisons to what was an anarchistic and sadistic regime. To do so, we must first talk about how, in many aspects India is not USSR.

India is not where the USSR was in 1918. The reasons for this are multi-fold. For starters, it is because history is of course never in vain. It has taught us that governance systems are important. And therefore, various checks and balances must be put into place, like ‘checkpoints’, which makes committing crimes of such scale and magnitude difficult. The constitution of India and also the judicial system of the country to mention a few are part of those checks and balances. So already, a hypothetical Gulag 2.0 will have to jump, skip and hop all these checkpoints to actually unleash its wrath on a nation of one billion. While it is true that no system is incorruptible, it is also true that the presence of more checks and systems makes it more difficult and also improbable for all these checkpoints to fail at the same time. Where one fails, the other must fall into place, and so on and so forth.

Also, the mere fact that it is 2020 and not 1920 makes it easier for us. This is because of Media and Communications. Though I have contested that the media is biased (which it is – and to be fair, bias is unavoidable) and does colour the narrative for a large part, in 2020 it is not conceivable that prison camps that house thousands and the killings of thousands more would go unnoticed. Even if we assume a situation that Indian media (personal and mass) was stifled and kept hush-hush, it is not conceivable that in a world that is so connected both physically (by transport) and digitally (by media) this story would be unheard by the rest of the world. A sharp reader will counter that there are regimes like Syria and North Korea where despite global acknowledgement of flagrant human rights violations, useful help of any kind has not yielded benefit. But as we have already covered before, the underlying constitution and the structure of India’s social checks and balances already act as first line of defence.

Now we must converge to our initial theory of the indicators that I had listed. To crumble the cookie, we must adopt one simple thumb rule – prevention over cure. India is not yet there. But then we must ask, is there a ‘yet’ that we can objectively measure, track and identify as being the turning point where such comparisons would hold water? Are there certain events that we must chalk down in a check-list that we tick and by the end of which we must exclaim, “ah, now is the time to look deeper into what is wrong”. Indeed, there might be people who trust their innate capacity to act in such a swift manner but unfortunately the dynamics of social tectonic shifts in society don’t manifest that way. They creep over us, slowly.

India has certainly not imprisoned millions without just cause. There is definitely not a central dogma that the citizens adhere to and we definitely do not have to pledge our allegiance to a leader but those are extremist signs. By the time they appear, and we act, let us say there is no act left. The reader who sees this simple distinction will know that the social fabric of our country has changed since independence. I am merely trying to point to those signs which have very clearly made themselves prominent in the same era and throwing caution to the wind. The control of mainstream media, the Emergency, the arrest of political dissenters, the passing of CAA, blatant use of Section 144, they are all happening under morally righteous generations.  Remember that this hundred years after the Gulag – a century has passed.

Also read: Untangling The CAA Debate

Take a note of these indicators as they exist and make themselves present every day. In that aspect we are lucky. We are also unlucky. Because we most certainly cannot excuse ourselves of not knowing the facts. And that means the cost of inaction is greater and hence the moral burden greater so. The facts are there, plain as day.

Next steps

Many times, more often than not, criticisms are hurled without contribution. And this parallel would be incomplete without talking about what can we do right as a supplement to what is wrong. It would also be prudent to do so because if history can very well repeat itself, then there must be something we can do different.

I have pretty much sounded morose but there is plenty that is in our hands. The first is to realize that the government is not a machine. It is not some mechanical non-living entity that we construct. It is made up of people. People who are citizens of a nation, just like you and I. Who knows, one day you might be in thegovernment.  And since the government is made of people, the actions of said people must in some way be representative of the population. It would be foolish to claim that once people join the government and other social machinery in our country, their attitudes change and they no more remain who they were previously. Therefore, we must first and foremost, understand who we choose to represent us. This might seem very redundant when I say this but alas this is what people forget – we elect people to represent us. This does not stop with just voting. It means you must be involved. Pay attention. Obviously, the best thing would be to try and be a representative yourself! And thankfully each one of us has a right to do that. It is only sad that we do not exercise that right.

This is a good bridge to my next forward-looking solution.

What is the level of information homogeneity when it comes to developmental statistics? We have so many platforms and mediums that are saturated with reviews about gadgets, cars and movies. What about our developmental statistics? Do we ‘rate’ our constituency representative after their term? I must not be naïve to assume that this thought would preoccupy the reader’s mind as much as the latest Nolan movie. It is natural that such issues are not in our immediate line of sight but that is exactly the point. Since they are not in our line of sight, we must create systems such that they are brought into it. Such systems must spread actionable info on the local legislative bodies, their activities and their effectiveness. And if the argument is these systems already exist, then they are clearly not working. Therefore, the second solution is making information spread homogeneous.

Third, contribute to ideas. A very major part of our problem is that we think running the government is a one-sided affair. We elect people, the said people enact laws, erect infrastructure and take society to a better place. Unfortunately, this is not the dynamic in which the one who has the most skin in the game (you and I) remains so passive about what exactly it is that we want. Write about your idea of a playground that you think will uplift communal welfare in your society – send it to your local representative. Write about that solar PV system you think will bring both direct and indirect benefits to your community. Write about how you think we should adopt an innovative garbage disposal system. In short, do not just pop your head up when things go wrong. If you want things to go a certain way, make yourself heard. So, contribute to ideas.

That’s all it really takes. Awareness and engagement. In whatever capacity you find yourself most fit to involve yourself. You do not have to write a hundred-page memo. Do a bit more than activism when things go wrong. Be the one who does things so protests don’t occur, rather than one who does things only when protests occur. I must now conclude what has been a long and twisting story into a concise ending. History teaches us a lot. But it has a fallacy. Given enough time, anything becomes ephemeral.

But while history is bound to repeat itself, we must phrase the ending a bit differently this time.