The Gulag and the failure of reason

I read an article yesterday about how the gulag is perceived today in the Russian society (see here). I still do not know what to make of it. “Many Russians regard the horrors of the forced labour camps as a necessary evil during a difficult period of Soviet history.” After all, “People fell in love in the camps, people got pregnant; it wasn’t all bad,” as one person said. But didn’t people fall in love and get pregnant during slavery? Can we say that slavery “wasn’t all bad” just because of this?

Perhaps it is just about what society accepts today, and I am not talking about the Russian society, but about all of us. Certain things were pure evil because it is unacceptable to say today that they were not “all bad”; nobody would justify slavery, for example. Apparently, the gulag is not one of these things. We are not appalled when a teacher says, “Was there a military threat from Germany? There was. Were there spies in the country? There were. There was no time to decide who was guilty and who wasn’t. We should remember the innocent victims but I think it was all necessary.” The gulag is acceptable even if it is a form of slavery because the society of the world does not openly condemn it. And how would it condemn it when the country which implemented it does not fully do so? Wouldn’t we hurt their “feelings”? And nobody wants to hurt the feelings of someone like Russia.

I heard one person say once something along these lines, “well, don’t understand me wrongly, I do not justify what they did during the holocaust, but we must agree that medical experiments done by someone like Mengele benefited the human race.” All the people in the group were appalled, and rightly so. Would they have the same immediate reaction with the gulag?

This is not about comparing communist persecution with the holocaust or with slavery because they are not comparable. Evil is evil. It is rather about how easy it is for us, human beings, to fail in using reason. It is “reasonable” to say that we can sacrifice some persons for the good of the many. It is “reasonable” to say that taking entire families (including a few days old children), treating them as cattle and throwing them into train cars, keeping them locked, without water, for days, and then working them to exhaustion and death because this was the only way to have “military and industrial achievements.”

There is a scene in one of my favorite movies, La Vita e bella, in which a teacher explains a mathematical problem. I’ll simplify it: the state pays 4 German marks per day for a crazy person and the same for an epileptic. Taking into consideration that there 300.000 people like this, how much would the state save if these people were eliminated? Can we resolve this mathematical problem? Only if we give up our humanity; we see in this movie (and we see in life) how often we do so…

To my mind, if one can justify the gulag (allow me to emphasize: I am talking about justifying the gulag, not about describing its social and historical contexts), then one can justify anything, and this is scary. It is scary because it says something about us, about our capacity to give up our humanity.


About Tavi's Corner

Blogging on ancient philosophy, communist persecution in Romania (including deportation to Siberia), and Orthodox Christianity. I've translated books from Romanian to English, and I also write about them from time to time.
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