Welcome to the first discussion thread of the Daily Kos Book Club! I hope you will find a comfortable chair and settle in to discuss Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's "The First Circle" with us. Even if you haven't read the book, you're welcome to join in the discussion where you can; there are plenty of subjects that will be brought up that don't necessarily depend on having read the book. As Solzhenitsyn himself said, "Literature that is not the breath of contemporary society, that dares not transmit the pains and fears of that society . . . loses the confidence of its own people, and its published works are used as wastepaper instead of being read."
The title of the book is from Dante's conception of Hell; most of us know the First Circle better as Limbo:
Taken from the original meaning, in colloquial speech, "limbo" is any status where a person or project is held up, and nothing can be done until another action happens.... A "legal limbo" may occur when varying laws or court rulings leave a person without recourse.
Stalinism helped to create this limbo, in ways that it would be futile for me to try to explain better than "The First Circle" does and so many other people already have. While many of us here like to say that fascism has crept upon us in our country, it seems much more accurate to me to say that Stalinism has, since it used the same fear of one's neighbors that the current administration tries to wield.
Political prisoners as well as regular criminals were sent to the now-infamous gulags.
Literally, the word GULAG is an acronym, meaning Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, or Main Camp Administration. Over time, the word "Gulag" has also come to signify not only the administration of the concentration camps but also the system of Soviet slave labor itself, in all its forms and varieties: labor camps, punishment camps, criminal and political camps, women's camps, children's camps, transit camps. Even more broadly, "Gulag" has come to mean the Soviet repressive system itself, the set of procedures that prisoners once called the "meat-grinder": the arrests, the interrogations, the transport in unheated cattle cars, the forced labor, the destruction of families, the years spent in exile, the early and unnecessary deaths.
Reading about the gulags is truly horrifying. Especially because most of us aren't familiar with the conditions that existed in the Soviet Union - as opposed to the almost everyday familiarity we have with the conditions of the Holocaust - the gulags stand as an example of the amazing cruelty and evil that can be used by one human against another, especially when power is unequally distributed. I've seen different figures for the same years on how many people were prisoners in gulags, so we can only speak in approximate terms, but the system grew from about half a million prisoners in 1934 to 2.5 million in the early 50s. When you consider how many people must have been released and newly imprisoned, and how many people probably didn't survive the exposure to the elements, the lack of adequate nutrition, and the forced heavy labor, that number becomes staggering. If you can stomach it (I can't), "The Gulag Archipelago" series is the factual (rather than fictional) account of Solzhenitsyn's and others' experiences in the gulags.
When one takes all of this crushing inhumanity into account, it is truly amazing to see how lacking in bitterness someone like Solzhenitsyn is. His experiences obviously taught him a great deal about the human spirit, and elusive and abstract ideas like justice and humanity. So in the hopes of lightening the heaviness of this diary a little bit, here are a few quotes from Solzhenitsyn himself that serve as warnings to us and lay out the truth with impressive ease:
"Justice is conscience, not a personal conscience but the conscience of the whole of humanity. Those who clearly recognize the voice of their own conscience usually recognize also the voice of justice."
"The salvation of mankind lies only in making everything the concern of all"
"You can have power over people as long as you don't take everything away from them. But when you've robbed a man of everything, he's no longer in your power."
"If one is forever cautious, can one remain a human being?"
"Patriotism means unqualified and unwavering love for the nation, which implies not uncritical eagerness to serve, not support for unjust claims, but frank assessment of its vices and sins, and penitence for them"
"If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"
In case you missed it, clonecone is taking on the next installment of the Book Club. Also, if you want to join the book club or make suggestions, just email us at dKos.BookClub at gmail.com.