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<nettime> The Gulag Archipelago
Ivan Pope on Mon, 17 Jan 2005 16:55:01 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> The Gulag Archipelago


I keep seeing the US government system of offshore and third country 
prison camps (Guantanamo, Baghram, etc), secret prison camps and that 
euphemism, 'rendition', referred to as the US 'gulag' or 'archipelago' 
(The Guantanamo Gulag, the Pentagon Archipelago) but seldom as the 
'gulag archipelago', which is of course the title of Alexander 
Solzhenitsyn's expose of the Soviet system of prison camps.
I thought I'd go back and re-read The Gulag Archipelago, as I hadn't 
read it for over twenty years. I had come to a view of Solzhenitsyn as a 
dour humourless right-wing dinosaur, but re-reading Gulag Archipelago, I 
find I'm quite wrong and he's really very funny, if funny is something 
you can be about such a system. I guess he uses dry humour to point up 
the endless absurdities of the system.
This also speaks powerfully to the UK situation, with our 'little Gitmo, 
Belmarsh' and our appeals systems that lead nowhere and our supreme 
court decrying the system, which the politicians just ignore.

Anyway, I'm constantly struck at how alike the basic system in the 
Soviets was with the 'legal' setup in the US today. Not of course that 
I'm suggesting that the US is managing to kill millions of its detainees 
(though how of course would we know?). Maybe it will all come out one 
day. Where is the US Solzhenitsyn?

In the Engine Room  (edited version)

Real scope entered the picture with the twenties, when /permanently/  
operating /Troikas -- /panels of three operating behind closed doors -- 
were created to bypass the courts permanently. In the beginning they 
even flaunted it proudly. Not only did they not conceal the names of the 
members, they publicized them. Yes, and what a word it was, in fact -- 
/troika!/ It bore a slight hint of sleigh bells on the shaft bow; the 
celebration of Shrovetide; and, interwoven with all this, a mystery Why 
"troika"? What did it mean? After all, a court wasn't a quartet either! 
And a Troika wasn't a court! And the biggest mystery of all lay in the 
fact that it was kept out of sight. We hadn't been there. We hadn't seen 
it. All we got was a piece of paper. Sign here! The Troika was even more 
frightening than a Revolutionary Tribunal. it set itself even farther 
apart, muffle itself up, locked itself in a separate room, and -- soon 
-- concealed the names of its members. Thus we grew used to the idea 
that the Troika members didn't eat or drink or move about amoug ordinary 
people. Once they had isolated themselves in order to go into session, 
they were shut off for good, and all we knew of them were the sentences 
handed out through typists.
These Troikas satisfied a persistent need that had arisen: never to 
allow those arrested to return to freedom. If it turned out that someon 
was innocent and could therefore not be tried at all, then let him have 
his "minus 32" via the Troika -- which meant he couldn't live in any of 
the provincial capitals -- or let him spend two or three years in exile, 
after which he would have a convict's clipped ear, would always be a 
marked man, and, from then on, a recidivist.
(Please forgive us, reader. We have once more gone astray with this 
rightist opportunism -- this concept of "guilt", and of the guilty or 
innocent. It has, after all, been explained to us that /the heart of the 
matter is not personal guilt, but social danger/'. One can imprisin an 
innocent person if he is socially hostile. And one can release a guilty 
man if he is socially friendly.)
...
Up to 1924 the authority of the Troika was limited to sentences of three 
years, maximum. From 1924 on, they moved up to five years of camp; from 
1937 on, the OSO could turn out "ten ruble bills"; after 1948, they 
could rivet a "quarter" -- twenty-five years -- on you. And there are 
people who know that during the war years the OSO even sentenced 
prisoners to execution by shooting. Nothing unusual about this.
The OSO was nowhere mentioned in either the Constitution or the Code. 
However, it turned out to be the most convenient kind of hamburger 
machine -- easy to operate, undemanding, and requiring no legal 
lubrication. The Code existed on its own, and the OSO existed on its 
own, and it kept ondeftly grinding without all the Code's 205 articles, 
neither invoking them nor even mentioning them. As they used to joke in 
camp: "There is no court for nothing -- for that there is an OSO."

Of course, the OSO itself also needed for onvenience some kind of 
operational shorthand, but for that purpose it worked out on its own a 
dozen "letter" articles which made operations very much simpler. It 
wasn't necessary, when they were used, to cudgel your brains trying to 
make things fit the formulations of the Code. And they were few enough 
to be easily remembered by a child.

ASA -- Anti-Soviet Agitation
KRD -- Counter-Revolutionary Activity
KRTD -- Counter-Revolutionary Trotskyite Activity
PSh -- Suspicion of Espionage
SVPSh -- Contacts Leading to Suspicion of Espionage
KRM -- Counter-Revolutionary Thought
VAS -- Dissemination of Anti-Soviet Sentiments
SOE -- Socially Dangerous Element
SVE -- Socially Harmfull Element
PD -- Criminal Activity (a favourite accusation against former camp 
inmates if there was nothing else to be used against them)
And then finally, there was the very expansive category:
ChS -- Member of a Family (of a person convicted under one of the 
foregoing "letter" categories)

There is one more qualification. The OSO did not claim to be handing 
down a /sentence/. It did not sentence a person but, instead, /imposed 
an administrative penalty/. And that was the whole thing in a nutshell. 
Therefore it was, of course, natural for it to have juridicial independence!
But even though they did not claim that the administrative penalty was a 
court sentence, it could be up to twenty-five years. Thus, a person 
could disappear from the face of the earth with the help of the OSO even 
more reliably than under the terms of some primitive court sentence.
The OSO enjoyed another important advantage in that its penatly could 
not be appealed. Thee was  nowhere to appeal to. There was no appeals 
jurisdiction above it, and no jurisdiction beneath it. It was 
subordinate only to the Minister of Internal Affairs, to Stalin, and to 
Satan.
Another advantage the OSO had was speed. This speed was limited only by 
the technology of typewriting.
And, last but not least, not only did the OSO not have to confront the 
accused face to face, which lessened the burden on inter-prison 
transport: it didn't even have t have his photograph. At a tim when the 
prisions were badly overcrowded, this was a great additional advantage 
because the prisoner did not have to take up space on the prison floor, 
or eat free bread once his interrogation had been completed. He could be 
sent off to camp immmediately  and put to honest work. The copy of the 
sentence could be read to him much later.

...

Their primary and principal distinguishing feature was closed doors. 
They were first of all /closed courts/ -- for their own convenience.
And by now we have become so accustomed to the fact that millions and 
millions of people were tried in closed sessions an dhave become used to 
this for so long that now and then some mixed-up son, brother, or nephew 
of a  prisoner will even snort  at you with conviction: "And what would 
you have wanted? ... There's /information/ here. Our enemies will find 
out! You can't do it!"
Thus the fear that our "enemies" will find out makes us clamp our head 
between our own knees. Who in our Fatherland, except some bookworms, 
remembers how that Karakozov, who fired at the Tsar, was provided with a 
defense lawyer? Or that Zhelyabov and all the Narodnaya Volya group were 
tried in public, without any fear that the "Turks would find out"?

-- 
Ivan Pope
ivan2 {AT} ivanpope.com

Studio website -->			http://ivanpope.com
Absent Without Leave --> 	http://blog.ivanpope.com


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