Literary Cover-Ups and Discoveries of the Soviet Camp Experience

See No Evil: Literary Cover-Ups and Discoveries of the Soviet Camp Experience

Ruder, Cynthia A

Dariusz Tolczyk. See No Evil: Literary Cover-Ups and Discoveries of the Soviet Camp Experience. Russian Literature and Thought. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. xxi, 361 pp. Notes. Index. $37.50, cloth.

To render order out of the moral and ethical chaos of the Soviet camp experience confronts anyone who assumes the arduous, indeed frustrating, task of making sense of that which seems incomprehensible. Recent publications on this subject-from memoirs and biographies (Vilensky’s Till My Tale is Told, for example) to scholarly monographs (such as Toker’s Return From the Archipelago or Ivanova’s Labor Camp Socialism)-suggest that increasingly scholars are reconstructing and interpreting the multi-leveled reality of the Soviet camp experiences of those inside the camp system and of Soviet society as a whole. To this growing body of essential work we can add Dariusz Tolczyk’s masterful study of the literary establishment’s apparent collusion with and support of the Soviet camp system.

In see No Evil Tolczyk posits two fundamental and inter-dependent questions that underpin his entire discussion: 1) How does a totalitarian state convince its populace that organized state terror is both useful and necessary? 2) How do writers construct and contribute to this “literary cover-up” (as Tolczyk so aptly phrases it)? As the author notes in his “Introduction,” “By tampering with the dynamics of human perception and evaluations of reality, the Bolshevik regime entered a realm traditionally explored by art and literature. And by attempting to reshape these dynamics, the Bolsheviks put themselves in a position of author of a fictional world in which readers-in this case Soviet society-were enticed to suspend disbelief. I call this process ‘totalitarian authorship'” (p. xiv). Of course, this “totalitarian authorship” could not succeed without capable writers who scripted the regime’s fictive camp reality. From this premise, then, Tolczyk’s book explores how the symbiotic relationship between the regime and literature developed and shifted as the demands of the regime and its power to control public discourse changed.

In Chapter One “Fiction and Fear” Tolczyk traces how the Bolsheviks constructed a single public discourse that attempted to make terror both necessary and justified. Indeed, as Tolczyk persuasively argues, the modus operandi of a totalitarian regime is such that, “Under totalitarianism, verbal and physical means complement each other, constituting an unprecedented experiment in ‘authorship’ in which a printing press and a concentration camp represent two sides of the same attempt to reshape the human relationship with the universe” (p. 9). If totalitarianism is to succeed, it must control not only reality itself but also the various discourses produced about that reality so that there is one sanctioned, ideologically clean version that documents the totalitarian enterprise. To explicate this theory, Tolczyk traces the development of concentration camp literature as a literary means through which a new Bolshevik aesthetic could be imposed. Whereas pre-revolutionaryRussian literature sought to maintain a high moral and ethical stance that championed the suffering and cause of the “little man,” Bolshevik ideology sought to make the literary little man subject to and powerless against the single, unifying authority and destiny that only the Soviet state and its ideology could convey. Consequently, literature, no matter its subject, needed to reflect the one true theme in all its refractions-the superiority, infallibility, and omniscience of Soviet power. How better to do this than through the published representations of the camp experience, that reality which attempted, like no other, to insure that the “little man” was totally subservient to and controlled by the totalitarian state?

In Chapter Two, “From Tragedy to Festival,” Tolczyk describes how in the 1920s the Bolshevik regime systematically developed an official discourse that not only condoned violence, but celebrated it as the natural outgrowth of the ideological battle between good (Bolshevism) and evil (any -ism contrary to it). Increasingly the rhetoric of violence permeated not only official pronouncements, but literary works as well. Tolczyk argues that many writers in the twenties, such as Tarasov-Rodyonov and Ilya Ehrenburg, “by employing elements of the approach to revolutionary violence developed previously by the Russian Populists and later pre-revolutionary terrorist ideologies, worked out a formula for presenting the Bolshevik oppressors as ethical maximalists who have taken upon themselves the historical task of transforming the world for the better, and who sacrifice themselves and others in the process” (p. 69). This approach legitimized the presentation of violence while making the oppressors, be they Chekists, camp guards, or the political elite, the “heroes” of the narrative who were not tragic heroes, but rather the positive role models and affirmations of Bolshevik ideology and its unfailing optimism.

Indeed the “rhetoric of violence” for which Tolczyk argues developed at the time when “Russian public discourse was permeated by a new peculiarly casual attitude to violence” that stemmed not only from the intense violence of the revolutionary and Civil War periods, but also from the Bolshevik notion that violence was the chief means through which power could be gained and maintained (p. 83). Precisely the metaphor of deadly battle, intrinsic to the Bolshevik doctrine, captures the regime’s attempt to make violence and the (re)presentation of it palatable and acceptable. As Tolczyk notes, “In this universe revolutionary violence is presented as such, without attempts to conceal its bloody, irreversible aspects. It is viewed as a necessary means of self-protection on the part of a regime that represents a new world” as well as the “ultimate triumph of the positive future over the negative past” (p. 89).

Consequently, Chapter Three “TheGlory of the Gulag” describes how the discursive possibilities that were constructed in the 192Os were realized in the 1930s in the person of Maxim Gorky, to whom Tolczyk attributes the culmination of the literary cover-up of the Soviet camp experience. The author cites Gorky’s narrative on the Solovki camp as the beginning of this cover-up that reaches its apex in the Belomor Canal volume, The History of the Construction of the Stalin White Sea-Baltic Canal, for which Gorky served as one of three editors. Indeed, as Tolczyk notes, “What the Bolsheviks needed at the beginning of the 1930s was a convention reconciling the population with the new face of Soviet totalitarian victimization-the ‘constructive’ violence of slave labor and its chief institution, the concentration camp (renamed labor camp)” (p. 97). The Belomor Canal volume celebrated the use of slave labor to achieve Soviet construction projects; it promoted the notion that Bolshevik ideology will “reforge” miscreants and state enemies into productive Soviet citizens; and it sharply delineated the rhetorical, philosophical, and ideological battle lines between those for and against the regime. Throughout Chapter 3 Tolczyk systematically indicts Gorky for embracing and promulgating a discourse that made the evil of the Gulag seem natural and necessary, while “turning the reality of Soviet victimization into a positive image of reeducation” and manipulating the reader into thinking that opposition to the Soviet regime was a crime (p. 163).

As Tolczyk sees it, this literary manipulation succeeded such that the eventual silence that enveloped any discussion of the Gulag from the late 1930s until the Thaw manifested its immutability. Indeed, not until the Thaw was there an attempt to make sense of the Gulag experience and its legacy for Soviet society. Even then the “cover-up” was so all-encompassing that most writers were not able to free themselves from its discursive grasp.

Thus Chapter 4, “Hope Beyond Hope,” traces how post-Thaw officially sanctioned Soviet literature on the camps, with the exception of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, continued the rhetorical structure that sought to “discover the Soviet camp experience and to provide it with an ideological cover-up. It simultaneously accuses and excuses Soviet totalitarianism at its worst” (p. 220). Only the Communists who served in the camps are the true victims of the camp experience. Paradoxically, these former inmates fail to indict the system that victimized them because they still believe in its fundamental totalitarian tenets. Neither they nor the writers, who sought to document their experience, are able to move outside of the single discursive structure that was developed in the early 1930s. Consequently, these texts fail to engage the moral dilemma that the camps present, for as Tolczyk notes, “It is this politicization of the moral issue of guilt and innocence that renders this literature incapable of addressing the ethical challenge of twentieth-century totalitarianism in more universal terms” (p. 227). Because these texts inevitably fail to move beyond the proscribed ideological rhetoric in which the camps were themselves cast, they can never achieve any level of moral reliability and, therefore, in Tolczyk’s analysis, are subject to doubt and skepticism.

Only Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn’s peasant hero from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, successfully moves the literary discussion of the moral evil of the Gulag to a higher rhetorical level. In Chapter 5, “A Sliver in the Throat of Power,” Tolczyk argues that what sets Solzhenitsyn’s work apart from his contemporaries is its literary merit coupled with its willingness to address the moral question that the Gulag poses. Unlike official Soviet camp literature that “always introduced a finalizing, authoritative point of view from which all ethical questions were supposed to be resolved” (p. 253), One Day failed to provide the “totalizing” answer to the question of the Gulag. As such, it moved the discussion of the camps to a new level that denied the authoritativeness of the regime while proposing that a true analysis of the camps could occur only on the level of a moral, ethical discussion that sought to capture inmate experience while assigning blame for the horrors the camps perpetuated. As Tolczyk notes, One Day served not only as a literary text that encouraged its readers to formulate their own ethical interpretations of the camps, it also was a political and cultural text that, having appeared in the Soviet Union, sought to “uncover” the Gulag experience for the first time in an official arena.

On the whole, See No Evil is a must read for anyone who seeks to make sense of the senselessness of the Gulag experience. Still a few cautions are in order. Clearly Tolczyk subscribes to the totalitarian model in its strictest sense-apolitical, ideological, social structure that emanates power from the top down with little, if any, interference from below. As much scholarship of the last twenty years suggests, such a strictly defined model is not always borne out by the reality of Soviet life, especially in the 1930s. While Tolczyk convincingly documents the propagation and celebration of violence as the Bolshevik way, we must be careful not to assign full blame or credit to a monolithic organization. Indeed, participation and support from below were necessary to the success of such an endeavor. In addition, in spite of Tolczyk’s indictment of Gorky and the Belomor volume, there is much value to be gained from an informed reading of that text, a text that many of its compilers believed to be an innovation in documentary prose and literary montage. Of coursemost of the authors ofthe volume understood the cruel reality of the Belomor construction project. Formany of those writers their participation in the volume was the only perceived guarantee of a continuing career. Arguably many of the writers who participated in the Belomor project were just as much the victims of the totalitarian state as were the Gulag inmates. Nevertheless, by focusing the discussion on the discourse that framed and conveyed the Gulag experience, Tolczyk has opened a new chapter in our understanding of the most defining moment in twentieth-century Soviet literature and history.

Cynthia A. Ruder, University of Kentucky

Copyright Canadian Association of Slavists Mar-Jun 2003

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