Memento GULAG: Memory
and Judgment of Communism
Vladimir Bukovsky speaking at a study day organised by the Hannah Arendt Research Centre on November 7, 2006.
The idea of commemorating the GULAG every year came to us sometime ago. The idea is to try and preserve the collective memory in dozens of countries, which at the moment appears to have been wiped. At this time, we are not asking much more from people than to remember that around a hundred million people were killed in the name of a utopia.
On this day, we will remember those who died in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. We will remember our colleagues and friends who died in the GULAG, our families. We will also remember the present-day prisoners of GULAGs in countries such as China, Cuba, North Korea or Vietnam. Yes, I did say Cuba.
But here we have decided to have a specific objective for the Day of the GULAG. Because this year, we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Hungarian uprising, the Hungarian revolution of 1956. This revolution was in a way a cornerstone, a moment from which the resistance to the communist system began and grew.
The first resistance in Russia died out around the mid-1930s. It was drowned out in blood, for example during the anti-Bolshevik revolts in Tambov or Kronstadt, or even in Southern Siberia where an uprising was repressed in a particularly bloody manner. My unfortunate country was brought into line, gripped by terror, completely terrorised and little by little was no longer able to put up any sort of resistance. The Hungarian revolution represented the first active and open resistance to the communist regime after the death of Stalin.
I also think that it is an excellent idea to organise this day of commemoration in the Vendée because the Vendée was the first territory to put up a massive resistance, a popular resistance to a utopian political system, namely the Jacobin system of 1793. There is therefore a symbolic dimension to the fact that we are commemorating the Hungarian revolution here and on this day, the 7th of November –- the anniversary of the Bolshevik coup d’etat.
If we wind back a few decades, I must say that in the 1950s, three decisive events changed the course of history and certainly changed my own way of seeing the world. First, there was the death of Stalin in 1953. I was only ten years old, but I remember, albeit quite vaguely, everything that happened at that time. Before this, we were taught to believe that Stalin was God, the living God, and the father to us all. As a result, on that day the 5th of March 1953, we suddenly found ourselves without God and without father. Huge crowds gathered in the centre of Moscow to see Stalin lying, reposing in the Hall of Columns.
At this time, we the children, were essentially children of the street, because in Moscow the largest part of the capital was a kind of slum where crime prospered, with overcrowded apartments where ten to twenty families were crammed together and shared amenities, and most families were deprived of fathers who had died in the war. As a result, we children, who lived mostly in the streets, were smart kids: instead of joining the swelling crowd –- around five million people who were pushing and shoving their way through a gigantic procession to try and see Stalin lying in state –- we did not follow the moving crowds but went across the roofs, the attics and the cellars in order to get as close as possible to the main event that was taking place.
I remember then, being a ten-year-old kid sitting on the roof of Hotel National, overlooking the entire crowd below me. This was the closest that we managed to get to the actual event.
And I remember three very strong feelings that I experienced at that moment. I say feelings because at the age of ten I was incapable of formulating them, I could not verbalise them, they were just feelings.
The first was that what was taking place was a historic event and that I should carve every detail into my memory. And indeed, I looked all around me, absorbing everything I saw like a sponge.
The second feeling was that God was dead and therefore there was no one left above me. For better or worse, I was now responsible for myself! There would never again be any other authority in my life.
The third feeling was that this crowd below, these hundreds of thousands of people who were pushing and crushing against each other to see this God, were wrong. I thought to myself: they are wrong because if he were God, he would not be dead. And if he was dead, it meant he was not a god.
Then a final thought came to me, which was very important in my life and certainly contributed to forming my personality: the idea that the majority of adults can be wrong. This was a staggering conclusion for a ten-year-old child.
As one event brings about another, so Stalin’s death brought about 1956. As Stéphane Courtois explains in detail here, Nikita Khrushchev, who was then the principal leader of the Soviet Union, made a secret speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party on the subject of Stalin. However, although this speech was supposed to remain secret, we all found out about it within a few days. It was a revelation and a shock: thousands of people who were perfectly innocent, thousands of people had in effect been assassinated…
The first feeling on hearing all this was of course that Stalin alone could not possibly have killed so many people. The members of later generations therefore always looked suspicious to us: “They must have participated in one way or another to this collective slaughter. Passively or actively, they must have taken part”.
To this a general feeling was added: why had Khrushchev given this speech in secret? Why did he not say it to us openly? Why did he not openly announce everything to the country? What is he hiding? And indeed, all the participants present in the room where Khrushchev made his secret speech were implicated in this collective slaughter. What did all these secret discussions among assassins mean? I was fourteen at the time and of course a revelation of this nature at that age is bound to cause a shock, a trauma. You immediately suspect any person older than you to have been implicated in this crime. And indeed, when we attempted to summon people of all generations to give us answers, particularly the generation of our parents, they were unable to explain anything coherently.
They kept repeating three things. First, “We knew nothing about it”. Much like the Germans after the fall of the Nazi regime, when every generation of Germans said, “We knew nothing of Auschwitz, we knew nothing of those millions of people in gas chambers.”
But it was impossible not to know that millions of people had been eliminated. It was impossible not to notice anything when your neighbours were disappearing overnight. It was impossible not to notice anything when six million people were deliberately made to starve, criminally, to the point where they died of starvation. Before all else, Stalinist terror forced the entire population to publicly approve of these killings.
As a result, everyone, be it at work or where they lived, was made to gather for gigantic meetings during which they had to approve of Stalin’s politics. Stalin thus turned the entire country into a true “circle of blood.”
And if we had pestered our parents and the entire generation of our parents, they would have answered, “We believed in communism!” Well, these answers would have seemed even less convincing to us. How could they believe that millions of people needed to be killed to ensure the happiness of humanity and to finally impose our aberrations on the world? These generations would have said to us, “We were terrorised”. They were terrorised to the point of approving of mass slaughter and… continued working, writing songs, going about their business, and replaced those who had been executed, and never mentioned anything among themselves! Just like the three blissful monkeys, they would have seen no Evil, heard no Evil, spoken of no Evil! If they did not know, it was because they were afraid of knowing and not because it was impossible to know. This is what acted as a springboard for the entire post-Stalin generation: the moral impulse that made us refuse to find ourselves once again in the situation of our parents.
And I remember saying to myself at the age of fourteen: “I will always know what is going on and I will never stay silent about it.” And indeed, I have always known what was going on and I have never been quiet! Because, come what may, I would in time have to answer to my children if they asked me where I was while all this was going on. This is how the most important moral impulse of the future human rights movement in Russia was born.
Finally, here is the crucial element which later allowed our movement to take shape: we did not want to be part of this machine. Indeed, a few months after Khrushchev’s “special report” the third decisive event of the 1950s took place, the Hungarian revolution. We, our generation, were immediately on the side of the uprising. Because in a way the Hungarians had done what we wanted to do. Like us, they were children, fifteen or sixteen years old, who were fighting in the streets of Budapest. They were fighting the cruel and rusty machine of the communist State that we all hated.
This event forged the public opinion movements in many countries of the communist world by imparting two important lessons. First: it is possible to fight against this system; the Hungarians have proven to us that it was possible to combat it. Second: the regime has not changed, it has remained the same; in spite of all of Khrushchev’s speeches, the system was treating Hungary exactly the way Stalin would have treated it.
This was the final blow, the one that got everybody moving. In the 1950s, thousands of people, and in particular students and very young people, were imprisoned in the USSR for having supported revolutionary Hungary. Some for having distributed leaflets in support of Hungary, others for having publicly expressed their support for Hungary. This was a mass phenomenon. I discovered later, in the archives, that four to five thousand people were put in prison.
As for us, the next step after Hungary was to try and recreate a similar atmosphere in the Soviet Union. While it is true that the Hungarian revolution was crushed, its spirit nonetheless remained vibrant. The Petöfi Circle, a famous poetic circle of the Budapest youth, was at the root of the revolution in Hungary. We therefore decided to begin with poetry readings in the centre of Moscow, on a square, for we did not have our own premises –- “they” were not willing to allow us premises.
This became something truly incredible! For two years, we read banned poems in public, right in the centre of Moscow, on weekends, with hundreds of people coming to listen. Mostly the poems of others, those that were banned, those who had died in the GULAG! Of course, the authorities attempted to put a stop to it, to crush us: we were physically beaten, we were expelled from universities, but we continued the action for two years. And finally, when the movement was crushed and many people were arrested and put in prison, it nevertheless left a formidable legacy.
The famous word Samizdat –- the self-publishing by dissidents of censored works -– was born on this square, during the readings of these poems, in order to put together a compilation of poems that could circulate among the participants. In general terms, I would say that from this instant, the human rights movement was born in Soviet Union, and it only went on growing over the course of the 1970s.
This, in turn, had an influence on similar developments in Eastern European countries, in Poland, in Czechoslovakia, etc. From this moment on, as Ilios Yannakakis had explained so vividly, we supported one another through our mutual teachings.
One of the main lessons that we took from the Hungarian revolution was that its insurgents had perhaps been wrong to try and go down the route of violence –- even if it is precisely this violence which had such an important role in triggering the revolution. One of the things that we learned from the Hungarian revolution was that violence was not necessarily the most effective way to change a communist regime. Hungarians as a people are always ready to explode, you know! Just listen to Matyas Kolos –- maybe it is because their food is too spicy! But it is from the Hungarians and the Czechs that we effectively inherited this spirit of resistance, and the Poles then inherited it from us.
The next step was that of Czechoslovakia in 1968: the Prague Spring was a strictly non-violent revolution which was nevertheless crushed militarily. Thus, the Poles learnt the following from the Czechs: if you want to carry out a peaceful and non-violent revolution, you need a lot more people involved than just the intellectuals, you need the workers.
And this is what they did in 1980-81. Almost all of Poland’s active population joined the free trade union Solidarity. This was a true signal of the end of the communist regime: in the “land of the workers” the entirety of the working class was openly contesting communist power.
In the 1980s, this experience spread across the entire communist world, repeating itself over and over in many countries. And the pinnacle of the revolt came in 1989, when even Maoist China began to move. Even China began to move!
And I can still clearly picture the footage from the Tiananmen Square, especially the shot where a man stands alone in front of a row of tanks and forces them to stop. I remember seeing it on television and thinking to myself,“I know exactly what is going on in that man’s head!” because I had done the same throughout my life. Because, from a symbolic point of view, we were doing exactly the same thing.
You put yourself in the way of the functioning of this gigantic rusty machinery of a totalitarian State, and you say right to its face,“Go on, kill me, but kill me publicly, so everyone can see… If you dare!” In communist China, as in the Soviet Union, they did not dare. From that moment onwards, the whole system had disintegrated to such an extent, was in such a state of disrepair, that it was not even ready to fight for its own survival.
I remember a political joke, a very popular one in the 1960s. Three qualities cannot coexist in the same human being. These three qualities are: intelligence, honesty and membership in the communist party. A communist is either a dogmatic imbecile, or a very intelligent man, but a crook. And this is precisely what happened in 1991, when the Soviet communists split along this line of cleavage.
The first segment, that of the dogmatic imbeciles, continues to march under red flags to this day. But the intelligent crooks very promptly declared themselves democrats, businessmen, and God knows what else. This is exactly what happened and is how communism officially came to an end.
The tragedy for our country Russia, as well as for the others, I believe, is that communism was never put on trial, as Nazism in Nuremberg. This was not achieved, despite all our efforts to do so and our sensible advice. Victory over communism was never total or complete. Today, in Central and Eastern Europe, in the former republics of the Soviet Union, you have an awakening of this kind of post-communism.
Even in Hungary, as we speak today and commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of this revolution, the current government is a post-communist government. The communists can continue to return to power in any of the countries of the East, without even mentioning Russia, Belarus, or indeed the Central Asian republics.
In today’s world, in today’s post-communist world, we are clearly moving backwards. In countries such as Belarus, Russia, Central Asia, we are witnessing a return, a resurrection of the GULAGs. But the effect of the absence of a trial such as Nuremberg is no less dramatic in the West.
Italy, which resisted the communists throughout the post-war years, now has a government that includes many communists and post-communists. This situation calls for a larger reflection on what we want humanity to learn from the bloody experience of communism. We hope it will learn that utopia, any social utopia whatever its nature, ends in a bloodbath. And as we are becoming witnesses, nowadays, to the appearance of a great number of utopias in the West -– be that “political correctness” or the European Union, this scares us. Those who support these initiatives perhaps do not know it yet, but we know that they lead to GULAGs.
So, today, and in conclusion to what I have attempted to say, let us try to realise de facto what we were unable to do de jure. Let us see to it that we put communism on trial by submitting it to public judgment symbolised by the institution of the GULAG Commemoration Day. Let us gather together to light a candle and tell today’s political class, which is so corrupt and so remote from democracy: “We remember, we could never forget!” Memento from the GULAG.
Translated from French by Arthur Beard.
Originally published by the Catholic Institute of Higher Education, Editions Cujas, Paris, 2007.