Monthly Archives: April 2005

China’s Connection to De-Stalinization

THE YEARS 1956 and 1957 marked the first serious crisis in global communism during the Cold War with many significant events. Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in February 1956 revealing Stalin’s crimes shocked the communist world and initiated a course of de-Stalinization, which soon led to challenges to the communist system itself, as the revolts in Poland and Hungary in October and November 1956 demonstrated. Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, although violent eruption of political protest was largely absent, inner party debates and intellectual dissent were common, accompanied by sporadic strikes of workers and students. In Asian communist countries, the intellectual dissent and criticism of the party became conspicuous in China, especially in the spring of 1957, during the Double-Hundred movement and the Rectification period, with a few cases of workers’ strikes and student protests. In North Vietnam the intellectuals directly challenged the party during the so-called Nhan Van/Giai Pham (the names of two journals critical of the party) period in the fall of 1956, coupled with the peasant rebellion in Nghe-An Province and turbulence in the cities. The Hungarian revolution was suppressed in November 1956, and the entire atmosphere of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe underwent dramatic change. As Chinese intellectuals were still encouraged to criticize the party in the spring of 1957, Vietnamese intellectuals resumed their criticism of the regime as well. In June 1957, however, China launched the anti-Rightist campaign and ended the so-called “liberalization,” and so did Vietnam after the new year of 1958. Thus a cross-communist world crisis was overcome….

This article examines the process of de-Stalinization, or liberalization, from a perspective based on the China connection in Eastern Europe and Vietnam, which has been either underestimated or left out in many Moscow-centric narratives. The term “China connection” means either a direct Chinese influence or parallels between these countries and China. The article presents and connects two cases. The first is the Chinese influence in some Eastern European countries, and even the Soviet Union as well, from 1955 to 1958. The second is Vietnamese intellectuals’ challenge to the regime and the regime’s response, both of which show interesting parallels between the two countries. The China connection in both the Eastern European and the Vietnamese cases clearly indicates a different source contributing to de-Stalinization and even suggests an expanded time frame of such turbulence from as early as 1955 (before Khrushchev’s secret report) to as late as 1958 (one year after the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian uprising), thus enriching our understanding of the global communist crisis with broader sources and longer duration.

SOURCE: Yinghong Cheng, “Beyond Moscow-Centric Interpretation: An Examination of the China Connection in Eastern Europe and North Vietnam during the Era of De-Stalinization,” Journal of World History 15:487-518 (Project Muse subscription required).

This is the kind of article that just makes you keep slapping your forehead in recognition of suddenly obvious connections among so many things you never tied together before. It’s the best kind of historical revisionism and a wonderful illustration of the value of taking a global view of the diffusion of ideas across national boundaries.

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Gulag Guards

In recent years, it has become fashionable to point out that, contrary to their postwar protestations, few Germans were ever forced to work in concentration camps or killing squads. One scholar recently claimed that most had done so voluntarily–a view which has caused some controversy. In the case of Russia and the other post-Soviet states, the issue has to be examined differently. Very often, camp employees–like most other Soviet citizens–had few options. A labor committee simply assigned them a place of work, and they had to go there. Lack of choice was built right into the Soviet economic system.

Nevertheless, it is not quite right to describe the NKVD officers and armed guards as “no better off than the prisoners they commanded,” or as victims of the same system, as some have tried to do. For although they might have preferred to work elsewhere, once they were inside the system, the employees of the Gulag did have choices, far more than their Nazi counterparts, whose work was more rigidly defined. They could choose to behave brutally, or they could choose to be kind. They could choose to work their prisoners to death, or they could choose to keep as many alive as possible. They could choose to sympathize with the prisoners whose fate they might have once shared, and might share again, or they could choose to take advantage of their temporary stretch of luck, and lord it over their former and future comrades in suffering.

Nothing in their past history necessarily indicated what path they would take, for both Gulag administrators and ordinary camp guards came from as many different ethnic and social backgrounds as did the prisoners. Indeed, when asked to describe the character of their guards, Gulag survivors almost always reply that they varied enormously. I put that question to Galina Smirnova, who remembered that “they were, like everyone, all different.” Anna Andreeva told me that “there were sick sadists, and there were completely normal, good people.” Andreeva also recalled the day, soon after Stalin’s death, when the chief accountant in her camp suddenly rushed into the accounting office where prisoners were working, cheered, hugged them, and shouted, “Take off your numbers, girls, they’re giving you back your own clothes!”

SOURCE: Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum (Anchor Books, 2003), pp. 269-270

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National Minorities in the Gulag

The most fundamental, and ultimately the most powerful, of the political clans [in the Gulag] were those formed around nationality or place of origin. These grew more important during and after the Second World War, when the numbers of foreign prisoners increased dramatically. Their derivation was natural enough. A new prisoner would arrive, and immediately search his barracks for fellow Estonians, fellow Ukrainians, or, in a tiny number of cases, fellow Americans. Walter Warwick, one of the “American Finns” who wound up in the camps in the late 1930s, has described, in a manuscript he wrote for his family, how the Finnish speakers in his camp banded together specifically in order to protect themselves from the thievery and banditry of the professional criminals: “We came to the conclusion that if we wanted to have a little rest from them, we must have a gang. So we organized our own gang to help each other. There were six of us: two American Finns … two Finnish Finns … and two Leningrad District Finns” …

Because of their small numbers, the West Europeans and North Americans who found themselves in the camps also found it difficult to form strong networks. They were hardly in a position to help one another anyway: many were completely disoriented by camp life, did not speak Russian, found the food inedible and the living conditions intolerable….

But the Westerners–a group which included Poles, Czechs, and other East Europeans–had a few advantages too. They were the object of special fascination and interest, which sometimes paid off in contacts, in gifts of food, in kinder treatment. Antoni Ekart, a Pole educated in Switzerland, was given a place in a hospital thanks to an orderly named Ackerman, originally from Bessarabia: “The fact that I came from the West simplified matters”: everyone was interested in the Westerner, and had wanted to save him. Flora Leipman, a Scottish woman whose Russian stepfather had talked her family into moving to the Soviet Union, deployed her “Scottishness” to entertain her fellow prisoners:

I pulled up my skirt above the knees to look like a kilt and turned down my stockings to make them look knee high. In Scots fashion my blanket was thrown over my shoulder and I hung my hat in front of me like a sporran. My voice soared with pride, singing “Annie-Laurie,” “Ye Banks and Braes o’Bonnie Doon,” always finishing up with “God Save the King”–without translation.

SOURCE: Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum (Anchor Books, 2003), pp. 295-297

A Step at a Time has a related post (via Siberian Light):

TALLINN, April 13 (AFP) – Two Estonians who were held in labour camps as political prisoners during the Soviet occupation of the Baltic state urged world leaders in a letter published Wednesday to boycott events in Moscow on May 9 to mark the end of World War II.

And another about a Pole who’s feeling less than celebratory about commemorating his “liberation” from the Nazis by the Soviets.

“If you did something bad in the German camp, a guard would take out a gun and kill you immediately,” he recalled. “But in a Soviet camp, they would starve you to death so the death was longer and more painful and then they would shoot you and finish you off with a sickle.”

Olizarowicz’s “crime” was serving in Poland’s Home Army, the clandestine force that fought the Nazis, and which the Soviets feared would remain a rallying point for resistance. Convicted in 1947 of “anti-Soviet activity,” he was among nearly 800,000 Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians shipped to labor camps.

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Japanese in the Gulag

Life was not much better for the Koreans, usually Soviet citizens of Korean extraction, or the Japanese, a staggering 600,000 of whom arrived in the Gulag and the prisoner-of-war camp system at the end of the war. The Japanese suffered in particular from the food, which seemed not only scarce but strange and virtually inedible. As a result, they would hunt and eat things that seemed to their fellow prisoners equally inedible: wild herbs, insects, beetles, snakes, and mushrooms that even Russians would not touch. Occasionally, these forays ended badly: there are records of Japanese prisoners dying from eating poisonous grasses or wild herbs. A hint at how isolated the Japanese felt in the camps comes from the memoirs of a Russian prisoner who once, in a camp library, found a brochure–a speech by the Bolshevik Zhdanov–written in Japanese. He brought it to a Japanese acquaintance, a war prisoner: “I saw him genuinely happy for the first time. Later he told me that he read it every day, just to have contact with his native language.”

SOURCE: Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum (Anchor Books, 2003), pp. 299-300

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Gulag Criminals, Politicals, and Most Everybody Else

With their special slang, distinctive clothing, and rigid culture, the professional criminals were easy to identify, and are easy to describe. It is far harder to make generalizations about the rest of the prisoners, the people who formed the raw material of the Gulag’s workforce, since they came from every strata of Soviet society. Indeed, for too long, our understanding of who exactly the majority of the camps’ inmates were has been skewed by our forced reliance on memoirs, particularly memoirs published outside the Soviet Union. Their authors were usually intellectuals, often foreigners, and almost universally political prisoners.

Since Gorbachev’s glasnost in 1989, however, a wider variety of memoir material has become available, along with some archival data. According to the latter, which must be treated with a great deal of caution, it now appears that the vast majority of prisoners were not intellectuals at all–not people, that is, from Russia’s technical and academic intelligentsia, which was effectively a separate social class–but workers and peasants. Some figures for the 1930s, the years when the bulk of the Gulag’s inmates were kulaks, are particularly revealing. In 1934, only 0.7 percent of the camp population had higher education, while 39.1 percent were classified as having only primary education. At the same time, 42.6 percent were described as “semiliterate,” and 12 percent were completely illiterate. Even in 1938, the year the Great Terror raged among Moscow and Leningrad intellectuals, those with higher education in the camps still numbered only 1.1 percent while over half had primary education and a third were semiliterate.

Comparable figures on the social origins of prisoners do not seem to be available, but it is worth noting that in 1948, less than one quarter of prisoners were politicals–those sentenced, according to Article 58 of the Criminal Code, for “counter-revolutionary” crimes. This follows an earlier pattern. Politicals accounted for a mere 12 and 18 percent of prisoners in the terror years of 1937 and 1938; hovered around 30 to 40 percent during the war; rose in 1946 to nearly 60 percent, as a result of the amnesty given to criminal prisoners in the wake of victory; and then remained steady, accounting for between a quarter and a third of all prisoners, throughout the rest of Stalin’s reign. Given the higher turnover of nonpolitical prisoners–they often had shorter sentences and were more likely to meet requirements for early release–it is safe to say that the vast majority of the inmates who passed through the Gulag system in both the 1930s and 1940s were people with criminal sentences, and therefore more likely to be workers and peasants….

Nevertheless, of the hundreds of thousands of people referred to in the camps as political prisoners, the vast majority were not dissidents, or priests saying mass in secret, or even Party bigwigs. They were ordinary people, swept up in mass arrests, who did not necessarily have strong political views of any kind. Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, once an employee of one of the industrial ministries in Moscow, wrote, “Before my arrest, I led a very ordinary life, typical of a professional Soviet woman who didn’t belong to the Party. I worked hard but took no particular part in politics or public affairs. My real interests lay with home and family.”

If the politicals were not necessarily political, the vast majority of criminal prisoners were not necessarily criminals either. While there were some professional criminals and, during the war years, some genuine war criminals and Nazi collaborators in the camps, most of the others had been convicted of so-called “ordinary” or nonpolitical crimes that in other societies would not be considered crimes at all. The father of Alexander Lebed, the Russian general and politician, was twice ten minutes late to work for his factory job, for which he received a five-year camp sentence. At the largely criminal Polyansky camp near Krasnoyarsk-26, home of one of the Soviet Union’s nuclear reactors, archives record one “criminal” prisoner with a six-year sentence for stealing a single rubber boot in a bazaar, another with ten years for stealing ten loaves of bread, and another–a truck driver raising two children alone–with seven years for stealing three bottles of the wine he was delivering. Yet another got five years for “speculation,” meaning he had bought cigarettes in one place and sold them in another. Antoni Ekart tells the story of a woman who was arrested because she took a pencil from the office where she worked. It was for her son, who had been unable to do his schoolwork for lack of something to write with. In the upside-down world of the Gulag, criminal prisoners were no more likely to be real criminals than political prisoners were likely to be active opponents of the regime.

SOURCE: Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum (Anchor Books, 2003), pp. 291-294

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Living Off the Fat of the Sea in Kiribati

It was common rumour in the Gilbert Islands that certain local clans had the power of porpoise-calling; but it was rather like the Indian rope-trick; you never met anyone who had actually witnessed the thing. If I had been a reasonably plump young man, I might never have come to see what I did see on the beach of Butaritari lagoon. But I was skinny. it was out of sheer pity for my poor thin frame that old Kitiona set his family porpoise-caller working. We were sitting together one evening in his canoe-shed by the beach, and he was delivering a kind of discourse on the beauty of human fatness.

“A chief of chiefs,” he said, “is recognized by his shape. He is fleshy from head to foot. But his greatest flesh is his middle; when he sits, he is based like a mountain upon his sitting place; when he stands, he swells out in the midst, before and behind, like a porpoise.” it seemed that in order to maintain that noble bulge a high chief simply must have a regular diet of porpoise-meat; if he didn’t, he would soon become lean and bony like a commoner or a white man. The white man was doubtless of chiefly race, thought Kitiona, but his figure could hardly be called beautiful. “And you,” he added, looking me up and down with affectionate realism, “are in truth the skinniest white man ever seen in these islands. You sit upon approximately no base at all.”

I laughed (heartily, I hope) and asked what he thought could be done about that. “You should eat porpoise-flesh,” he said simply, “then you too would swell in the proper places.” That led me to inquire how I might come by a regular supply of the rare meat. The long and the short of his reply was that his own kinsmen in Kuma village, seventeen miles up-lagoon, were the hereditary porpoise-callers of the High Chiefs of Butaritari and Makin-Meang. His first cousin was a leading expert at the game; he could put himself into the right kind of dream on demand. His spirit went out of his body in such a dream; it sought out the porpoise-folk in their home under the western horizon and invited them to a dance, with feasting, in Kuma village. If he spoke the words of the invitation aright (and very few had the secret of them) the porpoise would follow him with cries of joy to the surface.

SOURCE: The Calling of the Porpoise, from Chapter 6, “Strange Interlude” of A Pattern of Islands, by Sir Arthur Grimble (John Murray, 1952).

So, do they come when they’re called? Does the skinny white man eat them or not? The rest of the excerpt is online at the wonderful and wide-ranging EclectiCity.

Prompted by Doug Muir of Halfway Down the Danube

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Steal Anything Except Our Daily Bread

In the end, not everybody [in the Gulag] starved. For even if most food products disappeared before they made it into the soup, one staple food was usually available: bread. Like soup, the bread of the Gulag has been described many times. Sometimes it is remembered as badly baked: one prisoner remembered it being so hard it “resembled a brick,” and so small it could be eaten “in two bites.” Another wrote that it was “literally ‘black’ bread because the bran left in it colored the bread black and made the texture coarse.” He also noted that it was baked with a great deal of water, so that it was “wet and weighed heavy, so that in actual fact we received less than our allotted 700 grams.”

Others recalled that prisoners fought over the drier, less watery ends of the loaves. In Varlam Shalamov’s short story “Cherry Brandy,” a fictive description of the death of Osip Mandelstam, the poet’s approaching death is signaled by his loss of interest in such matters: “He no longer watched for the heel of the loaf or cried when he didn’t get it. He didn’t stuff the bread into his mouth with trembling fingers.”

In the hungrier camps, in the hungrier years, bread took on an almost sacred status, and a special etiquette grew up around its consumption. While camp thieves stole almost everything else with impunity, for example, the theft of bread was considered particularly heinous and unforgivable. Vladimir Petrov found on his long train journey to Kolyma that “thieving was permitted and could be applied to anything within the thiefs capacity and luck, but there was one exception–bread. Bread was sacred and inviolable, regardless of any distinctions in the population of the car.” Petrov had in fact been chosen as the starosta [leader] of the car, and in that capacity was charged with beating up a petty thief who had stolen bread. He duly did so. Thomas Sgovio [an American] also wrote that the unwritten law of the camp criminals in Kolyma was: “Steal anything–excepting the holy bread portion.” He too had “seen more than one prisoner beaten to death for violating the sacred tradition.” Similarly, Kazimierz Zarod remembered that

If a prisoner stole clothes, tobacco, or almost anything else and was discovered, he could expect a beating from his fellow prisoners, but the unwrit- ten law of the camp–and I have heard from men from other camps that it was the same everywhere-was that a prisoner caught stealing another’s bread earned a death sentence.

In his memoirs, Dmitri Panin, a close friend of Solzhenitsyn’s, described exactly how such a death sentence might be carried out: “An offender caught in the act of stealing bread would be tossed in the air by other prisoners and allowed to crash to the ground; this was repeated several times, damaging his kidneys. Then they would heave him out of the barracks like so much carrion.”

SOURCE: Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum (Anchor Books, 2003), pp. 213-214

UPDATE: See also the story of Nicholas Nagy-Talavera, who survived both Auschwitz and the Gulag.

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Florida Church Excommunicates Schiavo Judge

The latest issue of The Christian Century reports that a Florida judge was asked to leave his Southern Baptist church over the Schiavo case.

Judge George Greer, a Florida county judge in the spotlight three times for ordering Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube removed, was advised by his Southern Baptist pastor to leave the congregation—despite the judge’s reputation as a conservative Republican and conservative Christian.

Greer, 63, a Pinellas County circuit judge based in Clearwater, also rejected an attempt by the U.S. House to subpoena the brain-damaged woman as a means to force reinsertion of her tube….

Calvary is regarded as one of the Florida (Southern) Baptist Convention’s most prominent conservative churches. According to the St. Petersburg Times, Greer became inactive in the congregation because of its free distribution to members of the Florida Baptist Witness, one of the denomination’s most conservative publications….

Mary Repper, a longtime friend of Greer, told AP that while Greer took comfort in being upheld by higher courts, he was upset by the church’s stance. “The people in that church should be ashamed of themselves, to demonize George and to ask him to leave for doing his job, for upholding the law,” she said. “To me, that was the most offensive thing that has happened so far.”

via my brother Ken, another ex-Southern Baptist, but he at least remains a Christian

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Russian Prison Tapping Code

Perhaps the most elaborate form of forbidden communication [in Russian prisons] was the prisoners’ Morse code, tapped on the walls of cells, or on the prison plumbing. The code had been devised in the Czarist era–Varlam Shalamov attributes it to one of the Decembrists. Elinor Olitskaya had learned it from her Social Revolutionary colleagues long before she was imprisoned in 1924. In fact, the Russian revolutionary Vera Figner had described the code in her memoirs, which is where Evgeniya Ginzburg had read about it. While under investigation, she remembered enough of the code to use it to communicate with a neighboring cell. The code was relatively straightforward: letters of the Russian alphabet were laid out in five rows of six letters:


Each letter was then designated by a pair of taps, the first signifying the row, the second the position in the row:

1,1 1,2 1,3 1,4 1,5 1,6
2,1 2,2 2,3 2,4 2,5 2,6
3,1 3,2 3,3 3,4 3,5 3,6
4,1 4,2 4,3 4,4 4,5 4,6
5,1 5,2 5,3 5,4 5,5 5,6

Even those who had not read about the code or learned it from others sometimes figured it out, as there were standard methods of teaching it. Those who knew it would sometimes tap out the alphabet, over and over again, together with one or two simple questions, in the hope that the unseen person on the other side of the wall would catch on. That was how Alexander Dolgun learned the code in Lefortovo, memorizing it with the help of matches. When he was finally able to “talk” to the man in the next cell, and understood that the man was asking him “Who are you?” he felt “a rush of pure love for a man who has been asking me for three months who I am.”

SOURCE: Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum (Anchor Books, 2003), pp. 155-156

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The Old Gulag Arbeitslager and Its New Korean Workforce

Work was the central function of most Soviet camps. It was the main occupation of prisoners, and the main preoccupation of the administration. Daily life was organized around work, and the prisoners’ well-being depended upon how successfully they worked. Nevertheless, it is difficult to generalize about what camp work was like: the image of the prisoner in the snowstorm, digging gold or coal with a pickax, is only a stereotype. There were many such prisoners–millions, as the figures for the camps of Kolyma and Vorkuta make clear–but there were also, we now know, camps in central Moscow where prisoners designed airplanes, camps in central Russia where prisoners built and ran nuclear power plants, fishing camps on the Pacific coast, collective farm camps in southern Uzbekistan. The archives of the Gulag in Moscow are chock-full of photographs of prisoners with their camels.

Without a doubt, the range of economic activity within the Gulag was as wide as the range of economic activity within the USSR itself. A glance through the Guide to the System of Corrective-Labor Camps in the USSR, the most comprehensive listing of camps to date, reveals the existence of camps organized around gold mines, coal mines, nickel mines; highway and railway construction; arms factories, chemical factories, metal-processing plants, electricity plants; the building of airports, apartment blocks, sewage systems; the digging of peat, the cutting of trees, and the canning of fish. The Gulag administrators themselves preserved a photo album solely dedicated to the goods that inmates produced. Among other things, there are pictures of mines, missiles, and other army equipment; car parts, door locks, buttons; logs floating down rivers; wooden furniture, including chairs, cabinets, telephone boxes, and barrels; shoes, baskets, and textiles (with samples attached); rugs, leather, fur hats, sheepskin coats; glass cups, lamps, and jars; soap and candles; even toys–wooden tanks, tiny windmills, and mechanical rabbits playing drums.

Work varied within individual camps as well as between them. True, many prisoners in forestry camps did nothing but fell trees. Prisoners with sentences of three years or less worked in “corrective-labor colonies,” light-regime camps which were usually organized around a single factory or occupation. Larger Gulag camps, by contrast, might contain a number of industries: mines, a brick factory, and a power plant, as well as housing or road construction sites. In such camps, prisoners unloaded the daily goods trains, drove trucks, picked vegetables, worked in kitchens, hospitals, and children’s nurseries. Unofficially, prisoners also worked as servants, nannies, and tailors for the camp commanders, guards, and their wives.

Prisoners with long sentences often held down a wide variety of jobs, changing work frequently as their luck rose and fell. In her nearly two-decade camp career, Evgeniya Ginzburg worked cutting trees, digging ditches, cleaning the camp guest house, washing dishes, tending chickens, doing laundry for camp commanders’ wives, and caring for prisoners’ children. Finally, she became a nurse. During the eleven years he spent in camps, another political prisoner, Leonid Sitko, worked as a welder, as a stonemason in a quarry, as a construction worker on a building brigade, as a porter in a railway depot, as a miner in a coal mine, and as a carpenter in a furniture factory, making tables and bookshelves.

SOURCE: Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum (Anchor Books, 2003), pp. 217-218

NKZone‘s Andrei Lankov picks up the story of the Siberian Gulag after the death of Stalin.

For the last few decades a visitor to Eastern Siberia can sometimes come across unusual logging camps: fenced off with barbed wire, they spo[r]t the telltale portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. These are North Korean camps: from the late 1960s, the North Korean loggers have been working in Russia’s Far East.

In the 1960s, the timber shortage was felt both in North Korea and the USSR, but the reasons for this shortage were different. The Russians had plenty of forest, but lacked labour. When gulags were emptied after Stalin’s death, few people were willing to go to fell trees in remote corners of Siberia at their own will. The North Koreans had an abundance of cheap labour but almost no good timber. Thus, the idea of cooperation came naturally. In March 1967, when the relations between the two countries began to recover after a serious chill, a logging agreement was signed.

According to the agreement, the North Korean loggers were allowed to work at designated areas of the Russian Far East. They were housed in special labour camps, run by the North Korean administration. The produced timber was divided between the two sides: the Russians get 60 percent [property rights!] and Koreans 40 percent [labour!] of the total.

At their peak in the mid-1980s, the Far East joint logging projects employed over 20,000 North Korean workers. This means that some 0.5 percent of all North Korean able-bodied men laboured there.

This recalls one of the hoariest of Soviet-era jokes: “Under capitalism, man exploits man, while under socialism, it’s the other way round.”

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