The Existential Shock of Random Acts of Terror - Ch. 1 "The Gulag Archipelago" by Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn

Chapter One - Arrest

In the first chapter of Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago he gives a chilling account of a period of decades in the Soviet Union in which the government maintained control of its population through keeping them in a state of constant fear and terror. This was done through huge numbers of random, sudden, arrests. One day you are living normal life, and the next day you disappear and never return. There is no rhyme or reason to it, only quotas that have to be met by the internal police. And nothing ... nothing ... is off limits. 

An interesting aspect of this chapter is the psychological effect that such tactics had on the population. The suddenness of the arrests often put one into a state of shock, leaving them incapable of responding with anything other than obedience. The randomness of arrests put people under great stress all the time, as it could happen, literally, anywhere during the day. The pure lack of rationality behind arresting certain people left the people with a feeling of inevitability and almost desire to get the arrest over with. Thus, very few ever resisted or ran. Most ended up being taken away quietly without so much as an objection. This is the existential shock of random acts of terror, and is a form of psychological and physical isolation and manipulation. 

The Shock of Arrest
An archipelago is a chain of islands that are connected. This is the term that Solzhenitsyn chooses to describe the system of work camps that the Soviets set up in the 20th century across Russia. These camps were an enclosed system of imprisonment unto themselves. Some were hidden in plain sight, others out in Siberia. One could not simply book a ticket to such a place. Entrance was only through the system or arrest and imprisonment. 1

"Arrest! Need it be said that it is a breaking point in your life, a bolt of lightning which has scored a direct hit on you? That it is an unassimilable spiritual earthquake not every person can cope with, as a result of which people often slip into insanity? The Universe has as many different centers as there are living beings in it. Each of us is a center of the Universe, and that Universe is shattered when they hiss at you: 'You are under arrest.' If you are arrested, can anything else remain unshattered by this cataclysm? But the darkened mind is incapable of embracing these displacements in our universe, and both the most sophisticated and the veriest simpleton among us, drawing on all life's experience, can gasp out only: 'Me? What for?' And this is a question which, though repeated millions and millions of times before, has yet to receive an answer. Arrest is an instantaneous, shattering through, expulsion, somersault from one state into another." 2 Being arrested was a shocking experience that overwhelmed those to whom it happened. They were so overwhelmed that most of them fell into simple silence, like a sheep being led along believing that this mistake will all be soon rectified. It was the drastically sudden collapse of one's entire life, and its transformation into something completely new in an instant. Over time these arrests impressed themselves upon the psyche of the larger population. "That's what arrest is: it's a blinding flash and a blow which shifts the present instantly into the past and the impossible into omnipotent actuality." 

Solzhenitsyn makes it clear that the gulag isn't necessarily somewhere far away, it starts only a few feet from one's normal reality. He gives the metaphor of the bricks, walls, and roadways, which have carefully fitted doors. Not noticing them, the population unknowingly stands in front of them. Suddenly the doors open and arms pull them through, and they are gone. Transition into the gulag archipelago is always only a few feet away. "But there is where the Gulag country begins, right next to us, two yards away from us." 3

When an arrest would happen, police would break through one's door in the middle of the night, trampling with their dirty boots over everything. They also have with them other citizen informants that have turned the people in. 4 Part of the logic of night raids was that the person would be half dazed and asleep, suddenly overwhelmed by force and terror. 5 Those being arrested are hurried to pack and move along. Then the rest of the night is spent overturning the person's home for evidence. "During the arrest of the locomotive engineer Inoshin, a tiny coffin stood in his room containing the body of his newly dead child. The 'jurists' dumped the child's body out of the coffin and searched it. They shake sick people out of their sickbeds, and they unwind bandages to search beneath them." 6 In other words, "They are looking for something which was never put there." For those who have been left behind there was little hope of corresponding with their loved one again. They might wait for days in order to send a package, only to get to the window and be told that there is no record of such a person, or that they cannot receive packages (in other words, Solzhenitsyn says, the person had been executed). 

These arrests were so frequent that those who were in charge of executing them had a formed "penology" which summed up the theory of arrest. There were classifications of arrests depending on if someone was to be taken alone, or with their whole family, if it was at work or at home, if there was expected resistance, or if surprise was required, etc. The astonishing thing is that there was so little resistance. "(even though tens of millions of cases of no resistance was expected and in fact there was none)." 7 

The Randomness of Arrests
Another method of arresting people was to do it outside their normal circumstances. If they did it away from their family and friends, their work, or others they knew then there was much less resistance. Solzhenitsyn recounts two examples of women going on dates, only to have the date end with them being brought to Lubyanka prison. Sometimes military members would receive their new assignments, sent in route to their new location, and then arrested along the way. 8 Even more absurd are occurrences of people being arrested by complete strangers pretending to be old friends. They come up to you happily and proclaim how good it is to see you, that you need to catch up. As soon as you let yourself be led by one of these men you will be led to your arrest. 

"Some obscure, ordinary mortal, scared to death by epidemic arrests all around him and already depressed for a week by sinister glances from his chief, is suddenly summoned to the local Party committee, where he is beamingly presented with a vacation ticket to a Sochi sanatorium. The rabbit is overwhelmed and immediately concludes that his fears were groundless. After expressing his gratitude, he hurries home, triumphant, to pack his suitcase. It is only two hours till train time, and he scolds his wife for being too slow. He arrives at the station with time to spare. And there in the waiting room or at the bar he is hailed by an extraordinarily pleasant young man: 'Don't you remember me, Pyotr Ivanich?' Pyotr Ivanich has difficulty remembering: 'Well, not exactly, you see, although ...' The young man, however, is overflowing with friendly concern: 'Come now, how can that be? I'll have to remind you. ...' and he bows respectfully to Pyotr Ivanich's wife: 'You must forgive us. I'll keep him only one minute.' The wife accedes, and trustingly the husband lets himself be led away by the arm - forever or for ten years!" 9 

They might take you from the hospital room or operating table. They might get you after you check in at the factory for your daily assignment. You might be told that you have a special package at the store, only to go pick it up and be arrested. You may generously house a Christian pilgrim for the night, only to be turned in. "You are arrested by a meterman who has come to read you electric meter. You are arrested by a bicyclist who has run into you on the street, by a railway conductor, a taxi driver, a savings bank teller, the manager of a movie theatre. Any one of them can arrest you, and you notice the concealed maroon-colored identification card only when it is too late." The arrests got as creative as the the amount of free time was allowed to pursue them. During the years at the end of the WWII they had to become more mundane due to such a large influx of prisoners. 10 

Arrests Have Nothing to Do With Guilt or Innocence
In the face of such widespread arrests the people had the sentiment that it was almost inevitable. People began saying goodbye as they left their families everyday for work, knowing it was a possibility that they might not return. They became submissive to the government. Why would they do that given the amount of injustice perpetrated? This is the power of randomness. There was often no real to arrest someone at all. And not having done anything wrong, why would someone resist? But it was exactly this randomness of arresting, in order to fill quotas, that caused people to be submissive. If you never know when, why, or where you could be arrested, what can you really do to avoid it? 11 

A continued belief that justice would prevail in their cases was the downfall of many. "Universal innocence also gave rise to the universal failure to act. ... The majority sit quietly and dare to hope. Since you aren't guilty, then how can they arrest you? It's a mistake! They are already dragging you along by the collar, and you still keep on exclaiming to yourself: 'It's a mistake! They'll set things straight and let me out!' Others are being arrested en masse, and that's a bothersome fact, but in those other cases there is always some dark area: 'Maybe he was guilty ...?' But as for you, you are obviously innocent! You still believe that the Organs are humanly logical institutions: they will set things straight and let you out." 12 

If the whole thing is a mistake, wouldn't resisting only make oneself look more guilty? That's what many people thought. If they just complied then the whole thing would sort itself out. Or if they thought of resisting, at what point does one go about it? From the start, after being confronted, after being taken from one's home? Solzhenitsyn laments that fact that they did not put up a fight against the organ police. If they had made those people's lives harder when they came to arrest, if they had made them think twice about their own safety as they ruined people's lives, maybe they could have stopped it all. 13

Solzhenitsyn mentions how some people actually were relieved and happy when they were finally arrested. But how could this be? Well during the epidemic of arrests, not being arrested just delayed the inevitable. It just dragged one's suffering and fear out longer. "[She] ... felt only relief when she was arrested. But this feeling was a thousand times stronger during epidemic of arrests when all around you they were hauling in people like yourself and still had not come for you; for some reason they were taking their time. After all, that kind of exhaustion, that kind of suffering, is worse than any kind of arrest, and not only for a person of limited courage." 14 Then there are those who felt honored to be arrested in service to their country, or desired to see their old comrades in prison. 

Silent Cooperation During Arrests
But for those who did not want to be arrested, why didn't they call for help? If one is being led away in public under arrest, why not scream and shout? Couldn't they have made it impossible for the organs to do their work? 15 Instead, most people submitted and went quietly, others choosing to ignore what was happening. An exception to this was one women who did the right thing. She was being arrested in broad daylight, and instead of going quietly, she grabbed a street post and began to scream. Those around came to her aid and the organs had to flee. Sadly, she chose to go home and they arrested her that night at her house. 

Solzhenitsyn even talks about his own failure to resist. He was taken into custody at the front and realized that what his fate was going to be. 16 Then he had a window of three or four days of travel where he could have escaped, or called out for help, or make some type of ruckus, but he did not. He says that he had a premonition that his cries were meant to be heard by more people than the few around him. Not 200 people, but 200 million people. As for others, he speculates that maybe they were afraid to be the one to sacrifice themselves, that maybe they still thought a favorable outcome was possible, that some just didn't know what exactly to shout, or that for some the emotion of the whole thing was too overwhelming to even let out a cry. 17

Back to Solzhenitsyn's situation ... "The brigade commander called me to his headquarters and asked me for my pistol; I turned it over without suspecting any evil intent, when suddenly, from a tense, immobile suite of staff officers in the corner, two counterintelligence officers stepped forward hurriedly, crossed the room in a few quick bounds, their four hands grabbed simultaneously at the star on my cap, my shoulder boards, my officer's belt, my map case, and they shouted theatrically: 'You are under arrest!' Burning and prickling from head to toe, all I could exclaim was: 'Me? What for?'" 18 The commander revealed to him that it was because he corresponded with a friend in Ukraine. Then, smiling and leaning forward, squeezed his hand and said, "I wish you happiness, Captain!" 19 Solzhenitsyn was taken to a nearby holding prison where he was put into a 6" by 6" closet with three other prisoners. 20 His journey into the prison system began...
1 - Solzhenitsyn, Alexsandr. The Gulag Archipelago. (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1974). 3
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