BOOKS: by Bill JamesNews Weekly
FROM THE GULAG TO THE KILLING FIELDS, edited by Paul Hollander
, February 3, 2007
The hells that the West ignoredFROM THE GULAG TO THE KILLING FIELDS:
Personal accounts of political violence and repression In Communist states
edited by Paul Hollander
(Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books)
Hardcover: 750 pages, Rec. price: AUD$70.00
(subject to availability)I had to take a break from this book at one point. It was the section dealing with the treatment of Castro's victims in the Cuban prison system. Reading their first-hand accounts of the communist guards' depraved obsession with immersing prisoners in faecal filth just got too much after a while. What it must have been like to actually experience defies imagination.Eyewitness material
The stench of human waste hangs over all the stories recounted in these 750 pages. Hollander has collected eyewitness material about communist incarceration from all over the world - the USSR, Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia, China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea and Ethiopia - but so many of the themes are similar and recurrent.
For us fortunate middle-class Westerners, just the descriptions of living conditions constantly jar against all that we assume to be normal and prescriptive. As well as the primitive or non-existent sanitary facilities, there are the absences of healthy food and water, privacy, silence, medical and dental care, heating and cooling, facilities to wash oneself or one's clothes, and access to reading and writing materials.
Add to these absences the presence of vermin (lice, cockroaches, mosquitoes and rats).
That, of course, is just the everyday background against which the specialised torments stand out. These latter include debilitating and dangerous forced labour; interminable and exhausting sessions of propaganda, interrogation, confession, criticism and self-criticism; sleep deprivation; starvation; beatings and torture; and the threat of execution.
Ideological juggernauts of repression, with unlimited resources of money, time, effort, buildings, technology and manpower were - and are - mobilised to crush not just bodies, but reason, morality, affection, loyalty and all other positive human qualities.
The inane dreariness, futility and wastefulness of these huge state apparatuses and their endless titanic machinations are as depressing as the vivid, specific instances of dehumanising (to both perpetrator and victim) cruelty.
There are reports of executions by hanging in North Korea, firing squad in Tibet, and by bashing with picks and shovels in Cambodia. (There is also more than one account of the livers of executed Cambodians being removed and eaten).
Hungarians are electrocuted. A Vietnamese prisoner is slowly caned to death in front of the rest of the prison population. Soviet generals and politicians lose their teeth from beatings with fists, boots and clubs. Albanians are tortured with knives, scissors, splinters and wire. Bulgarians are flogged. A Romanian woman is thrashed on the soles of her feet. Jugoslavs are kept in cells full of water. Chinese dissidents are bashed with rifle butts, and incarcerated in strait-jackets or coffin-like concrete containers.
Nicaraguan Sandinistas use electric cattle prods, and shoot prisoners who are "trying to escape". East German Volkspolizei train their Ethiopian secret police counterparts to kill completely innocent people in line with Stalin's dictum that, "If we only arrested the guilty, what would the innocent fear?"
There is only one (unintentional) joke in the whole book to relieve the gloom, which occurs when a Vietnamese cadre makes a promise, "On my honour as a communist." The story of the Soviet prisoner who tried to disable himself by swallowing a box of dominoes, and then carefully recorded the numbers on each tile as it reappeared until the set was complete, might also appeal to some.
Hollander has performed a great service to history and humanity by accumulating this material, which he prefaces with an editor's introduction entitled The Distinctive Features of Repression in Communist States
. There he documents the long, shameful and continuing story of indifference to, and distortion of, the truth about communist regimes by the Western media and academe.
The shame catalogue includes guru Noam Chomsky (Cambodia), New York Times
journalist Nicholas Kristoff (North Korea) and historian Eric Hobsbawm (Stalinist Russia). Hollander's book has a foreword by Anne Applebaum, author of the magisterial Gulag
, who excoriated Amnesty International's current secretary-general Irene Khan over her disgraceful and obfuscatory description of the (admittedly unsatisfactory) Guantanamo Bay as "the gulag of our times".From The Gulag To The Killing Fields
will be sedulously ignored by a chattering class which is eager to devour comparable stories of Nazi atrocities, but its very existence is important. The truth is
out there, and will one day prevail.
Let me end this review, as I began it, on a scatological note. A survivor of North Korea's gulag reports that prisoners relieve the contrived solemnity of self-criticism sessions by farting loudly, which enrages the guards.
So far as the proud tradition of resistance to oppression goes, this is hardly in the same league as the storming of the Bastille. Nonetheless, it is a quirkily encouraging testament to the resilience of the human spirit in the worst of circumstances.