“In all truth, there is no step, thought, action, or lack of action under the heavens which could not be punished by the heavy hand of Article 58”. (Solzhenitsyn, 1985, p. 27)
In 1926 Soviet Russia adopted Article 58 into its already 140 Article long Criminal Code; and as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn points out in The Gulag Archipelago 1918-56, it was an all-encompassing article written so broadly with the intention of trying to weed out as many “enemies of the state” as possible; not just politically, but socially as well. Solzhenitsyn himself fell victim to Article 58 while he was a Captain in the Army during WWII. He had authored a letter to a childhood friend who was stationed on the First Ukrainian Front where he criticized Stalin. He was arrested, beaten and interrogated, and ultimately sent to a work camp to begin serving out his ten-year sentence.
Before the adoption of article 58, the only people getting sent to the Gulag were any and all non-Bolsheviks so only one political party remained unopposed; communism. But Stalin didn’t just want to get rid of spies, traitors, and terrorists who were a threat politically, he adopted and used Article 58 to go after those civilians he deemed to be too independent, too influential, along with those who were too well-to-do, too intelligent, and too noteworthy (Solzhenitsyn, 1985). Essentially, they took anyone who had the potential to be a leader within their communities, anyone with a voice.
But it wasn’t just the people of Soviet Russia who were targets of this overly broad stoke of “justice”, even people within the Communist government were subject to Article 58 if they didn’t show just how loyal and subservient they were to Stalin and his regime. Solzhenitsyn retells a story of a district party conference that was held in Moscow sometime in the late 1930s and early 40s. It was presided over by the party’s new secretary at the time, who had just replaced his predecessor. The preceding secretary had been arrested; presumably under Article 58, so the new secretary obviously wanted to make a better impression.
At the conclusion of the political function, a tribute to Stalin was called for and, of course, the entire room stood for applause to show their undying loyalty. As Solzhenitsyn recounts (p. 27): “the small hall echoed with ‘stormy applause, rising to an ovation’. For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the ‘stormy applause’ continued. But palms were getting sore, and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who adored Stalin. However, who would dare be the first to stop?”
The party’s secretary had been too frightened to be the one to end the applause first for everyone else to follow suit, but agents of the NKVD (the predecessor to the KGB) had been watching to see who stopped clapping first, and after all, the secretary had just replaced someone who had been arrested, so he couldn’t be the first to stop.
Eleven minutes had finally gone by before the director of a local paper factory, who had been in attendance, finally decided to stop clapping and sat down. The factory director was then arrested and handed down a ten-year sentence. During his interrogation, the factory director’s interrogator had given him a future word of advice:
“Don’t ever be the first one to stop applauding” (p.28).
It was tests like that which aided the NKVD in weeding out those who were independent and free-thinking from those who were loyal to Stalin and communism.
This was just a small snippet of insight into how Stalin and his communist regime were able to flourish; creating a constant looming of fear for anyone who thought, spoke, or acted differently against them. Instilling suspicion amongst the populace of never knowing who to trust, even one’s own family member, fearing that they might turn one another into authorities in order to place themselves in good graces with the regime. And the ultimate torture, punishment, silencing, and even death of anyone who was deemed an enemy of the state.
But how did this culture come to be? Solzhenitsyn again recounts a newspaper article from November of 1918 written by Martin Latsis, and published in a newspaper called Red Terror, which stated the following:
“We are not fighting against single individuals. We are exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class. It is not necessary during the interrogation to look for evidence to prove that the accused opposed the Soviets by word or action. The first question you should ask him is what class he belongs to, what is his origin, his education, and his profession. These questions should determine his fate. This is the essence of the Red Terror” (Solzhenitsyn, 1985, p. 21).
Is it just me? Or does this ideology, the one where a person is condemned without facts, condemned because of their political or social affiliation, condemned for a joke they made ten years ago or condemned because of their dissenting opinions expressed on social media, sound very familiar to today’s fringe or far-left groups or movements?
Sadly enough in today’s world, this ideology can, more or less, be recognized with Article 58’s more present-day pseudo-sophisticated cousin, Cancel Culture (I say sophisticated because no one is getting 10-25 years in a work camp for getting canceled, but it’s nonetheless related because it’s still a social infringement on people’s rights to speech). Every day, good people are being shadow-banned, silenced, and canceled by big tech companies because they think freely, or live outside the values of the “woke” mob.
And it wasn’t but a few weeks ago that the Federal Government, which one could say is the biggest violator of spreading disinformation, was looking to install a Disinformation Governance Board with the intent of allegedly filtering information released to the public so that “disinformation” couldn’t be spread. Sounds a lot like The Ministry of Truth from George Orwell’s novel 1984.
In the rest of his book, Solzhenitsyn details the entire journey a political or social enemy of the state would take through the Gulag Prison System, or as Solzhenitsyn called it, the Sewage Disposal System of those deemed an enemy. It began with the frivolous arrest made for an Article 58 infraction and followed through to the different types of torture applied to get someone to admit to something they didn’t do (sleep deprivation, solitary confinement in cells just big enough to stand only, constant light exposure, physical beatings, etc.), to the excessive 10-25 year sentences, to the human excrement infested transport convoys to the work camps, and to ultimately the living conditions within those work camps where rape, assaults, theft, and starvation ran rampant.
Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, in my opinion, gives a crystal ball insight into what could become of this country if the division between both sides of the political and social aisles don’t come together. The government will implement these “ministries of truth”, the first amendment will be infringed upon through adopted “article 58s”, social groups will tell on each other, arrests will be made, and people will disappear.
To quote Edward E. Ericson Jr in his introduction to The Gulag Archipelago: “To read the Gulag through a moral lens is to understand that government power can perpetrate all sorts of atrocities upon human beings, body, and soul…”.
And it’s true. It’s been proven time after time again throughout history that a government left unchecked will flex its muscle upon the population. But Ericson continued his thought in that quote when he followed up: “but they can never fully succeed in quenching the human spirit…in this sense totalitarianism must always fail”.
And that is true as well. A totalitarian dictator can inflict mental and physical harm upon us, that’s been proven as well. But, keeping it stoic, they cannot harm our spirit or character unless we allow them to. And it’s that human spirit and act of keeping the government in check that led us to become the country we fought for when we declared our independence back in 1776.
I urge anyone who values freedom, free thinking, and free speech to read The Gulag Archipelago so that you are reminded that the idea of it all is worth fighting for. Because the alternate, as depicted in the book, is not something any of us want to see happen.