Thursday, June 24, 2021


Martin Amis, Koba the Dread  [Stalin]
New York: Hyperion, 2002, pp. 74-75 

But the worst prison is better than the best camp. In the camps such words (dear, human) are used facetiously or contemptuously or not at all; the future tense is never heard; and for the zek, more generally, the “natural desire to share what he has experienced dies in him” (Solzhenitsyn); “He has forgotten empathy for another’s sorrow; he simply does not understand it and does not desire to understand it” (Varlam Shalamov). Thus there was nowhere to turn but inward. Speculating on the “astounding rarity” of camp suicides, Solzhenitsyn writes:

“If those millions of helpless and pitiful vermin still did not put an end to themselves—this meant that some kind of invincible feeling was alive inside them. Some very powerful idea. This was their feeling of universal innocence.” 

Because they were all innocent, the politicals. None of them had done anything. On arrest, the invariable response was Zachto? Why? What for? When she heard that a friend had been picked up (this was in the early 1930s), Nadezhda Mandelstam said: Zachto? Anna Akhmatova lost patience. “Don’t you understand?” she said, “that they are now arresting people for nothing.” Why, what for? That was the question you asked yourself each day in the gulag archipelago. And we must imagine this word carved on the trunk of every tree in the taiga: Zachto?... 

There are no names for what happened in the Soviet Union between 1917 and 1953 (although Russians refer, totemically, to “the twenty million,” and to the Stalinschina—the time of Stalin’s rule). What should we call it? The Decimation, the Fratricide, the Mindslaughter? No. Call it the Zachto? Call it the What For?

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