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It could be worse…

This is about quite a dark subject: the Soviet gulags. I don’t recommend reading this essay if you suffer from clinical depression. If you’re just somewhat got down by global politics, I do recommend you read this, to realize that things can be a lot worse, and to appreciate what we have going for us. 

A week ago, staying at my grandparents’ house in Wales, I picked up The Gulag Archipelago¸ by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He reached out a cold, bony hand, and wouldn’t let go. His account of the gulags – the slave-labour camps run by the Soviet Union – was so awful, and exerted such a ghoulish fascination on me, that I had to read more, so I read his first book, One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and followed up with Anne Applebaum’s historical account, Gulag: A History.

Now I feel like someone who slowed down to ogle a car-crash, and now can’t get the sickening images out of their head.

The first thing that struck me was what a very good writer Solzhenitsyn is. The first section of the Gulag Archipelago is an extraordinary piece of writing, a sustained feat of irony, scorn and moral indignation, like a brilliant summing up by a prosecution attorney.

Both Nazism and Soviet communism combined savage cruelty with industrial bureaucracy, and Solzhenitsyn turns this bureaucratic tactic against the enemy, building up a dossier of crimes, ticking off the enormities one by one, as when he calmly lists the 31 methods of interrogation used by the KGB, from sleeplessness to ‘the box’. Or when he lists the waves of prisoners who swept through the ‘meat-grinder’, from the Mensheviks and Socialists in the first years of the Revolution, to the White Russians in the civil war, the kulaks in the forced collectivisation of the agricultural sector, to the engineers or doctors or Poles or whoever in the paranoid purges of the 1930s.

And then the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of German, Japanese, Polish and Soviet POWs in World War II (yes, any Soviet soldier captured by Germans who then escaped or was released was promptly imprisoned by the KGB on suspicion of spying. Over 200,000 were sent to the Gulags. This after the USSR refused to provide any support to Soviet POWs in German camps, so they starved like animals).

On and on the list goes, waves and waves of forgotten millions, which he tries to record and remember.

He guides one through the various awful stages of your incarceration, like the stages of the cross. There is the first moment of arrest, when you are plucked out of your normal life and plunged into hell, for decades (most prisoners tended to get a ten or 25-year sentence, no matter what their crime) or for ever.

He’s a spiritual writer, and he describes the moment of arrest as sort of a dark spiritual experience:

Arrest is an instantaneous, shattering thrust, expulsion, somersault from one state into another.

We have been happily borne – or perhaps have unhappily dragged our weary way – down the long and crooked streets of our lives, past all kinds of walls and fences made of rotting wood, rammed earth, brick, concrete, iron railings. We have never given a thought to what lies behind them. We have never tried to penetrate them with our vision or understanding. But there is where the Gulag country begins, right next to us, two yards away from us.

The arrested person thinks there must be a mistake. ‘Me? What for?’

It is the crushing of a universe in which there is a moral law, in which things happen for a reason, in which the good are rewarded and the bad punished.

You could be arrested because a neighbour denounced you. Because of your nationality or ethnicity. Because you were late for work. Because you told a joke. Because you happened to be in the wrong place. Or simply because the Gulag organs have to fulfil an official quota of new bodies, to fire up the forge of the Soviet economic miracle. So off you go. That’s the end of your old life, your relationships, your plans, your values and identity. You’re now Prisoner 1762, struggling to survive in the most awful conditions. That is your life from now on. And this could happen to anyone, at any time! A door in the wall opens, and you’re in hell.

What surprises me is the Soviet obsession with confession. There were awful, cosmic battles of wills that took place in the basement of the Lubyanka (the KGB’s headquarters), most of which we will never hear of. The KGB grabbed a young American who worked at the US Embassy, for example, thinking he was a spy. Someone called his name on the street, he turned round, and that was it, imprisonment, interrogation, a decade in the gulag. During the interrogation they denied him sleep for a month. For a month. He still refused to lie. Others were locked up in tiny boxes for days or weeks, or beaten up repeatedly, or raped, or hung upside down, or forced to hear their loved ones tortured. All for the ‘confession’, and for names of other ‘conspirators’.

Why bother? Why this pretence of being a country governed by the rule of law? They needed slaves, so just ship them off, no need to torture them. Perhaps the KGB needed to justify its bloated bureaucracy with confessions. Perhaps they really believed their country was filled with hundreds of thousands of spies. Perhaps they needed to break the prisoners’ spirit. Perhaps they enjoyed it.

Then, once you’ve confessed, or not, there’s the transit to one of the camps. Again, an awful experience, prisoners crammed into carriages, shitting themselves, dying of hunger and cold. This is where you might meet the Russian criminal underclass, who would immediately rob you of your clothes and possibly rape you.

If you survive that, you arrive at one of the 474 camps found right across the country. If you were lucky! Often there was no camp yet, and you had to build it, sleeping in tents or sometimes just a hole in the ground while you toiled in minus 25. And then it was off to work in one of the grand economic projects that Stalin liked to use slave labour for, such as the gold mines of Kolyma or the nickel mines of Norilsk. You were fed according to how well you worked. If you worked badly, you were fed less and would starve and die.

All in the name of communism and the people.

I realized, when I read Applebaum’s book, that Solzhenitsyn is actually too generous. He doesn’t mention the women and children in the camps, the gang-rapes, the babies ripped from their mothers and thrown into gulag nurseries, where they grew up ignored and incapable of speech. It’s almost too painful to read, particularly if you imagine your own loved ones in their place.

This all happened so recently, so close. I think this is one value of reading history. You get a sense of how bad things can get. It can help temper our culture’s tendency to hysterical pessimism, particularly on social media. As when people whine that 2016 was the worst year ever, because Trump was elected and David Bowie died. Westerners are terribly unprepared for how bad things can get.

Reading about the Gulags is also a good corrective if you should happen to have any romanticism about Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism (they are one ideology in my opinion, and Marx deserves his share of the blame for the atrocities that followed.) Why is this authoritarian ideology not condemned to the same degree as Nazism?  Why do we tolerate Seamus Milne, senior advisor to Jeremy Corbyn, defending Stalin’s record in the Guardian? Why do we celebrate the historian Eric Hobsbawm, who continued to support the USSR after its invasion of Hungary? How can hip Leftist authors like Slavoj Zizek and China Mieville get away with celebrating the Bolshevik revolution or even the Stalinist purges? How is that not like celebrating fascism?

Russia itself has never gone through the public examination which Germany did after the fall of Hitler. No one ever went on trial for the gulags. Stalin is still seen as a hero by many, including Putin, the KGB president, who says the fall of the USSR was a national disaster. What is the consequence of this failure to face the past? Russia is still a country where the government holds people’s lives very cheaply, where journalists can be thrown out of windows, no problem, where planes can crash and submarines sink without any particular fuss, where state-hired Russian mercenaries can run around Syria testing out new forms of nerve gas on prisoners, and then try them out in England too, where KGB kleptocrats can still amass billions and billions of dollars for their own greasy consumption, and nobody who complains is left free or alive for very long.

Yes, Nazism was a different sort of evil. The USSR did, like Nazism, condemn people not on the basis of what they did but who they were. But the official enemies of the people were constantly changing – Poles one year, engineers the next, depending on Stalin’s deadly fits of paranoia. The USSR didn’t make hard ethnic distinctions between the good and the evil – anyone could find oneself in the camp, including disgraced Soviet leaders and those who ran the camps.

True, the USSR never constructed camps designed to kill people. It just didn’t much care if they lived or died. The inmates were soulless commodities. And, unlike Nazism, the Gulag system survived for thirty-five years, until the death of Stalin.  18 million human beings were sent to the Gulags. Another six million were sent into exile, another form of slave-labour. 4.5 million died in the camps. And, as Solzhenitsyn says, for each life directly destroyed, there would be two or three of their family members whose lives were likewise destroyed by the impact. It’s impossible to take in such numbers, until one puts names and faces and feelings to them. Each one of those 18 million could have been your brother, your daughter, your mother, your father, or you.

It is sickening to read, but it’s too easy to blame all the evil on Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism.  Solzhenitsyn writes:

let the reader who expects this book to be a political expose slam its covers shut right now.

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good from evil cuts through the heart of every human being….During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place…

This line goes through every culture and country as well. We can’t believe Russians still adore Stalin, yet we worship Churchill, vote him the greatest ever Brit, make eulogistic films about him, and give those films Baftas and Oscars. And if anyone criticizes Winston, they’re a ‘sickening turd’. No mention of the 1943 Bengal Famine, in which around three million Indians died, on our watch. No mention of how Churchill handed over 36,000 Cossacks to Stalin at the end of the war, betrayed them, knowing they would be murdered. This was great power politics, and the lives of millions were pawns on the chessboard. Of course, Churchill wasn’t all bad. But he certainly wasn’t all good. Nor was the British Empire, with its ideology of Anglo-Saxon supremacy. How many slaves did we ship…

Ah well.

The line of good and evil goes through my heart too. I wonder how I would have coped in the gulags. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have lasted a month. I’d have signed a confession straight off. I hope I wouldn’t have incriminated others, but who knows? And at the gulag itself. I just can’t imagine it.

I was reminded of Viktor Frankel’s Man and His Search for Meaning. This book, beloved of the self-help industry, has the very Stoic message that ‘everything can be taken from a man except the last of the human freedoms: the freedom to choose your perspective’. But surely this can also be taken from a man all too easily. Just deprive them of sleep for a few days, strip them naked, beat them up, and then let’s see their Stoic defiance.

How dare we turn people’s hellish experiences into a glib self-help mantra.

Still, while Solzhenitsyn admits he and all the other gulag inhabitants were, on the whole, bewildered, terrified and demoralized ‘rabbits’, he does manage to find some sort of resilience and transcendence in that hell. And there is something Stoic in his message.

The way to survive, he says, is to accept that your old life is finished and gone. Accept that you’re at the mercy of external circumstances over which you have very little control. Let go of your attachment to possessions. But then you may find something that cannot be taken away. He writes of ‘that glimmering light which, in time, the lonely soul of the prisoner begins to emit, like the halo of a saint’. That’s certainly the role he takes on, a role readily prepared for him by previous Russian authors like Dostoevsky. Like Dostoevsky, he almost seems to celebrate his suffering and take pride in it: ‘very early and very clearly, I had this consciousness that prison was not an abyss for me, but the most important turning point in my life’.

He, and others, managed to find a new mission in the gulags: to record and remember, and to hurl the truth at the Leviathan like a harpoon. It’s an awful story, but everyone should read it, and then thank their lucky stars for a warm meal, a bed, and a more or less functional democracy.

Rage against the dying of the light

I was walking to the Extinction Rebellion protest last weekend, and I suddenly started crying.

I hardly ever cry, and I have certainly never cried for the ‘environment’, or nature, or baby seals.

It just suddenly felt real.

It was like I was going to a doctor’s appointment that I’d been putting off for months, knowing in the back of my mind that I was really, really ill. And now I was facing up to the possibility of death, and I was frightened and sad.

The numbness that I had carried around with me subconsciously, for years, was beginning to melt.

I headed for Southwark Bridge. My friend Charlie was in one of the ER ‘affinity groups’ and he’d told me to meet at Southwark for 9.30am, in order to blockade the bridge at 10.

The plan was to blockade five bridges in London, and then march to Parliament Square for a rally.

Extinction Rebellion had only been going for a month or so.

It’s a movement of civil disobedience, inspired by three environmentalists recently given jail sentences for protesting against fracking.

The sentences were later quashed, but their willingness to risk prison to protect nature galvanized the environmentalist movement, particularly after the latest warnings from the IPCC that human civilization has around a decade left to halt catastrophic warming of the ecosystem.

Climate change is visible now – in the heatwaves, hurricanes, wildfires, floods and droughts. We read about, although we don’t yet feel, the rapid extinctions of 60% of wildlife species in the last 50 years. We read about, although we don’t yet feel, the acidification of the ocean and death of half the coral around the world – including a fifth of it in the last three years.

The ecocide has already begun for other species, now it’s heading for us. And we’re sleepwalking towards it.

But what can I do about it? Is it worth even thinking about, if there’s nothing to be done? Just try and carry on as normal, until the end.

But the more we live in denial of the real, the more our civilization feels psychotic.

I got to Southwark Bridge at 9.20. It was a cold, bright day, the City was deserted, and the bridge was completely empty, apart from six or seven police. I smiled at them innocently and walked across the bridge.

On the other side, I saw my friend Charlie, who lives in Dorset, wearing a tweed jacket and photographing the river. He looked like a German spy.

‘Charlie!’ I said, but he carried on photographing. Maybe he didn’t want to break his cover.

I chuckled and walked down the steps off the bridge. Charlie followed me.


He led me to a nearby Starbucks, which was apparently the headquarters for the ramshackle rebellion, or at least the Southwark Bridge contingent of it.

There were about 20 people there. They all seemed to be from the West Country – Devon, Cornwall, Somerset. They were quite green and hairy.

By 10am we still hadn’t left the café.

At 11, we congregated outside, and one of the leaders – Dave – gave us a briefing.

‘OK, here’s the plan. We walk to one side of the bridge, and Phil and his group walk to the other. When Phil radios me, we immediately block both sides of the bridge.’

‘But how will the rest of us know?’

‘Good point. OK, here’s the plan. When Phil radios me, I raise my hand.’

‘Maybe raise both hands?’

‘OK, here’s the plan. When Phil radios me, I raise both hands. Then we move out the bollards.’

‘But they can move the bollards.’

‘OK. Then we just lie down. And roll out the banner. Where are the legal observers?’

‘Present, Dave.’

‘Hands up if you’re an arrestable.’

I considered briefly if I was arrestable. It was unlikely anyone would be charged, the police have better things to do. But if I was it would stymie travelling to the US. In addition, I was meant to be playing tennis that evening. I decided I was non-arrestable.

About eight people volunteered to be arrestable.

‘That’s not many Dave.’

‘Is this all of us?’ one lady asked despairingly.

‘There’s a bus coming from Cornwall. It’s late. Won’t get here til 12.’

It felt like the rebellion at the beginning of Empire Strikes Back, shortly before they get their arses kicked.

I thought it would all be over in ten minutes, we’d be cleared off the bridge, some people would be arrested for a few hours, but we’d have made our point. Pointless, in a way, but a start.

‘Dave, there’s a bloke in a van watching us.’

There was a white van opposite us, which said Auberon Steaks. The driver was watching us very intently.

‘Alright, let’s move’ said Dave. We moved about 20 metres down the street.

‘The arrestables may want to give their phones to a friend, as the police can get all your data out of it. Has everyone got the legal info?’

We were all given cards with solicitors’ numbers on them, and advice on how to engage with the police. Basically, say ‘no comment’.

‘Ready? Let’s go.’

We walked onto the bridge. There were perhaps another 50 people milling about on the bridge, obviously protestors, and a lot of police with large truncheons.

I wondered why ER hadn’t publicized the blockade better, so thousands of people were on the bridge, rather than 100. They seemed to have a secretive, direct-action mentality, when surely this had to become a public mass movement to have any success, like Gandhi’s Quit India movement.

Suddenly, I saw a large group moving up the other end of the bridge, holding a green ER banner.

I looked round, and our small group was attempting to block off our side of the bridge. There was a group of 20 or so, but they were clumped on one side of the road. The left-hand lane was exposed and could easily be re-opened by the police. All that stood in the way were two old ladies sitting on fold-out deckchairs.

‘Please move to the pavement’, a young policeman said to them. ‘You’ve made your point, now move, or I will be forced to arrest you under the Highway Obstruction Act. You will then be charged, and unable to travel to many countries. Why not just move?’

‘I’m not moving’, said the old lady. ‘The planet is dying and the government’s not doing anything. I’m not moving until they start taking climate change seriously.’

A cheer went up. Dave was getting arrested. He was holding a rose. ‘Do you mind if I give my bag to someone?’ He seemed pliant, close to tears, like he was being led quietly away to execution. They handcuffed him and he walked off, while everyone applauded him. A noble death.

Another woman was arrested. She started screaming. She wasn’t one of the ‘arrestables’ and seemed genuinely shocked as she was handcuffed behind her back. ‘Don’t worry’, I felt like telling her. ‘Nothing’s actually going to happen to you.’

A young woman called Rachel stood next to me. Her stepfather had been one of the people arrested. ‘Is he going to be OK?’ she asked. ‘He’s going to be totally fine’, I said.

The other side of the bridge was now completely blocked off, by 100 people or so. I heard one of the police say: ‘We don’t have the numbers, there’s nothing we can do.’

As I watched someone else get arrested and be led off, followed by a legal observer, I suddenly thought, ‘why don’t I get arrested?’

I imagined myself being led away to cheers, my face nobly Stoic. In the news, the headline: ‘Heroic philosopher risks all for climate change.’

Our group backed up to join the other group. We were now around 200 people, and weren’t going anywhere. We had taken the bridge!

The sun came out. A funk band appeared, with amps and a drum kit, and we danced in the sun while our banners fluttered. Word went through the crowd that ER had taken five bridges in London – Southwark, Blackfriars, Waterloo, Westminster and Lambeth. A wave of joy ran through us.


People danced, passed around cupcakes, fruit and biscuits. They gave leaflets to passers-by, and engaged the cops in earnest political discussion. The cops relaxed too. No one was resisting arrest, no one was giving them grief. To be honest, no car was even trying to cross the bridge – this was the City on the weekend, it was empty.

There were some talks and slightly lame folk singing about protecting the Earth. The movement needs better anthems. The crowd was very West Country, and had a slightly twee feel to it – pan-pipes, witches, placards mourning the tawny owl. The cynical outsider journalist in me started to take the piss.

A West-country witch puts a spell on the cops

But this was not the time, anymore, to observe from the sidelines and make wisecracks. Who cared if the protestors were slightly fairy-folksy? Blockading a few bridges was the least we could do.

Think of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who gave their life in the fight against fascism. Humanity is now facing a much graver threat. Getting arrested for a few hours traffic-blocking was a tiny sacrifice. I’m surprised people aren’t doing far more. We’re frozen, and we need someone to scream to break the ice.

After a few hours, one of the ER organizers told us we were going to march to Parliament Square, picking up the other protestors on the bridges in between. People were welcome to stay on the bridge, if they wanted to get arrested.

We marched down Embankment, cheering. There were only 200 of us, or so, but it felt great.

Then we joined the crowd at Lambeth Bridge and milled around there for a long time. I heard one of the organizers say ‘to be honest this is a lot bigger than we expected it to be’.

George Monbiot on Lambeth Bridge

I was getting cold so decided to walk down and see the other bridges. Rachel came with me. We both felt exhilarated and hopeful. It’s an amazing feeling, when a crowd of strangers congregate and become friends. The streets become a festival.

‘I felt so moved when my stepfather got arrested’, she said.

‘Me too’, I said. It’s a small sacrifice, but martyrdom pushes an ancient button.’ I thought about the Latin etymology of sacrifice – sacer facio, to make sacred.

We finally reached Parliament, and I said goodbye to Rachel. She went to the police station to meet her step-father.

I headed to my parents for dinner. My Dad did not approve, my aunt said it had taken her hours to cross London by bus.

‘I apologise for the disruption but it’s important.’

It was the first act of civil disobedience I’d ever taken. That was true for most of us – academics, civil servants, scientists. We weren’t hardened activists by any means. We were nervous.

The idea behind ER is that continued acts of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance will disrupt the functioning of the state and the economy until the government and people have to take notice of the issue.

ER then wants the government to stop using fossil fuels by 2025, and start a ‘citizens assembly’ to work out a proper response to the crisis.

I don’t know if I agree with this last aim. Don’t we have a ‘citizen’s assembly’ already? It’s called parliament. Unfortunately, many people, perhaps most people, do not yet feel in danger from climate change.

Nigel Farage called the campaign ‘economic terrorism‘. Well, he should know.

This week, ER has stepped up its campaign by organizing ‘swarms’ – groups that block off roads for seven minutes, then step back to let traffic pass, then do it again. It’s causing huge traffic jams throughout London, and leading to angry confrontations with drivers. You can watch it on Facebook Live.

‘What’s the point of this?’ one motorcyclist shouted this morning. ‘It’s totally pointless!’

‘We want the government to listen,’ explained the slightly posh nice lady filming the protest.

‘Is the government here now? Show me! All you’re doing is making everyone late, so they’ll drive faster and there’ll be more accidents, you twats.’

‘We’re sorry but it’s important’.

The motorbiker drove angrily up to the protestors, as if he wanted to run them down – this was because he was being made five minutes late. He was led back by the cops.

The policeman advised the young woman filming the protest: ‘Don’t get too close, they might punch at you.’

‘OK Thank you’, said the protester. ‘I feel so honoured to be with these brave people protesting’, she said to the camera.

‘Sorry for the delay!’ she says to another van driver.

‘This the third time today’, he says, arms folded wearily.

‘Well…thanks for not calling us scum!’ she says cheerily.

The same day as the bridge blockade, very similar tactics were used in France, for a completely different cause – to protest high fuel prices. The street blockades led to furious altercations with motorists, and one drove into the protesters and killed one of them.

It’s not a good sign when groups give up on the democratic process and break the law to make their point.

And it may all be pointless. Catastrophic climate change may already be unstoppable, with feedback loops leading to the melting of the arctic icecap and the release of methane gas, which causes far worse global warming than carbon dioxide.

Still, I can’t do nothing. I’m not going to sleepwalk into extinction. Even if it just means I can look my maker in the eyes after death.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


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