Gulags of the World United

The Moscow Times, Russia
July 21 2008

Gulags of the World United
21 July 2008
By Mark H. Teeter

The recent publication of Jane Mayer’s "The Dark Side," like previous
accounts of America’s ill-conceived "war on terror," has generated
considerable op-ed ink and high-decibel dismay in the United
States. Yet some Russian observers likely noted the book’s reception
less for the hue and cry, which they’ve heard before, than for a
particular lexical instance. "The Dark Side" rigorously documents such
horrendous wrongdoing — including the illegal imprisonment, torture,
ritualized abuse and humiliation of "enemy combatants," real and
imagined — that for some Americans only a Russian term could describe
it. The Washington Post, for example, summarized Mayer’s message as,
"The United States has succeeded in creating an American gulag."

Foreigners have long used this word for their own purposes, of
course. References to an "African gulag" or "British gulag" are easily
adduced, while "American Gulag" has been used to title studies of the
U.S. prison system, immigration internment and even teenagers’ civil
rights. How should a Russian feel about such hyperbolae? If you
survived the "original" gulag or lost a loved one to it, would you not
wince at hearing the term describe the detention of U.S. juvenile

Or how should anyone react when the closed system of company farms
that supplies McDonald’s restaurants in Russia is called the
"McGulag"? Is this amusing or profane? Did you just laugh?

The primal gulag was neither generic nor funny, of course. It
represented a specific place, time and people, as we are reminded
regularly by the testimonials that have continued to emerge ever since
Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s "The Gulag Archipelago" introduced the
acronym to the world in the mid-1970s. The unjust imprisonment and
inhuman abuse of the gulag system were not merely specific; they were
definitive. Using Dostoevsky’s maxim that a society’s degree of
civilization may be judged by its prisons, the gulag proved the
civilization of Soviet society a spectacular failure.

If certain Russians question whether a "real" gulag can exist
elsewhere, many non-Russians question the atavism in evidence where
the first one thrived. While no one here advocates illegal arrests,
torture and mass murder, great swaths of Russians remain ambivalent or
even positive toward the police-state system built precisely on those
pillars. As a Moscow radio commentator succinctly put it, "We are a
unique country," in which "the Stalin regime literally raped the
nation and destroyed millions of human lives, yet to this day we can’t
decide whether this was good or bad."

In the end, questioning who might own the gulag "brand" is both
pointless and abhorrent. To dwell on numerical comparisons — this
gulag destroyed X people, that one Y — settles nothing and indirectly
abets Stalin’s infamous dictum that "One death is a tragedy; a million
is a statistic." All of the past century’s epic-scale, premeditated
exterminations — of Armenians, Soviets, Jews, Chinese, Cambodians and
Tutsis — were clearly tragedies at once individual and collective,
with collective meaning "of the whole world." When such slaughters
occur, all mankind pays a price. The proportions and malevolence
combine to recalibrate what it means to be human, redefining the race
downward through our shared failure either to perceive or prevent

But if we "own" these disasters together, if anyone’s gulag is
everyone’s gulag, should we not study them together as well, the
better to honor their victims and discourage their repetition?
Shouldn’t Russians and Americans, say, jointly study their own gulags
and one another’s, each bringing unique resources and perspectives to

Yes, and here’s one example: Last week, the Center for History and New
Media at Virginia’s George Mason University initiated "Gulag: Many
Days, Many Lives," a web site offering an "in-depth look at life in
the Gulag through … original documentaries and prisoner voices, an
archive [of] documents and images and teaching and bibliographic
resources." While key support for the project comes from U.S. sources,
like the Kennan Institute, State Department, National Endowment for
the Humanities and Harvard’s Davis Center, the project couldn’t have
been conceived or realized, quite obviously, without Russian
cooperation, specifically from Moscow’s International Memorial Society
and Gulag Museum at Perm-36.

We are all slightly better off for this. That Russians and Americans
created this site together is a small but heartening reminder that our
species is sometimes capable of rising above certain inessential
distinctions — of nationality, ethnicity, ideology and faith — that
we have too often and disastrously indulged.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.