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Why no one should downplay the odious nature of autocratic regimes
Patrick Asare -- Author of 'The Boy from Boadua' Patrick Asare -- Author of 'The Boy from Boadua'
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Wyomissing, PA
Tuesday, April 30, 2024


I just finished reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and it brought back memories of some of the horror stories I heard about the Gulag from my Soviet friends when I lived in Ukraine in the 1980s. None of the people who told me those stories had previously had any direct experience with the Gulag, but it had so terrified the entire Soviet population that everyone seemed to know a lot about it. Solzhenitsyn’s vivid portrayal of life in those prisons makes it clear why that was the case.

The Gulag system was a collection of prisons scattered across a large geographic area of the Soviet Union. It was set up during Joseph Stalin’s rule, and it operated from the 1920s until late 1950s. The prisons were forced labor camps that housed both ordinary criminals and political prisoners. An estimated 14 million inmates are said to have passed through the system over those four decades, with about 1.7 million of them reportedly dying during incarceration or shortly after their release. Some historians say that the actual numbers were likely far greater.

Solzhenitsyn, who also authored The Gulag Archipelago, arguably his most famous work, was the winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature. He himself was a political prisoner who spent eight years doing hard labor in the Gulag. He was sent to the camp merely for criticizing Stalin in a letter he wrote to a friend. Two decades after his release from prison, he was arrested again, stripped of his citizenship, and expelled from the Soviet Union. He lived in exile for 20 years, mostly in the U.S. state of Vermont, before returning to Russia in 1994 following the breakup of the Soviet Union.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a harrowing account of how the protagonist, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, spends a typical day in the labor camp to which he had been sent, on charges that he didn’t understand. It is a place where the inmates are completely stripped of their humanity. Fed scant food that is often rotten, they are worked to death from dawn to dusk in freezing temperatures while scarcely clothed. Corrupt prison officials act with impunity because there is little external check on their conduct. Prisoners know that any slight missteps could result in several years being added to their sentences. There is no due process through which appeals could be made so everyone treads extremely carefully. The awful cruelty of the Gulag system is laid bare in the novel.

Following Stalin’s death in 1954, his successor, Nikita Kruschev, initiated a de-Stalinization process that was aimed at wiping out the brutality of his regime from the Soviet consciousness. Large numbers of prisoners were granted amnesty and released. The Gulag system was officially abolished in January 1960.

Several decades after its elimination, the culture of fear that the Gulag created persists today. Stalin’s reign of terror seems to have permanently traumatized Soviet society. That is what Putin has capitalized on to impose his will on the Russian people. The indifference to human life is clearly manifested in the thousands of young people his regime has been sending to their deaths in the senseless war in Ukraine. The prisons from which Yevgeni Prigozhin, the late leader of the Wagner mercenary group, recruited thousands of men to fight in Ukraine operate in much the same ways that the Gulag did.

Putin’s regime is increasingly looking like Stalin’s. Conditions in the Arctic penal colony to which he sent his fierce critic, Alexei Navalny, are said to be as brutal as those that prisoners faced in the Gulag system. Navalny did not survive them. He died inside the camp earlier this year. Another Putin critic, Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian-British political activist, currently languishes in solitary confinement in a Siberian prison. His crime: speaking out against the war in Ukraine.

If the Russian authorities show such near-total disrespect for human life, which then becomes embedded in the national culture, then it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the forces they send out into other parts of the world exhibit similar tendencies. A recent New York Times article extensively detailed the horrific treatment that Ukrainian prisoners of war have suffered at the hands of Russian soldiers. The atrocities include relentless beatings, electric shocks, rape, sexual violence, and mock executions. The article cited one expert who described the cruelty as a “systematic, state-endorsed policy.”

It is extremely baffling to hear some evangelical Christian leaders in America expressing admiration for Putin. They cannot pretend to be unaware of the brutality of his regime. To these leaders, he is a good guy because he stands up for “family values” with his opposition to LGBTQ rights. That makes zero sense because members of the evangelical movement profess faith in Christ. The New Testament teaches that Jesus embraced both the righteous and the sinful. So even if these evangelical leaders think same-sex activity is a sin, they are required by their Christian faith to show tolerance.

Nothing that Vladimir Putin does in Russia today fits with the moral teachings of the New Testament. American evangelical Christian leaders should practice what they preach. Their shameful enabling of such disgustingness leads to widespread disillusionment with religion. It is one of the reasons so many church pews are empty on Sundays these days.

Living in a place like America, it is quite easy for us to lose sight of the evil that so many people elsewhere are subjected to on a sustained basis. Periodically, we should look across our borders and make an effort to learn about life in other places so that we don’t take our freedoms for granted. Reading Solzhenitsyn’s novel was a good reminder for me.

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