Contrasting Camps

In the comments under this post, Toblerone-scoffing abacab makes this remark:

And precious few know about the Soviet policy of deliberate starvation of entire regions, or of shipping thousands of people out into the tundra or the taiga in the middle of winter and leaving them there without food, shelter or tools.

The Soviets didn’t need extermination camps when they could just dump people in the middle of nowhere with little chance of survival. Solzhenitsyn reports an anecdote about one such group actually surviving until years later, when they were promptly rounded up again, shipped off somewhere else, and perished.

Although this is true, there is still a difference between the Soviet GULAG system and the concentration and extermination camp system run by the Nazis. I put this in a comment at Samizdata recently as an explanation as to why the horrors of the Soviets don’t resonate as much as those of the Nazis:

Every major power has massacred other people or those who they deem a political threat, and what the Soviets did was of much the same form albeit on a larger scale. Furthermore, when you read the accounts of the Soviet terror, there is a definite air of callous disregard: the camps weren’t really built to kill people, they were set up to get them out the way and put them to work. Nobody cared if they died, but nobody cared if they lived either. The Soviet system simply didn’t care about the lives of these people. Even those who were actively identified and shot were often selected simply to fulfill quotas, or killed along with a load of others “just in case”. The Soviets were not the first to do this, and are unlikely to be the last.

What made the Nazis different is they didn’t kill through callous neglect; their victims were specifically selected and the Nazis made sure there wasn’t collateral damage, i.e. they didn’t just massacre the whole village in trying to kill Jews as the Soviets would have done, they expended considerable resources finding the individuals while leaving the rest alone. They cared about the names of their victims, and took their photos, and documented their possessions, all during the process of exterminating them. The Nazis built camps specifically for the purposes of killing people (the Soviets never did) and went about it with an industrial precision. The suffering they inflicted on inmates was quite deliberate and calculated, and not just the result of callous neglect on the part of the administration (or incompetence, as it often was in the case of the Soviets). The Nazis counted their victims and took meticulous records, the Soviets never did. The Nazi administrators and guards were of a totally different class than the inmates, whereas in the Gulags the guards were considered little better than the prisoners, often sharing the same conditions and fate, and there are thousands of cases where prisoners became inmates and vice-versa. This never happened with the Nazis.

So in short, the horrors of the Soviets had been seen before and since; the Nazis, purely because of the way they went about it, inspire a unique horror. From the accounts I’ve heard of those poor individuals who experienced both, the Nazi camps were a lot worse.

When abacab mentions the Soviets dumping a bunch of people in the middle of nowhere with little chance of survival, that would almost certainly have included the guards as well. I don’t like Anne Applebaum’s newspaper columns much, but her book Gulag: a History of the Soviet Camps is excellent and there is an account in there of a few hundred unfortunates being dropped off on an island in the middle of one of Siberia’s enormous rivers. The plan was to get the prisoners to build a camp but there was no wood, so they had to stay in tents. Before they could get anything more robust set up a terrible storm blew through and everyone perished: prisoners, guards, dogs, the lot. It wasn’t so much the authorities wanted these people to die – the ones they considered really dangerous were shot out of hand, along with a whole load of others who were mostly unlucky – they simply didn’t care and were too callous and incompetent to prevent it.

Another point Applebaum makes is that most people survived the GULAG, and the harshness of the conditions varied greatly between individual camps and eras. During the war, when there were severe hardships outside the camps, life behind the wire was particularly tough but conditions improved afterwards. The general idea was to get prisoners working not to kill them off, even if the result was just that. By contrast, the conditions in the Nazi camps were kept universally harsh purely as a matter of deliberate policy, independent of incompetence and outside factors.

The other point Applebaum makes is that the numbers in the GULAG system waxed and waned. The population swelled during times of repression and decreased during periods of relative calm, and it was quite possible for a Soviet citizen to be imprisoned, released, imprisoned again, and released once more. I presume there are instances of Nazi concentration camp inmates being released, but their numbers must be few and I expect are limited to particular groups such as troublesome POWs or non-Jewish Germans. I’ve never heard of anyone being released from an extermination camp, although Soviet POWs were held at Sobibor who may have been. Most accounts of the Nazis camps come from people who were liberated, not released. It’s worth bearing in mind that the inmates of the Soviet GULAGs were never liberated, they were simply released (into exile mostly, but released all the same).

As anyone who has read Applebaum’s book or Solzhenitsyn knows, the GULAG system was abominable in its entirety and absolutely horrific in parts, but it differed from the Nazi camps in some fairly fundamental ways. It’s why a comparison of the two can only be taken so far, and it’s important to acknowledge the differences.

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A Detail of the Berlin Wall

Once, when watching a documentary on the history of the Berlin Wall, I learned something I’ve never been able to forget:

That rounded piece on top of the wall was obviously put there to make it harder to climb over. When I visited Berlin in 1995 and saw a preserved section, I assumed it was moulded as part of the wall itself. But according to this documentary, it was just a bog-standard piece of concrete pipe with a longitudinal section cut out and plonked over the top. I always thought this level of crudity was apt for what the wall was, and what it represented.

I also read last week that the Berlin Wall has now been down longer than it was up. If anyone were to look around now, they’d scarcely believe the thing ever existed or the Communists lost the Cold War and the right side won.

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Let them eat rabbit

From the BBC:

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has devised a “rabbit plan” to counter the economic war he says is being waged against his government by “imperialist forces”.

The president urged crisis-hit Venezuelans to breed rabbits and eat them as a source of animal protein.

I’m going to be bone idle and just copy and paste this entire post I wrote in January 2007.

***

According to most of the major news sources, North Korea is considering breeding giant rabbits from Germany to help feed its starving population:

A German pensioner who won a prize and worldwide fame for breeding his country’s largest rabbit — Robert, a 10.5kg (23lb) bruiser the size of a dog — has been offered an unusual opportunity to exploit his talents overseas.

Karl Szmolinsky has been given a contract by North Korea to supply giant rabbits to help to boost meat production in the reclusive Communist country, which is suffering severe food shortages.

Kim Jong Il is not the first despotic communist leader to have the idea of breeding rabbits to stave off the starvation which communism inevitably brings.  In 1932 Nikita Khrushchev found himself as deputy to Mikhail Kaganovich and effectively running Moscow.  As William Taubman explains in his book Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (page 90):

Moscow’s working class, allegedly the apple of Stalin’s eye, was going hungry in 1932, and with his legendary concern for their welfare, the great man “suggested the idea of raising rabbits for food”.  Naturally Khrushchev was all for this plan and worked zealously to carry out his instructions.  Almost every factory, plant and workshop started raising rabbits to help stock its own kitchen.

Needless to say, the idea was a flop, although I doubt Khrushchev put it to his boss quite like that.  I have also no doubt that the latest North Korean attempt is being touted in the DPRK as the brainwave of Kim Jong Il and not the 75 year old idea of his father’s mentor.

As an aside, another of Stalin’s brilliant ideas for alleviating food shortages in the Soviet Union was to introduce the Pacific giant crab to European waters, specifically the Barents Sea.  Whilst these spiky crustaceans did little to silence the rumbling of Soviet bellies, they did adapt remarkably well to Europe and they now number more than 10 million and are slowly marching their way down Norway’s coast destroying all manner of marine life in their path.  Rumours that I have relocated to Sakhalin to collaborate with their leadership in their imminent invasion of the United Kingdom are completely unfounded.

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Also worthy of attention is the comment made by Pootergeek under the original post. No, not the appalling pun which would earn a lifetime ban on less charitable blogs, but this link to “rabbit starvation”:

Protein poisoning was first noted as a consequence of eating rabbit meat exclusively, hence the term, “rabbit starvation”.

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Fidel Castro: Not a Communist Revolutionary, just a Common Thug

In the aftermath of his death, there appear to be rather a lot of people labouring under the assumption that Cuban dictator Fidel Castro was a communist revolutionary.  In fact he was nothing of the kind, as John Lewis Gaddis explains in his book We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (pages 179-181).  Following his overthrow of the Batista regime in 1959, Castro visited the US in order to drum up support for his new rule, even going so far as to give nervous assurances that he had no communists in his government on NBC’s Meet the Press.  As Gaddis writes:

Castro began his career as a revolutionary with no ideology at all: he was a student politician turned street fighter turned guerrilla, a voracious reader, an interminable speaker, and a pretty good baseball player.  The only ideas that appear to have driven him were a lust for power, a willingness to use violent means to get it, and an unwillingness to share it once he had it.  If he followed any example, it was that of Napolean, not Marx.

[It] seems more likely that Marxism-Leninism appealed to Castro for domestic and personal reasons.  As an authoritarian and historically determined ideology, it provided the best possible excuse for not holding elections, which might allow future rivals to emerge.  And if taking this path should attract support from the Soviet Union, then so much the better.

Having failed to win the support of the Eisenhower administration, who knew exactly what sort of man they were dealing with, Castro adopted communism purely for opportunistic and practical reasons.  He was about as much a socialist revolutionary as he was a democrat.  Naturally, the Soviets fell over themselves to shower any third-world thug who paid lip-service to communism with money, weapons, and other support and they did just that with Castro – even though his adoption of their ideology came to them as a complete surprise.

Many people think the USA is responsible for Castro’s rise and continuation in power, but most of the blame lies squarely on Moscow’s doorstep: without their cynical support in those early stages, Castro’s brutal dictatorship would likely have been over much more quickly.

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Soviet Art

Once again via David Thompson, this article by Michael Totten on the ludicrous state of modern art is worth reading in full, and is fully consistent with what I wrote here.

The bit I want to discuss here, though, is this:

By obsessing over politics above all else, identitarian artists of the twenty-first century resemble the Socialist Realists from the Soviet Union in the early- to mid-twentieth century. One could charitably call Socialist Realism an artistic style, one that glorified peasants, factory workers, and Communist values, but it was nurtured by a totalitarian police state and was the only “style” allowed by the government lest hapless artists wished to live out the remaining days of their lives in a Siberian slave labor camp.

At least the Russian Socialist Realists were talented artists. They produced totalitarian propaganda, yes, but they did it competently. Their paintings are interesting and engaging, and not just because they’re curious historical artifacts.

I actually quite like the Soviet Realism art, not so much for aesthetic beauty but, as Totten says, for what they represent historically.  I particularly like those in this sort of style:

soviet-poster-2

www.genstab.ru

www.genstab.ru

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(Source)

Of course, one must understand that they represent bullshit propaganda of the highest order in support of an abominable regime, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are not engaging and, in the context of what they represent, historically interesting.  And the artists who created them undoubtedly had considerable talent and skill.

I remember once searching the internet for a story related to the Waffen SS and stumbling across websites and forums devoted to this and other German units, full of people posting photos and pictures of various artifacts from WWII.  I wasn’t surprised, but was rather glad, that the sites weren’t centres of Nazi worship but were instead frequented by incredibly nerdy blokes who simply had a historical interest in the Waffen SS and its symbology.  As, I must confess, do I up to a point: I have a huge hardback book full of photos of the Waffen SS which I picked up at a jumble sale years ago, and it’s a good one.  What I don’t have, however, is a giant Nazi flag hanging up on my wall and an admiration for their policies or methods.

I had to make a similar distinction when I found myself interested in the Soviet Union (my obsession with Russia was always more an obsession of the Soviet and immediate post-Soviet eras; modern-day Russia doesn’t interest me much any more, having now lived in it).  I used to buy items with the Soviet symbols on them, and sometimes even wear them:

Which, I hope, didn’t make me the same as the middle class twats who display the hammer and sickle when screaming “Smash the State” in central London.  I’d not wear the hammer and sickle any more, or really anything Soviet, because my obsession has declined and I’ve grown up a bit and now wear different clothes.  But I still find myself admiring Soviet symbols and artwork, such as this which is on the wall of an old Pioneer camp just south of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (I wrote about it here back in 2007, I don’t know if the camp and its murals still exist).

And also this wonderfully optimistic mural which I found in the Sakhalin town of Nevel’sk:

What I still find fascinating about Soviet art and other aspects of Soviet culture is that they belong to a country which simply no longer exists.  People say the past is another country, but in the case of the Soviet Union this is literally true.  Culture changes with time and you can visit any country and see its cultural history, but I think the Soviet Union is the only country I can think of which ceased to exist – taking its artistic culture with it – almost overnight.  What emerged from the wreckage in the form of the independent states retained aspects of the Soviet culture to varying degrees, but in all cases they were fast moving in the other direction leaving vast swathes of cultural history abandoned, owned by nobody and claimed by nobody.

You can still see it, especially the well-made examples such as those on the Moscow metro system, but even they seem increasingly alien as modern Russians prefer to commemorate different eras of their history.  Eventually Lenin’s body will be carted away and buried somewhere, the murals will fall into disrepair or be replaced by something more modern, and the last remaining Soviet citizens will die out, taking with them the memories of films, plays, and music which nobody else would even understand.

Except this rather odd Brit, of course.

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New York Red

While I was emerging from a subway station on Manhattan’s upper West side last week, I was hollered at by a chap in his mid-to-late twenties sporting a black t-shirt and ginger beard who was standing on a corner handing out newspapers.

“Hey man,” he said “you have a red shirt on, you should read this!”  He thrust a newspaper in front of me that was some Commie publication and had as its headline a call to reinstate the Glass-Steagall Act.  I have read that reinstating Glass-Steagall wouldn’t solve much despite its repeal being blamed for the Global Financial Crisis, but I was in no position to argue this particular technicality.

“Where are you from?” he asked me.

“Britain” I said.

“Oh man, with Barclays!  Those assholes have screwed everything!”

“Yes”, I said “they are assholes.”

“So what are we gonna do about it, man?” he asked, thrusting the newspaper at me.

I thought about a response.  What are we going to do about it?  I was going to suggest hanging politicians and lawyers, but I guessed his victim list would differ from mine and I didn’t want to encourage him.  As I was pondering the question he chimed in with “And no, war with Russia isn’t the answer.”

“Ah Russia,” I said “I know the place well.  Lived there for a bit. No, going to war with Russia won’t help much.”

“You were in Russia?  I heard St. Petersburg is beautiful!”

“It is.  It’s a shame everything over there is built on a few million corpses, though.”

“Corpses?” he asked, looking doubtful.  “Which corpses?  Nazis?”

“No.  Ordinary people.  And that’s the problem, isn’t it?  Which way is Central Park?”

“That way,” he said “but you gotta read this…” His voice trailed off as I walked away.

I hope he somehow gets to read this.

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Chesterton’s Fence and Carrier Bags

As with seemingly a good portion of my newly-acquired knowledge, I first heard about Chesterton’s Fence over at Tim Worstall’s blog.  Chesterton’s Fence is the principle that reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the existing state of affairs is understood:

[L]et us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

I’d actually forgotten about this until it was mentioned again more recently in the comments at Tim Worstall’s, and it reminded me of something I saw in Avignon the weekend before last, which in turn reminded me of something I had been thinking for a while.

While in Avignon, I was walking down a busy shopping street when I saw a young lady carrying a large paper bag full of groceries in her arms.  As I walked past her, the bottom of the bag fell out and the groceries went everywhere.  I commented to my companion that there are very good reasons why plastic carrier bags were invented and became extremely popular, and that I’d often thought these reasons were not properly considered when France banned them at the beginning of July (my local supermarket stopped providing them sometime last year, and they don’t even give you the option of buying them like you can in British supermarkets).

The American practice of using paper bags doesn’t really work in any place where you have to walk any distance with groceries, let alone use public transport.  The American-style paper bags are designed to be packed by a former convict and wheeled to your car in a trolley, not carted down the street by hand.  They don’t even have handles for a start, and the young lady who I saw in Avignon was carrying hers in her arms as if it were a child.

I think the behaviour that governments and the lobbyists want the citizens to adopt is one whereby they turn up to the supermarket with one or more robust, reusable grocery bags but this only really works when the shopping trip is planned.  What somebody is supposed to do if they pop into the supermarket to buy more than two items on the way home is anyone’s guess, unless they fancy forking out a fiver for one of those robust, reusable grocery bags.  I expect what we’ll find is people taking up the habit of carrying around a small, compact bag in case they need to do some unscheduled grocery shopping at some point in the day.  During the good old days of the Soviet Union, the happy citizens would routinely carry around a string bag called an avoska, which roughly translates as “perhaps bag”, on the off-chance they would stumble across a store selling something worth buying and would be able to carry it home (before swapping it with a neighbour or friend in return for something they might actually want).

For some people, particularly middle-class environmentalists, forcing the masses to adopt practices common in the Soviet Union is probably seen as progress.

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There Was Once a Road Through the Woods

Perry de Havilland at Samizdata has linked to a piece in the Christian Post written by somebody apologising for being an ardent defender of Islam in recent times, somebody who now feels the critics of Islam were right all along.  This paragraph in particular nudged me into writing a post I’ve been meaning to for a while:

Though we claim the mantle of human rights, free speech and equality, we lack the courage of our convictions when it offends someone. We make the cowardly lion look like Churchill.

Principles are strange things in the sense that they do not necessarily have to be pleasant to be attractive, and that even appalling principles can be more attractive (to some) than none at all.  I recall a section in David Hackworth’s book About Face where during the Vietnam War he interviewed an NVA prisoner to try to understand what made them fight.  Once the prisoner realised Hackworth wasn’t going to torture him, and in fact wasn’t after military information at all, he opened up.  It transpired that the prisoner was four-square behind the idea of Communism and the principles that the leadership in Hanoi was preaching and practising.  Hackworth remarked that although he didn’t agree with the cause the man was fighting for, he could not help but admire the fact that his prisoner was willing to endure extreme hardship in order to do so, and noted that he had a fist-sized hole somewhere on his person (I forget where) that was a result of some battlefield injury incurred earlier in the war.  Hackworth contrasted his prisoner’s dedication with those of the feckless ARVN who generally lacked the motivation to fight, were happy to dodge the action and let the Americans do the (literal) grunt work, and represented a regime that was morally bankrupt, corrupt, brutal and stood for nothing whatsoever other than not being Communist.  He concluded that unless the South Vietnamese get off their arses and start fighting in the way his prisoner was, they would ultimately lose the war.  And he was right.

I am about as far from a Communist as it is possible to get, yet there is no denying the ideas and principles attracted – and continue to attract – millions of people.  I have read enough Cold War history to know that the Chinese fought with fanatical, suicidal dedication to the Communist cause in North Korea, that millions of Russian soldiers died with Stalin’s name on their lips, and that a huge percentage of the Soviet people worked willingly in support of the Socialist cause for decades.  These people might be brainwashed, and they might be complete idiots, but the fact is that having been presented with a set of principles – however warped both in theory and practice – millions of them followed with unflappable dedication.

So how come the Commies lost the Cold War?  Theories vary, but one crucial element in the Western victory was the upholding of certain principles which the Communist Bloc didn’t recognise: free speech, liberty, property rights, the right to a fair trial, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, freedom of artistic expression, etc.  Granted most, if not all, Western countries upheld these principles imperfectly at various times but this does not equate to an absence of principles any more than the largesse of the Politburo meant an absence of collectivist principles in the Soviet Union.

By upholding these principles that were alien to the Communists, the West was able to achieve two things:

1. Demonstrate how they were fundamentally different from the Communists in a positive way, i.e. better than them.

2. Provide an alternative set of principles for those in the enemy camp who wished to reject the Communist principles.

Convinced of its own superior system of government, the West thought nothing of blasting the populations trapped behind the Iron Curtain with propaganda, urging them to convert to its own way of thinking.  An American president – the leader of the free world – called the Soviet Union an evil empire not only because it was, but also because he knew those living under its rule against their will would take great heart from his words and continue to struggle.  The conviction of the West in shamelessly and incessantly promoting its own principles over the Communists’ likely did as much to inspire internal resentment over the Soviet leadership as their own degeneracy: without the former, against what standard could the Soviet leaders and their own circumstances be measured?

This brings me onto what I want to talk about, which is a thought that first started churning in my head in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.  That is, the question as to why moderate Muslims don’t speak out and condemn the atrocities carried out in the name of Islam.  It is tempting to say that many probably agree with the atrocities, leading one to question just how many moderates there actually are.  But shortly afterwards I read a comment in a blog by somebody who suggested putting yourself in the shoes of a moderate Muslim and asking whether you yourself would speak out.

And in doing so it became a lot clearer why they don’t.  What we are asking moderate Muslims to do is speak out against those whose actions are incompatible with our way of life.  But what we really want is confirmation that moderate Muslims have themselves accepted our way of life and the principles that underpin it, and will therefore reject the extremists in their ranks.  In theory, this isn’t much different than hoping citizens of Communist countries would accept our way of life and make things difficult for their overlords by seeking change.  But whereas during the Cold War we had clearly defined principles that we genuinely believed were superior and were not afraid to advertise them, what principles are we supposed to be waving in front of Muslims?

And that’s a question I can’t answer.  Whatever free speech we currently enjoy is fast being eroded: when citizens can be jailed for offensive Tweets or nasty Facebook comments, and homophobic remarks are grounds for arrest as a matter of course, then we can probably say that this isn’t solid ground on which we can fight a battle of ideas.  Individual freedom is rapidly disappearing as a concept now that refusing to bake a wedding cake is a matter in which the full force of the law is brought to ensure conformity: I’d not fancy my chances arguing that individual freedoms in the West are nowadays sancrosanct in a way that they are not in the Muslim world.  The state is becoming ever more intrusive, particularly into family matters: with Scotland now setting up a truly Stalinist system of shadow parenting by state officials (H/T Samizdata) it would take a brave soul to try to win over a Muslim by pointing to our superior methods of running a family.

That’s not to say the West has nothing to offer Muslims, because it clearly does.  But the differentiator which enabled them to offer all people – not just Muslims – something better was the society that resulted from first fighting for, and then upholding, the principles on which it was based.  The West appears to have forgotten that it was these principles that made its society attractive in the first place, and it doesn’t seem to realise that if it abandons those principles then it won’t be the same society; and if it’s not the same society, who is to say it will be an improvement on any other, particularly one that’s been aroud awhile?

To repeat what I quoted from the Christian Post:

Though we claim the mantle of human rights, free speech and equality, we lack the courage of our convictions when it offends someone.

If our leadership – and I use that term loosely – lacks the conviction to uphold the principles which supposedly define the West, why the hell should we expect Muslims to come out in support of them?  I suspect for many, faced with a choice between leaning towards Islamic principles and Western principles, many moderate Muslims are choosing the former because they are unconvinced that the latter even exist.  Hell, I’m not convinced they exist in any meaningful sense any more, so why should somebody who comes from a culture where they have been historically absent?

As the aforementioned blog commenter asked, if you were a young Muslim living in Britain over the last few years, which way would you lean?  Which way is the wind blowing?  When you have elected officials condemning the publication of blasphemous cartoons, and newspaper columnists suggesting Charlie Hebdo was probably at fault, would you stick your head above the parapet and argue that insulting the Prophet is a fundamental right?  When any atrocity is immediately followed by politicians mumbling vague approximations of supposed bedrock principles which they contradict in the very same sentence through use of the word “but”, and fall over themselves to assure you – a Muslim – that this is nothing to do with your own principles and faith, and then an utter headcase is invited for an interview on the state-owned TV channel where he defends the bloodshed and nobody says a peep: which way are you going to jump?

As the Christian Post article goes on to say:

In reality, those who criticize Islam, especially reform minded Muslims, are the bravest of the brave. They are literally putting their lives at risk by the simple act of criticizing the Quran, Muhammad, and Sharia.

It’s hard enough as it is to get Muslims to question aspects of their faith they might find distasteful and risk the opprobrium of their family, friends, and community.  But it was equally hard to get Russian citizens to criticise their own people and system as well.  Back then, we realised the importance in upholding our own convictions and demonstrating our principles in the struggle to convert people away from Communism and to adopt our way of life.

But today we have abandoned our principles, yet at the same time we expect Muslims to start questioning theirs.  Somebody with principles will not abandon them – even if they are appalling – unless there are alternatives on offer.  And although I see much merit in the principles on which Western society was based, the past decade or two has seen them eroded to such an extent that their function as an alternative which others can adopt has diminished to the point that few appear to be taking them up any more.  What’s more worrying, as David Hackworth’s prisoner demonstrated, those with principles – regardless of what they are – tend to prevail over those who are operating with none.

If the West wants its way of life to continue its citizenry had better rediscover the principles on which it developed and not only start upholding them, but demanding their leaders do the same.  They’d be wise to consider that the Muslims they are hoping to convert already have principles, they’ve been following them faithfully for hundreds of years, and there is very little they would have seen in recent years which would make them do otherwise.

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Fools and their Futile Appeals

In all the books I have read about Stalin and the Great Terror (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4), there is a discussion on the reaction of middle and upper echelon Communists when they are first arrested by the NKVD.  Consistently, and to the point that one must assume this was typical, they report reactions of utter surprise and bewilderment, followed rapidly by the conclusion that it must be some kind of terrible mistake.  Those of more senior rank implored their captors and families to inform Stalin in person and beg him to intervene; whilst those from the middle ranks – sometimes even after they’d been tortured, processed, and shipped off to the camps – would labour under the delusion that Stalin was entirely unaware of what was going on, and they were caught up in some kind of rogue operation of which he would never approve.  It dawned on them very, very late – and sometimes not at all – that Stalin personally oversaw this apparatus of terror and in many instances had ordered the arrest of the individual in person.

Reading these books gave me a new, and as far as I know, somewhat unusual (in the sense that I don’t know anyone else who shares it) view on the victims of the Great Terror: that their innocence cannot automatically be assumed.  For sure, the crimes for which they were actually charged were dreamed up out of nowhere, and there were undoubtedly a very great many who perished or suffered who were entirely innocent in all respects.  But many of the victims of the second wave of terror were those who took part in the first wave: thousands of NKVD thugs who were happy to sign the orders, knock on the doors, dish out the beatings, and pull the triggers found themselves up against a wall alongside thousands of Communists who had cheered them on earlier.  Similarly, the third wave incorporated thousands of those who actively participated in the first and second waves, and thousands more of those who, up until their own arrest, thought it was all fine and dandy.  For these individuals, it is difficult to feel much sympathy.

Mark Holland, of the now sadly defunct Blognor Regis, put this brilliantly in a post which is no longer online in response to this obituary of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn:

Meanwhile, [Solzhenitsyn] switched faiths, throwing out Christianity in favour of Marxism, by which he professed himself “absolutely sincerely enthralled” – and this in spite of the fact that, at 14, he had witnessed his substitute father, an engineer friend of the family, being dragged off in the first spate of purges, and some of his father’s relatives, too, denounced as kulaks and exiled to Siberia.

At university Solzhenitsyn was awarded a Stalinist scholarship for his keen work in the Communist youth league … in 1939 he was reported to have attended more to his copy of Marx’s Das Kapital, than to his young bride.

It therefore came as a terrible shock when he was arrested, in January 1945, by Smersh.

The astonished young Marxist was shipped back to Moscow, where he was sentenced without trial to eight years in labour camps, and exile in perpetuity – apparently for having criticised Stalin’s policies in a letter to a friend on another part of the front.

To paraphrase Mark: Solzhenitsyn, a die-hard Marxist and supporter of the Communist regime, was down with the violence until some of it came his way.  Round up some kulaks and shoot them, that’s all fine and dandy.  But arrest me, a young intellectual?  Why, that’s astonishing!  Solzhenitsyn’s accounts of the Gulag system are brilliant and harrowing in equal measure, but I think Mark’s point stands nonetheless.

And this brings me onto this blog post I came across almost at random today:

San Francisco architect Lee Hammack says he and his wife, JoEllen Brothers, are “cradle Democrats.” They have donated to the liberal group Organizing for America and worked the phone banks a year ago for President Obama’s re-election.

Since 1995, Hammack and Brothers have received their health coverage from Kaiser Permanente, where Brothers worked until 2009 as a dietitian and diabetes educator. “We’ve both been in very good health all of our lives – exercise, don’t smoke, drink lightly, healthy weight, no health issues, and so on,” Hammack told me.

The couple — Lee, 60, and JoEllen, 59 — have been paying $550 a month for their health coverage — a plan that offers solid coverage, not one of the skimpy plans Obama has criticized. But recently, Kaiser informed them the plan would be canceled at the end of the year because it did not meet the requirements of the Affordable Care Act. The couple would need to find another one. The cost would be around double what they pay now, but the benefits would be worse.

And suddenly we’re back in Moscow in 1936:

Hammack recalled his reaction when he and his wife received a letters from Kaiser in September informing him their coverage was being canceled. “I work downstairs and my wife had a clear look of shock on her face,” he said. “Our first reaction was clearly there’s got to be some mistake. This was before the exchanges opened up. We quickly calmed down. We were confident that this would all be straightened out. But it wasn’t.”

Time to appeal to the vozhd:

He’s written to California’s senators and his representative, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., asking for help.

As did all those poor unfortunates who ended up sawing logs along the Kolyma river in winter.  Let’s see how much your masters care about you, eh?

Here’s my take on their situation: tough shit.  You campaigned for this, you voted for this, you wanted this.  For other people.  Now you’ve been squashed under the steamroller you created for them.  Sorry, but my sympathy for you is in the low zeroes.

And they’ve still not caught on:

“We believe that the Act is good for health care, the economy, & the future of our nation. However, ACA options for middle income individuals ages 59 & 60 are unaffordable. We’re learning that many others are similarly affected. In that spirit we ask that you fix this, for all of our sakes,” he and Brothers wrote.

Oh, so it’s good for health care, the economy, and the future of our nation.  Only please intervene so that we personally don’t have to take part, as it is seriously detrimental to our well-being.

Solzhenitsyn might have found some common ground with them at one time.  I wonder if these two “cradle Democrats” might one day be motivated by their own experiences to write a three volume masterpiece on the cruelness and damage inflicted on ordinary people by Obamacare?

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USSR in 100 Photos

My wife sent me a link to this webpage, which contains 100 photos from the Soviet Union, many of which speak volumes about the life and times in the USSR.

Funnily enough, in many ways life in the USSR didn’t look much different from life in West Wales in the early 80s.  In fact, I think the Soviet clothes were more fashionable than what my mother used to make me wear.

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