In Solzhenitsyn”s massive trilogy about Stalin’s slave labor system, The Gulag Archipelago, he tells of many loyal party men, cast into the abyss, who insist to the end that “some mistake was made.” “If only commarade Stalin knew,” all would be made right. Such pathetic and twisted thinking is what made the spectacles of the great show trials possible. Well, in Martin Amis’ new book, The House of Meetings, the main character spends a long spell in the camps, and one day comes upon his younger brother, similarly imprisoned. The brother has no illusions. It’s very clear what has happened, he declares. “We have been sold into slavery.”
And so it was. Sold into slavery for the “greater good.” Their crimes? What was Joseph’s crime? The good? The industrialization of the USSR.
As the 1930s began, the USSR was hardly a Union of any stable sort, it was poor, devastated by WWI and the subsequent civil war, not to mention the Leninist Terror. (“We stand for organized terror – this should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution” V.I. Lenin 1906) Twenty-five years later, having survived the inferno of Operation Barbarossa, the Soviet Union was an industrial and military superpower. Slave labor made it possible.
Under Stalin, the USSR went from a backward agricultural nation of peasants to a highly urbanized industrial giant. The peasants’ grain was requisitioned, i.e., confiscated to feed the cities. The peasants starved. Industry thrived, raw materials were abundant, and slave labor, though inefficient and of low quality, was always available.
There was nothing irrational about the Gulag. It was a marvel of the planned economy. It worked.