Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Lest We Forget

Man's Inhumanity to Man

It is not for reason of masochism we have been reading recently Anne Applebaum's Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps (London: Penguin Books, 2004).  To say that the work is depressing is an understatement--yet we reckon that most of our readers will have already known that.

Why write such a history, then, let alone read it?  Lest we forget, is one appropriate response.  Removing the Gulag out of its Sitz im Leben--its actual life setting--we can acknowledge its importance in making clear, once again, man's inhumanity to man.  This is an evil which has dogged all men, all civilizations from the Garden onwards.  None is exempt--only the degree of inhumanity varies.  The Gulag, then, is not isolated.  Nor is it distinctly Russian, nor Soviet.

The Gulag--the system of slave labour camps in the Soviet Union--existed from the very beginnings of the Soviet Union right through to the early 1980's.  The most systematic and brutal of Soviet dictators who used the camps both as a means of increasing Russian economic output, and as a means of murdering and purging actual and imagined political opponents was Joseph Stalin.

But Stalin's predecessor (Lenin) and his successors used the labour camps as well-and that takes us well into living memory.
 The horror did not end until the political advent of Mikhail Gorbachev in the late nineteen eighties.  Since that time there has been a systematic attempt on the part of Russia to ignore--cover up--the horrors and atrocities.  What else could one expect from men like Vladimir Putin, formerly of the KGB, which ran the camps?

To underscore just how recently the camps were in operation, Applebaum reminds us:
. . . the camps dis not disappear altogether.  Instead, they evolved.  Through the 1970's and early 1980's a few of them were redesigned and put to use as prisons for a new generation of democratic activists, anti-Soviet nationalists--and criminals.  Thanks to the Soviet dissident network and the international human rights movement, news of these post-Stalinist camps appeared regularly  in the West.  Gradually they came to play a role in Cold War diplomacy.  Even in the 1980's the American President, Ronald Reagan, and his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, were still discussing the Soviet camps.  Only in 1987 did Gorbachev--himself the grandson of Gulag prisoners--began to dissolve the Soviet Union's political camps altogether.  [Ibid., p. 5]
The years 1937 and 1938 saw Stalin's reign of terror in which he turned upon the army, the party, and any group which fell out of favour.  Men were arrested--many of whom had held high positions in the nation--along with their wives and children.  They were shot.  Not ethnic cleansing, but the erasure of whole extended families from the earth.  Reading of this leads inevitably to consider the current and present horrors of North Korea, where  whole families--including grandparents--are sent to the slave labour camps (based on the Soviet model), or are all executed.  They call it the "three generation model".

Faced with such evil, Christians around the world are not helpless.  Far from it.  This is one reason the Imprecatory Psalms have been given to the Church to give us weapons and words amidst the horror by which we can implore God for justice, vengeance, and for mercy upon those who suffer.

The horror, the evil, is so great, how would we know what to say to our God, unless He already provided for us the appropriate words?

But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love,
    will enter your house.
I will bow down towards your holy temple
    in the fear of you.
Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness
    because of my enemies;
    make your way straight before me.
For there is no truth in their mouth;
    their inmost self is destruction;
their throat is an open grave;
    they flatter with their tongue.
Make them bear their guilt, O God;
    let them fall by their own counsels;
because of the abundance of their transgressions cast them out,
    for they have rebelled against you. [Psalm 5: 7-10]

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