by Mary W Maxwell, PhD, LLB
Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) was a Soviet prisoner in what he called the “Gulag archipelago,” meaning a series of islands in the USSR. Prisoners got transferred regularly among the ‘islands’ so no one could find them. He made a careful study of the human nature of cruelty.
Solzhenitsyn noticed how a sort of mild acceptance of nasty behavior, or even just indifference to suffering, leads people down a path towards greater cruelty. Indeed it moves us toward a situation where there is no restraint, veritably no humanity.
I am pretty sure I see this happening to us. I will provide an excerpt from Solzhenitsyn’s 1974 book, The Gulag Archipelago. I recall that when the book came out, it made a big splash in the Academy, as though we were discovering for the first time that prisons guards could be sadistic.
Solzhenitsyn became the most famous dissident of his era, along with the Nelson Mandela who spent the years 1962-1990 in South African prisons. (Mandela was offered the chance to go free if he would only disavow violence – but he refused.)
Solzhenitsyn, exiled from his beloved Russia from 1974 to 1994, lived on a farm in Vermont, USA. Please read all of his very insightful, short item. Then we will look at a video, and discuss our contemporary issue of brutality and helplessness.
“Cruelty. And where among all the preceding qualities was there any place left for kindheartedness? How could one possibly preserve one’s kindness while pushing away the hands of those who were drowning? [Wow.]
Once you have been steeped in blood, you can only become more cruel. And, anyway, cruelty (“class cruelty”) was praised and instilled, and you would soon lose track, probably, of just where between bad and good that trait lay.
And when you add that kindness was ridiculed, that pity was ridiculed, and that mercy was ridiculed [as it is today] — you’d never be able to chain all those who were drunk on blood!
My nameless woman correspondent, from Arbat No. 15, asks me “about the roots of the cruelty” characteristic of “certain Soviet people.” Why is it …proportionate to the defenselessness of the person in their power? And she cites an example – which is not at all what one might regard as the main one, but which I am going to cite here anyway.
This took place in the winter of 1943-1944 at the Chelyabinsk railroad station, under a canopy near the baggage checkroom. It was minus 13 degrees. Beneath the shed roof was a cement floor, on which was trampled sticky snow from outside.
Inside the window of the baggage checkroom stood a woman in a padded jacket, and on the nearer side was a well-fed policeman in a tanned sheepskin coat. They were absorbed in a kittenish, flirtatious conversation.
Several men lay on the floor in earth-colored cotton duds and rags. Even to call them threadbare would be rank flattery. These were young fellows — emaciated, swollen, with sores on their lips. One of them, evidently in a fever, lay with bare chest on the snow, groaning.
The woman telling the story approached him to ask who they were, and it turned out that one of them had served out his time in camp, another had been released for illness, but that their documents had been made out incorrectly when they were released, and as a result they could not get tickets to go home on the train.
And they had no strength left to return to camp either — they were totally fagged out with diarrhea. So then the woman telling the story began to break off pieces of bread for them.
And at this point the policeman broke off his jolly conversation and said to her threateningly: “What’s going on, auntie, have you recognized your relatives? You better get out of here. They will die without your help!”
And so she thought to herself: After all, they’ll up and haul me in just like that and put me in prison! (And that was quite right, what was to stop them?) And . . . she went away.
How typical all this is of our society — what she thought to herself, and how she went away, and that pitiless policeman, and that pitiless woman in the padded jacket.
And that cashier at the ticket window who refused them tickets, and that nurse who refused to take them into the city hospital, and that idiotic free employee at the camp who had made out their documents.”
— end of quote. Translation from Russian by Thomas P. Whitney.
How about the Cruelty in Prisons Today?
In 1990, a Royal Commission published its findings about Aboriginal deaths in custody. But since that date, another 147 Aboriginal persons died in prison or police custody. In the case of a 36-year-old man in Palm Island, Queensland, an autopsy found that broken ribs, sticking into the liver, was the cause of death.
This did not lead to legal action against the cop, Officer Chris Hurley, also age 36. I believe I know quite simply how to put a stop to deaths in custody. Make it hard on the perpetrator. The fact that we don’t make it hard suggests that the plan for cruelty is in fact POLICY.
I recently pointed out, in an article entitled “Want You Testicles Batoned?” that the US’s national guardsmen – whose job is domestic, re “civil unrest” – are being trained to whack citizens BELOW THE BELT with long truncheons.
As for the use of Tasers, it is ridiculous. It was a mistake to bring in this type of weapon. (I note that FEMA’s Bernard Kerik, who helped bring it in, made a personal fortune thereby.) Taser should be outlawed by civilised society, full stop. Tase me once, shame on you. Tase me twice, shame on me.
I look forward, in the Comments, to suggestions as to how you think we can avoid making cruelty the norm. As always, it is up to those of us who are free to help the ones who are not.
Some day the tables will be turned!
When giving the Harvard Commencement address in 1978, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn said:
“Harvard’s motto is “VERITAS.” Many of you have already found out, and others will find out in the course of their lives, that truth eludes us if we do not concentrate our attention totally on its pursuit.”
A Frightening Video; Please Take Precautions
In order to provide a video, I googled “cruelty in prison” and the first item that came up was Russian. I will show it below. I found it very disturbing (less so if one turns the music down).
The strangest part is the submissiveness of the young men.
Please don’t think I’m out to get Russia. On this website, in the past year, I have shown US behavior at Abu Ghraib, and the torture that goes on in a Women’s Prison in China.
Possibly the men in this video who are doing the beating are under hypnosis or have been brainwashed to carry it out. Today, the men who join the US armed services get training in how to beat people and not worry about it. We absolutely cannot let this continue.
Assuming there is no new reason to agree to a cancellation of human decency, the trick is to stop watching the downward spiral, saying “Oh, yeah, that’s what seem to be trending.”
Rather, it’s up to you and me to ‘trend’ the other way.
— Mary W Maxwell can be found at Youtube channel “Mary W Maxwell.” She would like to train some dissident-type students in speaking out. Or yelling out as the case may be.