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Earlier today I finished the final volume of The Gulag Archipelago. Whereas Mark Twain defines a work of great literature as “Something that everyone wants to have read but no one wants to read,” I still think I’d like to re-read this one. There’s very little I can do for the multitudes processed through the Soviet prison camps, but I can bear witness. To that and to the camps that are still maintained in North Korea, Cuba, and other dictatorships around the world.
Even if there weren’t such camps in existence today I’m far too pessimistic to believe “never again.” If anything, I hope to be the one in the camp rather than the one running it. To that end, here are some lessons I learned from the book to help survive the Gulag.
- Your best chance to escape is before you get to the Lubyanka. You’re healthy and you’ve got no walls and fewer guards than you ever will again.
- Lie to your interrogators. Remember nothing at all. If you build them a story you’ll get tripped up in the details.
- Sign absolutely nothing that they give to you.
- Don’t trust the thieves.
- Spend what time you have in the transit prison sleeping. You’ll be thankful for it after a tour on general labor.
- If you want to survive your ten-ruble note then do whatever you can not to get out on general labor.
- The thieves are going to get all the trustee positions.
- It’s not the short ration, but the long ration that kills you. (The bonus ration is given to shock-workers who overfulfill the norm. You spend more calories earning it than you get from eating it.)
- Don’t bother petitioning Stalin to release you. He wants you right where you are.
- Don’t believe the rumors of a general amnesty either.
- Gorky won’t tell the world about your prison conditions. Gorky depends on praising the state to maintain his livelihood.
- Gorky will end his days in the camps anyway.
- Tukhta: A word for the difference between the work you do and the work you tell your commissar you do.
- If you get your Tukhta past the commissar then he’s going to be invested in maintaining the illusion to his bosses. He doesn’t want to end up behind the wire.
- When the godfather recruits you to inform on your comrades laugh in his face.
- Knife stoolies.
- To escape requires constant observation, meticulous planning, and a willingness to immediately seize whatever chances fortune throws your way.
- Study up on geography now; you’ll be thankful when you’re trying to cross the Kazakh steppes.
- When you’re dying of thirst in the desert it doesn’t help to stab your comrade to death to drink his blood to survive a little longer. He’s also badly dehydrated and won’t bleed much at all.
- Lie to the commissars. Tell them what they want to hear.
- When they let you out they aren’t actually letting you out. They’ll arrest you again and slap another tenner on you.
As a rule, it’s better not to live in a country that maintains a gulag.