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Our American Gulag

05-15-2021Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s, The Gulag Archipelago, first published in English in 1973 is now available in an abridged version that I highly recommend. In it, Solzhenitsyn describes how the omnipresent Soviet apparatus of repression infected every aspect of Russian life including the labor camps, prisons, uprooting and extermination of entire groups of people, the secret police and how the state ruled all-powerfully, degraded and brutalized just about everyone. But it also is the story of tremendous moral courage and how many individuals and small groups refused to be corrupted, violate their conscience and chose to stand against the state’s soul crushing tactics. So much of the resistance was not grand scale coup attempts but small, quieter acts of defiance or refusal to cooperate that allowed individuals to keep their moral compass intact.

When I think about what many of you face today, especially if you work in the corporate or academic world, this passage comes to mind:

“At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up (just as everyone had leaped to his feet during the conference at every mention of his name). … For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the stormy applause, rising to an ovation, continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin.

However, who would dare to be the first to stop? … After all, NKVD men were standing in the hall applauding and watching to see who would quit first! And in the obscure, small hall, unknown to the leader, the applause went on – six, seven, eight minutes! They were done for! Their goose was cooked! They couldn’t stop now till they collapsed with heart attacks! At the rear of the hall, which was crowded, they could of course cheat a bit, clap less frequently, less vigorously, not so eagerly – but up there with the presidium where everyone could see them?

The director of the local paper factory, an independent and strong-minded man, stood with the presidium. Aware of all the falsity and all the impossibility of the situation, he still kept on applauding! Nine minutes! Ten! In anguish he watched the secretary of the District Party Committee, but the latter dared not stop. Insanity! To the last man! With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers!

And even then those who were left would not falter… Then, after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved!

The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel. That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed Form 206, the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him:

“Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding.”

The only way that Soviet communism eventually collapsed was because brave men and women stop applauding. And Solzhenitsyn whispered three words from his place in the Gulag: “It’s a lie”. But before that could happen many courageous souls paid dearly for their refusal to cooperate with the regime.

Though the circumstances are different today, they are nonetheless eerily similar. Our form of totalitarianism is soft, not hard, at least not yet and it comes not from the state but from the corporate world, the social media fiefdoms propped up by the media. ‘Diversity, inclusion and equity’ have replaced ‘workers of the world unite’. But the same ideology is underneath them both: a false utopia built on a distorted understanding of the human person. Now, just as then you are expected to applaud or be canceled.

Do you dare to stop applauding?

Love,
Fr. John B.

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