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Things I Learned in the Gulag (theparisreview.org)
235 points by smacktoward 12 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 222 comments





Anyone interested in this would do well to read Victor Frankl's "Man's Search For Meaning" about his imprisonment in Auschwitz.[1] He found that a sense of meaning was critical to survival there, and went on to develop a new school of psychotherapy he called "logotherapy", which focused on finding meaning in life.[2]

[1] - https://www.amazon.com/Mans-Search-Meaning-Viktor-Frankl/dp/...

[2] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logotherapy


I picked this up on a recommendation similar to yours and I now consider it one of the most important books I've read.

> The extreme fragility of human culture, civilization. A man becomes a beast in three weeks, given heavy labor, cold, hunger, and beatings.

I remember hearing that from some Czech artist -- he said it was very surprising to see that all the civilized culture we have can be wiped out in just two weeks. What's so bad in stealing, lying, raping, murdering for food?

He learned to respect that fragile balance of culture we built over animal human nature.


“There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy” - Alfred Henry Lewis

If you have a 3 year old:

"There is only 1/2 a meal between mankind and anarchy"


After reading the article, I needed that laugh. Thanks! :)

I have a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old. 1/2 a meal or even a meal is just a situation that requires actual parenting. But the shift from the norm (the stress) is enough to give a faint idea about what a serious situation hunger can be.

Experiencing actual starvation, especially in your children, potentially even deaths of family members by starvation, now that is real hell. Such experiences change people permanently.

If a population experiences this, it is very commonly followed by war within their lifetimes. Without the hunger caused by hyperinflation in Germany in the early 20's, I serioulsy doubt that they would have followed Hitler.

It may even be that Hitler would never have become the monster he was without that period.


> stealing, lying, raping, murdering for food?

One of those doesn't seem conducive to obtaining food.


Perhaps it does, if you remember that rape is not necessarily about sex, but about violence and power.

I think power is higher on the hierarchy of needs than food.

I think the parent's point is that power allows you to secure food in the future.

How?

I wonder if some parts of the brain shutdown when you are lacking sleep and are hungry. UPDATE: There is a study: http://www.mc3cb.com/pdf_articles_interest_physiology/2012_4...

I remember watching the Twilight Zone episode about the man with the bomb shelter whose neighbors laughed at him until the air raid sirens went off, then almost killed him. I think it applies to a lot of people in a lot of situations. When times are easy, the vast majority of people go along and get along, but it is in very difficult circumstances where you find out who your friends are. There are a lot of people in the world who would become very selfish in difficult circumstances, but that doesn't prove that _everyone_ would do so. It is truly amazing to see those few who would go through anything and be loyal to ideals.

If anyone wants the original: https://shalamov.ru/library/29/

Strangely, #5 from the original is missing from the English text:

"5. I have understood the difference between the prison strengthening character and the camp depraving human soul"


> I saw that the only group of people able to preserve a minimum of humanity in conditions of starvation and abuse were the religious believers, the sectarians (almost all of them), and most priests.

I am an atheist and don't need religion to tell me it is wrong to kill another man, or so I've always believed.

This makes me think about the value of religion in our troubled history, and in shaping our culture.

Because would I still be moral if I hadn't eaten for 5 days? I'm not sure.


Why is it wrong to kill another man?

I claim that most atheist that think they know the answer to this question, base it on a naive understanding of their own underlying value system.

(PS. I'm also an atheist)


For some reason your comment seems incredibly haughty to me.

By all means, enlighten me. Why is it wrong to kill a man? My personal reason is that I am an empathic person.


Empathy is part of agreeableness, one of 5 "big" personality traits. It is perhaps the biggest predictor that a person has a left-leaning political view. In the article, communits party workers were listed as the first group to lose their humanity.

Personally, I don't believe in any objective source of morality, but rather that morality is a superstructure on top of the more fundamental values of individuals in a given population/culture. If everyone followed their deepest values directly, it would lead to a chaotic society, so morality represents a compromize that we may be willing to follow if others also do so.

The degree to which we follow this morality, depends on the degree to which it promotes our deeper value systems. If our environment changes, our actions will (slowly or quickly) adapt.

At the most fundamental level, I think these values are expressions of selfish replicators (genes and memes), as well as some random elements. Unless a moral axiom is actually within this bottom level value system (which could be the case for religious values), we will be willing to break them, if the right situation occurs.

Generally, we are not fully aware of these fundamental values. It is only when we are experiencing extreme conditions that we meet our true selves in this way. When we do this, we are often surprised, and sometimes we refuse to even believe it, which can be a cause of PTSD.

Note that everything above is descriptive. This is my hypothesis, it does not hold any value judgement, and is not intended to.

From introspection, I don't think "do not kill" is part of my most fundamental values. I think the reason I have that value, is a result of how my deeper values interact with a western european society, and that it might change if I lived under very different circumstances. On the other hand, I think I have an appetite for (scientific) truth, even when brutal, that may very well be fundamental.


The role of empathy in decision making is allowing us to understand the other, and bring their mental state into our own larger decision making process. Empathy in and of itself is not a decision making tool.

I suspect you really do have firmer grounding for your position, but haven't performed the introspection necessary to figure out the boundaries of your position, or how to articulate them. And that's fine. Many people have the luxury to never be tested.

If we take the reductive approach of only using empathy, we wind up doing whatever it is that the other wants. Such a system has no room for doing what we think is the right response to the situation, because it has no mechanism for determining responses beyond those considered by the other. It leaves no room for personal self-determination because it has no way to evaluate our wants against another's. And has no way to handle a situation where you empathize with two people holding conflicting desires. I know I'm unfairly stretching an idea past it's breaking point, but that's sort of my point...

There must be a higher-order decision making process.

Frankly, I consider the way people frequently speak of "empathy" as an attempt to hide that process. Hiding it from just me, the world, or maybe from themselves too.


Well put. Especially the last part. "empathy" when used by certain groups, especially SJWs, can assume an almost religous ideal, very similar to "faith" used by Christians or Moslims.

For religous people, experiencing doubt is turn into a test of faith, and if you pass the test, you are seen as extra virtous.

For SJW, if you really feel hateful and resentful towards someone (ie the opposite of empathy), you can reclaim your virtue by showing even more empathy for the people that are seen as victimized or oppressed by the person or group they hate or resent.

Similarly, "empathy" can be used by fundamentalists to justify pretty much the same things that religious fundamentalists can justify by "faith".

For instance: - to display virtue, often with the intent to gain status - to separate in-group from out-group (often with poor justification) - to punish members of the out-group when they "transgress" - dehumanize the outgroup. Sometimes to the extent that they do not deserve to be treated according to ethical rules. - to deny or make taboo science that contradict their dogma (sociobiology, iq research) - to classify certain positions as heretical or evil (if you believe X is a fact, even if it is a proven fact, you are a nazi, and must be neutralized) - to promote ideas that contradict scientific facts when it promotes the "cause" (ie tabula rasa, ghost in the machine)


> Why is it wrong to kill a man?

It is not wrong to kill a man. It is only wrong to murder a man

> My personal reason is that I am an empathic person.

Lots of things can override empathy. Anger, jealousy, ambition etc. 'Do whatever you feel like' does not sound like much of a moral framework to me


Why is it wrong to murder a man?

Does the statement hold under all conditions?

For instance, say that a single man legally controls all food in an isolated village, and he is not willing to share. Maybe he is a disgusting man that nobody likes, and your children are about to starve to death.

Is it ok to kill that man, in order to prevent your children from starving to death, by taking his food?

Whether the answer is yes or no, what id the reasoning behind the answer?

Regardless of the answer, I don't judge. I consider both answers valid. Extreme situations like this, just like the gulags, cuts away all moral superstructures and pretences, and reveals your true values.

For one person "not murdering" can be fundamental, for another "ensure the survival of your childeren" can be more important.


I think that's a good point that lots of things can override empathy. It would require something much stronger to not be overridden by _any_ circumstance encountered in life. (Even being married can be difficult, and it requires a strong belief in marriage and the value of it, to continue working at it and seeking the joy you believe you can have.) Religion with a belief in immortality and eternal justice with eternal possibility of happiness gives a very strong reason to live a certain way in order to get eternal happiness (which is, in some ways, an extension of the idea that living a certain way in this life brings happiness, cooperation, prosperity, industriousness).

I'm unconvinced: religious beliefs seem to get overridden all the time. Religious people can be thieves, murderers, adulterers, and engage in all sort of practices frowned up by their respective religions. Religion offers no stronger assurance than random personal beliefs or empathy.

I don't know. From my point of view, it seems that empathy-oriented morality tends to divide people into an in-group (worthy of empathy) and an out-group(not worthy). In a situation where there is a perceived conflict of interest between the worthy and the not worthy, this can become quite murderous.

Within in-groups, though, empathy is very useful if not overdone. You can have too much, though. My wife is pretty much unable to rinse the wounds when the children hurt themself, because of the short term pain an antiseptic causes when applied.

A rule based ethics can, at least in some cases, be more resilient to these issues.

Of course, rule based ethics can be of the type "sodomites shall be stoned".

And below all that: What values do we use when evaluating what ethical systems are better, and where do THOSE values come from?


You have a point about rule based ethics. But none of this helps religion-based values in particular. Atheists can and do reason out of rules too; and both atheists and religious people make decisions out of empathy too.

What you describe about in-groups and out-groups happens all the time with religious communities. Even people sharing the same religion suddenly become "unworthy".

> And below all that: What values do we use when evaluating what ethical systems are better, and where do THOSE values come from?

Precisely. If you don't believe in any gods, where do you suppose religious value systems come from? :)


As an atheist, I'm not saying that religious values are somehow the ideal. Also, I'm not saying that religious values come from God or are somehow immutable.

However, if we look at different societies, some work better than others. I think most people on HN live in societies that actually work quite well.

To think that you can somehow reason your way to anything better, from first principles (which have to be values, not rules), is very optimistic, in my opinion. First of all, you have to be very certain that you have the correct first principles. (I think this is a much harder problem in itself than most people realize), but even if you do, creating a full ethical system that maximizes those values, is computationally impossible.

To my knowledge, most attempts to introduce radical changes in this manner, has lead to societies that function worse, not better.

I think this problem is very closely related to defining a utility function to a superhuman AI, that you can trust to lead to good outcomes.


I think the 'atheist society' experiment is too young to jump to conclusions quite yet.

But religious society isn't young, and we can already observe how it failed to prevent theft and murder. More importantly, if you don't believe in any god, religious and secular value systems must at the very least have a common root (which isn't a god).

How atheists behave can also be observed now, regardless of how young the "society": some commit crimes, some don't. Some follow strict value systems, some don't. Some are empathic, some aren't. Some are monsters, some are heroes. Some are flawed, common people.

Just like religious people ;)


People are never satisfied. Murder in particular has declined dramatically over the last centuries.

There are some exceptions, though, such as Stalin's USSR, Hitler's Germany and Mao's China. They each killed many, many millions. All three thought they could create a utopia by turning traditional morality upside down.

It is unlikely that the murder rate will ever reach absoulte 0 (unless we have an extremely totalitarian state, such as a chip operated into every individual to monitor their actions), but it is much better to have murder rates of below 10 per 100k than to have them in the 100s or 1000s per 100k, like we had through much of history.


Can you explain how your post relates to mine? I honestly cannot tell whether you agree, disagree, or merely said something about the same topic :)

It was a response to the first sentence.

I happen to think that in many ways, the western world has actually moved in the right direction under christianity. You present the existence of theft and murder as a boolean yes/no situation.

I think such argument are misleading. For these statistics, it only makes sense to present the RATES of theft and murder for each system.

As an athetist myself, I'm very aware of the urge to try to construct an utopia from first principles by revolutionary means. But I happen to think that this is very, very dangerous. It can easily take murder rates to less than 10 per 100k to killing a significant percentage of the population, as seen many times during last century.

It is not that I think that religion is very different from other cultural sources of value. I happen to consider relgion to actually BE part of culture. But just because the epistemology of religion is likely wrong, from a scientific point of view, I think the cultures that we live in, including much of a christian baggage has proved that it can sustain a fairly good society.

As an analogy, linux is not perfect, but if random people start modifying code in the kernel more at less at random and without deep understanding, the stability is likely to suffer.

Society is like the social operating system, and if it breaks down, everything breaks down.

EDIT: If you didn't notice, the argument above is pretty much the argument for atheistic liberal-conservativism.


This is pretty much my perspective too, and why I'm very hesitant to declare religion the 'obvious' root of so many problems, and its decline a solution/victory, despite the fact that I'm pretty much an atheist myself too.

EDIT: "Chesterton's Fence" comes to mind.


Yes, its basically the same principle. Though I think we can never truely understand all aspects of society, just like you probably can't simultaneously understand everything that happens within a modern computer. Even if you have the IQ you don't have the time and capacity.

So in practice, I think we are left to make incremental attempts at improvements, while trying to make changes both small and reversible.

In computer science terms, this is gradient decent. It may not allow us to reach all global minima, but it is much more likely to lead to a good place than large semi-random changes.


> As an athetist myself, I'm very aware of the urge to try to construct an utopia from first principles by revolutionary means. But I happen to think that this is very, very dangerous.

Sorry, I simply don't see where anyone is talking about revolutionary utopias here, or first principles, or totalitarian anything. If you want to argue that non-religious value systems inevitably lead to genocide, feel free to do that -- and good luck with that, I'm uninterested in that argument.


I'm not arguing that non-religous value systems inevitably leads to genocide.

All I'm saying, is that the western culture we have inherited, has proven to be pretty good at providing a good life for most people.

As we discover that the foundation of the religous belief system is wrong, we need be careful about how we dispense with the rules that have been justified in religous dogma up until now.

I think it can go wrong in two ways:

1. The far right atheists can argue that without Jesus, there is no objective reason for universal empathy, which we can use to justify extreme selfishness, eugenics, racism, etc.

2. Left wingers, on the other hand, can argue that ONLY empathy and happiness matters when we dispense with the supernatural soul. Because the religous reasons for free will are wrong, we should not treat individuals as moral agents, but instead treat all unwanted behaviour or unwanted outcomes as health problems or something caused by unfair treatment by society.

In small doses, I don't see either view as a big problem. But there have been cases where they have been taken to the extreme, and that went blody on both sides.

Scientifically, I think both views are simplifications to the point of being just wrong. In order to function as a society and as individuals, we need a balance between individual responsibility and empathy where it is due.

I think it is possible to reach this conclusion through science and philosophy, but that this is extremely difficult, and even more difficult to communicate to the electorate.

Which is why I argue that we should not change our moral rules too quickly, even if the traditional justification for them fall away.

Btw, it may very well be that we more or less agree on this. The discussion started further up, in response to the claim that moral behaviour (not killing) was a consequence of "being an empathic person", and nothing else.


> Btw, it may very well be that we more or less agree on this. The discussion started further up, in response to the claim that moral behaviour (not killing) was a consequence of "being an empathic person", and nothing else.

Indeed, it may be that we agree. The problem is that the discussion got so sidetracked it's hard to see what we're talking about anymore.

As an example of how we're talking past each other, I wasn't responding that empathy is or should be the only restraint. I was specifically arguing against this assertion further up:

> I think that's a good point that lots of things can override empathy. It would require something much stronger [...] Religion with a belief in immortality and eternal justice with eternal possibility of happiness gives a very strong reason [...]

This is demonstrably, patently false: religion gets overridden and fails ALL the time. It should be noted that, traditionally, the argument goes "atheists forget religion and therefore have no value systems; what prevents murder when there is no god?", yadda yadda yadda.

To clarify, things I am arguing:

- Religion is not enough or better than empathy or other secular/atheist moral value systems. It works (sometimes), but it's not better or the only way. Arguments that start with "but without religion...!" are therefore wrong.

Things I'm NOT arguing:

- Religion always fails.

- Empathy is enough.

- Atheists never commit crimes.

Things I'm NOT interested in debating, because they're wrongheaded, red herrings, appeals to ignorance and/or "not even wrong":

- "But atheist societies aren't old enough!"

- Software development as an analogy to moral value systems.

- Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Patton, Torquemada, the French Revolution, etc.


Indeed, it seems that we have quite similar opinions.

The difference seems to be on emphasis: - You seem more concerned about religiously inspired fallacies. (I agree that they are fallacies, but I don't take them very seriously any more). - I am more concerned with preventing gulags. (Which you are not interested in dicussing).

I suspect the difference in emphasis may come from us living in different countries (I live in Norway, which is more or less atheist socialist in its value system)

Btw, the original article was: "Things I learned in the Gulag"


> Lots of things can override empathy

Yes, lots of things can override empathy in some people. Likewise, lots of things can override religious beliefs in some people, making them kill another person. So what's the conclusion?

There's almost no moral framework that cannot be overridden for some people under certain circumstances. I've seen no evidence religion is a stronger foundation for principles.


> Yes, lots of things can override empathy in some people. Likewise, lots of things can override religious beliefs in some people, making them kill another person. So what's the conclusion?

That they are both very useful in restraining murder ?


Yes, both are useful, but more importantly, neither can prevent murder. So while it's true that "lots of things can override empathy", it's also true lots of things can override religious beliefs (not to mention when those beliefs are used to justify the murder).

Having empathy for others is not the same as doing "whatever you feel like", by the way.


Empathy is an emotion and is not sufficient to restrain murder. You should use everything you can to restrain it. It is not either or. That is my point. Plenty of irreligious mass murderers out there by the way

Empathy can be sufficient to restrain murder, but sometimes fails. Religious sentiments can also succeed at preventing murder, but many times fail as well. You can indeed use every tool at your disposal to restrain murder -- well, any tool you can believe in, of course.

> Plenty of irreligious mass murderers out there by the way

Yes, there are irreligious murderers. Also plenty of religious murderers, and lots of nasty actions have been committed in the name of religion. So what conclusion can we draw from it, other than "both religious and irreligious value systems have been shown to be not enough to prevent murder"?

You single out empathy, but in fact every value system fails.


I did not single out empathy. The comment I was replying to made the impression that was the only tool we are allowed to use and that religious people were somehow unempathetic since they need religion to not be murderers

Oh, ok. Now I understand your point. I understood the comment you were replying to differently.

To explain where I'm coming from: one typical argument made by some religious people (not all!) is that atheists will inevitably degenerate into criminality, since -- the argument goes -- if you don't have religion to tell you something is immoral, and there are no consequences in the afterlife, what's the point of behaving well to others?


> My personal reason is that I am an empathic person.

But is that a result of your cultural upbringing, or something innate. I would argue the former, in which case culture and religion actually do matter more than we think.

Would you be an emphatic person if you grew up in a different time and place.


I think it has been shown to be a fact that both culture and genes affect this. Psychopathy has a large genetic component, and strips a person of most empathy. At intermediate levels, we call it sociopathy, etc.

For the cultural aspect, there are two interpretations: 1) Humans (non psychopaths) are born to feel empathy, and you only take that away if you inflict harm on the person 2) Humans (non psychopaths) are born with some latent capacity to develop empathy, but it must be actively taught in order to develop

From my experience as a father, it seems like empathy develops without much actual teaching. Maybe teaching it can boost it, but at least for my children that has not been needed so far.

But empathy is very definitive limits. It is much easier to feel it towards smaller children, cute pets, etc, and not very easy for children to feel empathy towards authority figures, scary/ugly animals. Also, when hungry, sleepy, scared or angry empathy seems to vanish.

I think this is typical. Nobody feels empathy for everyone all the time.

And it is when dealing with people that you DON'T feel empathy for, that you are most likely to break ethical rules or convensions.

And with (my) children, teaching them to behave morally when not feeling empathy, that requires dedicated effort from the parent.


Being empathic to an enemy soldier running towards you pointing the bayonet at you would get you killed.

...but empathy might help prevent the war and that particular situation in the first place?

Because I would not like to be killed by me if I were that man (or any other living being).

Plus it causes distress in family and friends of that man. Which I also wouldn't like for myself.

And it also destroys the trust in the community around you if everybody could/is actively killing other people. Which is an evolutionary disadvantage.


Those make good reasons under most circumstances, especially in civilized societies.

In other societies, the conditions can be the opposite. In societies without an effective police force, the norm is that an honor culture develops, where avenging a murder with another murder is not only a right but in fact a duty.

In such societies, the first murder can actually be considered heroic, if there is no effective retribution, and the second murder is essentially always heroic.

Morality is much more dependant on our society than many think. If anarchist actually get their way, an honor society will emerge from the chaos fairly quickly.

(Examples: Current clan societies, such as northern Pakistan, Afghanistan, histoircal clan societies (vikings etc), hunter-gatherers, criminal gangs, etc,etc).


It's a society-wide majority opinion of tit-for-tat.

tit-for-tat is an optimal (and Nash Equillibrium) strategy for recurring prioner's dilemma if you don't how many games you will play.

If you know the number of games, or it is the last game, always-defect is the Nash Equillibrium.

Depending on social circumstances (such as in a Gulag), murder can be the Nash equillibrium strategy if you optimize for survival.

It's just that such circumstances are outside of the experience of most people, and most people today cannot even imagine it.


> Why is it wrong to kill another man?

"Why" implies to me that there is or should be a rationale. Our culture stores a lot of behavior and spreads it by the means appropriate. Some need rationale most do not.

Killing feels evil and is considered morally wrong. But in reality mankind, like many species, decided at some point, that killing its own should generally be avoided and is therefore allowed only under very specific circumstances.


He's talking about you when he mentions the sectarians. I'm not sure of what the original Russian word was, but I assume it was meant to cover militants of any kind, those of strong belief. Marta Hillers makes a similar point about the mass rape which the Russian soldiers engaged in when they conquered eastern Germany. From what she saw, all Russian soldiers engaged in rape, except for the militant Communists, who felt that such actions were immoral and would bring lasting shame on Communism. People of strong belief are rare. Martin Luther said that only one man in ten was a true Christian, and most modern sociology has tended to agree that only 10% to 15% of the public has the kind of strong beliefs that continue to guide behavior during adverse circumstances.

Original word is сектант which literally means a member of a sect. Generally, that would imply a believer from a smaller/non-traditional Christian denomination (i.e. baptists, pentecostals etc.) as opposed to Russian Orthodox.

> I am an atheist and don't need religion to tell me it is wrong to kill another man, or so I've always believed.

nah it's not the point / goal of religion here it has nothing to do here with killing someone else or not. It's the fact of believing in "something else" outside of this world which gives you a reason to stay human (in a way that can include but not limited to 'not killing someone'). Basically if there's only "here and now" there's no point to be a good person or keep your animal instincts leashed. if there's "something else outside or after" there's a "superstitious" point to self-preserve your humanity ('for later')...


> I am an atheist and don't need religion to tell me it is wrong to kill another man

You do - but religion can be non-theistic. As an atheist, you nevertheless strive towards ideals that have ultimately no reason but your belief in them... That is religion - it is personal and it does not require supernatural beings.


Your definition of religion is non-standard. That's not what people mean by that word.

To be fair, most religions seem to think it's perfectly fine to kill another person, whether in war or the prison system.

That reminds me of "God Angrily Clarifies 'Don't Kill' Rule" from The Onion:

https://www.theonion.com/god-angrily-clarifies-dont-kill-rul...


ideals that have ultimately no reason but your belief in them

It's a pretty big claim that ethics has "no reason but your belief in it". There are plenty of logical reasons why one would want to behave ethically, even self interest, beyond you simply believing it.


You may have a chain of logic, but what is the first link in the chain anchored to? It’s not too hard to show that this first link is anchored in belief.

I think one of the difficulties here is that you may have a logical reason for cooperation leading to more pleasant life or increase production in a civilized society, etc. but when it comes down to being in a gulag, you often need stronger reasons for morality than a belief that it will make your life more pleasant. The short term consequences of an action (e.g. stealing) may seem more pleasant [satiation of hunger], the long term consequences may seem to be unlikely to occur [because of imminent death]. Religion provides much stronger reasons for living in a certain way (belief in afterlife, that justice ultimately prevails regardless, consequences of character you've developer for eternity, and that human life is sacred and valuable beyond the grave, etc.). Reasons that neither death nor deprivation can change.

That self interest is usually rooted in how society would react to your behavior. So in the end if it's society basing the idea that something is immoral on religion, you're still indirectly basing it on religion.

I don't want to defend a naturalistic perspective on morals, which is unfortunately popular nowadays and leads to a lot of immorality, but there are definitely bio-logical reasons for not killing others in your group. Humans are altruistic, group-based apes whose survival depends on collaboration. Originally, this might have been small groups only. Today society is based on the collaboration between (nearly all) nations, because modern technology and labour division would break down entirely within about six weeks without massive global trade and shipping.

There are also some moral principles that follow directly from factual matters, provided some very basic first assumptions are made. Theories of just resource distribution and social justice are of that kind. The principles that get things going are very basic, e.g. reciprocity, generality of moral statements, and fairness in the sense of trade/bargaining/exchange fairness get you very far.

It is a myth that religion provides values, as it can be shown very easily by historical comparison that it never has. The values defended by major religions such as Christianity and Islam have changed over the centuries again and again. Modern Christian values, for instance, mostly come from the enlightenment movement and were not endorsed at all earlier. (Christianity is just an example, AFAIK this is true for all religions.)

Churches and 'holy men' have always had a vested interest in selling their values as a product of their religion, though, and they are very good at selling this false story to the public.


I'm curious: What "first assumptions" do refer to as "very basic"?

Also, for the final paragraph: Your theory of religion seems to be based on intelligent design. I think it is more accurate (and less prone to conspiracy theories) to think of the evolution of religious memes in darwinist terms of "natural" selection.


The Principle of Reciprocity, the No Harm Principle, and Democratic Power Division.

Wat? "Thou shalt not kill" (or more accurately "Thou shalt not murder") has been there since the get-go in both Judaism and Christianity.

Sure, but there is no prohibition against genocide, for instance.

> you nevertheless strive towards ideals that have ultimately no reason but your belief in them

Not necessarily: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_rationalism


Necessarily. They make a claim that they then don’t prove.

This really isn’t hard. Morality is just goal-based behavior. Paths that lead to a goal are called good; paths that lead away from a goal are called bad. Whether or not a goal is itself good or bad depends on where it lies on a larger path.

So, what are the ultimate natural goals? Easy. One is life, which is the prequisite for being able to make choices; the other is death, where no more choices are possible. Certainly, you can switch between these goals, but the key point is that nature gives no clue which you should choose. Therefore, all natural ethics is based on personal taste.

N.B. In Christianity, something outside of nature steps in and says, “choose life.” That’s why atheists can act morally (search heuristics can end up being similar).


I partly agree, though I don't think the actual ultimate goals are "chosen" in any free way. Instead, I think they for the most part have evolved through natural selection (most of them by genes, but some by memes).

Direct pursuit of the ultimate goals is not efficient, both because it is computationally impossible to calculate what action is most efficient in any situation, and also because direct pursuit will lead to a lot of conflict.

As a solution to this problem, one or more levels of heuristic rules have developed that solve this problem in a social environment, and that form some kind of low-level social contract that we will follow if others follow it. Part of "signing" this social contract (ie be perceived as cooperative), is to bind yourself to the commonly accepted morality. Part of this is that you have to convince yourself that you hold the rules sacret.

Of couse, if you experience radical changes to the environment, it is likely that your fundamental goals will be in conflict with those additional layers, and your behaviour will change accordingly. Most people are surprised of themselves when this happens.


It's not a religion, it's an ethical system. I think ethical system is only a subset of religion.

ethics =/= religion

For some interesting points about how these aren't the same I'd refer you to Richard Holloway[1]. An ex-Bishop he has refered to himself as a recovering Christian and writes extensively on ethics. He realised that people could make perfectly good ethically arguments without any reference to religion when he sat on various national advisory commitees whilst Bishop of Edinburgh.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Holloway


Maybe it's not about knowing that is wrong to kill someone, but something else. Fear of God? Belief in a greater good? Who knows

It's much simpler than that. You are a part of something that's bigger than yourself. Whether it's a team, a congregation or a community. The advantage that religions have is that they are to a certain extent aspirational in that you have a set of goals you want to live by. I think that makes it easier to deal with immediate or short-term adverse conditions because there is a long-term objective. However this is not restricted to religions, warrior codes appear to be remarkably effective in dealing with extreme adversity.

don't underestimate the soothing/empowering effects of rituals, rotes and congregations.

even without a deep belief, the routine itself can keep you going: this can be compared to accounts from prisoner camp survivors; it's often mentioned 'falling into the routine' as part of holding up and moving forward.


> I saw that the only group of people able to preserve a minimum of humanity in conditions of starvation and abuse were the religious believers, the sectarians (almost all of them), and most priests.

I’m curious which religions were represented, and what he meant by “sectarians”. Christianity at least would seem to be implied (by “priests”) and the fact that this was a Soviet gulag — Christians in particular were strongly persecuted under the USSR. (Perhaps at least partly because they resisted ideological assimilation more strongly than any other groups — even to death and martyrdom in many cases.)

It’s also very interesting that military and party members were the first to lose it. No wonder communists feared and/or hated religion — they knew their own ideology couldn’t strengthen people or hold them in its grip anywhere near as well.


Mostly Russian Orthodox. Sectarians were also russian orthodox but also members of these psuedo-monastic religious orders that were popular at the time.

Baptists, pentecostals and other non-traditional denominations are usually termed as sects in Russian/Soviet usage. Old Believers (schismatic Orthodox) would be included too.

Members of the Russian orthodox church I suppose. Sectarians are likely also eastern orthodox but not under the Moscow Patriarchate like Old Belivers or the Catacomb church.

One particular sect that is relevant are the raskolnikovs (old-faithers)

> Christianity at least would seem to be implied (by “priests”)

Not sure about that - there were "priests" in Ancient Egypt, too.


For hundreds of years up until very recently, it was pretty much a given that anyone called a "priest" in a Western nation was affiliated with Christianity (same with related terms -- "monk", "missionary", etc.).

Stalins cult of personality and terror only reached so far.

> 38. I realized what a terrible thing is the self-esteem of a boy or a youth: it’s better to steal than to ask. That self-esteem and boastfulness are what make boys sink to the bottom.

Sounds like start up culture. Move fast and break things. Better to do than to ask permission.


Only superficially.

"Better to do than ask permission" long predates startup culture and often holds just as true in large corporations. Especially true in fact, often there's a lot of red tape that people won't bother to enforce if you can present a working solution in the correct manner.

"Move fast and break things" largely means "grow quickly enough that you're breaking stuff", which may or may not be a positive.

Contrast that to choosing to steal another inmate's food instead of asking, because it would be too humiliating to ask or trade. All that's going to do is make you enemies, and reveals an underlying character weakness that will probably hurt you in other ways.


I prefer Grace Hopper's version, "It is often easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission."

it's very true, but one might add "if you're acting for the general good", not if you're only trying to have fun or disrupt social fabric

30. I discovered that the world should be divided not into good and bad people but into cowards and non-cowards. Ninety-five percent of cowards are capable of the vilest things, lethal things, at the mildest threat.

This is incredibly consistent with my observations.

Possibly an explanation for the nature of the Founding Fathers.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xxpq1-eqcuo Clouds by Galich. brings up this song for me

Here is a translation of the lyrics: http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/stalin/d2...

  The clouds float by, the clouds, 
  Without hurrying, like in a film.  
  I'm eating chicken tabaka, 
  And I've sunk a load of cognac.

  The clouds float off to Abakan [a Gulag area]. 
  Unhurried they float. 
  They're warm, I bet, those clouds, 
  But I've been frozen through forever!

  Like a horseshoe I froze into the sleigh tracks, 
  Into the ice I was chipping with my pick! 
  After all, not for nothing 
  I blew away 20 years in those camps.

  I still have that snow crust before my eyes! 
  I still have the din of frisking in my ears! 
  Hey, bring me a pineapple 
  And another 200 g. of cognac!

  The clouds float by, the clouds, 
  Floating to Kolyma [a work camp] that dear old place, 
  And they don't need a lawyer, 
  An amnesty's neither here nor there.

  Me too, I live a first-rate life! 
  Twenty years I swapped for one day! 
  And I sit in this bar like a lord, 
  I've even got some teeth left!

  The clouds float off to the east, 
  They've no pension, no worries. 
  Me, on the fourth, I get a money order, 
  And another on the 23rd.

  And on those days, just like me. 
  Half the country sits in the bars! 
  And in our memory off to those places 
  Float the clouds, the clouds.
Translation taken from Smith, Gerald Stanton. (1984). Songs to Seven Strings: Russian Guitar Poetry and Soviet Mass Song. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. 195-196.

A good book on prison lessons is Soledad Brother by George Jackson, a black man who was imprisoned in Soledad Prison, California, USA. He was killed by a guard at San Quentin in 1971.


On a similar note and for anyone interested, I read "Zone 22" recently

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Zone-22-Tig-Hague/dp/0718153561

It's the story of a UK business man who got caught with a small amount of hashish in his pocket at Moscow airport and ended up spending 4 years in a prison camp.

It makes for a pretty interesting -if grim at times - read.


>7. I saw that the only group of people able to preserve a minimum of humanity in conditions of starvation and abuse were the religious believers, the sectarians (almost all of them), and most priests.

This, to me is the point of religion. We need religion when things are hard and unpredictable. In a world where most things are certain and predictable, religion has no value.


Hard to tell. Some of the people who went through GULAG system were convinced atheists. Sergey Korolev, the father of Soviet space programme. Or Dmitry Likhachev. Lev Landau who was wrecked physically yet not in spirit. And certainly thousands of less notable people we never heard about.

It's not about being an atheist per se, but about believing. The others I'm sure strongly believed in something, which kept them going. Landau for example had physics to occupy him and keep him sane.

IMO that's not quite the same. Doing physics isn't "believing" in physics, but sure keeping yourself focused on something goes a long way.

Likhatchev deathbed words to his crying wife were "don't get so upset, it's just the matter changing its state".


> In a world where most things are certain and predictable, religion has no value.

Not much is predictable in your life.


Here are some basic things, the predictability of which most people in the developed world enjoy.

1. Clean water 2. Roof over the head and the sense of safety that comes with it. 3. Basic food.

A sense of community and friendship is probably the only basic human necessity that is not certain in the developed world.

Now imagine a world where none of this is can be taken for granted. You live under a constant threat from various sources (disease, wild animals, other humans out there to steal, loot from you etc) , there's not enough food, water and on top of that you're lonely. Religion is one driving force that helps people through these.


The more white and privileged you are - the more predictable your life is.

And then - BAM! You've (or someone from your relatives) got cancer. Or something.

- True, man is mortal, but that is itself only half the evil. The trouble is that man is sometimes suddenly mortal, that's the tricky part! Basically, he can never say what will happen to him this evening.

'What an idiotic way of putting it...” thought Berlioz, and objected:

- Certainly, that is an exaggeration. I know more or less exactly what will happen this evening. Of course, if a brick falls on my head on Bronnaya...

- Bricks are out of the question, - the stranger broke him off sharply, - not a single brick will ever fall on anybody's head. Under no circumstances, I assure you, does this constitute a threat. You will die a different death.

- And perhaps you know just which? - inquired Berlioz with the most natural irony, he had clearly been drawn into some kind of absurd conversation, - and can tell me?

- Certainly, - responded the stranger. He measured Berlioz with his gaze, as if he were sewing him a suit, and mumbled through his teeth, something like: 'One, two... Mercury in the second house... the moon is down... six - misfortune... evening - seven...” - then he loudly and delightedly proclaimed: - You'll have your head cut off!”

- The Master and Margarita. Mikhail Bulgakov.


If a rich person's got cancer - he'll be able to pay off his dying and live in acceptable conditions before he passes.

While someone poor would probably end up being unable to pay for his painkillers and dying while praying to his relatives so that someone killed him not to endure his death.

So no, rich people do have a better ability to hedge their risks.


This has nothing to do with the initial statement though.

Not to mention that the result is the same anyway.

>live in acceptable conditions before he passes.

And no, this is not as simple as you are trying to picture. Sometimes - yes, you can deal with it this way, in many other scenarios painkillers and other shit is not enough and the only way to stop the suffering is either forced coma or suicide.


> * The more white and privileged you are - the more predictable your life is.*

That's a quantifiable claim, especially in response to an article about a gulag system that killed and tortured many white people, many of whom you may have called privileged before they were imprisoned.

I would love to see your justification. Seeing a scatter plots with whiteness and privilege on the horizontal axis and predictability on the vertical would seem persuasive, though I'm not sure how you'd quantify the variables.

Can you cite a source?


Gulag system tortured political dissidents, who could or could not have been rich or privileged.

Those who were privileged in the Soviet Union have always had a better hand. Don't have a job? Here's a job for you. Your brother's got cancer? We'll find the best doctors for him. Can't find a TV set for your nice flat? Here's a guy you could call. Your idiot child has been speeding and killed someone walking down the street? Well, we may speak to those policemen so that his life would not be destroyed by such a small mistake.

I understand why you picked on the phrase "white and privileged", but it has nothing to do with the substance of my statements.


what a ridiculous claim. How much certain are you about contracting or not contracting illnesses?

I am incredibly certain that a privileged person can afford to have a better treatment than a poor person. Which is literally what "hedging your risks" means.

You could've just said 'rich' and do without the silly assumption that white people have it better than others because of their skin colour.

I know - thanks, it wasn't a serious statement.

Look at someone speaking about cancer over there: the guy's clearly missing the point that if you're rich and you die from cancer - then you're probably still going to be better off than if you're poor and die from cancer.


Unchecked power is a bad thing to hand to another human being.

Reminds me of Victor Frankl's book, Man's search for meaning. Very profound.

Primo Levi wrote three books about his experience at Auschwitz. The last one (The Drowned and the Saved) is centered on the "philosofical" issues.

https://theorangutanlibrarian.wordpress.com/2017/08/01/grapp...

"Though of a similar nature and sharing the same subject matter (Auschwitz and the Holocaust), Frankl’s book is one of the most uplifting reads I’ve ever experienced. Victor Frankl more than just physically survived the war; Primo Levi on the other hand felt like a different story. Put simply: Levi is the darkness to Frankl’s light."


Perhaps 7. is one reason for the religious radicalisation thriving in prisons.

> 44. I understood that moving from the condition of a prisoner to the condition of a free man is very difficult, almost impossible without a long period of amortization.

Let's recall that there are people living these experiences and worse, right this moment, in Gulags in North Korea (and possibly other places I'm not thinking of).

One doesn't need to go to NK for that. Modern Russian state still tortures political dissidents in prisons even now. Not in large-scale labor-camps, just because it is not that necessary.

And they still send people to frozen shitholes to fuck them over. ref: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oleg_Sentsov



Of course we wouldn't mention CIA black sites, the possibility of more Abu Ghraibs, or even those in the US allowed to be beaten, killed or tortured at the hands of other prisoners, guards, or even police.

Communist dictators and other ideological authoritarians in political power (who demand assimilation) are orders of magnitude more murderous and deadly than US torture places, bad as those may be.

Yes that's absolutely true. We here in the US are nowhere near as bad as China or Russia, but we better keep an eye on it because we seem to be the exception--something special--in history.

The US is pretty bad, if you consider all of the wars from Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Iraq, Afghanistan, all,of the CIA activities in South and Central America, the impact of drug prohibition, Racist policing and slavery and de facto slavery via prison labor (and the largest prison population). I think you could strangle a gnat on the different in ruined and lost lives between Russia, China, and America.

All that may be bad, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Mao Zedong (49-78 million civilians killed) and Josef Stalin (23 million civilians killed).

Hitler himself ranks third behind those two, at 17 million civilians killed.


Not as bad as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao... could the bar be any lower? If the only way you compare favorably is considering the greatest mass killers of the last century, that should tell you something.

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Oh good, I was worried that this surreal conversation was missing the anti-abortion angle, but you totally brought it. Here’s a thought though, stop invading countries full of actual people and killing them before you worry about your foetus “kill count” ok? I listed Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Iraq, Afghanistan, all,of the CIA activities in South and Central America, the impact of drug prohibition, Racist policing and slavery and de facto slavery via prison labor (and the largest prison population)... and your concern is that women in your country aren’t sufficiently controlled on religious grounds?

It feels like maybe your issue with communist regimes is that they’re not theocratic enough for your tastes. Because of course theocracies offer such an excellent quality of life. If you really want to make a difference, stop selling arms to the worst regimes, like Saudi Arabia. Leave women’s reproductive rights alone.


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It appears I’ve touched a nerve;

But I named the issue in the US that I truly feel the most consternation about.

That’s the nerve.


> ideological authoritarians

I wouldn't limit it to ideologues. Look at Mobutu, Suharto, and many other plain old right-wing authoritarians.


Good reminder - thanks.

>I understood why prisoners hear political news (arrests, et cetera) before the outside world does.

What does this mean?


When someone politically notable gets thrown in the prison system, word of it gets around within the prison communities straight away. The official version released to the press has to go through officials and PR people, and arrives a bit later.

Kolyma Stories is probably the best book about the reality of communism.

Kolyma Stories and Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago are an incredible pair. For Solzhenitsyn, the Gulag is deeply personal and his rage seeps through every page. Shalamov is the complete opposite, and his book is an inhumanly dispassionate sequence of vignettes of camp life. Some of the mental images stick with you for life, like the zek (camp inmate) who broke into the camp larder, barricaded the door from the inside, and feasted by gnawing on raw, frozen bacon. He was still smiling when they broke in, dragged him out, beat him and threw him into the isolation cells, because at least his belly was full...

The Gulag Archipelago is available here: https://archive.org/details/TheGulagArchipelago-Threevolumes

Gulag Archipelago looks daunting. It's an insane amount of material. Must one read all three volumes?

I found it quite accessible and have read it end to end twice. It's not a Russian heavy literature doorstop a la War & Peace, but an encyclopedic one-man survey of every aspect of the camps, roughly in chronological order: first the the history of labor camps in Russia, then the journey of a typical inmate (arrest, interrogation, trial, transit, arrival, life and death in the camps for prisoners and guards alike, freedom [1]), then the slow winding down of the system.

[1] In some sense, at least; see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/101st_kilometre


For a less intimidating introduction, you might like to try One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is a good book, but nothing like the Gulag Archipelago. Ivan Denisovich was officially supported by the USSR in a brief period after Stalin's death, as a book that talks about the imprisonment, but waters it down so much as to make it not-so-terrible. Gulag Archipelago is much more interesting, and also much more eye-opening.

The problem with* Gulag* is that (in Russian) it is quite badly written, unlike Shalamov's stories which real literature even before editors got to them. History-wise, there are better sources, too.

Strongly disagree. Reading for the first time in Russian and finding that it flows wonderfully. Solzhenitsyn has a unique tone of voice: at once conversational, ironic, sadly humorous, and full of pathos. His imagery can be breathtaking, e.g. when he's talking about the different rivers of prisoners flowing in and out of the gulag system. When referencing his own life, his sense of narrative pacing is superb. And when it comes to matters of the soul, he has a way with words that few others can touch. Indeed, there's a number of what I would consider "best of all time" quotes in the first few chapters alone.

  If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere 
  insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate 
  them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and 
  evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to 
  destroy a piece of his own heart?

  During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it 
  is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow
  enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at 
  various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. 
  At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name
  doesn't change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.
(I wrote down: "names are leaky abstractions.")

It's true that there's some dry and boring material, but I can hardly blame the author for that: he's the last living source for so many of these stories. I can picture him sitting at his typewriter, trying in vain to resurrect the final, fading memories of the countless missing people who touched his life—nameless and nearly faceless, probably buried in some unmarked grave—while waiting for the KGB to burst in any minute and destroy his decade of work. How much more painful must the process of editing be when the things you cut are fragments of human lives that might as well have never existed once they leave the page?

Unfortunately, there's now a contingent of the Russian population that denounces Solzhenitsyn for reasons of pure nationalism. It makes me so sad when I see Solzhenitsyn mentioned in the Runet, because it's almost always extremely vitriolic...


If Russian is not you native language I can see how it can seem to flow nicely. Unfortunately, if it is, Solzhenitsyn reads like a foreign language. Even words, let alone sentence structures, are very much not Russian. Words, really, he was just inventing on the fly and you have to guess what they could possibly mean.

Obviously, this is to a large degree a matter of taste, but I am far from the only Russian speaker finding Solzhenitsyn's language highly stilted and artificial. The English translation you're quoting is much better.

Interestingly, same is very often said about Vonnegut's translations into Russian.


Well, it is my first language, so I disagree.

I am, however, listening to an audiobook version, so maybe it's different on the page.


I also don't think he's a bad writer or that his Russian is quite that strange (in Archipelago, specifically) but I'd be remiss not to mention his literary style has been had its share of critics, with Vladimir Voinovich putting in what is perhaps the top effort in the genre. On the off chance either of you have not run across it before (in which case, read the whole book) [Симыч here is the parody stand-in for Solzhenitsyn]:

https://www.e-reading.club/chapter.php/11816/25/Voiinovich_-...


For sure. Voynovich may not be quite as profound as Solzhenitsyn but his writings are actually pleasurable (IMO) to read. I've heard ерфе the real Karnavalov was not amused.

It's hard to imagine anyone mentioned there was particularly entertained.

'Invented words' is what made me think of it, I don't think it's much in evidence in GULAG but it definitely pop up in his fiction. In Voinovich's parodic telling, it's due to an excessive reliance on the 19th century 'Dahl's Explanatory Dictionary'. It's a perfectly pointed barb.

I think where GULAG succeeds is in exactly what he puts on the front page "an experiment in literary investigation". Everything from 'В круге первом' through 'Как нам обустроить Россию' and later gets progressively weirder and, well, to put it politely, not better.


I am a speaker of a Slavic language other than Russian, speak some russian, read Gulag Archipelago in English, and found it to flow wonderfully. OTOH, I never liked the style of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and most other Russian classics. So maybe Gulag is not up to Russian literary tradition, but for me that's a good thing :)

This is the one that I often think of - he wrote it about the response to the publication of Ivan Denisovich.

"если первая крохотная капля правды разорвалась как психологическая бомба - что же будет в нашей стране, когда Правда обрушится водопадами? А -- обрушится, ведь не миновать."


I listened to an unabridged audiobook version - 67 hours of laughingly bad, home-made narration in Russian. Even then, it was easily one of the most riveting books I have come across.

Was it this one, by chance? https://rutracker.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=4011302

I thought the reading was superb, even though the quality was a bit scratchy.


No, it was the Ignatiy Lapkin version (linked from that page). That guy was something else.

You don't have to. Big chunks of it can be difficult to follow without the historical context Solzhenitsyn assumes the reader has - that you'd have to get elsewhere. More importantly though, you don't really have to read it in order, you can poke around the ToC and find stuff that doesn't require knowledge of the details of the early show trials, etc. You can hop over to the chapter on arrests or escape attempts and see how it goes.

It's long, but very interesting. It's much better to read it whole, than some abridged version.

I read a ~400 page abridged version, but I do feel I missed out.

I've read the original three volume version, which I got from a library. I own the abridged. You do miss a lot, but you can still get a lot out of the single-volume version.

I would also highly recommend "Gulag" by Anne Applebaum. She covers the entire history of the Gulag in great detail from the Revolution to the fall of the Soviet Empire.

I'm not making some 'it wasn't real communism, man!' defense but those books are about the reality of prison life under the peak of (communist) totalitarian repression. There was a lot more to the reality. Even the Soviets eventually figured out that level of murderous control was an entirely unnecessary waste of human life and the communism communismed on for decades.

That's not entirely accurate. They did figure out that Stalin's level of repression was unnecessary, or at least they lacked the conviction to carry it out. But in "The Gulag Archipelago" by Solzhenitsyn, he documents how much of the apparatus continued forward into Khrushchev's regime. He details the town of Novocherkassk, where workers went on strike in June of 1962. Tanks and troops were dispatched. The strikers were fired upon. The wounded were rounded up, and the families of the wounded and the dead were shipped off to Siberia. He talks about other incidents. He talks about how the religious were still treated the same as under Stalin. Life after (or even before) Stalin was not free from such abuses.

Kolyma Stories is probably the best book about the reality of communism.

Is what I'm replying to. It's a very narrow slice of a much bigger thing.

Life after (or even before) Stalin was not free from such abuses.

I'm not sure why you think I said anything of the sort.

As to 'figured out', no, of course they didn't have a sudden epiphany while taking a shower one morning. The paranoid nutcase that ruled them died.

The thing that I was getting at, really, is that there is a fairly common but mistaken notion that the Soviet system was all about overt repression; that it depended, throughout its entire lifespan on the direct and immediate threat of deadly state violence. It didn't and that's, in many ways, a more interesting and disturbing thing to consider.

This isn't a particularly original or new thought - if you've run across, say, Masha Gessen's recent writing, it's often reiterated (as a kind of starting point) there as well.


While it did get quite a it better after Stalin's death, in a sense that people wouldn't keep an "emergency bag" of things one could take to prison by the bedside, with pretty much everyone knowing someone who had passed through the Gulag, a lot of Gulag has been internalized in the populace. The evil was very much banal, as it were, and the changes were mostly a matter of degree. Being seen reading "Kolyma Stories" would have you spending a few years on the "Sunny Kolyma" as it was called.

I find it odd that someone downvotes your comment. It's not snarky, or trivial, it just states an opinion. It appears someone doesn't like the opinion.

It happens. It will almost certainly sort itself out in a few hours, though.

a lot of Gulag has been internalized in the populace.

Ah, exactly - I don't think that's why it continued to work. Consider, for example, how quickly and effectively the system replicated itself all over Eastern Europe. Those places had their bloody coups and brief periods of Stalinist terror but nothing of the Soviet scale and duration. Many avoided outright forced collectivization, a few didn't even require a permanent occupying Soviet army. And it still worked.


Ah, but was it really that effective? Sure, Eastern European countries stayed within the Soviet sphere (Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 showed what happens if you don't) but they split at the earliest opportunity. While Russia is backtracking if not to communism than to glorification of USSR and Stalin.

It was enormously effective. Forty years, in half a dozen countries. Forty years in which the rest of the world saw the Wirtschaftswunder from the ashes of Western Europe and Japan, decolonialization, the end of legally mandated racism in the US (on top of its own post-war economic and population boom). We got party meetings and retransmissions of Vremya on Friday nights. It still worked without anyone (statistically) going to the Kolyma, sunny or otherwise, without the voronki roaming the streets every night.

Even if we can't agree how or why, it's on us to always think about it in the hope it might in some small way prevent it from happening again. In the places that we left or the places we came to.


It lasted as long as Soviet troops were stationed nearby and ready to roll in at a moment's notice. As soon as it became clear that they wouldn't, the Wall fell, and the rest followed. In most places even relatively bloodlessly.

And because you didn't have the Big Terror to the same extent, life in Eastern Europe was quite a bit better than in the USSR. When we visited a friend in Prague in 1985, he had a collection of "anti-soviet" literature (including Kolyma Stories that would be enough to send anyone in USSR reliving Shalamov's experience. And he didn't even hide it...


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I would suggest that Abu Ghraib represented Imperialism more than Capitalism or Democracy. But I would also say it's a false comparison. There's a massive difference in frequency and scale.

It's a one-sided and highly exaggerated view.

It's pretty hard to cover whatever the other side is when you're stuck in a prison camp. Not sure in what way it's 'exaggerated', though. The worse stuff, nobody was left to write about.

Parent comment was saying that these are the books to read if you want to know life under communist rule. I wanted to say that it's not true. This kind of literature describe only a small part of a life.

Not everybody was living in a prison camp in USSR, not even a majority of the population. This kind of literature was funded and promoted by the West because it supports the western society discourse.

Person who judges life in USSR by these kind of books will have a very skewed opinion.


> This kind of literature was funded and promoted by the West because it supports the western society discourse.

I mean, I'd agree that the material is a thin slice of the society, but come on. These are real personal narratives of people who lived through these experiences. The implication that "the West" is why these books exist, not just why we're able to read them, is absurd.


There was real injustice, but it is important to also realize the vast usefulness these narratives had to the West (and in more recent times descriptions of the injustice of Saddam Hussein's Iraq were used in part to justify his overthrow). And conversely, the Soviets published many descriptions of the horrors of the Jim Crow US South for similar reasons.

Soviets published many descriptions of the horrors of the Jim Crow US South for similar reasons.

Can you think of some that weren't, I dunno, 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' or Huck Finn? The notion that a survivor's memoir like Shalamov's is some kind of Western plot was absurd in its time and plainly disgusting now.


I'm talking about contemporary descriptions of US racism during the Soviet period. Things like lynching of black men because they supposedly looked at a white woman and the murder of civil rights leaders like MLK jr. These obviously were terrible things, but why were they reported in Russian? To make Soviet citizens feel that their land was morally superior. And likewise with Gulag literature in the West. It's easier to complain that your neighbors' house is dirty than to clean your own.

And likewise with Gulag literature in the West.

No no no no no no. How do you jump from one to the other? That's like saying Anne Frank's diary's credibility is tainted by the injustice of the internment of US citizens of Japanese ancestry.


I didn't say that it's a western plot in my comment.

This kind of literature was funded and promoted by the West because it supports the western society discourse.

I think the parent comment is reductive in a the-opposite-of-insightful way but no, that literature was not "funded and promoted by the West because it supports the western society discourse."


No, not everybody had passed through camps. Pretty much everybody had a relative who did, though. That's not even counting entire nations summarily sent to balmy Gulag resorts. And even in the 80s (hell, even now) a lot of national culture and character were based on the prison society.

i wonder what other side is possible here?

It's quite understated, compared to reality. Also, the truth does tend to be quite one-sided; POV of cheating, lying murderers doesn't get included in it.

  7. I saw that the only group of people able to preserve a 
  minimum of humanity in conditions of starvation and abuse 
  were the religious believers, the sectarians (almost all of 
  them), and most priests.

  29. Russians’ uncontrollable urge to denounce and complain.
A warning for those who loudly denounce Western society as a great tyrannical patriarchy, who wish to replace the old culture. Be wary of complaining, denouncing, secular men and women.

Please don't do this here. Even if you're completely right, the container can't hold it. It will invariably degenerate to the same template as every other ideological/religious flamewar. That's just the way internet forums are, and on this one we're hoping to exercise different muscles.

https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html


Sorry Dang, I've brought up the topic before and it's been flagged as well. I guess I need another forum.

Eh, kind of a stretch. Religion is not a purely Western invention, and you're reading what you want to in #29.

It is certainly true that Religion is not a purely Western invention, but I think the point was that only in the West do we see these denunciations of it as a great tyrannical patriarchy.

That's not Shalamov's point though, which is what I'm trying to steer us back towards. I think it's fair to take from Shalamov's words that religion is getting short shrift from secular society in the west today. But beyond that, I'm afraid our conversation is mostly descending into the typical culture war topics.

> I think the point was that only in the West do we see these denunciations of [Rreligion] as a great tyrannical patriarchy.

What? What of the revolutions in China, Cambodia, Laos et al not to mention the forced but successful reduction+ of shinto?

+ I wanted to use the term "degradation" but that has acquired a non-technical connotation -- I really do mean its diminution in status


I admit it is not a precise argument, but eradicating religion & denouncing your nation's culture as a tyrannical, oppressive force were the two major ingredients for the revolution that led to the slaughter of 60 million Russians. The two motivations that led to the communist revolution are alive and well in our present culture.

Wheat and gunpowder were also major ingredients in the revolution. The fact that the revolution was anti-religion tells us nothing about the wisdom of being anti-religion, any more than the Crusades tell us about the wisdom of being religious.

>The fact that the revolution was anti-religion...

It's more helpful to think of Communism as just another kind of religion.


Indeed. The structures are more or less the same, just the names change.

It has a lot of the same narrative structures, yes, and there’s lots of symbology and people playing the roles of High Priests etc. Of course, so does consumerist Capitalism. The symbology there is just corporate symbology coupled with dogmatic adherence to “free markets”.

It was not the revolution that killed 60m people. At most, the shooting part of civil war took less than a million people.

People who ran Soviet Union had very little to do with leading people on the streets. They did had few squabbles with loyalists after they began their purge campaigns, but their extend is also exaggerated.

Ones who were the true loosers were the people who hid under the bed and thought that things will sort out (no civil war ever "sorted out" - one side loses, another wins.) And even bigger ones were those spend the civil war wailing and moaning for moderation and trying to dissuade others from even thinking who is right and who is wrong. Bolsheviks repaid those types with a lot of gratitude, those fools were first to walk in front of firing squads after a token expression of gratitude.


> People who ran Soviet Union had very little to do with leading people on the streets. They did had few squabbles with loyalists after they began their purge campaigns, but their extend is also exaggerated.

Very misinformed statement, don't even know where to begin. Red Terror was Lenin's invention. The whole leadership was a band of thugs. Lenin developed an entire philosophical theory of terror. These 60 millions were not killed overnight, true. The "night" lasted from 1917 to 1953.


I just wanted to highlight that loyalist army were largely chill till the moment bolsheviks killed the emperor, started the terror raids and began going after them and their families.

Agreed that eradication of religion and denouncing culture were properties of the soviet revolution, but I disagree that they were primary drivers of the slaughter.

After all, don't most revolutions involve a denouncement of the previous culture? For example, most Americans were British in culture, but they then shrugged off the trappings of that culture, choosing to rule themselves rather than to accept norms set by the rightful king and parliament.

Denouncement of religion isn't new either -- for how many countless centuries have religions (and sects of religions) been denouncing each other? Regarding tolerance, anti-religious secularists are the same as fundamentalists, except that they deny one additional religion. Probably even better morally, because they rarely call for killing those who disagree.


This argument is tendentious nonsense, and simultaneously an attempt at starting a religious flamewar and a culture flamewar. That's not discussion, it's arson. Find another place to wave this bloody shirt.
platz 12 days ago [flagged]

ok jordan

Not here please.

> 22. I saw that women are more decent and self-sacrificing than men

The majority of men love themselves while women love others. Men will sacrifice for themselves. Women will sacrifice for others.

Why? Is it global culture teaching a woman from birth her life is about others? A husband and kids? While teaching men that their value is in their work, their job, their income, their power?


If I had to make an admittedly uneducated guess, I bet females being more self-sacrificing than men can be seen across species. It would only make sense that the sex generally responsible for child-rearing would be the sex most likely to self-sacrifice.

I know nowadays, especially in the tech scene, it is frowned upon to suggest intrinsic differences between the sexes and to imply those differences can affect behavior at a statistical level, but with this fascinating historical context, it's an interesting thought.


Funny, if anything I’d say it would make more sense for females to be LESS self-sacrificing across species. Surely evolutionarily it is more important that females get enough resources to survive; males should self-sacrifice to enable that. And of course there are also lots of stereotypes about women being selfish, wilful, demanding etc. Not sure the one about them being self-sacrificing is any more true than that.

That reasoning might work at a species level, but natural selection acts at a genetic level. I think the idea is that females need to be self-sacrificing to ensure that their offspring (and hence their genes) have a decent chance of survival. Males might devote a certain amount of resources to the same, but it soon becomes more advantageous to go and try to impregnate another female with their genes.

I can highly recommend Behavioral evolution and in particular robert sapolsky writings, but to give a summery, a common categorization in behavioral evolution is pair-bonding species vs tournament species.

In tournament species it is the observed strategy of males to devote as little as possible on offspring and to maximize impregnate as many females as possible, while the female strategy is to maximize the gene quality as that is the only contribution to the success that the male gives to the offspring (and the continuation of her genes if one view natural selection to be about the continuation of genes). Males tend to be large then females, and usually evolve disadvantaging traits for survival in favor of traits that increase competitiveness against other males. A typical example would be Elephant seals. Common traits among tournament species is a large difference life expectancy among male and females, and only a short portion of the male population that successfully reproduce.

Pair-bonding species create a balance where both the male and female spend approximation the same amount of energy (resources) on offspring. A big benefit is the extra insurance that two parents provide, and there is a directly associated chance for twins in pair-bonding species. A typical example is most birds who spend approximating similar amount building nest, brooding, collecting food and feeding the offspring. Many people think when they see a bird sitting on eggs that it must be the female, or when one is carrying nest material that it must be the male, but that is just us projecting our culture onto nature.

And to answer the question on where humans fit in this categorization, the answer is somewhere in the middle and it is unclear why we have not settled on a single strategy.


Thanks. If I remember rightly this is also touched on in the Selfish Gene, though it's been over a decade since I read that.

It depends.

There is generally two types of reproductive method;

A) what we do. Get a few children and then invest a lot of resources, including self-sacrifice, to bring them up

B) birth as many children as you possibly can, then invest little to no resources in them, whoever survives may reproduce.


> The majority of men love themselves while women love others. Men will sacrifice for themselves. Women will sacrifice for others.

What is this based on? Militaries have always had far more men than women. Men sacrifice for their families and children all the time - many less privileged men work lifetimes at jobs they hate to support their families.


I'm not sure women had all that many rights. A man could theoretically go on working and support himself and his children. The woman might not have had the opportunity to support herself, let alone children if she has any. Not only that, but women have been (and are) taught to behave this way from the time they are young, so they've been programmed to do such thing. It is really, really difficult to parse out a sex being good/bad, more caring or not when the two sexes have been unequal historically and social pressure/learning can be a real pain when looking at statements like this.

The way it's worded it mostly just sounds like men were generally more cowardly. Of course there could be a variety of pressures that might account for the anecdote, such as women not being given the opportunity to refuse.

I wouldn't read too much into it. It's not like he did a study. There are plenty of modern day white knights who will happily proclaim women to be the better sex and we don't give them any credence.

What are you on about? Women made up between 5 and 8% of the Gulag population. If we suppose that men and women are completely equally likely to follow each other you would need 1 man to follow their wife for every 20 women that followed their husbands. He names two women, falling 10 times short of being able to say anything meaningful about the difference between the genders.

He names just two in this list but in Kolyma Tales he writes about a lot of such cases:

"These wives had to resign themselves both to the cold and to the constant torment of following their husbands, who were transferred periodically from place to place. The wife would have to abandon the job she had found with such difficulty and move to an area where it was dangerous for a woman to travel alone, where she might be subject to rape, robbery, mockery…" see more on p. 206 https://www.scribd.com/document/367793028/Kolyma-Tales


Numbers I've seen are that 10-15% were women.

I don't know that much about the Soviet Union. This guy was basically sent to prison for 'participating in “counter-revolutionary Trotskyist activities.' I have been following some leftist stuff and saw this article recently by Trotsky. It is called "Hitler the Pacifist" and starts out "Hitler wants peace." Trotsky didn't seem like that good of a guy, but i haven't read that much about him yet. In any case here is the article:

https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1933/11/pacifist.ht...


If you know anything about the GULAG, you know that people sent there as "counter-revolutionary Trotskyist activists" very often did not have anything to do with counter-revolutionary activist, or Trotsky, or anything. Very often it was just being unlucky, and even then, they strongly believed in the Soviet system, they just thought there was some clerical error, and tried to appeal to higher leader to have those errors fixed - without understanding the point of the Terror.

Most people eventually did understand, of course.


And... The point of the Terror was ..?

Stalin's regime maintained its citizens in a state of fear and uncertainty to stay in power.

> This guy was basically sent to prison for 'participating in “counter-revolutionary Trotskyist activities.'

This is catchall phrase that means essentially nothing. He was publicly critical of Stalin and his father was a priest, which sounds more like real reason.


Actually, the wiki page on the writer says he tried to share Lenin's last testament, which was a threat to Stalin and suggested Trotsky push Stalin out of power.

You should read the whole article. He is essentially rightly predicting Hitler will bring about war despite his pacifist talk at that point in time.

> I don't know that much about the Soviet Union.

> I have been following some leftist stuff and saw this article recently by Trotsky.

so Trotsky has a better reputation than most leadership from the early USSR; he didn't last long in power.

It's worth studying the USSR as an example of how a revolution can simultaneously fail and succeed; how leftists fail, sort of, how ordinary people survive.

A lot of blinders were on people in the early years of the USSR - much of what was said positive was wrong; much of what was said negative later on wasn't really too right either. Again, blinders. What's incontrovertible is that the violence was endemic to the system for decades; Stalin's time was really bad. How that affected people... that's debated.

I've read some about the USSR and Russian history; there's libraries written on it by now. Recent scholarship seems to be better IMO; less emotionally charged and tainted by Cold War attitudes.

I thought these authors' work was well done - it captures a lot of the pre-1937 mode of the USSR in a relatively humorous way.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilf_and_Petrov




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