Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Who used it first?

While the story of the infamous Auschwitz sign "Arbeit Macht Frei" being stolen and then found broken into three pieces shocked most people, one good thing has come out of it: a historical examination of who used that slogan first. Readers of this blog and anyone who knows the history of the twentieth century will not be surprised to know that this was yet another thing that the Nazis stole from the Soviets.

Georgian Daily, an independent website, had an article up yesterday (the shortest day of the year, appropriately enough) about the first of the horrific lethal Soviet prison camps on the site of the Solovetsky monastery, which had been founded by Ivan the Terrible.

The camp was closed down by Lavrenty Beria seventy years ago this month largely because its proximity to the Finnish border. Most of the inmates were shot though some transferred to other camps.
The Solovetsky Camps of Special Assignment – known by the Russian acronym "SLON” – were established in February 1920 in the prison in a monastery in the Russian North first erected and used by Ivan the Terrible, to imprison anti-Soviet White Russian officers and men, Brodsky reports.

The name the Lenin-era officials chose is significant, he points out. “A priori, Solovki was intended not for people who had committed crimes. The obvious enemies of the Bolsheviks were usually killed immediately.” Instead, the SLON was “in the first instance for questionable people who represented a potential threat for Soviet power by the very fact of their existence.”

Among these “victims of the class struggle” sent there without trial were “lawyers who knew the bases of classical Roman law with its presumption of innocence, … historians [who knew a history the Bolsheviks denied], … [and] “officers capable of taking part in uprisings, and clergy of all confessions, bearers of an ideology alien to the Bolsheviks.”

The Solovki prisons were “’a forge of cadres’ and “a school of advanced experience’ for future concentration camps of the 20th century, Brodsky writes. The slogan ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ first appeared not in Auschwitz but on the Nikolsky Gates of the Solovetsky Kremlin.” And but for one man, it could have become the first place with gas chambers for killing the innocent.

In the 1920s, the “Novaya gazeta” journalist says, Soviet jailors at Solovki had built up supplies of poisonous gas, but a certain Dr. Nikolay Zhilov, who served in the medical review facility there, “at his own risk destroyed this gas,” using it to disinfect the clothes of prisoners rather than to kill them.

Conditions at Solovki were brutal, and anyone who violated any rule or failed to fulfill the norms for work in the forests and mines could be “destroyed” as “a wrecker.” But one curious feature of SLON was that the secret police arrested particular and often prominent intellectuals to do particular jobs there.

In 1937-38 alone, some 1800 of the inmates of SLON were shot, including, among other, the scholar P.A. Florensky, the restoration specialist A.I. Anisimov, the inventor L.V. Kurchevsky, the lawyer A.V. Bobrishchev-Pushkin, the pan-Islamic ideologue I.A. Firdeks, Academician S.L. Rudnitsky, as well as many other intellectuals and churchmen.
SLON, incidentally, is a real word in Russian and means an elephant (слон).

One need not waste much time sighing over the thought of a monastery becoming a particularly vicious prison - its original purpose was very little else. The Solovetsky Monastery, established in conditions of supreme hardship was used as a place of exile or imprisonment for those the Tsar was displeased with right up to the nineteenth century, as this slightly patchy site enumerates.

Let us also not forget that Maxim Gorky, feted as a great humanitarian by some misguided souls in the West, wrote very favourably about the Solovetsky camp as an excellent weapon in the fight against the enemy, whoever the enemy might have been. This Wikipedia entry wonders how much Gorky knew about the conditions. He must have heard stories and he must have known that many of the people he had met in various intellectual circles when his career started taking off suffered and died there. Neither did he bother to find out the truth about the Children's Colony, a cause "dear to his heart", that is the appalling conditions into which homeless children and teenagers had been thrown in the twenties. (Gorky's visit took place in 1929.)

In 1992 the monastery was re-establishe, though the place is largely a museum. In the same year UNESCO placed the buildings on its World Heritage List. I suspect little is said about its real use.

The official Russian version remains that the Solovetski prison camp, whose declared aim was to destroy all those who might not be sympathetic to the Soviet system or might have knowledge and understanding beyond the official propaganda, was a useful and relatively humane weapon in the struggle against the enemy.
“Seven decades ago,” Brodsky writes, “Solovki ceased to be called a jail. [And] the physical evidence of this example of the medieval life of the 20th century almost does not remain.” The restorers have covered over many things, and “the archive of the prison has been hidden no one knows where.”

“In a country were a moral assessment of the crimes of Stalin has not been given, where pride in the great Soviet past is cultivated, it is alas not considered appropriate to recall [this] great tragedy of the 20th century.” Indeed, the FSB recently confiscated a manuscript on the Solovki camps being prepared by historian Mikhail Suprun.

The attitude of the Russian authorities is tragically clear: “The deputy director of the Solovetsky State Museum-Park, which is responsible for the exposition devoted to the history of the camps of special assignment, is convinced that the Solovetsky camps were a brilliant form of defense of the state from all kinds of dissidents.”

And his view, Brodsky points out, is “apparently shared” by those who control the books on display at Solovki for sale to tourists and pilgrims: They offer books that praise Stalin rather than condemning him for his role in the operation of this concentration camp. As a result, the tragedy of Solovetsky is becoming “the tragedy of Russia.”
Then again, the Solovetsky prison camp was opened before Stalin and is a symbol of the whole Soviet system, which makes its history particularly awkward. With one or two exceptions comments on the article in Novaya Gazeta show the result of this teaching: they mostly attack the author, often without giving any arguments, merely saying that he does not know what he is talking about and this is typical anti-Russian propaganda; others say remind readers that the first concentration camps were created by the British in the Boer War (true but irrelevant) and insist that only criminals were in the Solovetsky prison where all those who were shot (very few, according to the commenters) had been found guilty of heinous crimes. One would like to think that these people had not actually read the long article, which is, in fact, full of useful information, some of which has been translated by Georgian Daily and I quote it above.

In particular, the author, Yury Brodsky, quotes the slogan that was on the Nikolski Gate of the Solovetsky prison camp: Через труд — к освобождению, Through work towards freedom, or in German: Arbeit Macht Frei. Then again, the Soviet slogan is not there and cannot be stolen; people are free to tell lies about the wonders of Soviet prisons and trample over the victims' names, lives and deaths.

1 comment:

  1. Work is the curse of Adam, work is horrible and makes us anything but free. Через труд — к освобождению is the logic of the devil.

    Talk of the devil: According the The Northern Thebaid--an account of the life of the Orthodox church in the Russian north-- the Solovki monastery started on the Island of the same name had already been used by hermits for ascetic struggle for quite some time, the first being St Sabbatius in the first half of the 15th century. In this sense it wasn't started by Ivan the Terrible, it had more pure origins. It's a shame what became of it.