Communist political prisons constitute a matter that has frequently been overlooked throughout recent history. That’s why Paul Hollander’s From the Gulag to the Killing Fields performs an important service by compiling various prison memoirs from such Communist states as China, North Korea, and Cuba.
While tales abound about the atrocities that have been carried out in these places, Hollander is one of the first to have ever consolidated his research to focus on how the highly flawed logic behind marxism consistently led to some of the most gruesome and systematic exterminations of human beings in the 20th Century.
One principal theme is that the Communist atrocities have been ignored by history, overshadowed by the other gruesome event of the 20th Century: the Nazi Holocaust. Hollander explains this lack of focus as being due to the differences in how crimes were carried out. The Nazis focused on the systematic extermination of a specific ethnic group and undertook great efforts to document what they did. On the other hand, the Communist systems did not focus on a particular ethnic group. Instead they focused on those characters who were deemed to be a threat. Often the criteria for what qualified as a threat was extremely vague, and intentionally so. Anna Larina, whose memoir, This I Cannot Forget, is part of the text, had the misfortune of being married to a revolutionary who fell victim to Stalin’s party purges in the 1930s.
Protecting the State
Everything was carried out in the name of state protection. Security agencies could make people vanish. People were taught not to question but accept blindly on faith. The stories, however, make it clear that the populace easily differentiated the rhetoric from the oppressive reality. Governments claimed that there would come a day where the lingering pieces of capitalism would finally be smitten and the people could theoretically rest in subsequent peace and happiness. These days never came, and it was evident to most that they never would. Kang Chol-Hwan notes how his family never left its North Korean prison camp. Reinaldo Arenas was eventually released from prison in Havana after signing a fictitious confession.
Contrary to the promises, the oppressive reality never left. Stalin himself warned against Communist societies’ relaxing viselike grips on society: “We must smash and throw out the rotten theory that with each forward movement we make, the class struggle will die down more and more. . . . This is not only a rotten theory, but a dangerous theory, for it lulls our people to sleep. . . . On the contrary, the more we move forward, the more success we have, then the more wrathful become the remnants of the beaten exploiter classes.”
It was logic such as this that assured the continuation of reigns of intimidation. One could never let down his guard lest the “remnants of capitalism” should attempt to rise up and oppress anew. Stalin came and left, and various leaders shuffled in and out of power over the decades as well, but the notion of Big Brother never left. Up until the 1980s in East Germany, the Stasi monitored citizens in any and every way it could. Tiny samples of dirty dissident underwear were even secretly kept on file so that dogs could quickly connect scents to opposition materials found abandoned on the street.
In the Name of ‘Progress’
The environment of oppression only created a part of the Communist atmosphere though. The other half was rooted in sheer brutality, hatred and the often inhumane living standards endured by citizens.
No Communist country ever developed into the promised utopia. Most countries suffered horribly in the name of “progress.” However, the atrocities committed in Cambodia possibly exceed all others in terms of their grotesqueness and barbarity. In efforts to allegedly free Cambodia from the entire international system, complete and total autarky was attempted, and anything from the outside world was deemed unnecessary and disrespectful of the Khmer Rouge. Even eyeglasses were deemed to be a sign of elitism and Westernization and were grounds for execution. Even more disturbing was the way pregnant women were haphazardly slaughtered, often without the formality of even a trumped-up charge. The only thing more disturbing than the crimes carried out is how nonchalant the perpetrators were in implementing them.
Given today’s international environment, the excerpts from Kang Chol-Hwan’s The Aquariums of Pyonyang arguably hold a different weight from those in the rest of the text. Most of the works are on Communist societies that have either fallen or changed to some degree since the fall of the Berlin Wall. North Korea, however, has sustained an eerie cult of personality for Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and arguably continues to be the world’s last truly totalitarian regime. Because Kang’s stories are relatively recent, they help to illustrate what life is like for many today in that reclusive country.
Paul Hollander’s work in From the Gulag to the Killing Fields is groundbreaking in showing the risks of centralized Communist systems. Each time a Communist country was established, it actually did have an opportunity to foster a new and improved society. However, in adhering to such a stringent ideology that refused to acknowledge civil liberties, each and every time these grand social experiments turned into grand catastrophes, where the means violated the intended and supposedly glorious aims. The system failed time and time again to create a feasible, egalitarian society, and instead constantly resorted to belittling its people through disregard, fear-mongering, violence and constant criticism. Hollander has carried out a great service in compiling this anthology. Let us hope that he has shed light on the dysfunctional nature of communism once and for all, so that the atrocities listed in the pages of this book are never repeated.