I'm finished with the first two volumes (Parts I-IV) of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's epic history of the Soviet prison system during the Stalin era. I have been surprised by how readable the work is, how compellingly he tells the stories, how heart-wrenching it all is. Some of the passages I want to share here were/are especially memorable for me.
In the chapter "The Interrogation," A.S. goes into some detail about the methods of torture used by Soviet interrogators. He begins with this: "Indeed, the actual boundaries of human equilibrium are very narrow, and it is not really necessary to use a rack or hot coals to drive the average human being out of his mind."
From the chapter "The Bluecaps:" "To do evil, a human being must first of all believe that what he's doing is good, or else that it's a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek a justification for his actions. ... Ideology --- that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification adn gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others' eyes ..."
From the chapter "That Spring:" "At no time have governments been moralists. They never imprisoned people and executed them for having done something. They imprisoned and executed them to keep them from doing something. The imprisoned all those POW's, of course, not for treason to the Motherland, because it was absolutely clear even to a fool that only the Vlasov men could be accused of treason. They imprisoned all of them to keep them from telling their fellow villagers about Europe. What the eye doesn't see, the heart doesn't grieve for." Of all the Allied POW's, the Soviets were the most neglected by their own country, forced to subsist only on what their German captors gave them, denied even Red Cross supplies. Then when they were freed, their homeland greeted them with arrest and a sentence to the forced-labor camps.
From the chapter "The Slave Caravans:" In a footnote, after relating how some prison transport ships burned and some prisoners died because the Soviets refused help from the Japanese (this was 1938). "Decades have passed since then, but how many Soviet citizens have met with misfortune on the world's oceans --- and in circumstances where it seems that zeks were not being transported --- yet because of that same secretiveness disguised as national pride they have refused help! Let the sharks devour us, so long as we don't have to accept your helping hand! Secretiveness --- that is our cancer." This passage reminded me of the Kursk, the Russian submarine that sank in 2000 and because the Russians delayed so long in asking for help from outside, 118 crewmen died. See how that secretiveness lingered even after the collapse of the USSR! It seems that attitude changed however, because a similar incident in 2005 resulted in earlier requests for help and the rescue of the submarine crew.