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The Road To Hell Was Paved With Bad Intentions

Professor Bryan Caplan of the Department of Economics at George Mason University writes about the double standard in the treatment of communist atrocities relative to their Nazi counterparts. He maintains a website at which he hosts an online Museum of Communism and blogs at EconLog. Look for his book on voter irrationality next year.

Like the Nazis, the Communists murdered tens of millions. But even today, few people hold both movements in equal contempt. Citizens of the West remain largely ignorant of the crimes of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. But even those who know what happened shy away from the thesis that the two movements were morally equivalent. Why is this?

Admittedly, there are a few who still deny that the death counts were really comparable. Seumas Milne, in a recent editorial in the Guardian, manages to get the Soviet death toll down by almost a factor of ten by excluding the man-made famines of Lenin and Stalin. This is an underwhelming response, however: Is it any surprise that the Germans mass murdered in a cold, methodical way, while the Russians mass murdered in a chaotic, barbaric way?

One might also argue that the Nazis were worse because they had a higher death rate. Hitler packed the bulk of his crimes into a six year period; Lenin and Stalin together spread theirs out over thirty six. Perhaps this shows that if the Nazis had won, they would have been even worse than the Communists. But this projection is shaky. Hitler waited for six years and the cover to war to start killing millions; the Communists started killing millions almost immediately, and continued during peacetime. Hitler's peace might have been even bloodier than Stalin's peace, but it's anybody's guess. Read more »

A Different Kind of Soviet Labor Camp: Solzhenitsyn\'s <i>The First Circle</i>

Clara is a senior majoring in economics at Barnard College in New York. She is a regular contributor to the blog Liberty Belles.

The First Circle by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
Translated from the Russian by Thomas P. Whitney
Bantam Books: New York, 1968. 674 pages.

The First Circle is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s fictionalized account of life inside a special kind of Soviet prison under Joseph Stalin’s communist regime. In this institution, called a sharashka, inmates are set to work all day – not at manual labor, but at the sorts of tasks that use their scientific and technical education to develop technology for the Soviet state. With the novel’s title, Solzhenitsyn draws a comparison between the sharashka and the least horrific of nine circles of Hell as described in Dante’s Inferno. Inmates in the research institution are well fed and well rested – not at all ill-treated, compared to prisoners in most Soviet work camps. No, these are “cushiony institutions where the snarl of the camp struggle for existence [is] not heard” (58). The prisoners have almost no contact with the outside world, however. Their time and labor belong to Stalin and to the faceless bureaucracy; ultimately, their very souls are chained to the sharashka’s workbenches.

The plot of The First Circle traces the stories of several sharashka inmates and their loved ones. Solzhenitsyn interweaves their stories, drawing implicit comparisons, conveying the similarities of their frustrating struggles against Stalin’s totalitarian rule. Using examples from the lives of each character, Solzhenitsyn shows the grim realities of life in the Soviet Union of that era. The police arrest men in the middle of the night – intellectuals, dissidents – and condemn their families to a lifetime of handicapped employment prospects. Everyone must watch what he says and who is listening.

In an early chapter, a man makes an anonymous phone call to warn a scientist that he has run afoul of the regime. It is a gripping scene: The scientist’s wife refuses to take the caller seriously. They argue as the wife demands to know more information, and the caller says only that there will be danger. Despite the concerned friend’s efforts, this scientist is later arrested by the Secret Police. In the mid-20th century Soviet Union, late-night seizures without warning – often with very little basis for the arrests – were common under Stalin’s regime. People informed on their neighbors and family members. Thought-crime was, well, an actual crime. Solzhenitsyn himself was arrested as a result of “disrespectful remarks about Stalin” made in private letters written to a friend, according to the author’s autobiography on the Nobel Prize website.

Dispatching the Secret Police to arrest every citizen-critic not only created a climate of fear, but it wasted resources. Inefficiencies in the Soviet system extended to every aspect of life: social, political and economic realms. Often in The First Circle, these problems stemmed from the nature of the central government’s inflexibility. The sharashka, the setting for much of the book, presents a microcosm of the Stalinist empire surrounding it. The out-of-touch bureaucracy imposes arbitrary rules, which underlings enforce long after they have outlasted their expediency. Unnecessary secrecy divides several of the prisoners’ research units. Inmates who create an invention or the solution to a technological problem receive handsome rewards – and, sometimes, their freedom – while others who have worked with just as much dedication, and for as many years, receive nothing. The result of this uneven reward system: Prisoners try desperately to attach themselves to successful research units. Cunning, not merit, is the key factor as they compete, trying to game the system, jockeying for the best spots – even in prison. Read more »

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Societies <i>Can</i> Act

Relativism and the Bomb

Trading Spaces

The Red Plague

Growing Poverty: The Hidden History of Stalin\'s Industrialization

Professor Bryan Caplan of the Department of Economics at George Mason University writes about Stalin's "industrialization" campaign which would be better described as "miltarization". He maintains a website at which he hosts an online Museum of Communism and blogs at EconLog.