Sunday, 27 January 2013

Whirldwinds past and present

Here is an excerpt from an old book I have just read in amazement. Try to guess its provenance and subject matter:

‘Finally, the ground-floor warder took me out into the small exercise yard, overlooked by a watchtower, where yet another warder stood and watched me, without taking his eyes off me for a one moment during the whole of my walk. Thus, five strapping young lads, clearly intended by nature to fulfill production plans on farms and in factories, were employed in exercising one dangerous “terrorist”! Their faces showed nothing but proud consciousness of the importance of their duties and of the trust reposed in them. I could well imagine what their political instructors had told them about us!’

An alert reader will catch the reference to ‘production plans’ and realize that the writer is a survivor of Stalin’s notorious Gulag despite my substituting the word ‘lads’ for ‘peasants’. It is Eugenia Ginzburg’s chilling and terrifying 1967 memoir, Journey into the Whirlwind, one of millions of stories of innocent people swept up in the madness of the purges. Her account of her persecution as a counter-revolutionary, Trotskyist and terrorist [sic] stands by those of Mandelstam’s widow and Solzhenitsyn for insight into the collective insanity that ruled their country for decades, much longer than the Nazi nightmare that seized Europe for a mere 12 years.

And yet how deeply the tale of the proud, peasant guards echoes with the present. Have we not heard these precise sentiments from the rosy-cheeked men and women of Iowa and South Carolina set to watch over the ‘worst of the worst’ imprisoned in Guantánamo? I have. The ingenious torments Ginzburg describes, invented to break the prisoners’ spirits and annihilate them psychologically, are now merely more refined and modernized—but the origins of the intent in the depths of human viciousness are unchanged.

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