Belle Waring: Uses and Abuses of Tarps: Weekend Reading

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Belle Waring: Uses and Abuses of Tarps: "It took me so long to find this quote. I remembered that it was Solovki, yes! And that Maxim Gorky was the visitor! And the tortures with the logs, and being staked out for the mosquitoes, and rolling the prisoners down the stairs, and the brave boy who told all, all! to Gorky and was left behind to be shot the moment Gorky’s ship left the horizon empty and barren! And the tarps. But could I find the quote? I damn sure could not. I was in the position of Edward Gorey’s Mr. Earbrass who starts up in the night having thought of the perfect lines for an epigraph: 'His mind’s eye sees them quoted on the bottom third of a right-hand page in a (possibly) olive-bound book he read at least five years ago. When he does find them, it will be a great nuisance if no clue is given to their authorship'...

...I had to read before and after many instances of the mention of Gorky I will tell you what. But virtue prevailed! The Solovetsky Archipelago is almost certainly what the name of the Gulag Archipelago comes from, as Solzhenitsyn considered it the mother of the Gulag, and the primary site before the cancer metastasized. The Soviets, eager to show that the camps are actually rather nice if you think about it sent Maxim Gorky to investigate. He was newly-returned to the Soviet Union and probably disinclined to rock the boat which currently supplied him with some vast apartment and a dacha (irrelevantly, haven’t we all sort of wanted a dacha? They sound great. Perhaps Trump will get one eventually):

[In summer 1929] The rumor reached Solovki before Gorky himself—and the prisoner’s hearts beat faster and the guards hustled and bustled. One has to know prisoners in order to imagine their anticipation! The falcon, the stormy petrel was about, to swoop down on the nest of injustice, violence, and secrecy. The leading Russian writer! He will give them hell! He will show them! He, the father, will defend! They awaited his coming almost as a universal amnesty.

The chiefs were alarmed, too; as much as possible they hid the monstrosities and polished things up for show. …and they set up a “boulevard” of fir trees without roots, which were simply pushed down into the ground (they only had to last a few days without withering.) It led to the Children’s Colony…

Only in Kem was there an oversight. On Popov Island the steamer Gleb Boky was being loaded by prisoners in underwear and sacks when Gorky’s retinue appeared out of nowhere to embark on that steamer! You inventors and thinkers! Here is a worthy problem for you given that, as the saying goes, every wise man has enough of the fool in him: a barren island, not one bush, no possible cover—and right there, at a distance of 300 yards, Gorky’s retinue has shown up. Your solution? Where can this disgraceful spectacle—these men dressed in sacks—be hidden? The entire journey of the great Humanist will have been for naught if he sees them now. Well, of course, he will try hard not to notice them, but help him! Drown them in the sea? They will wail and flounder. Bury them in the earth? There’s no time. No, only a worthy son of the Archipelago could find a way out of this one. The work assigner ordered, “Stop work! Close ranks! Still closer! Sit down on the ground! Sit still!” And a tarpaulin was thrown over them. “Anyone who moves will be shot!”

Such creativity! And the need to give Gorky one slender reed on which to lean for his glowing reviews of the labor re-education camps! Even his choice of fiancee seemed to augur his judgments: “The famous writer embarked from the steamer in Prosperity Gulf. Next to him was his fiancee dressed all in leather—a black leather service cap, a leather jacket, leather riding breeches, and high narrow boots—a living symbol of the OGPU shoulder to shoulder with Russian literature.” (Why is this such a popular totalitarian dictatorship way to dress? I mean, it looks bad-ass; actually I guess I’ve gotten much of the way there in the past. And it’s more plausible than waxed yellow chintz with cabbage roses—the SS would have looked way less threatening in that. Up to a point, I guess, at which it would have become creepy by association.)

The government can’t have been in any way disappointed with Gorky’s write-up, which is sickening in a way that presages his really disturbing book about the White Sea Canal. (In it he claims that not one prisoner died during the digging of it, when dead prisoners were more or less piled on the future banks, having perished from starvation and cold.) “There is no impression of life being over-regulated. No, there is no resemblance to a prison; instead it seems as if these rooms are inhabited by passengers rescued from a drowned ship.” Ah, yes. And Stalin killed him anyway, after a bit, out of a paranoid excess of caution! Or, I mean, he died of pneumonia, suddenly. Let this be an improving lesson both to those who employ tarps to cover that which would trouble another’s peace of mind, and those who so wish to be fooled they will look at a tarpaulin and see that nothing, absolutely nothing can be wrong...

#weekendreading #orangehairedbaboons #stalinism #publicsphere