Gulags of the World United

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The recent publication of Jane Mayer's "The Dark Side," like previous accounts of America's ill-conceived "war on terror," has generated considerable op-ed ink and high-decibel dismay in the United States. Yet some Russian observers likely noted the book's reception less for the hue and cry, which they've heard before, than for a particular lexical instance. "The Dark Side" rigorously documents such horrendous wrongdoing -- including the illegal imprisonment, torture, ritualized abuse and humiliation of "enemy combatants," real and imagined -- that for some Americans only a Russian term could describe it. The Washington Post, for example, summarized Mayer's message as, "The United States has succeeded in creating an American gulag."

Foreigners have long used this word for their own purposes, of course. References to an "African gulag" or "British gulag" are easily adduced, while "American Gulag" has been used to title studies of the U.S. prison system, immigration internment and even teenagers' civil rights. How should a Russian feel about such hyperbolae? If you survived the "original" gulag or lost a loved one to it, would you not wince at hearing the term describe the detention of U.S. juvenile delinquents?

Or how should anyone react when the closed system of company farms that supplies McDonald's restaurants in Russia is called the "McGulag"? Is this amusing or profane? Did you just laugh?

The primal gulag was neither generic nor funny, of course. It represented a specific place, time and people, as we are reminded regularly by the testimonials that have continued to emerge ever since Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago" introduced the acronym to the world in the mid-1970s. The unjust imprisonment and inhuman abuse of the gulag system were not merely specific; they were definitive. Using Dostoevsky's maxim that a society's degree of civilization may be judged by its prisons, the gulag proved the civilization of Soviet society a spectacular failure.

If certain Russians question whether a "real" gulag can exist elsewhere, many non-Russians question the atavism in evidence where the first one thrived. While no one here advocates illegal arrests, torture and mass murder, great swaths of Russians remain ambivalent or even positive toward the police-state system built precisely on those pillars. As a Moscow radio commentator succinctly put it, "We are a unique country," in which "the Stalin regime literally raped the nation and destroyed millions of human lives, yet to this day we can't decide whether this was good or bad."

In the end, questioning who might own the gulag "brand" is both pointless and abhorrent. To dwell on numerical comparisons -- this gulag destroyed X people, that one Y -- settles nothing and indirectly abets Stalin's infamous dictum that "One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic." All of the past century's epic-scale, premeditated exterminations -- of Armenians, Soviets, Jews, Chinese, Cambodians and Tutsis -- were clearly tragedies at once individual and collective, with collective meaning "of the whole world." When such slaughters occur, all mankind pays a price. The proportions and malevolence combine to recalibrate what it means to be human, redefining the race downward through our shared failure either to perceive or prevent them.

But if we "own" these disasters together, if anyone's gulag is everyone's gulag, should we not study them together as well, the better to honor their victims and discourage their repetition? Shouldn't Russians and Americans, say, jointly study their own gulags and one another's, each bringing unique resources and perspectives to bear?

Yes, and here's one example: Last week, the Center for History and New Media at Virginia's George Mason University initiated "Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives," a web site offering an "in-depth look at life in the Gulag through ... original documentaries and prisoner voices, an archive [of] documents and images and teaching and bibliographic resources." While key support for the project comes from U.S. sources, like the Kennan Institute, State Department, National Endowment for the Humanities and Harvard's Davis Center, the project couldn't have been conceived or realized, quite obviously, without Russian cooperation, specifically from Moscow's International Memorial Society and Gulag Museum at Perm-36.

We are all slightly better off for this. That Russians and Americans created this site together is a small but heartening reminder that our species is sometimes capable of rising above certain inessential distinctions -- of nationality, ethnicity, ideology and faith -- that we have too often and disastrously indulged.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.