On a Weekend
I was intrigued by a snippet in the National Journal which referred to Joseph Stalin's plans for a final Terror.
Stalin was planning his own version of the Holocaust to rid the U.S.S.R. of its Jewish citizens. ... Newly discovered documents show that in February 1953, Stalin authorised the construction of four large prison camps in Kazakhstan, Siberia and the Arctic north. Officially they were for all classes of dangerous criminals, but it is far more likely that Stalin was preparing for a second Great Terror - aimed at the millions of Soviet citizens of Jewish descent. ...
A search led to a book review of Brent and Naumov's Stalin's Last Crime, largely about Uncle Joe's abortive project to launch a new wave of repression so huge it would put his efforts of the 1930s into the shade.
Though the Great Terror of the late 1930s is widely viewed as the height of Stalin's purges, the number of arrests actually peaked in the early 1950s, and Stalin was planning hundreds of thousands more on the eve of his death in 1953. These arrests were spurred by the "doctors' plot," a supposed conspiracy among Jewish doctors to kill members of the government and destroy the U.S.S.R. at the behest of the Americans. Brent, the editorial director of Yale University Press, and Naumov, executive secretary of Russia's Presidential Commission for the Rehabilitation of Repressed Persons, trace how Stalin himself put together ... (a plan) ... to accomplish several goals: to purge his Ministry of Security and upper ranks of government; to defuse the potential threat posed by Soviet Jews, many of whom had ties to the U.S. and the new state of Israel; and to provide fuel for an armed conflict with the U.S.
This was pretty heavy stuff, but then Stalin had the dubious distinction of killing many more people than Adolph Hitler, so anything was possible. As I didn't have the book, I scoured its book reviews until I found the location of the four giant planned death-camps where Stalin intended to succeed where Hitler had failed -- Kazakhstan, Komi, and Irkutsk. The final Final Solution. The attraction of exploring Communist archaeology is based in part on the fascination for the grotesque. It is what morbid minds study in the absence of real alien monster artifacts. It is a tableau of the inconceivable, made all the more startling because it was real. Stalin even attempted to master time by mandating a five-day week (after he had tried a six-day week) reasoning there was no earthly reason why it should run to seven. The Economist explains Stalin's point of view.
Most people greet the weekend with gratitude. But some economists view it with puzzlement. Why, they wonder, does the bulk of the population rest on the same two days each week? Why does everyone's week end at “the” weekend? From an economic point of view, it would surely be more efficient to stagger days of rest throughout the week. That way, expensive pieces of equipment would not lie idle for two days in seven, and infrastructure would be less congested the other five.
One person impressed by this logic was Josef Stalin, who rationalised the Soviet calendar in 1929. Workers were given every fifth day off, but their shifts were staggered, so that factories could run without interruption. The staggered week appealed rather less to the people who worked it, however. According to Witold Rybcynski's 1991 book about leisure, “Waiting for the Weekend”, Stalin's four days on, one day off, was unpopular, even though it was less onerous than the six-day week that preceded it. Families and friends rarely had the same day off; administrative staff rarely worked at the same time. After less than three years, the staggered working week was abandoned.
There's a boutique tourist market for traveling the "Road of Bones" -- a road to a mooted gold mine ordered by Stalin which conveniently killed those who built it from starvation. (An enterprising fellow called Milford posted photos he took on motorcycle journey along the route, where it is said, building each meter cost one prisoner's life. ) Here was a place, as the Telegraph puts it, where:
Armed only with pickaxes and wheelbarrows, prisoners, among them the founder of the Soviet space programme, generals and intellectuals side by side with common criminals, hacked and hewed at permafrost in the hunt for gold.
The landscape of Communism from East Germany to Cambodia, from North Korea to Cuba deserves to preserved as a monument to the greatest act of hypnotism in history. Piers Brendon, writing in the Dark Valley, described the pilgrimage of Western intellectuals to this palace of horrors, intent upon discovering paradise. And discover it they did.
Before setting off for Moscow in 1932 to experience "the veritable future of mankind", Malcolm Muggeridge made a bonfire of bourgeois trappings, including his dinner jacket. Arthur Koestler endorsed the slogan at the frontier -- "Change trains for the twenty first century". ... Muggeridge ... soon perceived the truth and mocked the gullibility of other visitors. Lord Marley denied that official lies could have been told about the Five Year Plan -- "Think how ashamed the Soviet Government would be if it were discovered that their statistics had been falsified" -- and believed that the authorities permitted food queues in Moscow because they "provided a means for inducing the workers to take a rest". Edouard Herriot was convinced that the milk shortage was due to the large amount allocated to nursing mothers. George Bernard Shaw expressed his confidence that the Soviet Union was free from hunger by declaring that he had thrown his supplies of Western tinned food out of the train window ..." (from the chapter Stalin's Revolution)
But the El Dorado wasn't there; and the really big historical question is why it took the best minds of the West more than 50 years and countless lives to discover that elementary fact. This monumental self-hypnosis calls into question our collective ability to know; and when politicians and media talking heads speak with perfect assurance about "religions of peace" or alternatively, about a "death cult" with bloody borders, how certain are we that our epistemology is any better than that of the 20th century intellectuals?