In reading The Gulag Archipelago I get the sense Solzhenitsyn is one of those who feels himself slapped with the duty to write it all down. It comes from how he refers to other prisoners and recounts their experiences. It’s as if he thinks it will all slip away. In a way it has - astounding to think 15-30 million people died in the Soviet prison camps! Isn’t that the biggest “engineered” mass killing ever?
“A district Party conference was under way in Moscow Province, presided over by a new secretary of the District Party Committee, replacing one recently arrested. At the end, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up (just as everyone leaped to his feet during the conference at every mention of his name.) The hall echoed with “stormy applause, rising to an ovation.” For three minutes, five minutes, the “stormy applause, rising to an ovation” continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming silly even to those who really adored Stalin. But who’d dare be the first to stop? The secretary of the District Committee could have done it. He was standing on the platform, and it was he who’d called the ovation. But he was a newcomer. He had taken the place of a man who’d been arrested. He was afraid! After all, men were in the hall applauding and watching to see who quit first! And in that obscure, small hall, unknown to the Leader, the applause went on – six, seven, eight minutes! They couldn’t stop now till they collapsed with heart attacks. At the rear of the hall, which was crowded, they could of course cheat a bit, clap less frequently, less vigorously, not so eagerly – but up there with the presidium where everyone could see them? The director of the local paper factory, an independent, strong-minded man, stood with the presidium. Aware of all the falsity and impossibility of the situation, he still kept applauding! 9 minutes! 10! In anguish he watched the secretary of the District Committee, but the latter dared not stop. Insanity! With make-believe enthusiasm, looking at each other with faint hope, the leaders were just going to go on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out on stretchers! And even then those who were left would not falter … then after 11 minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down. And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved! The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel.
But that was how they discovered who the independent people were. And how they went about eliminating them. That night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted 10 years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he signed his form, his interrogator reminded him: “Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding!”
This writer, Anne Applebaum, has an interesting site on the camps. Her book is also widely referenced. This is another interesting online site about the Gulag.