04 May 2005

Collaboration, a Gulag Survival Strategy

Perhaps the most famous exception to the near-universal refusal to admit to informing is, once again, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who describes his flirtation with the camp authorities at length. He dates his initial moment of weakness to his early days in camp, when he was still struggling to accustom himself to his abrupt loss of status. When invited to speak to the operative commander, he was ushered into a "small, cozily furnished room" where a radio was playing classical music. After politely asking him whether he was comfortable and adjusting to camp life, the commander asked him, "Are you still a Soviet person?" After hemming and hawing, Solzhenitsyn agreed that he was.

But although confessing to being "Soviet" was tantamount to confessing a desire to collaborate, Solzhenitsyn initially declined to inform. That was when the commander switched tactics. He turned off the music, and began to speak to Solzhenitsyn about the camp criminals, asking how he would feel if his wife in Moscow were attacked by some who managed to escape. Finally, Solzhenitsyn agreed that if he should hear any of them planning to escape, he would report it. He signed a pledge, promising to report news of any escapes to the authorities, and chose a conspiratorial pseudonym: Vetrov. "Those six letters," he writes, "are branded in shameful grooves on my memory."

By his own account, Solzhenitsyn never did actually report on anything. When recruited again in 1956, he says he refused to sign anything at all. Nevertheless, his initial promise was enough to keep him, while in camp, in one of the trusty jobs, living in the trusties' special quarters, slightly better dressed and better fed than other prisoners. This experience "filled me with shame," he wrote--and doubtless provoked his disdain for all trusties.

At the time of its publication, Solzhenitsyn's description of the camp trusties was controversial--and it still is. Like his description of inmate work habits, it also sparked a running debate in the world of camp survivors and historians, one which continues to this day. Virtually all of the classic, most widely read memoirists were trusties at one time or another: Evgeniya Ginzburg, Lev Razgon, Varlam Shalamov, Solzhenitsyn. It may well be, as some claim, that the majority of all prisoners who survived long sentences were trusties at some point in their camp career. I once met a survivor who recounted to me a reunion of old camp friends he had once attended. The group had taken to reminiscing, and were laughing at old camp stories, when one of them looked around the room and realized what it was that held them together, what made it possible for them to laugh at the past instead of crying: "All of us had been pridurki [trusties]."

There is no doubt that many people survived because they were able to get indoor trusty jobs, thereby escaping the horrors of general work. But did this always amount to active collaboration with the camp regime? Solzhenitsyn felt that it did. Even those trusties who were not informers could, he alleged, still be described as collaborators. "What trusty position," he asked, "did not in fact involve playing up to the bosses and participating in the general system of complusion?"
SOURCE: Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum (Anchor Books, 2003), pp. 367-368

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