Monday, August 04, 2008


I was in high school when I read The Gulag Archipelago. Having just been part of a Nixon-Ceausescu cultural exchange program, and thus touring Romania for three weeks in August of 1974 (I know, weird, but Nixon had a thing for Romania from the beginning of his presidency) the book was like a shot across my complacency about touring that country, experiencing the queues, the poverty, the restrictions on where you could and could not go. I recall looking at a border installation with the USSR and feeling the isolation.

Over the years the book has become an anachronism, replaced on school reading lists along with most of his novels ("One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" probably remains on some.) Peter Boettke reminds me of the Museum of Communism in Prague, which could be also placed in Bucharest, Tirana, or any other Central European capital. In a year in Kyiv in 1995-96, I saw very little of the nostalgia for the USSR, not because capitalism was helping them live their lives in their minds but because they remembered the Holodomor.

It's worth remembering today that communism killed over 110 million in the 20th century. You can count on one hand the number of people who did more than Solzhenitsyn to bring this to the attention of the West and stand against it. Bryan Caplan laments that there will never be a Nuremberg trial for those deaths. I doubt Solzhenitsyn would have wanted that; he was no liberal democrat but rather a Russian nationalist, as Ilya Somin states correctly. Still, he served admirably in holding up communism as something that even the Left should not stand for (though they do anyway).

This quote, of all the ones I have seen today, is why we should keep Solzhenitsyn's Gulag alive on reading lists:
Oh, Western freedom-loving "left-wing" thinkers! Oh, left-wing labourists! Oh, American, German and French progressive students! All of this is still not enough for you. The whole book has been useless for you. You will understand everything immediately, when you yourself � "hands behind the back" � toddle into our Archipelago.
Hand the book to the next student you see with a Che t-shirt.

Update: Steve Horwitz notes:
For example, every summer I do IHS student seminars, and they often have a large number of central and eastern European students. I�d like the Chicago humanities faculty [who are protesting the creation of the Milton Friedman Institute on their campus --kb] to tell me how I�m supposed to feel when these students ask me why so many US humanities faculty, including some of my colleagues at SLU, still think Marxism and socialism have social value when those ideas were the inspiration, even if wrongly interpreted, for thugs who engaged in the killing of tens of millions of innocent people and the destruction of the economies of billions. I�d like them also to tell me how I�m supposed to feel when a Cuban refugee who risked his life to come to the US asks me why some US college students, including some at SLU, think it�s cool to wear Che Guevara t-shirts, implicitly honoring a murder and torturer.

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