Monday, July 30, 2007

Hilarious Tragi-Comedy

The italicised text is quoted from the First Edition of The Gulag Archipelago written by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (translation by Thomas Whitney) and chronicles the mood during The Great Purge of 1937. Having been re-reading the book after about a gap of a year and a half, I was shocked yet again by the Stalin regime. The following excerpt would have been ultra comic, had it not been for the unbelievably tragic (even farcically tragic) situation then.

Here is one vignette from those years as it actually occurred. A District Party Conference was underway in Moscow Province. It was presided over by a new Secretary of the District Party Committee replacing one recently arrested. At the conclusion of the conference a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up (just as everyone had leaped to his feet during the conference at every mention of his name). The small hall echoed with "stormy applause, rising to an ovation". For three minutes, four 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 insufferably silly even to those who rally adored Stalin. However, who would dare to be the first to stop? The secretary of the District Party Committee could have done it. He was standing on the platform, and it was he who had called for the ovation. But he was a newcomer. He had taken the place of a man who had been arrested. He was afraid! After all, NKVD men were standing 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 were done for!Their goose was cooked! 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 and strong minded man stood with the presidium. Aware of all the falsity and all the impossibility of the situation, he still kept on applauding! Nine minutes! Ten! In anguish he watched the secretary of the District Party Committee but the latter dared not stop. Insanity! To the last man! With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on till they fell where they stood, till they were carried off the hall on stretchers and even then those who were lef would not falter...Then, after eleven minutes the director of the paper factory assumed a business-like expression and sat down in his seat. And oh! a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved! The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off the revolving wheel.

That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory director was arrested. They pasted a ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed form 206, the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him: "Don't ever be the first to stop applauding"

PS: Sigh!

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