Self-Building Systems

The Soviet prison-camp [gulag] archipelago began with individual “islands,” but these islands imposed costs–which surely the State should not bear(!) and simultaneously offered opportunities–which surely the State should not forego! So, in good capitalist fashion, the prisons began selling cheap labor. As Solzhenitsyn put it:

And the malignant cells kept on creeping and creeping. [Archive.]

А злокачественные клеточки ползли и ползли. []

And in no time the Soviet innovation of a socialist labor camp in Siberia (in contrast to the capitalist political camps the tsars had established in Siberia) had metastasized into a full-blown system:

Millions of miles of barbed wire ran on and on, the strands criss-crossing one another and interweaving, their barbs twinkling gaily along railroads, highways, and around the outskirts of cities. And the peaked roofs of ugly camp watchtowers became the most visible landmarks in our landscape, and it was only by a surprising concatenation of circumstances that they were not seen in either the canvases of our artists or in scenes in our films.

Миллионы километров колючей проволоки побежали и побежали, пересекаясь, переплетаясь, мелькая весело шипами вдоль железных дорог, вдоль шоссейных дорог, вдоль городских окраин. И охлупы уродливых лагерных вышек стали вернейшей чертой нашего пейзажа и только удивительным стечением обстоятельств не попадали ни на полотна художников, ни в кадры фильмов.

The genius of the Soviet invention was that this incredibly complicated new system for protecting and enriching the State, once started with a simple sample, invented itself…and that is why eager politicians need to think carefully before trying something new.


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