How do you rebuild a society where people informed on each other?

To reduce the risk of Jihad in the West, people advocate a society where citizens inform on each other and/or where government surveillance is ubiquitous. Has that been tried before? What does it feel like and how do you rebuild a society afterwards? This is addressed in Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets.

Here are some relevant passages:

A regular communal apartment… Five families live there—twenty-seven people in total. Sharing one kitchen and one bathroom. Two of the neighbors are friends: One of them has a five-year-old daughter and the other one is single with no kids. In communal apartments, people were always spying on one another, listening in on each other’s conversations. The people with ten-square-meter rooms envied the ones with twenty-five. Life… that’s just how it is… And then, one night, a Black Maria—a police van—shows up… They arrest the woman with the five-year-old daughter. Before they take her away, she has a chance to cry out to her friend, “If I don’t come back, please look after my little girl. Don’t let them take her to an orphanage.” So that’s what happened. The neighbor took the child in, and the building administration gave her a second room… The girl started calling her Mama… Mama Anya… Seventeen years went by… And seventeen years later, the real mother returned. She kissed her friend’s hands and feet in gratitude. If this were a fairy tale, this is where the story would end, but in real life, the ending was very different. Without a “happily ever after.” When Gorbachev came to power, after they unsealed the archives, they asked the former camp inmate whether she wanted to see her file. She did. So she went down to look at it, opened the folder… and the very first page was an informant’s report. Familiar handwriting… It was her neighbor’s, Mama Anya’s… She’d been the one who’d informed on her… Do you understand any of this? I don’t. And that woman couldn’t, either. She went home and hanged herself.

I remember my father’s words: “It’s possible to survive the camps, but you can’t survive other people.”

First they arrested my wife. She went to the theater and didn’t come back. I got home from work and found my son sleeping on a little rug in the hall next to the cat. He’d waited and waited for Mama until he finally fell asleep. My wife worked at a shoe factory. She was a Red engineer. “Something strange is going on,” she’d told me. “They’ve taken all my friends. For some kind of treason…” “You and I are innocent, so no one is coming for us.” I was sure of it. Absolutely positive… Sincerely! I was a Leninist, then a Stalinist. Until 1937, I was a Stalinist. I believed everything Stalin said and did. Yes… The greatest, the most brilliant leader of all eras and peoples. Even after Bukharin, Tukhachevsky, and Blyukher* 14 were all pronounced enemies of the people, I still believed him. It seems stupid now, but I thought that Stalin was being deceived, that traitors had made their way to the top. The Party would sort it all out. But then they arrested my wife, an honest and dedicated Party warrior. Three days later, they came for me…

The search ended toward morning. They ordered me to pack my bags. The nanny woke my son. Before I left, I managed to whisper to him, “Don’t tell anyone about your mother and father.” That’s how he survived.

I spent almost a year in prison. I was preparing for my trial. For the penal colony. I was surprised, I wondered why they were dragging their feet. As far as I can tell, there was no rhyme or reason to it. Thousands of cases… Chaos… A year later, a new investigator summoned me. My case was being reviewed. And then they released me, dismissing all charges. So it had been a mistake after all. The Party believed me!

I found my son living with strangers, the nanny had taken him out to the country. He’d started stuttering and was afraid of the dark. The two of us began a new life together. I tried to get any news I could about my wife. At the same time, I applied to get reinstated in the Party. I wanted my Party membership card back. New Year’s Eve… We’d decorated a tree. My son and I were expecting guests. The doorbell rang. I opened the door. A poorly dressed woman stood on the threshold. “I’ve come to send greetings from your wife.” “She’s alive!” “She was alive a year ago. I used to work with her in a pigsty. We’d steal frozen potatoes from the pigs, and thanks to that, we didn’t starve to death. I have no idea whether or not she’s still alive.”

I came home twice wounded, with three decorations and medals. They called me into the district Party committee, “Unfortunately, we will not be able to return your wife to you. She’s died. But you can have your honor back…” And they handed me back my Party membership card. And I was happy! I was so happy… [I tell him that I will never understand that—never. He loses his temper.] You can’t judge us according to logic. You accountants! You have to understand! You can only judge us according to the laws of religion. Faith! Our faith will make you jealous! What greatness do you have in your life? You have nothing. Just comfort. Anything for a full belly… Those stomachs of yours… Stuff your face and fill your house with tchotchkes. But I… my generation… We built everything you have. The factories, the dams, the electric power stations. What have you ever built? And we were the ones who defeated Hitler.

And the ones sentencing them and guarding them were the people, too—not foreign workers, not people brought in from outside—they were the very same people. Our own men. Kin. Today, you see everybody putting on the striped uniform. Now, everyone’s the victim and Stalin alone is to blame. But think about it… it’s simple arithmetic… Millions of inmates had to be surveilled, arrested, interrogated, transported, and shot for minor transgressions. Someone had to do all this… and they found millions of people who were willing to…”

I didn’t quote the truly painful stuff, so if you can stomach that you should read Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets

13 thoughts on “How do you rebuild a society where people informed on each other?

  1. This is true description of huge part of soviet society in 1930th but it is not new. Many authors in former USSR described the events starting with short poem of poet Mandelshtam in 1930 th, Pasternak and Solzhenitsin in 1960th and hundreds if not thousands more books and articles on the topic in l980th and 1990th. Big characteristics of late 1936 – 1939 purges was that true believers in Leninism\Stalinism\Communism were the most vulnerable, guess ideology replaced neural net in logic lobe for many. It was fairly easy to fool incompetent pursuers. I knew a guy whose relative ran away in 1930th and was hiding in Western Ukraine till he escaped to Israel either in late 1950th or early 1960th, hiding and fighting through Stalinist persecution and Nazi occupation. He was mentioned as ‘rehabilitated’ and unjustly persecuted during Gorbi era, and he was well, alive and healthy at the time.

  2. “How do you rebuild a society where people informed on each other?”
    Good question, in the age of Facebook, Twitter and Harvard blogs it seems not 100% relevant, unless of course fascists could succeed in overturning US Constitution and its 1st Amendment.

  3. Well, so far it seems to be only Mexicans and Muslims who are getting the same experience here in America. But it has only been six months. This is still the period where the tyrant is busy purging the disloyal out of law enforcement and the courts–I’m amazed at how openly he has gone about it. The little nightmare is here, but the big nightmare is yet to come. Now he is demanding that the voter roles from every state be handed over to him–what an ominous development.

  4. ZZAZZ 3 – “Well, so far it seems to be only Mexicans and Muslims who are getting the same experience here in America”
    What same treatment? It was about expressing not loyal thoughts in private in 1930-th USSR. System of GULAG concentration camp kept loyal citizens that made some typos or wanted to feed their children extra piece of bread a day in terrible malnutrition and backbreaking labor in timber works and such in very cold climate, not very well protected from elements. Many were just executed after torture to extract fake confession of being British spy and such. There is no whatsoever any parallel with modern USA.

  5. In terms of “surviving the other people”, and wondering who did the work of Stalin, and acknowledging it is nowhere near as extreme of course, but I do look at the engineers of Uber and wonder how they justified their not resigning. How they justified their writing software to screw people over, or even maintaining the servers that did this.

    Uber’s scandals have been YEARS long and YEARS known, intentionally breaking laws, illegal lobbying, tax evasion, evading police and regulators, lying to drivers, cheating drivers and riders, implementing terrible background checks, placing drivers and riders in danger. Encouraging and incentivizing drivers to work 18 – 26 hour days and sleeping in their cars, and then placing the drivers on the roads jeopardizing riders, other cars and pedestrians.

  6. Dmitri Shostakovich had taken to sleeping in the hallway outside his apartment so his neighbors would not be woken up when the secret police came to arrest him. Of course, that sort of goes with the territory when you are denounced as an enemy of the people on the front page of Pravda, no less.

  7. ZZAZZ 3 – “Well, so far it seems to be only Mexicans and Muslims who are getting the same experience here in America”

    This is a common failure of imagination of Americans – they think that a place like Stalinist Russia or Assad’s Syria is just like America except only a little worse. This so dishonors the millions of dead that it rises to the level of blasphemy. Or, phrased differently, you have no f*ing idea what you are talking about.

  8. If you want stories of Americans done in by neighbors acting as anonymous informants for the government, just read about Child Protective Services.

  9. And then there’s the war on drugs, which has created the greatest Gulag in history. And the war on Muslims, which was completely fabricated. And before that the war on gays, the war on hippies, and the ongoing war on the poor. Don’t say it’s not bad.

  10. These are funny kinds of “wars”, where no one dies (well, except for all the drug addicts who die of drug overdoses and the drug dealers who kill each other), at least not at the hands of the government. In real wars or Stalinist purges, millions of innocents die.

  11. No one dies? What about the guy denied water in a Milwaukee jail until dehydration killed him? That’s a torturecution equal in depravity to anything Hitler or Stalin did–the only difference is in quantities.

    Whatever. Milwaukee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Arizona, or Texas torturecutionism was not the similarity of Mexican plight to the Stalin-times plight described in the story—the similarity lies in the way families are being ripped apart and children are being left to the mercy of strangers, as well as the depravity of the perpetrators.

  12. @ZZAZZ: unless if you are Mexican or Muslim, or unless if you have first hand experience with Mexicans or Muslims, then I suggest you hold back your thought or choose your words carefully when criticizing the US even with Trump as president.

    Myself and my family are Christian from Syria and I lived among Muslims as teenager till when we immigrated to the US in 1981 (legally with all due-process, paperwork, interviews, background checks, medical checks, et. al. and waiting over 5 years for the process to complete) and I know fellow friends and families from Syria and the Middle East as myself who will tell you the same (both Muslims and non Muslims) — I can tell you without any question, no matter how bad you think the US is, or how bad you think the US government treats its citizens or non citizens, your experience and rights in the US are FAR better then anywhere in the Middle East at ALL levels be it you are Muslim or not. And I’m not saying better by 5-10%, I’m saying by 99% better.

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