Posts Tagged 'gulag archipelago'

Tukhta.

A while back I met up for coffee with an electrician friend who happened to be in my neighbourhood for work. Half an hour after we sat down, his work iPad beeped with a message from HQ. He apologized and gave the gadget his attention.

A minute later he chuckled. He noticed that he’d neglected to click “Save” in the program that logs his working hours, and as far as his iPad was aware he was still on the clock for that morning’s job. My friend didn’t correct his error. He seemed to think a little looseness about his hours was fair recompense for the various indignities his employers subject him to. Maybe he’s right.

There’s a useful word I picked up from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago – “tukhta”, Soviet-era slang meaning something like “padding”. This was a necessary adaptation for prisoners expected to meet quotas set by officials who had only the dimmest awareness of conditions in the Gulag:

[A]ll state work norms are the same: they are calculated not for real life on this earth, but for some kind of unearthly ideal on the moon. A human being dedicated, self-sacrificing, healthy, well nourished, and energetic is incapable of fulfilling these norms! And so what are you going to get out of a fagged-out, weak, hungry, and downtrodden convict?

To meet these impossible quotas, prison work foremen would claim fictitious output – ten percent more lumber than their teams had actually cut, say. Camp administrators were subject to the same quotas, so they’d go along with the fiction. Their higher-ups would pass along the tukhta, and so on, up to the top levels of government, who’d trumpet the unprecedented lumber yield as a triumph of socialist planning.

How were the gaps papered over? Solzhenitsyn tells the story of an educated prisoner named Vlasov, in charge of a logging camp in Siberia, who signed off on paperwork showing that during a particularly harsh winter his team had surpassed the quota by 25%, when in fact they’d fallen far short. When the missing timber was noticed, Vlasov pointed out to his supervisor that their fates were now bound together: if the discrepancy were exposed, Vlasov’s sentence could only be extended, while the supervisor, for his negligence, would be liable for a five-year term. Vlasov proposed a plan, to which the supervisor could only agree:

And the time came when the winter roads had all dissolved completely, and the summer logging trails were still impassable too. And at this point Vlasov brought the chief a detailed and watertight report for his signature, to be sent on to the administration higher-up. In it he proved that because of the highly successful timber-felling operations of the past winter it had been quite impossible to move 10,500 cubic yards out of the forests on the sledge trails. Neither could this timber be hauled out through the swampy forests. Next he gave estimates for the cost of a corduroy road to get the timber out, and he proved that the haulage would cost more than the timber was worth. So that in a year’s time, because the logs were going to be lying there in the swamp for a whole summer and autumn, they would be unsuitable for lumber and acceptable to any possible customer only for firewood. And the administration agreed with these literate conclusions, which they were not ashamed to show any other commission – and therefore the whole 10,500 cubic yards of timber were written off.

Eventually the whole Soviet economy was built on a shaky edifice of tukhta – but in the meantime, the prisoners met their quotas and received their scanty rations:

And so it was that the trees were felled, and eaten up, and written off – and stood once again erect and proud in their green coniferous garb. And in fact the state paid very reasonably for these dead cubic yards: a few hundred extra loaves of black, gluey, watery bread. The thousands of trees and the hundreds of lives which were saved were of no account on the profit-and-loss sheet.

It strikes me how the proponents of our artificially intelligent future are a bit like old-school communists in their mania for efficiency. For instance, my electrician friend is often called out to jobs in the furthest reaches of the Lower Mainland, more than an hour’s drive from his home base in Vancouver. Meanwhile competing companies are sending electricians in from Maple Ridge or Aldergrove to visit customers in Vancouver. A communist or a software engineer would say: how wasteful, all this driving to and fro! – as of course it is – and propose a central dispatching system, or a mobile app, that would match up customers with the nearest electrician, saving man-hours, reducing waiting time, conserving fuel, easing congestion, and so on.

The difference is that there’s a risk the software engineer can actually deliver on that promised efficiency – and then we discover that all the electrical work the city requires can be delivered by half as many electricians. In that case I’m not sure my friend, with his cavalier approach to timekeeping, would be among the ones to make the cut.

But I suspect humans will figure out ways to steal back a fair amount of the time the software manages to save. I hope so, because without a little tukhta there probably won’t be room in the workforce for slackers like my electrician friend – or me.

M.

In 2016 I poked fun at pundit Andrew Coyne’s optimistic belief that workers displaced by robots would find new and better jobs. Earlier this year the descriptions of Russian peasant villages in Solzhenitsyn’s August 1914 made me think of modern suburban sprawl. And in 2010 I read The Gulag Archipelago and discovered that Solzhenitsyn was, surprisingly, pretty funny.

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Solzhenitsyn, funnyman.

Here’s the funny thing about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: he’s funny. You’d expect Gulag Archipelago to be a slog, but the very first lines of the preface, where the author describes some starving prisoners “flouting the higher claims of ichthyology” to wolf down a prehistoric fish they’d discovered frozen in the Siberian ice, made me laugh. Knowing that he survived the slave-camps himself, one would expect Solzhenitsyn to be embittered, indignant, aflame with righteous rage – and he is. But above all he’s a great writer with a keen ear for absurdity and a Siberia-sized index-card file full of astounding stories about life under the Soviets. *

Here’s one. A new prisoner arrives in camp and the guard raises an eyebrow at his long sentence. “Twenty-five years! What did you do?”

“Nothing at all,” comes the sullen reply.

“You’re lying!” says the guard. “The sentence for nothing at all is ten years.”

I laughed because it has the structure of a joke – and in fact, its tidiness and rim-shot pacing suggest to me that it is a joke. But whether or not the actual words were spoken by an actual guard, the joke is true. Consider (I open Volume One randomly, to page 82) the “traitors of the Motherland”, tens of thousands of ex-soldiers slapped with prison terms at the conclusion of World War II; their crime was to have spent time in German prisoner-of-war camps. (Their real offense, Solzhenitsyn points out, was to have been “witnesses to humiliating [Soviet] defeats.”) Their sentence? Ten years.

Here’s another one. The Solovki camp, on an island near the Arctic Circle, was getting some unwelcome publicity in the West. To put a stop to rumours that Solovki was something other than a socialist paradise in the making, in 1929 Moscow sent the famous proletarian writer Maxim Gorky on a fact-finding mission to the camp. The administrators scurried about preparing for Gorky’s visit, “hid the monstrosities and polished things up for show”, but…

Only in Kem was there an oversight. On Popov Island the ship Gleb Boky was being loaded by prisoners in underwear and sacks, when Gorky’s retinue appeared out of nowhere to embark on that steamer! You inventors and thinkers! Here is a worthy problem for you … a barren island, not one bush, no possible cover – and right there, at a distance of three hundred yards, Gorky’s retinue has shown up. Your solution? Where can this disgraceful spectacle – these men dressed in sacks – be hidden? The entire journey of the great Humanist will have been for naught if he sees them now. Well, of course, he will try hard not to notice them, but help him! … The work assigner ordered: “Stop work! Close ranks! Still closer! Sit down on the ground! Sit still!” And a tarpaulin was thrown over them. “Anyone who moves will be shot!” And the former stevedore Maxim Gorky ascended the ship’s ladder and admired the landscape for a full hour till sailing time – and he didn’t notice!

Gorky stands in for all those farsighted intellectuals who praised the Soviet experiment, eyes locked on the horizon while the victims of the regime huddled half-naked under their tarps. It’s a metaphor, and it’s funny, too!

M.

* Even Solzhenitsyn’s footnotes are funny. Consider the unlucky peasant given a ten-year sentence for stealing a spool of thread – or as the authorities grandiosely described it in their indictment, “200 meters of sewing material.”