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The Red Plague

This essay was originally posted in 2005 and is being republished today as a reminder of the scope of the communist tragedy. R. J. Rummel, Professor Emeritus at the Univerisity of Hawaii, writes about the size of the sheer numbers of the victims of communism during the 20th century. He is the author of Death by Government, and his website provides the evidence in detail for what he writes here.


The bubonic plague that in 1347-1353 depopulated Europe has horrified historians and surely all those who have read about it. Death. Death everywhere. Cities and towns devastated. Whole families of several generations gone. About 25,000,000 people perished.

Yet, we have had a different kind of plague in the last century, one over four times more deadly, and historians shy away from writing about it. Indeed, most contemporaries did not even know it was occurring, for the media and politicians that were not affected by it, tended to ignore it. It was a Red Plague. A plague of democide.

As the concept of murder defines individual killing in domestic society, democide is murder by government, and includes genocide, massacres, politicide, atrocities, assassinations, extrajudicial executions, and so on. And it is focusing on this democide, rather than the genocide that is one of its components, which uncovers the true dimensions of the Red Plague that inflicted humanity, even in the life of many readers.

For about eight years, I sifted through thousands of sources trying to determine the extent of democide in this century. Because of that effort (see my Death By Government and Statistics of Democide), I am able to give some conservative figures on what is an unrivaled communist hecatomb, a Red Plague, and to compare this to overall world totals.

Table 1 below lists all communist governments that have committed any form of democide and gives their estimated low, mid-estimate (what I call the prudent estimate), and estimated high. It also shows the total for communist guerrillas, including quasi-governments, as of the Mao soviets in China prior to the communist victory in 1949.

Of course, even though systematically determined and calculated, all these figures are only rough approximations. Even were we to have total access to all communist archives we still would not be able to calculate precisely how many the communists murdered. Consider that even in spite of the archival statistics and detailed reports of survivors, the best experts still disagree by over 40 percent on the total number of Jews killed by the Nazis. We cannot expect near this accuracy for the victims of communism. We can, however, get a probable order of magnitude and a relative approximation of these deaths within a most likely range. And that is what the figures in Table 1 are meant to be. Their apparent precision is only due to the total for most communist governments being the summation of dozens of subtotals (as of forced labor deaths each year) and calculations (as in extrapolating scholarly estimates of executions or massacres).

As you can see, the total mid-estimate is about 110,286,000, an incredible total. It is around 65 percent of all democide over the same period, and is about three times greater than all the international and domestic war deaths, including the two world wars, Vietnam, Korea, and the Iran-Iraq War, to mention the bloodiest. This is the Red Plague driven by ideological fervor. The Black Plague, carried by fleas from rats and not by ideology, killed a quarter of the number the communists murdered.

There is much to dwell on in the table, if your stomach is up to it, and I will only note the most incredible estimates. The Soviet Union appears the greatest megamurderer of all time, apparently killing near 61,000,000 people. Stalin himself is responsible for almost 43,000,000 of these (I know you’ve read the toll as 20,000,000, but it was only for the 1930s and has been mistaken applied to Stalin’s full and bloody reign 1928-1953). Most of the Soviet deaths, perhaps around 39,000,000 are due to lethal forced labor in gulag and transit thereto.

Communist China up to 1987, but mainly from 1949 through the Cultural Revolution, which alone may have seen over 1,000,000 murdered, is the second worst megamurderer (I excluded the great famine of 1959 to about 1961 as nondemocidal – it alone cost about 27,000,000 lives). Then there are the lesser megamurderers, such as North Korea and Tito's Yugoslavia.

Obviously, the population that is available to kill will make a big difference in the total democide, and thus the annual percentage rate of democide is revealing. By far, the most deadly of all communist countries and, indeed, in this century by far, has been Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot and his henchmen likely killed some 2,000,000 Cambodians from April 1975 through December 1978 out of a population of around 7,000,000. This is an annual rate of over 8 percent of the population murdered, or odds of an average Cambodian surviving Pol Pot's rule of slightly over 2 to 1.

How can we understand all this killing by communists? It is the marriage of an absolutist ideology with the absolute power. Communists believed that they knew the truth, absolutely. They believed that they knew through Marxism what would bring about the greatest human welfare and happiness. And they believed that power, the dictatorship of the proletariat, must be used to tear down the old feudal or capitalist order and rebuild society and culture to realize this utopia. Nothing must stand in the way of its achievement. Government--the Communist Party--was thus above any law. All institutions, cultural norms, traditions, and sentiments were expendable. And the people were as though lumber and bricks, to be used in building the new world.

Constructing this utopia was seen as though a war on poverty, exploitation, imperialism, and inequality. And for the greater good, as in a real war, people are killed. And thus, this war for the communist utopia had its necessary enemy casualties, the clergy, bourgeoisie, capitalists, wreckers, counterrevolutionaries, rightists, tyrants, rich, landlords, and noncombatants that unfortunately got caught in the battle. In a war millions may die, but the cause may be well justified, as in the defeat of Hitler and an utterly racist Nazism. And to many communists, the cause of a communist utopia was such as to justify all the deaths.

The irony of this is that communism in practice, even after decades of total control, did not improve the lot of the average person, but usually made their living conditions worse than before the revolution. It is not by chance that the greatest famines have occurred within the Soviet Union (about 5,000,000 dead during 1921-23 and 7,000,000 from 1932-3) and communist China (about 27,000,000 dead from 1959-61, as mentioned). In total almost 55,000,000 people died in various communist famines and associated diseases, a little over 10,000,000 of them from democidal famine. This is as though the total population of Turkey, Iran, or Thailand had been completely wiped out. And understandably, something like 35,000,000 people fled communist countries as refugees. It is as though the countries of Argentina or Columbia had been totally emptied of all their people. This was an unparalleled vote against the utopian pretensions of Marxism.

But communists could not be wrong. After all, their knowledge was scientific, based on historical materialism, an understanding of the dialectical process in nature and human society, and a materialist (and thus realistic) view of nature. Marx has shown empirically where society has been and why, and he and his interpreters proved that it was destined for a communist end. No one could prevent this, but only stand in the way and delay it at the cost of more human misery. Those who disagreed with this worldview and even with some of the proper interpretations of Marx and Lenin were, without a scintilla of doubt, wrong. After all, did not Marx, Lenin, Stalin, or Mao say that. . . . In other words, communism was like a fanatical religion. It had its revealed text and chief interpreters. It had its priests and their ritualistic prose with all the answers. It had a heaven, and the proper behavior to reach it. It had its appeal to faith. And it had its crusade against nonbelievers.

What made this secular religion so utterly lethal was its seizure of all the state's instrument of force and coercion and their immediate use to destroy or control all independent sources of power, such as the church, the professions, private businesses, schools, and, of course, the family. The result is what we see in Table 1. The result was the Red Plague.

Communism has been the greatest social engineering experiment of all time. It failed utterly and in doing so it probably killed the number of men, women, and children, totaled in Table 1, not to mention the near 30,000,000 of its subjects that died in its often aggressive wars and the rebellions it provoked. But there is a larger lesson to be learned from this horrendous sacrifice to one ideology. That is that no one can be trusted with power. The more power the center has to impose the beliefs of an ideological or religious elite or impose the whims of a dictator, the more likely human lives are to be sacrificed. This is but one reason, but perhaps the most important one, for fostering democratic freedom and assuring a democratic peace.


Back to May Day 2008: A Day of Remembrance


A Word from the Opposition



Joe Miller is a professor of philosophy. Or maybe a Democratic political consultant now---I didn't get an updated blurb. He maintains a blog at Bellum et Mores.

So here’s my dilemma: how do I, a non-classical liberal, a philosopher with very little in the way of economics background, an academic-turned (of all things)-Democratic political consultant go about writing a tribute to Milton Friedman? On an anarcho-capitalist blog with a readership far more knowledgeable about Dr. Friedman’s writings than I, no less. The answer: I don’t. Instead, I’m going to lament the extent to which Milton Friedman has made my own life far more difficult.

You see, back in the 1960s, we liberals were completely ascendant. Conservatives had, by and large, been banished to the John Bircher and white sheet wearing types. The New Deal had given way to the Great Society; egalitarianism and civil rights were breaking out everywhere; hell, even when the Republicans managed to win the Presidency, they did so by electing a wage-and-price-control Keynesian liberal. Yes, Conservatives were banished for good. Read more »


Two Hundred Years Later: The State of Liberalism After Mill



Joe Miller is a professor of philosophy at University of North Carolina at Pembroke. He maintains a blog at Bellum et Mores.

At the John Stuart Mill Bicentennial Conference in London last month, Peter Singer, in his keynote address, made a few comparisons between his own work and Mill. Such a talk may smack of hubris (it’s not, really, as one of the conference organizers specifically requested the topic), but the comparison may well be apt. We’ll know more in another 200 years. Regardless, it’s safe to say that Singer’s influence on contemporary moral and political philosophy is probably at least as great as was Mill’s influence on his own contemporaries.

Now I am far from playing in the same league as Mill—or Singer’s either, for that matter. But I’m going to go out on a limb and offer my own small connections to Mill: after spending more years than I like to admit writing a dissertation on Mill’s moral and political philosophy, in one of those great cosmic coincidences, I received my Ph.D. on 20 May 2001, Mill’s 195th birthday. Oh, and my first name is also John. That’s all I’ve got. But enough about me. This is Mill’s big day. Well, I guess it’s not so much his big day, what with him being dead and all. Still, we’re here to read about Mill.

So what, then, is the legacy of John Stuart Mill? That’s really hard to say. He’s claimed by nearly everyone—or at least by nearly everyone in the liberal camp. Isaiah Berlin offers remarkably sympathetic readings of Mill, while hugely influential liberals such as John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin incorporate (or import wholesale) portions of On Liberty into their own work. Joel Feinberg, in fact, has made the Harm Principle the centerpiece of his magnum opus, the four-volume set on the moral limits of criminal law (Harm to Others, Offense to Others, Harm to Self, and Harmless Wrongdoing).

It is not only contemporary liberals who claim Mill; indeed many interpreters see him more as the spiritual father of libertarianism. Hayek (at least the Hayek of the ‘40s and ‘50s) wrote somewhat approvingly of Mill. More recently, Nick Capaldi argues that Mill is best understood as a libertarian. Aeon Skoble offers a similar reading here. Or, if you’re not up for reading long academic papers, see here for a more concise summary of Mill’s claims to libertarian credentials. Read more »


<i>The Subjection of Women</i>: J.S. Mill on Equality of Women



Jimi Wilson holds a Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy and Religion, and a Bachelor of Science in Mass Communications with a concentration in journalism, both earned at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. He is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in South Asian Religions at the University of Florida at Gainesville, and writes part time for The News-Journal in Raeford, NC.

I wish John Stuart Mill the happiest of birthdays. His contributions toward the furthering of philosophical discourse and human wellbeing are incalculable. (Okay, not entirely incalculable—there is felicitous calculus—but it’s a pretty big project.)

While Mill’s works have, over time, been subject to criticism for the occasional fallacy; the errant empirical misstep; and the just plain wrong-headed, muffin-esque tendencies—observable among the works of the other brilliant thinkers from Aristotle to Newton to Einstein—modern readers will surely note the freshness of many of his ideas and the crispness of his prose. Indeed the very soundness of much of his philosophy, coupled with a genuine humanness in his response to the world around him, lends his work an immediacy and poignancy, uncommon to philosophers of his day, that modern readers can not only appreciate, but from which we can learn from and apply to ethics today. And while many of his proposals seem self-evident to modern readers, this is precisely because so many of his suggestions were successfully applied.

Of course we have Mill to thank for the formalization of the pleasure and harm principles, as well his improvements on the fuzzy and politically impractical Benthamite conception of utilitarianism—created in a historical and sociological vacuum, as it were. Less celebrated are Mill’s writings in favor of women’s emancipation—works which were no doubt largely influenced and/or co-written by his wife, Harriet Taylor Mill.

This essay isn’t meant to make a philosophical argument—as Joe Miller does here—so much as it is meant to give credit where I believe it is due. Read more »


Secure the Borders for the Birthday Boy



Richard Clancy is a double major in Philosophy and Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. He just returned from an internship with Sen. Richard Burr during the spring semester.

In light of his bicentennial birthday, let us afford to Mr. Mill the opportunity to express his views regarding the debate over border security and illegal immigration. Unfortunately, Mill has very little to say on the subject of immigration, legal or not. During his time, the fluctuations in the English population (those not due to natural birth and death) were mainly from the practice of emigration and colonization- England is a dreary place and people wanted to leave. He did, however, make clear his position on national character and national security.

For Mill, the bounded nation-state was essential for a free, liberal society to flourish. Underlying this was an assumption of the necessity of a shared political culture. In his Considerations on Representative Government he said:

Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities. Among a people without fellow-feeling, especially if they speak different languages, the united public opinion necessary to the working of representative government cannot exist.

While we accept legal immigrants of many different nationalities, we do expect that they assimilate themselves into their new culture and identify with their new nation. (It is our own fault that we have not declared English as our official language.) And in all but a few dual-citizenship situations, we even demand that immigrants renounce their foreign citizenship to be recognized as a citizen of this country. If a country doesn’t have the right to decide with whom it shares its people, then it has no rights at all. Illegal immigration not only denies the right of our country to decide with whom we share our people, our culture, our way of life, and our freedoms, it is a direct threat to them.

One might expect, from his Utilitarian viewpoint, that Mill would be little concerned with borders when it came to how one should act towards his fellow man. In fact his mentor, Jeremy Bentham, espoused a view of universalism. But Mill criticized Bentham’s universalism claiming that it was superseded by national character. He says:

That which alone causes any material interests to exist, which alone enables any body of human beings to exist as a society, is national character: that it is, which causes one nation to succeed in what it attempts, another to fail; one nation to understand and aspire to elevated things, another to grovel in mean ones; which makes the greatness of one nation lasting, and dooms another to early and rapid decay… A philosophy of laws and institutions, not founded on a philosophy of national character, is an absurdity. (“Bentham”)


J.S. Mill and the Case for Liberal Intervention<sup>1</sup>



Joe Miller is a professor of philosophy at University of North Carolina at Pembroke. He maintains a blog at Bellum et Mores.

Inspired by Rick’s application of Mill to contemporary controversies, I’d like to examine a somewhat neglected, though these days quite relevant, aspect of Mill’s writings, namely, his case for colonialism. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not at all interested in defending Mill’s account of colonialism. And I realize the oddity of defending the idea of armed humanitarian intervention in this particular forum, particularly when much of my discussion is going to focus on intervention in failed states. What I am going to argue is that Mill’s arguments for colonialism can be usefully resuscitated as a guide for liberal intervention in states that have utterly failed, not in the anarcho-capitalism-private-institutions-have-replaced-the-state David Friedman kind of way, but rather in the people-are-butchering-each-other-in-the-streets Hobbesian kind of way.

As a number of posts have already mentioned, Mill’s Harm Principle famously prohibits the state from interfering with self-regarding actions. Less well known is that in 1859 (the year which saw the publication of On Liberty), Mill also wrote a short essay entitled “A Few Words on Non-Intervention.” There Mill applies the Harm Principle to international relations, arguing that the citizens of a nation cannot be forced to be free, and that liberty can flourish only where people “are willing to brave labour and danger for their liberation.” Mill argues that only those who are capable of seizing liberty for themselves are ready for free institutions; history has shown that those who are given freedom by outsiders rarely keep that freedom for long. Thus, for Mill, intervention in the internal affairs of despotic nations is almost always prohibited.

But, as with OL, what Mill gives with one hand, he takes away with the other. Mill’s claims about non-intervention are not meant to apply to those he terms “barbarians.” (Mill, 1859a: 408-9). Tellingly, Mill makes a similar move in On Liberty, claiming there that the harm principle “is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties.” For Mill, nations have sovereignty by virtue of the fact that nations are collections of individuals. Since individual liberty is to be protected, for better or for worse, state sovereignty should likewise be protected. But Mill holds that some individuals, because of their particular circumstances, are not properly governed by the harm principle. Given this commitment, it is hardly surprising that Mill would also deny sovereignty to a state composed of individuals to whom the harm principle does not apply. Barbarians, for Mill, “have no rights as a nation, except a right to such treatment as may, at the earliest possible period,” fit them for becoming one (A Few Words).

Mill’s own account of who counts as a barbarian is plagued by a number of racist assumptions that were not uncommon in Mill’s social circles. For Mill, northern Europeans (along with their colonies and former colonies) were the pinnacle of civilization with societies becoming steadily more barbaric as one moved south and east. I’ve no desire whatsoever to defend Mill’s racism. What I propose is that we consider anew Mill’s distinction between ‘barbarian’ and ‘civilized’ nations. Although we are right to be wary of the colonialist implications of Mill’s choice of terms, the distinction that those terms represent is one that does have some plausibility. Mill’s error lies in his conflating ‘civilized’ with Europeans and ‘barbarians’ with pretty much everyone else. But Mill’s misuse of his labels is not in itself reason for rejecting the labels. Read more »


How Many Did Stalin Really Murder?



R. J. Rummel, Professor Emeritus at the Univerisity of Hawaii, estimates the true number of deaths attributable to Joseph Stalin. He is the author of Death by Government, and his website provides the evidence in detail for what he writes here. For more information on the death toll from communism, see "The Red Plague". He blogs regularly at Democratic Peace.

May Day is coming up, which used to be a day of celebration in the Soviet Union with an impressive show of weapons and infinitely long parade of soldiers. Perhaps, then, it would be appropriate to pay special attention on this day to the human cost of communism in this symbolic home of Marxism, and worldwide. This blog is on Stalin and the Soviet Union.

By far, the consensus figure for those that Joseph Stalin murdered when he ruled the Soviet Union is 20,000,000. You probably have come across this many times. Just to see how numerous this total is, look up “Stalin” and “20 million” in Google, and you will get 183,000 links. Not all settle just on the 20,000,000. Some links will make this the upper and some the lower limit in a range. Yet, virtually no one who uses this estimate has gone to the source, for if they did and knew something about Soviet history, they would realize that the 20,000,000 is a gross under estimate of what is likely the Stalin's true human toll.

The figure comes from the book by Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties (Macmillan 1968). In his appendix on casualty figures, he reviews a number of estimates of those that were killed under Stalin, and calculates that the number of executions 1936 to 1938 was probably about 1,000,000; that from 1936 to 1950 about 12,000,000 died in the camps; and 3,500,000 died in the 1930-1936 collectivization. Overall, he concludes:


Thus we get a figure of 20 million dead, which is almost certainly too low and might require an increase of 50 percent or so, as the debit balance of the Stalin regime for twenty-three years.

In all the times I've seen Conquest’s 20,000,000 reported, not once do I recall seeing his qualification attached to it.

Considering that Stalin died in 1953, note what Conquest did not include -- camp deaths after 1950, and before 1936; executions 1939-53; the vast deportation of the people of captive nations into the camps, and their deaths 1939-1953; the massive deportation within the Soviet Union of minorities 1941-1944; and their deaths; and those the Soviet Red Army and secret police executed throughout Eastern Europe after their conquest during 1944-1945 is omitted. Moreover, omitted is the deadly Ukrainian famine Stalin purposely imposed on the region and that killed 5 million in 1932-1934. So, Conquest’s estimates are spotty and incomplete. Read more »


A Forgotten Odyssey



Romuald Lipinski is a survivor of the USSR, originally deported from Poland in the summer of 1941. He provides a general overview of the mass deportations from Poland to the USSR. A portion of his memoirs can be found here.

Public knowledge about deportations of Polish citizens from the territory occupied by Soviet Russia in 1939 is next to nil. Somehow, the world wants to forget about it. And yet, if we consider the size of the mass of people deported, it is an event that deserves more attention. These deportations took place between February 1940 and June 1941. They were carried out right up until Germany invaded Russia. Through my private correspondence with a resident of Brest Litovsk, I learned that the Russians were in a process of transporting Poles to the train waiting for them at the railroad station when German troops were seen advancing towards the town. The Russians left their trucks and ran for their lives leaving everything and everybody behind them.

There have been several attempts to establish the number of Polish citizens in Soviet Russia as a result of hostilities between Poland and the Soviet Government. It is not an easy task. Nobody knows exactly how many died there as a result of malnutrition, disease, executions, and other reasons. According to Zbigniew S. Siemaszko[1], Polish citizens who found themselves in Soviet Russia during the period of September 1939 and June 1941 can be divided into the following into the following groups:

1. Military personnel - 184,000 (12 percent of the total)
2. Civilians, jailed by the Soviets - 250,000 (15 percent)
3. Civilians deported with families (specposielency - "special deportees") - 990,000 (60 percent)
4. Drafted into the Red Army after invasion in 1939 - 210,000 (13 percent)

Total 1,634,000.

It is well known that about 22,500 of Polish officers were murdered by the NKVD. Officers, including 41 generals, were imprisoned in several locations: Starobielsk, Oshtashkovo and Kozielsk, Griazoviec and Pavlishchev Bor. About 4,500 of them were found in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, in a mass graves, each killed with a single shot in the back of the head. The graves were discovered by Germans when they occupied that area. Soviet authorities denied that the executions were carried out by the NKVD, but an international commission established that they took place sometimes in spring of 1940, thus at a time when this area was under Soviet jurisdiction. During the Nuremberg Trials, the Katyn massacre was on the agenda, but at the insistence of the Soviet government, there was no judgment in this case “due to lack of evidence”. The fate of the remaining 18,000 officers was never determined, and to this day, remains a mystery. Some sources say that they were loaded on barges and sunk in the North Sea. The enlisted men were placed in various locations, mainly as miners and road builders. Read more »


The Road To Hell Was Paved With Bad Intentions



Professor Bryan Caplan of the Department of Economics at George Mason University writes about the double standard in the treatment of communist atrocities relative to their Nazi counterparts. He maintains a website at which he hosts an online Museum of Communism and blogs at EconLog. Look for his book on voter irrationality next year.

Like the Nazis, the Communists murdered tens of millions. But even today, few people hold both movements in equal contempt. Citizens of the West remain largely ignorant of the crimes of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. But even those who know what happened shy away from the thesis that the two movements were morally equivalent. Why is this?

Admittedly, there are a few who still deny that the death counts were really comparable. Seumas Milne, in a recent editorial in the Guardian, manages to get the Soviet death toll down by almost a factor of ten by excluding the man-made famines of Lenin and Stalin. This is an underwhelming response, however: Is it any surprise that the Germans mass murdered in a cold, methodical way, while the Russians mass murdered in a chaotic, barbaric way?

One might also argue that the Nazis were worse because they had a higher death rate. Hitler packed the bulk of his crimes into a six year period; Lenin and Stalin together spread theirs out over thirty six. Perhaps this shows that if the Nazis had won, they would have been even worse than the Communists. But this projection is shaky. Hitler waited for six years and the cover to war to start killing millions; the Communists started killing millions almost immediately, and continued during peacetime. Hitler's peace might have been even bloodier than Stalin's peace, but it's anybody's guess. Read more »


A Different Kind of Soviet Labor Camp: Solzhenitsyn\'s <i>The First Circle</i>



Clara is a senior majoring in economics at Barnard College in New York. She is a regular contributor to the blog Liberty Belles.

The First Circle by Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
Translated from the Russian by Thomas P. Whitney
Bantam Books: New York, 1968. 674 pages.

The First Circle is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s fictionalized account of life inside a special kind of Soviet prison under Joseph Stalin’s communist regime. In this institution, called a sharashka, inmates are set to work all day – not at manual labor, but at the sorts of tasks that use their scientific and technical education to develop technology for the Soviet state. With the novel’s title, Solzhenitsyn draws a comparison between the sharashka and the least horrific of nine circles of Hell as described in Dante’s Inferno. Inmates in the research institution are well fed and well rested – not at all ill-treated, compared to prisoners in most Soviet work camps. No, these are “cushiony institutions where the snarl of the camp struggle for existence [is] not heard” (58). The prisoners have almost no contact with the outside world, however. Their time and labor belong to Stalin and to the faceless bureaucracy; ultimately, their very souls are chained to the sharashka’s workbenches.

The plot of The First Circle traces the stories of several sharashka inmates and their loved ones. Solzhenitsyn interweaves their stories, drawing implicit comparisons, conveying the similarities of their frustrating struggles against Stalin’s totalitarian rule. Using examples from the lives of each character, Solzhenitsyn shows the grim realities of life in the Soviet Union of that era. The police arrest men in the middle of the night – intellectuals, dissidents – and condemn their families to a lifetime of handicapped employment prospects. Everyone must watch what he says and who is listening.

In an early chapter, a man makes an anonymous phone call to warn a scientist that he has run afoul of the regime. It is a gripping scene: The scientist’s wife refuses to take the caller seriously. They argue as the wife demands to know more information, and the caller says only that there will be danger. Despite the concerned friend’s efforts, this scientist is later arrested by the Secret Police. In the mid-20th century Soviet Union, late-night seizures without warning – often with very little basis for the arrests – were common under Stalin’s regime. People informed on their neighbors and family members. Thought-crime was, well, an actual crime. Solzhenitsyn himself was arrested as a result of “disrespectful remarks about Stalin” made in private letters written to a friend, according to the author’s autobiography on the Nobel Prize website.

Dispatching the Secret Police to arrest every citizen-critic not only created a climate of fear, but it wasted resources. Inefficiencies in the Soviet system extended to every aspect of life: social, political and economic realms. Often in The First Circle, these problems stemmed from the nature of the central government’s inflexibility. The sharashka, the setting for much of the book, presents a microcosm of the Stalinist empire surrounding it. The out-of-touch bureaucracy imposes arbitrary rules, which underlings enforce long after they have outlasted their expediency. Unnecessary secrecy divides several of the prisoners’ research units. Inmates who create an invention or the solution to a technological problem receive handsome rewards – and, sometimes, their freedom – while others who have worked with just as much dedication, and for as many years, receive nothing. The result of this uneven reward system: Prisoners try desperately to attach themselves to successful research units. Cunning, not merit, is the key factor as they compete, trying to game the system, jockeying for the best spots – even in prison. Read more »