The Extreme Danger of Ideology


A documentary filmmaker recently asked me if I’d ever seen any images from the GULAG—the Soviet penal system that maintained a network of forced labor camps in the Arctic north and in eastern Siberia. I told him the only document of the GULAG I’d ever seen was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.

He then sent me a copy of Drawings from the Gulag, by Danzig Baldaev. Born in 1925, Baldaev’s father was arrested by the NKVD (the original Soviet police) for being an “enemy of the people.” Baldaev grew up in an NKVD-administered orphanage, where he was indoctrinated for service in the police agency. He then had a long career as a prison warden in the GULAG system.

Unbeknownst to his superiors and comrades in the NKVD, Baldaev secretly made drawings of the horrors he observed. After the fall of the Soviet Union, these drawings and his notes were published in Germany and in the UK.

Viewing the images reminded me of Solzhenitsyn’s reflections in Chapter 4 of The Gulag Archipelago.

Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb, too. The imagination and spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology. Ideology – that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes….

In the Soviet Union, if you were branded an “Enemy of the People” for purportedly failing to espouse Marxist-Leninist ideology or adhere to official Soviet orthodoxy, you would be handed over to camp guards, who had complete license to do whatever they wished to you. Because you were deemed an “enemy,” your punishment—no matter how cruel and sadistic—was deemed a good thing.

Many of the mages remind me of Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting, “The Last Judgement,” which hangs in the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Bosch depicted a bizarre and surreal nightmare of what awaits the damned in hell. The Soviet GULAG created hell on earth.

The book is a testament to why, in civilized countries, we have Constitutions that carefully define and limit the powers of the state. No public official or institutional director—no matter how benevolent he may seem to be, and no matter how loudly he signals his virtue—should ever be given power to deem anyone an “Enemy of the People.”

Only an independent judiciary, strictly adhering to due process, should ever possess any authority to punish anyone.

An “Enemy of the People” is shot trying to escape and hauled back to camp like a killed deer or boar to frighten and demoralize the prisoners. Drawings from the Gulag, by Danzig Baldaev,

Detail from Hieronymus Bosch’s Last Judgement, circa 1482, Vienna Academy of Fine Arts

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