Aleksander Wat was a Polish intellectual, imprisoned by Stalin following the outbreak of the Second World War. His remarkable memoirs have been compared with Solzhenitsyn’s work. Here, he recalls his time in Kiev Prison in the Soviet Union, where writing on the latrine walls provided the only truth in a world perverted by Soviet lies. Wat considers one of these pieces of graffiti which read: ‘A curse on whoever invented the name Corrective Labour Camps.’
‘A curse on whoever invented the name... ’ – anger about a name, the meaning of words, semantics. The loss of freedom, tyranny, abuse, hunger would all have been easier to bear if not for the compulsion to call them freedom, justice, the good of the people. Mass exterminations are not an exception in history; cruelty is part of human nature, part of society. But a new, third, dimension had been added that was more deeply and subtly oppressive: a vast enterprise to deform language. Had it been only lies and hypocrisy – lying is part of human nature and all governments are hypocritical. The rulers’ hypocrisy can cause rebellion, but here any possible rebellion had been nipped in the bud once and for all. A lie is an infirmity, a disease of language. The natural function of language is to ascertain the truth, or truths. Lies, by their very nature partial and ephemeral, are revealed as lies when confronted with language’s striving for truth. But here all the means of disclosure had been permanently confiscated by the police. The customary or even the logical, natural connections between words and things, facts, had been taken from the individual, expropriated everywhere, and nationalized for good, so that now any word could mean whatever suited the whims of the usurper of all words, meanings, things, and souls. The viler the deed, the more grandiloquent the name. But if only this procedure were used to mask criminal means and ignoble ends – that too had happened often enough in history, the history of wars, tyrannies, and annexations; Tacitus knew about all that. But in this case a coherent set of grandiloquent terms and the opposing monstrous reality were kept side by side, ostentatiously and with diabolical thoroughness and perseverance, and under threat of extermination a person was coerced into fully believing that the terms and the facts were identical. Such things had been anticipated and attempted in history’s darker hours, but this was the first time the ‘reforging of souls’ was carried out by the police on such a colossal scale, with such speed and such logic. Collective farmers dying of starvation were herded into films in which the tables buckled under the weight of food; under threat of death they had to believe that these banquets, and not their wretched poverty, their collective farms, were true and typical. Young enthusiasts sang rapturously:
‘I know no other land
while their fathers perished in the camps. But for souls that had not been reforged yet, nothing was as hateful as that total corruption of language. It drove them to their wits’ end. It suffocated them like a nightmare, like a noose around their necks.
When I was at liberty in Russia, which by then had been pacified until it was like a cemetery, I saw some old people who risked their lives to shout out, if only once, that slavery is slavery and not freedom. That was to be a common thing later on in post-war Poland, even during the blackest years. I was one of that large number, and I paid dearly for it.
So in the prison latrines you could read the plain human truth about Stalin’s Russia – there, and only there.
Aleksander Wat, My Century, University of California Press, 1988. In The Penguin Book of Lies, pp. 357-358