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October 20, 2012 1:53 PM   Subscribe

What is it like to realize you live in a totalitarian system?

Most of the writing I've read about life in totalitarian societies has been by outliers: dissidents who saw the harshest side of the state through arrest and imprisonment, and who were already inclined to think a lot about politics and society. What are the best historical (or fictional) accounts of average, apolitical people coming to terms with the nature of totalitarianism? I don't buy the idea that systems of control were so pervasive and totalizing that political thought was impossible. I do buy the idea that most people in any society are strongly subject to status quo and conformity bias.

If you lived under a totalitarian regime yourself, when and how did you realize it? How old were you and what motivated your realization? Did you always take it for granted, or was the realization sudden? What changed?

Here are two useful related threads.
posted by ecmendenhall to Society & Culture (23 answers total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
 
The Diary of Anne Frank is a good start. The early part of the diary, as it gradually transitions from normal kid stuff (I had yogurt for breakfast! Writing in a diary is so fun!) to the point that they move into the Annex talks a little about the changes in the lives of secular Jews in Amsterdam at the time.

I don't know a lot about the Frank family in particular, but from reading the book as a kid, I remember Anne's perspective being pretty bourgie and apolitical. Lots of "we can't go to the movies anymore, this is no fun at all" type entries.
posted by Sara C. at 2:55 PM on October 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


I can't recommend They Thought They Were Free enough. It's a beautifully compassionate and low key examination of what life was like for very ordinary Germans in the years after Hitler took power. The subjects (who I think do include a grocer) were intentionally chosen not to have been outliers. Spoiler: sometimes it was disquieting, sometimes awesome, sometimes not that different.

"You see," my colleague went on, "one doesn’t see exactly where or how to move. Believe me, this is true. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don’t want to act, or even talk, alone; you don’t want to ‘go out of your way to make trouble.’ Why not?—Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty.


Excerpt here, but I really recommend buying the book. It's one of the best things I've ever read.
posted by crabintheocean at 3:08 PM on October 20, 2012 [34 favorites]


Insider witness: the diaries of Victor Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, 1933-41 and I Will Bear Witness 1942-1945: A Diary of the Nazi Years. Long, but by the time you've finished you know exactly what it was like for someone who had no desire to rebel, who just wanted to be left alone to write about French literature. (Very harrowing toward the end; he lived through the firebombing of Dresden.)

Scholarly analysis: Sheila Fitzpatrick has made a career out of analyzing Stalinism from this viewpoint; her early work is, from my point of view, a little too belligerently revisionist ("Stalinism wasn't that bad! It promoted hardworking proletarians and wasn't as dictatorial as you think!"), but I highly recommend Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s (Oxford University Press, 1999).
posted by languagehat at 3:13 PM on October 20, 2012 [6 favorites]


Very interesting question. Some suggestions:

The first is an alternate history of World War II based on interviews with individuals who have survived totalitarian environments (gulag, concentration camps). Lots of good psychological moments about realizing one is enslaved more than one knows, and how that affects normal life: The Children's War by PN Stroyar.

Also, I realized at some point that I was abused as a child; it wasn't apparent during childhood because that was just what was normal to me and I internalized that treatment. I found If You Had Controlling Parents useful in this regard.
posted by 3491again at 3:16 PM on October 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


There is a story from Boris Yeltsin's autobiography visiting a Houston supermarket that was a turning point in his political life.

"When I saw those shelves crammed with hundreds, thousands of cans, cartons, and goods of every possible sort, for the first time I felt quite frankly sick with despair for the Soviet people. That such a potentially super-rich country as ours has been brought to a state of such poverty! It is terrible to think of it."

From what I recall, they'd basically made a state visit and saw one store, which they figured was done up nicely to impress them (they way they would have in the USSR), so they dropped into this supermarket in Houston figuring they'd see the real deal...and it was shattering. And they let everyone shop there, that was particularly astonishing, as I recall.

Here's another quote I found:

What we saw in that supermarket was no less amazing than America itself,” recalled Lev Sukhanov, who accompanied Yeltsin on his trip to the United States and shared his sense of shock and dismay at the gap in living standards between the two superpowers. “I think it is quite likely that the last prop of Yeltsin’s Bolshevik consciousness finally collapsed after Houston. His decision to leave theparty and join the struggle for supreme power in Russia may have ripened irrevocably at that moment of mental confusion.”

On the plane, traveling from Houston to Miami, Yeltsin seemed lost in his thoughts for a long time. He clutched his head in his hands. Eventually he broke his silence. “They had to fool the people,” he told Sukhanov. “It is now clear why they made it so difficult for the average Soviet citizen to go abroad. They were afraid that people’s eyes would open.”

posted by Ghostride The Whip at 4:42 PM on October 20, 2012 [27 favorites]


Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea tells the stories of six North Korean defectors. Obviously these people are outliers, a bit, in that they defected, but they put up with a LOT before they felt like it was time to leave. It's really good! I know there are some other North Korean defector books out there but the people chosen for this book are specifically supposed to be ordinary.
posted by mskyle at 4:50 PM on October 20, 2012 [17 favorites]


One thing you want to remember is that in many totalitarian states, so many people end up in prison that nearly everyone who has even halfway grasped the idea that the situation is bad, is already in prison or knows someone who has been sent there. The Soviet Union was, by the 1950s, a place where the only people who didn't know how bad things had been, through direct or second-hand experience, were extremely sheltered.

For example, Solzhenitsyn estimated that about 50 million people spent at least some time in the gulags - this is during an era when the total Soviet population was only about 170 million. Imagine a US with twice as many current and former prisoners (mostly political) as there are children currently enrolled in school. Now think about how many kids between the ages of 5 and 17 that you know personally, and how many of their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, bus drivers, etc., that you know. Now double that number - that's how many current and former prisoners, and people directly connected to the prisoners and the system, that you know. Try being unaware of the size and scope of the problem under those conditions.

It took a long, long time to make those memories fade enough that you could convince normal people that it really wasn't so bad in the USSR. In the same way, North Korea gets a ton of mileage out of claims about how much worse it is in the rest of the world.

If you want a sense of the variety of experiences possible, Gulag Archipelago is a great source. Over 220 people contributed personal experiences. A number of Solzhenitsyn's works deal directly with moving from "numbness" to "awareness," though usually in the context of already being a prisoner.

Also... Orwell's 1984 & 1984, Zamyatin's We, Rand's Anthem, V for Vendetta, and most other fictional dystopian nightmare books feature primary characters who have no idea how messed up their world really is. It's generally an outsider, or a twist of fate, or being repeatedly struck about the head, that makes the protagonist figure this out. And really, the "being repeatedly struck about the head" bit is what happens when the protagonist is never going to figure it out (Animal Farm) or will be brainwashed at the end (1984.) BTW, Orwell was a bit of a pessimist.

Every Russian and former resident of the "actually still the USSR when we lived there" that I know is deeply and permanently skeptical of pretty much everything they see, read, and hear; most are very matter-of-fact about and resigned to levels of corruption, violence, and injustice that would drive most Americans batty. And they're very self-aware about it - I think that's what it's really like to realize that you're living in a totalitarian or irrevocably dysfunctional society when it's so obvious. It's like realizing that the sky is blue, or that the IRS really will go after you if you don't file your taxes: oh, so that's what we call it. Well, all right then; moving on.
posted by SMPA at 6:23 PM on October 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


From what I recall, they'd basically made a state visit and saw one store, which they figured was done up nicely to impress them (they way they would have in the USSR), so they dropped into this supermarket in Houston figuring they'd see the real deal...and it was shattering. And they let everyone shop there, that was particularly astonishing, as I recall.

Someone up there mentioned North Korean defectors to South Korea.

There was one woman who was a defector, who wouldn't believe that the South was more prosperous. So the people trying to debrief her took her for a drive. They let her choose which turns to make, and eventually she chose a house at random. The government officials then took her to the door, showed ID to the person living there and explained that they wanted to let this defector see the kitchen.

And, of course, there was a refrigerator and it was loaded with food. And there were cans and jars and bottles on the shelves. When the woman saw this, she started sobbing; it was only then that she really understood that the government of North Korea had been lying to her for her entire life. Everything she thought she knew, everything she had always believed, everything she had been told, was utterly false.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:36 PM on October 20, 2012 [16 favorites]


I can't second mskyle's recommendation for Nothing to Envy enough.

All of the North Korean escapees tell the same story of why they really did not know how bad things were as they were growing up in North Korea. They were so disconnected from the rest of the world--no media AT ALL from outside their country, whether TV, radio, books, internet--that they literally had no idea that what the government said was not true. They were told outrageous lies (e.g. that the Red Cross killed babies and poisoned the food that was supposedly given in aid, that sort of thing) but there was no way for them to know they were lies. The government control was so extreme and so complete that it was nearly impossible to find out what life was like outside North Korea.

The descriptions at the end about what it was like for each person to transition to life in South Korea are totally fascinating. It is such a good book, and I think would really address a lot of the questions you have asked in your post.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 7:08 PM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


I just finished reading In the Garden of the Beast, which provides a fascinating look at how Berlin's political and artistic classes dealt with the coalescing of Hitler's power in the year after his election.
posted by lunasol at 9:37 PM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oh, and there's a lot of people gradually realizing what's actually happening in Germany. Many people thought at first that the Nazis wouldn't last, or that more moderate factions would sieze control from Hitler. It wasn't until the Night of the Long Knives that many of these people realized how much power Hitler had.
posted by lunasol at 9:39 PM on October 20, 2012


Thanks for all the recommendations so far. These are exactly the sort of suggestions I was looking for.

> One thing you want to remember is that in many totalitarian states, so many people end up in prison that nearly everyone who has even halfway grasped the idea that the situation is bad, is already in prison or knows someone who has been sent there. The Soviet Union was, by the 1950s, a place where the only people who didn't know how bad things had been, through direct or second-hand experience, were extremely sheltered.

For example, Solzhenitsyn estimated that about 50 million people spent at least some time in the gulags - this is during an era when the total Soviet population was only about 170 million.


I'd like to believe this, but I'm not sure. Here's something to think about: The United States has an incarceration rate roughly equal to the Soviet Union at the height of the Gulag system (743 vs around 800 prisoners per 100,000 residents respectively). Of course, this obscures a lot of differences in composition (our prisoners serve much longer average terms so the Soviet system probably did affect many more total people), but I think most Americans would be surprised by this statistic.
posted by ecmendenhall at 9:53 PM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


The Aquariums of Pyongyang shows what it is like to go from a life of privilege in North Korea to the gulag. The family here was not politically active and was much surprised by their incarceration.
posted by chiefthe at 11:48 PM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


The United States has an incarceration rate roughly equal to the Soviet Union at the height of the Gulag system (743 vs around 800 prisoners per 100,000 residents respectively).

While considering this, also consider the relative distribution of who is likely to go to jail from within the population. You might be hard pressed to find a visible demographic pattern in gulag USSR, whereas it is trivially easy to find such a pattern along racial and class lines in the US. This would have a huge effect on how many people know someone who is in jail.
posted by bardophile at 11:54 PM on October 20, 2012 [5 favorites]


Google a book called Stasiland.
posted by chillmost at 2:29 AM on October 21, 2012


> One thing you want to remember is that in many totalitarian states, so many people end up in prison that nearly everyone who has even halfway grasped the idea that the situation is bad, is already in prison or knows someone who has been sent there. The Soviet Union was, by the 1950s, a place where the only people who didn't know how bad things had been, through direct or second-hand experience, were extremely sheltered.

This is not really true. You'd think it would be, but it isn't. People actually believed the government story that the ones being arrested were wreckers/saboteurs/spies, "enemies of the people." Even people unjustly arrested, as they were herded into "echelon" trains and sent to Siberia, looked at all the wretched people around them and thought a mistake had somehow been made in their personal case, but all those other people were guilty. Read Vasily Grossman (in particular Everything Flows, not a great novel like his masterpiece Life and Fate but more directly focused on this aspect of things), Anatoly Rybakov's trilogy (Children of the Arbat, Fear, and Dust and Ashes), or Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward. And Alexei Yurchak's Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation is an excellent description of how most people dealt with the post-Stalin situation (though I dislike Yurchak's complacency about Soviet life and his contempt for dissidents).
posted by languagehat at 8:25 AM on October 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


I just hit a relevant passage in an excellent Ukrainian novel I'm reading, Oksana Zabuzhko's The Museum of Abandoned Secrets. The protagonist is remembering a time in 1987 when she was about to graduate and was called in by a KGB captain who wanted to recruit her; instead of telling him to fuck off, she tells him she'll "think about it" ("compelled either by the student habit of not turning things in until the last possible moment [...] or by the instinctive impulse to step away from the scene of an accident"):
That it was a mistake, she realized right away, by how obviously and instantly happy it made the captain—but the gravity of it took time to fully manifest itself, specifically the three days that would pass before their second, and final, interview. She realized she never got out, never stepped away from that terrible office[...]

Later she would recognize this infestation of mind in dissidents' memoirs: people lived like that for years, wired, as if into an electric grid, trying to untangle something that by definition could not be untangled—drawn into a chess match with a schizoid. But at the time it felt like she was the only one left in the world. [...] Millions of people went through the same trials, and yet no collective experience emerged from it, and every rookie had to start from scratch as though he (or she) were the only one in the world—a metaphysical state, almost, like in love or in death when no other person's experience is of any use to you, and no book has words for what is happening to you, the One and Only, with the sole difference that this whole thing was sealed under the massive lid of solid, shamed silence—this was not an experience that people liked to share.
posted by languagehat at 12:22 PM on October 21, 2012


Keeping up the North Korean theme: Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son is very good and might give you insight.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:03 PM on October 21, 2012


I grew up in a totalitarian communist country (same stalinist style as North Korea). I never realized how wrong/bad everything was, until it ended when I was 18.

The next year, I read George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm, and the similarities were shocking. I highly recommend those books to everybody who grew up in a seemingly democratic Western country. You might be shocked how semitotalitarian some of your "great" pseudodemocracies actually are.

There is a saying where I come from: democracy is the dictatorship of the majority. And since 50% of the people have an IQ that is lower than 100 (which is pretty low compared to smart people, by the way), let me just say that I am not optimistic about our future.
posted by Ervin at 6:39 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Could you define a little more clearly what you mean by totalitarian? North Korea, East Germany and the USSR are the most obvious - Goodbye Lenin! is a sweet funny film about the shift in East Germany - but there are a lot of quasi-totalitarian places. Singapore where I live is very much a velvet-glove iron-fist place for instance, democratic with a long-running single ruling political party and a lot of discussion about living in a tightly controlled society.

I cannot recommend Gulag Archipelago enough. It is a monumental work of art and history.
posted by viggorlijah at 9:38 AM on October 22, 2012


Not exactly a totalitarian regime, but this article about growing up in and then leaving the Unification Church is moving and fascinating.

A brief taste:

In my upbringing, to question what we were taught was to invite Satan and the evil Spirit World into your mind; to fend off evil, one must quiet the questions and dive further into the readings and teachings of Rev. Moon. Some of the most effective brainwashing was what we had been taught to perpetuate upon ourselves.

At 19 I found myself on a terrifying personal precipice. I was seriously considering leaving the Unification Church, but with no means of supporting myself and no safety net outside of the insular church community, the notion was enough to bring me to panicked tears. Yet I didn't know if I believed Rev. Moon, his world, or his supposed messianic mission. As a reflex, I was ashamed and hated myself for feeling that way.


It's a pretty intense read.
posted by JuliaJellicoe at 12:29 PM on October 22, 2012


I read this article recently about a fellow who had escaped from a North Korean prison/work camp which he'd been born into. He had to shop his mother and brother whilst in there, but thought nothing of it as he'd been so indoctrinated. It was only when he was 25 and met a prisoner who'd just been sent to the camp from outside, that he realised there was an outside world. Totally compelling and fascinating reading.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/apr/13/escape-camp-14-korea-harden-review?intcmp=239

And here he is being interviewed, such an incredible story: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=znjDD8HOhuA
posted by stevedawg at 4:35 AM on October 23, 2012


If you can't access the Guardian link here is a link to a Washington Post article on the same escapee:

Review of "Escape from Camp 14"
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:17 AM on October 25, 2012


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