A Memoir of the Gulag Explores the Baleful Consequences of Soviet Tyranny for the Jews—and for Russia

When World War II broke out in 1939, Julius Margolin had just returned to his native Poland from the Land of Israel—three years after making aliyah—to attend to some business. He soon found himself in the Soviet-occupied portion of the country and, the next year, was exiled to one of Stalin’s vast network of prison camps, where he remained until 1946, after which he returned to Palestine. According to the historian Timothy Snyder, Margolin’s memoir of this period is perhaps the very best personal account of the Gulag. Snyder writes in his foreword to the recently published English translation:

Margolin is a keen observer of what happened in eastern Poland under Soviet rule: the deportation of elites, the subjugation of the economy, the closing of all independent organizations. Many Jews wanted to go back [to the German-occupied portion of Poland]: “as late as spring 1940, Jews preferred the ghetto to the Soviet equality of rights.” Many Jews did in fact return. Those like Margolin who stayed were expected to take Soviet citizenship. Jews who did not were deported to special settlements in Soviet Kazakhstan and Siberia in June 1940. A few weeks after that, Margolin was sent to a camp in the Russian far north to fell trees.

During Margolin’s first year as a zek, [as the inmates were known], the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were allies. His forced labor served an economy that supplied the Wehrmacht. We might be tempted to think of this as ironic; for Margolin it was simply the end of his world: “Both sides were inhuman reflections of everything we held dear and sacred.” There was nothing surprising, for him, in “Russia’s alliance with Nazi Germany.” A Jew in Soviet confinement, he had to endure pro-Nazi propaganda: “The rare Soviet newspapers that landed in the camp were full of pro-German publicity.” The Soviet press was reprinting the speeches of Nazi dignitaries. “In line with Hitler’s successes,” Margolin recalls, “anti-Semitism increased in the camp.” Although he was a Polish Jew, and well aware of Polish anti-Semitism, no one called him a “kike” until he was in a Soviet camp.

Margolin, a philosopher by training, had much to say about the brutal horrors of the Gulag, but he also had some insight into the legions of fellow travelers and Soviet apologists among Western intellectuals:

After the war, Margolin read Jean-Paul Sartre and laughed at Sartre’s idea that alienation was something experienced by bourgeois French people. He saw Sartre’s complaint about the absence of absolute meaning in existence as a temptation to seek it in politics, in a system such as Communism. As a prediction of Sartre’s politics, this was correct. Margolin actually experienced something very much like a pure alienation and wrote about it with a skill that should have been humbling to those who wrote about what they did not know.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: Anti-Semitism, Communism, Jean-Paul Sartre, Nazi-Soviet Pact, Soviet Jewry, Soviet Union

Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Nov. 23 2022

Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.

In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

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Read more at Dispatch

More about: Arab democracy, Democracy, Iran, Middle East, U.S. Foreign policy