If you tell enough stories, perhaps the moral will show up.


Unnatural Selection

I've just started on my Christmas present, Kolmya Tales, by Varlam Shalamov. The introduction describes Shalamov's time in the mid-century Soviet labour camps and mentions the strokes of luck which allowed him to survive. I've read a little of the popular history and translated literature of the camps and the system that required them, and it struck me that all political survivor's stories have one feature in common: the amazing luck -- a necessary skill leading to a warm job, awakened sympathy in a guard or criminal, wasted food found or any of a host of other things -- that saved the witness' life. You could end up thinking that the penal labour was a happy-go-lucky setting where something would always turn up in time....

Of course that's wrong. There are no first person stories that don't have that lucky break, because all the potential authors -- without the lucky breaks -- died. By focussing on eyewitness accounts -- the best possible sources -- we've gone wrong. The camps were not about misery overcome by good fortune; they were about misery closed with death. Everyone is telling their truth, but the sample is bad, and so the picture is false.

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