From the Nadezhda Mandelstam chapter of Clive James’ excellent Cultural Amnesia [in the following excerpts I have Americanized the British spelling):
The main difference [between the Gulag and Hitler's Reich] was that in Nazi Europe the victims knew…who they were, and eventually came to know they were doomed. In the Soviet Union, the bourgeois elements could not even be certain that they were marked down for death. Like Kafka’s victims in the Strafkolonie, they were in a perpetual state of trying to imagine what their crime might be. Was it to have read books? Was it to have red hair? Was it (the cruelest form of fear) to have submitted too eagerly? Other versions of the same story came out of China, North Korea, Romania, Albania, Cambodia. The same story came out of the Rome of Tiberius, but the twentieth century gave something new to history when societies nominally dedicated to human betterment created a climate of universal fear. In that respect, the Communist despotisms left even Hitler’s Germany looking like a throwback. Hitler was hell on earth, but at least he never promised heaven: not to his victims, at any rate. It’s the disappointment of what happened in the new Russia that Nadezhda [Mandelstam] captures and distils into an elixir.
A little later in the essay he writes:
Quite early in the regime’s career of permanent house cleaning—certainly no later than Lunacharsky’s crackdown on the avant garde in 1929—anyone stemming from the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia was automatically enrolled along with remnants of the bourgeoisie in the classification of “class enemy.”…Civilized articulacy was as deadly a giveaway as soft hands…Eventually any kind of knowledge that had been acquired under the old order was enough to mark down its possessor. Just as Pol Pot’s teenage myrmidons assailed anyone who wore spectacles, so the Soviet “organs” discovered that even a knowledge of engineering was a threat to state security…Any field of study with its own objective criteria was thought to be inherently subversive. Given time, Stalin probably would have applied the Lysenko principle to every scientific field. To this day, scholars puzzle over the reasons for Stalin’s purging the Red Army of its best generals in the crucial years leading up to June 1941, but the answer might lie close at hand. The fact that military knowledge—strategy, tactics, and logistics—was a field of data and principles verifiable independently of ideology might have been more than enough to invite his hatred. In attacking his own army, of course, Stalin came close to demolishing the whole Soviet enterprise. But at the center of the totalitarian mentality is the fear that the internal enemy might be unapprehended…
[Nadezhda Mandelstam] does believe that there is such a thing as independent moral judgement, a quality in perfect polarity with the regime, which can’t tolerate the existence of independent moral judgement, and indeed has come into being specifically so as to eliminate all such values.
You can see for yourself the relevance to our own times. Moral relativism, the destruction of traditional values, the hegemony of PC thought over facts and knowledge—it’s all there. All but the camps. But are camps even needed, when the control of so many of the institutions is good?
Which doesn’t mean that camps—the natural progression of leftist thought—won’t come some day. But I have long thought we’re headed the Chavez rather than the Soviet way. Or in other words, somewhat more Brave New World than Nineteen Eighty-Four.
[NOTE: For an example of the sort of thinking that's become rife in academia and that dovetails quite nicely with this post, see this:
Harvard student Sandra Y.L. Korn recently proposed in The Harvard Crimson that academics should be stopped if their research is deemed oppressive. Arguing that “academic justice” should replace “academic freedom,” she writes: “If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of ‘academic freedom’?”
In other words, Korn would have the university cease to be a forum for open debate and free inquiry in the name of justice, as defined by mainstream liberal academia.
Unfortunately, this is already a reality in most universities across America, where academics and university administrators alike are trying, often successfully, to discredit and prohibit certain ideas and ways of thinking. Particularly in the humanities, many ideas are no longer considered legitimate, and debate over them is de facto non-existent. In order to delegitimize researchers who are out of line, academics brand them with one of several terms that have emerged from social science theory.
I wonder whether the self-righteous Ms. Korn is even aware of whose footsteps she's following in.]