Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Latrine Bucket

“The imagination of writers is poverty-stricken in regard to the native life and customs of the Archipelago. When they want to write about the most reprehensible and disgraceful aspect of prison, they always accuse the latrine bucket. In literature the latrine bucket has become the symbol of humiliation, or stink. Oh, how frivolous can you be? Now was the latrine bucket really an evil for the prisoner? On the contrary, it was the most merciful device of the prison administration. The actual horror began the moment there was no latrine bucket in the cell.

In 1937there were no latrine buckets in certain Siberian prisons, or there weren’t enough. Not enough of them had been made ahead of time—Siberian industry hadn’t caught up with the full scope of arrests. There were no latrine barrels in the warehouses for the newly created cells. There were old latrine buckets in the cells, but they were antiquated and small, and the only reasonable thing to do at that point was to remove them, since they amounted to nothing at all for the new reinforcements of prisoners. So if long ago the Minusinsk Prison had been built for five hundred people (Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was never inside it; he moved about freely), and there were now ten thousand in it, it meant that each latrine bucket ought to have become twenty times bigger. But it had not.

Our Russian pens write only in large letters. We have lived through so very much, and almost none of it has been described and called by its right name. But, for western authors, peering through a microscope at the living cells of everyday life, shaking a test tube in the beam of strong light, this is after all a whole epic, another ten volumes of Remembrance of Things Past: to describe the perturbation of a human soul placed in a cell filled to twenty times its capacity and with no latrine bucket, where prisoners are taken out to the toilet only once a day! Of course, much of the texture of this life is bound to be quite unknown to Western writers; they wouldn’t realize that in this situation one solution was to urinate in your canvas hood, nor would they at all understand one prisoner’s advice to another to urinate in his boot! And yet that advice was the fruit of wisdom derived from vast experience, and it didn’t involve spoiling the boot and it didn’t reduce the boot to the status of a pail. It meant that the boot had to be taken off, turned upside down, the boot tops turned inside out and up—and thus a cylindrical vessel was formed that constituted the much-needed container. But, at the same time, with that psychological twists and turns Western writers could enrich their literature (without in the least risking any banal repetition of the famous masters) if they only knew about the scheme of things in that same Minusinsk Prison: there was only one food bowl for every four prisoners; and one mug of drinking water per day was issued to each (there were enough mugs to go around). And it could happen that one of the four contrived to use the bowl allotted to him and three others to relieve his internal pressure and then refuse to hand over his daily water ration to wash it out before lunch. What a conflict! What a clash of four personalities! What nuances! (And I am not joking. That is when the rock bottom of a human being is revealed. It is only that Russian pens are too busy to write about it, and Russian eyes don’t have time to read about it. I am not joking—because only doctors can tell us how months in such a cell will ruin a human beings health for his entire life, even if he wasn’t shot under Yezhov and was rehabilitated under Kruschchev.) (Aleksandr Solzhenistyn The Gulag Archipelago, Volume I page 540-542)

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