Some Chilling Public Speaking History

I wish to thank my friend, Max Atkinson, for recently drawing attention in his blog to this chilling passage from The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It captures in a few short paragraphs the sense of terror that pervaded the Soviet Union under Stalin.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Vladivostok, 1994

Nowadays, we often hear people talk about being “bored to death” by a speaker. Of course, they are speaking figuratively. However, in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s reign, attending a political speech could, quite literally, be the end of you.

In the passage below, Solzhenitsyn captures the frenzied but eerie atmosphere at one such political rally. Being seen to be the first one to stop clapping had dramatic consequences. (And, as will become clear, you did not want to be the first one to stop!)

At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up (just as everyone had leaped to his feet during the conference at every mention of his name). ... For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the stormy applause, rising to an ovation, continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin.

However, who would dare to be the first to stop? … After all, NKVD men were standing in the hall applauding and watching to see who would quit first! And in the obscure, small hall, unknown to the leader, the applause went on – six, seven, eight minutes! They were done for! Their goose was cooked! They couldn’t stop now till they collapsed with heart attacks! At the rear of the hall, which was crowded, they could of course cheat a bit, clap less frequently, less vigorously, not so eagerly – but up there with the presidium where everyone could see them?

The director of the local paper factory, an independent and strong-minded man, stood with the presidium. Aware of all the falsity and all the impossibility of the situation, he still kept on applauding! Nine minutes! Ten! In anguish he watched the secretary of the District Party Committee, but the latter dared not stop. Insanity! To the last man! With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers! And even then those who were left would not falter…

Then, after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved!

The squirrel had been smart enough to jump off his revolving wheel. That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed Form 206, the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him:

“Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding.”

Gripping stuff. I’ll take being bored to death any day.

I encourage you to check out Max Atkinson’s Blog. He is a communications researcher and consultant who runs courses, coaches speakers and writes books on presentation and public speaking.

Max has a particular flair for insightful analysis of political speeches . . . and politicians.

Photo courtesy of Mikhail Evstafiev

About John Zimmer

I am passionate about public speaking and helping others improve their public speaking and presentation skills.
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14 Responses to Some Chilling Public Speaking History

  1. Pingback: Peer Review | The Dixie Flatline

  2. Nahnsu says:

    Guess he took a stand by sitting down.

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  3. Pingback: Was North Korea’s No. 2 Killed For Not Clapping Hard Enough? | Nation & World News

  4. Pingback: TIL A Party conference in Soviet Moscow ended with a tribute to Stalin. No one wanted to be the very first to stop clapping. Soon after eleven minutes of clapping a factory director stopped 1st and everybody else followed. That night time he was sent to a

  5. I find the silence in the United States on issues of deep moral bankruptcy just as toxic. The Gulag is a private prison system in the US. Plus ca change….

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  6. Pingback: Infinite Love | Brown Pundits

  7. jrrachal says:

    Several years ago, maybe 20, I cited this passage from the Gulag to a colleague in the context of our tendency to question certain ideologies yet to at least superficially accept them anyway for fear of being thought contrarian or out-of-sync with some view or belief currently in vogue. My point to him was that being the first to stop clapping, to recognize the absurdity of the new and preferred ideology, can have consequences, but also can show moral courage. I think that I even asked rhetorically “who will be the first to stop clapping” for some ideology then prevalent in my field. The Gulag clapping scene is related to the notion of political correctness. But that term itself has become so cliched that one hesitates to accuse someone of it, despite its near perfect descriptiveness. So in trying to come up with an alternative term, I came up with the less felicitous but still possibly useful “assimilative pandering,” which I define as the attempt to curry favor with people belonging to a group with which the supplicant wishes to assimilate and be seen to belong. What prompted me to look up the Gulag passage on Google (which led me to you) was that I had just read a book review so adulatory that one had to wonder if the reviewer, herself so immersed in the politically correct ideology the book glorified, was even capable of a fair and reasoned critique. I considered how I might have begun the review had I been the reviewer, and the Gulag passage about clapping (possibly the most symbolically chilling and thus memorable passage of the entire one-volume version I read) immediately came to mind.
    John Rachal
    jrrachal@comcast.net

    http://johnrachalblog.wordpress.com/

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    • John Zimmer says:

      John,

      Thank you for such a detailed and thought-provoking comment. Fascinating insights into phenomenon which, alas, continues unabated in many places today.

      John

      Like

  8. Pingback: On the way to the Beaches... this day in 1944 - Page 14

  9. Tracy Ivy says:

    My favorite part of that specific volume. I read it to everyone I saw, even in the DMV.

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  10. Pingback: Tweets that mention Some Chilling Public Speaking History « Manner of Speaking -- Topsy.com

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