Some Chilling Public Speaking History

Here is a rather chilling passage from The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The Russian author captures in a few short paragraphs the sense of terror that pervaded the Soviet Union under Stalin.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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 political rally. Being 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 from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I’ll take being bored to death any day.

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  1. 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

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

  2. 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….

    1. “Fastenko, on the other hand, was the most cheerful person in the cell, even though, in view of his age, he was the only one who could not count on surviving and returning to freedom. Flinging an arm around my shoulders, he would say, ‘To *stand up* for truth is nothing! For truth you have to *sit* in jail!'”

      Solzhenitsyn — “Gulag”, Vol. I, Part I (“The Prison Industry”, ch. 5 (“First Cell, FIrst Love”), p. 202, emphases original.

  3. I posted a reference to this passage on a comment board recently in reference to the media’s attention to Rand Paul not applauding enthusiastically enough for Benjamin Netanyahu. Solzhenitsyn and I were then berated as being anti-Semitic. Weird.

    1. Thanks for that, Justin. Indeed, a lot of people seem to be focusing (as people are wont to do) on things that are not that important and conveniently overlook the things that are. Rolling Stone Magazine linked to my post about Solzhenitsyn in this article. Matt Taibbi doesn’t pull punches in his assessment of Congress.

  4. And, in recent history, we now how Brett Favre being lambasted by the media for not clapping enthusiastically enough for Bruce Jenner’s award. Sure, it’s has nothing to do with politicians, but the similarities are still present.

    1. Interesting observation, Richard. I remember Favre well from his playing days with the Packers. But since moving to Europe many years ago, I have only sporadically kept in touch with the goings-on in the NFL. I was not aware of the incident. Thanks for sharing.

  5. The linked passage is found at Vol. I, Part I (“The Prison Industry”), ch. 2 (“The History of Our Sewage Disposal System”), pp. 69-70. It’s somewhat mangled paragraphically, but essentially correct.

    1. Hi Curtis. I had tried to find out more about the speech but only came across a reference to it having taken place in 1937. That would have been 15 years after he rose to head of the Communist Party, so his power would have been consolidated. But Stalin was notoriously paranoid and ruthless … a deadly combination.

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