Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Theodicy and Art after which?

The above (partial) phrase is often thrown about by popular theologians and philosophers. I believe it was Maurice Wiles who first questioned whether it is possible to hold fast to the traditional doctrine of providence after Auschwitz. I take Auschwitz here to mean the Nazi concentration camp system on a whole rather than the one particular (and admittedly notorious) prison complex in southern Poland. But in spite of my exposure to the horrors of the Third Reich extermination camps through film and literature, I cannot help but feel that depravity was taken to a new and much deeper level in the Soviet context. Most specifically in the context of what occurred at Nazino Island. Acclaimed historian of the Gulag system Anne Applebaum cites a document recently discovered in the Novosibirsk archives. The author of the document is an "instructor of the Party Committee in Narym, Western Siberia." He writes:

"The first convoy contained 5,070 people, and the second 1,044; 6,114 in all. The transport conditions were appalling: the little food that was available was inedible and the deportees were cramped into nearly airtight spaces...The result was a daily mortality rate of 35-40 people. These living conditions however, proved to be luxurious in comparison to what awaited the deportees on the island of Nazino....There were no tools, no grain, and no food. That is how their new life began. The day after the arrival of the first convoy, on 19 May, snow began to fall again, and the wind picked up. Starving, emaciated from months of insufficient food, without shelter and without tools...they were trapped. They weren't even able to light fires to ward off the cold. More and more of them began to die...

On the first day, 295 people were buried. It was only on the fourth or fifth day after the convoy's arrival on the island that the authorities sent a bit of flour by boat, really no more than a few pounds per person. Once they had received their meagre ration, people ran to the edge of the water and tried to mix some of the flour with water in their hats, their trousers or their jackets. Most of them just tried to eat it straight off, and some of them even choked to death. These tiny amounts of flour were the only food that the deportees received during the entire period of their stay on the island..."

Miss Applebaum follows this exerpt with her own narration of the event:

"By August 20, three months later, the Party functionary went on to write, nearly 4,000 of the original 6,114 "settlers" were dead. The survivors had lived because they ate the flesh of those who had died. According to another inmate, who encountered some of these survivors in the Tomsk prison, they looked "like walking corpses," and were all under arrest-accused of cannibalism."

(Gulag, a History; 75-76)

According to Applebaum, this event occurred within the context of what later Soviet historians called the "Opening Up of the Far North". Countless thousands of Kulaks and other peasants were forcibly rounded up and shipped to the most desolate areas of the country in order to work the land for the sustenance of the economy at large.

I had never heard of this affair before picking up Applebaum's work (which I heartily recommend reading if you are depressed and discontent with your life....every damning page of this tome will cause you to look up and leap for joy at the peacable life God has mercifully allotted to you). Thankfully a new volume has been produced by Nicolas Werth devoted entirely to the subject of Nazino:

Google books has an extract from this work, which quotes an eyewitness who testified about Nazino in 1989:

"They were trying to escape. They asked us "Where's the railway?" We'd never seen a railway. They asked "Where's Moscow? Leningrad?" They were asking the wrong people: we'd never heard of those places. We're Ostyaks. People were running away starving. They were given a handful of flour. They mixed it with water and drank it and then they immediately got diarrhea. The things we saw! People were dying everywhere; they were killing each other.... On the island there was a guard named Kostia Venikov, a young fellow. He was courting a pretty girl who had been sent there. He protected her. One day he had to be away for a while, and he told one of his comrades, "Take care of her," but with all the people there the comrade couldn't do much.... People caught the girl, tied her to a poplar tree, cut off her breasts, her muscles, everything they could eat, everything, everything.... They were hungry, they had to eat. When Kostia came back, she was still alive. He tried to save her, but she had lost too much blood." (

If I try to comprehend what went on in this cold, wintry island during those few months....all I can think of is Hell. Absolute Hell. This place was a portal to the terrifying, helpless despair of Gehenna below.

There is no sense trying to figure out the problem of evil after what happened on Nazino island. I defer all of these things to the last day, where every scoffing mouth will clap shut before the revelation of the Just and Incensed Judge of all nations, who will expose what has long been hidden in darkness and render each according to his deeds. God save us.

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