Fear, Foolishness, & Cults of Personality

Reading in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago this morning, I came across this fascinating account. The author tells of a Communist Party conference during the time of the Great Purge of Party leaders (and hundreds of thousands of others as well) in 1937-1938. The presiding officer was a new man who had taken over for the previous secretary of the District Party who had recently been arrested.

Solzhenitsyn relates, “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).” Then a strange thing happened, the kind of strange thing that can only happen in a cult of personality combined with the strong element of fear and great trepidation for one’s personal safety.

The small hall echoed with “stormy applause, rising to an ovation.” 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 be the first to stop?

What about the man in charge of the conference? Well, his predecessor had been arrested for who knew what (one didn’t really have to have done anything to be arrested), so he was wrapped in fear. The NKVD men (Stalin’s secret police) were watching everyone to see who lacked the proper fervor for the Great Leader. “And in that obscure, small hall,” Solzhenitsyn continued, “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!”

One man, the director of the local paper factory, whom Solzhenitsyn described as the most independent and strong-minded man in the room, kept looking at the conference leader, hoping he would stop this madness.

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!

Then that strong-minded director of the paper factory did what no one else dared to do: after this farce had continued unceasingly for eleven minutes, “he assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place,” Solzhenitsyn relates. “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.”

The outcome? That factory director was arrested and given a ten-year prison sentence. His official interrogator reminded him, “Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding!” And that, Solzhenitsyn concluded, is “how to grind people down with stupidity.”

Cults of personality come in all flavors in all types of governments and in all political movements. This example is drawn from the annals of Stalin’s USSR, but the lesson is for all of us. We must be diligent and not be ground down with stupidity.

Take notice, O senseless among the people! O fools, when will you be wise? Psalm 94:8