Yesterday, I picked up The Long Walk by Slavomir Rawicz at my local bookstore. I know that I initially set out to collect my thoughts on more academic and intellectually challenging works but I was attracted to this book for several reasons. First is that it falls into my interests as a historian. I spent my undergraduate and graduate school years studying Central Europe particularly the Cold War era so I have a deep interest in Poland and the Gulag system of concentration camps (one of my graduate professors specializes in the Gulag system and is publishing a book by Princeton University Press this June). So not only does this book fall within the area of my research interests but it is also touted as an excellent piece of adventure writing which I absolutely eat up. By doing a little research on the book and its author, I have discovered that Rawicz’s tale is highly contentious as many researchers, with documentary evidence, have questioned the validity of the book. However, while Rawicz’s case my not be 100% factual, many men like Rawicz were sent to the Gulag, then escaped or were released, and forced to walk home as the Soviets refused to provide transportation for them. Thus, Rawicz’s account may not be fact but it is plausible. With this reasoning, I read the first 50 pages yesterday.
This first part of the book describes Rawicz’s arrest, torture, trail, and shipment to Siberia. Reading this account, I could not help but think of two other works, Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which describe similar experiences. Rawicz grew up near the Polish-Russian border, trained as an architect, and was a soldier in the Polish cavalry during the beginning of the Second World War. He was eventually captured by the Soviet NKVD (secret police) and asked to admit his guilt – but he was never told what he was guilt of. Therefore, he refused to sign the document leading to his torture in the Soviet prison system. His stubborn refusal eventually led to his trail. The trail was basically a theater act in which the Soviet officials employed all types of chicanery to get him to sign this document. This is the part of the book that reminds of Koestler. No matter one’s innocence or guilt, once the Soviets decided you were guilty, you were guilty, and they employed any means necessary to get the prisoner to admit their guilt. In Rawicz’s case, the judge asked him to write his name on a small slip of paper, and then, through the use of wet ink or a forger, they placed his signature on the documents admitting his guilt to spying against the USSR.
Now officially “guilty,” Rawicz was charged with 25 years of hard labor. He recounted the trip Siberia crammed in the back of a transport truck with dozens of other prisoners and their destination – a shelter-less, snow-covered, potato field. Several things struck me about this section of the book. First was the description of the barren vastness of Russia. Secondly, and I think more revealing, he briefly mentions mountains of rotting grain in the middle of Siberia. This demonstrates the inefficiency and ineptitude of the Soviet system. The inability of the Soviets to provide basic goods and services to the population was, in my opinion, one of the major failings and crucial reasons that communism failed. Soviet’s planned economy focused on the manufacturing of large industrial goods and ignored the production and/or distribution of consumer goods. This is where I left Rawicz, in the middle of a potato field, in Siberia, huddling behind a snow drift for warmth.