Saturday, August 28, 2010

Alexander Solzhenitsyn: "For the Good of the Cause"

I've read a number of Solzhenitsyn's works, and I find this one to be the most formulaic of the ones I've read. His characters are usually mixed, in that most have good and bad characteristics, and even in his prison works, there are good guards and administrators and bad prisoners. That doesn't happen in this novella, which makes me think that Solzhenitsyn was concentrating more on the situation than on a realistic portrayal of those involved.

It becomes obvious shortly into the work that there are good guys and bad guys in this work. The good guys are the faculty, staff, and students of the college and the local party secretary--the common people in this situation--, while the bad guys are upper echelon of the Party or the faceless, unknown members of various governing commissions in a distant city.

The setting is a small technical college somewhere in Russia during the Soviet era. The present facilities are small and inappropriate for a technical school which requires labs and workshops and various types of equipment. Moreover, the school is set in an out-of-way small town, so most of the students come from elsewhere. Since there is no dorm for the students, they must be put up in various, sometimes inappropriate or uncomfortable places. And, generally the stipend awarded is insufficient to cover the rent and other expenses.

The school has been given a piece of land in the town, large enough for putting up a dorm and a building for the college. The plans were carefully drawn and the building was large enough for classrooms and various labs and workshops. The overcrowding would be eliminated. As the contractors had problems getting laborers, the faculty, staff, and students volunteered to do the unskilled labor tasks, such as clearing the area of vegetation or digging the foundations during their free time and on weekends and holidays.

It took a year and the building was now ready for the final approval. Once they received the signed contract, the school personnel could begin moving into the new classrooms and labs. However, something was wrong. It had been several weeks since the request had been submitted to Khabalygin, the factory manager and nominal "proprietor" of the technical college, for his signature, but he did nothing. No one could understand the delay.

Well, no one could understand until an investigating Commission composed of bureaucrats from various Councils and Ministries (none of which really had anything to do directly with the college), led by Khabalygin arrived on the scene, just a few days before the new term was to begin. After "investigating" the old buildings, the Commission decided that the situation really wasn't that bad and that they could manage with the facilities that they had for a little while longer. The new building was being given to a "research institute of national importance."

Some investigating and discreet phone calls established that there was no hurry in finding a place for the research institute, as the plans for it had been put off for an indefinite time more than three months ago. In addition, there were a number of buildings in the small towns and the larger cities in the area that would have been appropriate, actually more appropriate. The new building had been designed to include labs and workshops as well as classrooms. Therefore, the building now needed to be remodeled for the research institute of national importance, at a cost of almost half of the original construction cost.

What happened? Khabalygin is a empire builder. Getting the research institute would put his town on the map and being the one who brought it here would enhance his reputation. Since it was in his jurisdiction, this also would increase his power and prestige much more than a small technical college would. When others protested this outright theft and reminded Khabalygin of all the voluntary work the faculty and students had put in, his response was that they should happy to be able to make sacrifices for the good of the cause.

What I found most interesting is that while this takes place in Russia, it could and does happen elsewhere, including the US. We have local government officials and, in place of the Party, we have the Corporation. Instead of communism being the weapon used against the people, we have capitalism. Local governments now have an expanded power of eminent domain. In the past, eminent domain could be used only if the benefit was to the entire community--highways, parks, government buildings, cultural institutions. Now eminent domain can be used to remove people from their homes simply to benefit a corporation which wishes to build a factory or office space or a retail outlet.

And recently, a congressman from an oil-producing state was upset because the federal government criticized BP for the oil spill and insisted that BP pay for the damage it had caused. This congressman argued that this was extortion, therefore a criminal action, and that one shouldn't criticize corporations--that it was un-American to do so. During the Soviet era, it was a crime to criticize the Communist Party and the Government in Russia. Today, in the US, some would argue that it's wrong to criticize a corporation.

Overall Reaction: very readable and with incidents that are found in any society--be it communist or socialist or capitalist.

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