And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?... The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin's thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! If… if…We didn't love freedom enough. And even more – we had no awareness of the real situation…We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward. —Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago: Volume 1
What is Solzhenitsyn's choice? It is a personal decision to either go unresistingly when arrested by a tyrannical government or violently resist, probably at the risk of your life. In other words, do you love freedom so much that you are willing to die rather than surrender it?
The chapter that the quote comes from explains that people did not resist, detailing their psychology behind compliance. The initial reaction was one of disbelief. “Me? What for?...It’s a mistake! They’ll set things right!” Emotions on arrest were mainly were confusion, fear, and denial assuming there had been some mistake or failed to grasp the gravity of the situation. Others were asked to simply turn themselves in and many obediently did so.
Having the benefit of hindsight, the reader can’t understand why compliance was so widespread. This behavior is not limited to Soviet dissidents. Countless criminals have condemned themselves because they thought they could talk their way out of trouble. The innocent or those undeserving of harsh punishments often shoot themselves in the foot by assuming they can just “clear things up” by talking. The stupid and naïve having faith in the system is not a new phenomenon.
Compounding this is the sincere belief by the arrestee that they have done nothing wrong.
"But as for you, you are obviously innocent! You still believe that the Organs are humanly logical institutions: they will set things straight and let you out. Why, then, should you run away? And how can you resist right then? After all, you'll only make your situation worse; you'll make it more difficult for them to sort out the mistake."
In ordinary circumstances, this is typically correct. Shut your mouth and get a good lawyer. Criminals choose to shoot it out with the police and die. That those who do this are almost universally scumbags who are guilty, we don’t see this as a viable response to the criminal justice system. Good men either do their time or are vindicated, or so goes the theory.
Yet for those who are of marginal guilt, perhaps by the State’s interpretation and selective enforcement, trusting that the system will be faithful is increasingly proving not to the be case. In high-profile cases involving leftist prosecutors and the political/social unrest of 2020, arguably innocent citizens from police officers to a 17-year old boy were prosecuted on the basis of outrage, not the law. Even those who have been vindicated did not receive fully fair trials.
We are seeing this now with the January 6th defendants being hunted, treated, and sentenced with grossly disproportionately to Antifa rioters. An Internet troll was just found guilty of an election-related civil rights violation posting a meme. President Trump himself has been indicted and arrested for dubious crimes. Surely we are through the looking glass.
Lawlessness is beginning to prevail in the United States. While we are not in a widespread without-the-rule-of-law (WROL) situation, we are in the starting phases of the gray zone that is anarcho-tyranny. Anarcho-tyranny is where the state has the power and desire to persecute dissidents but does not equally enforce the law. “Justice for me, but not for thee.”
If you will be politically prosecuted—persecuted that is—and certainly convicted, why would you subject yourself to a process that is so prejudiced against you it would take a miracle to succeed? A time will come when gambling on the chance that the trial will be fair, the jury unbiased, or that the appeals process will work out is non-viable. This isn’t to say that every arrest or punishment will justify making such a decision; ordinary criminals do it all the time, however.
What I am asking is that if the conditions are such that good men, who have been wickedly accused in order to make an example out of, stand little to no chance of being exonerated, or if they do, they do it at the cost of being emotionally, reputationally, and financially broken, why would they willing submit to the process?
But when to act and what to do becomes the dilemma when the average dissident no longer trusts the system. “At what exact point, then, should one resist?” Solzhenitsyn asked. It is a two-part question. The first is more of a political one and speaks to self-awareness of both the individual and political bands as a whole.
The debate rages endlessly online on the right. Conservatives insist that the high ground must always be taken, even if that means losing battles to the left. The left has already begun to resist, but they and their cronies hold the reigns of power, so they can engage in the notorious acts of rioting, vandalism, terrorism, and intimidation we have seen. The right can’t have a rally without being attacked, infiltrated, or subject to partisan in-fight playing a game of “who’s the fed?”
Even so, as much as men might chafe under “absolute Despotism,” they do not act. Self-preservation is a powerful instinct so it is natural to put aside these uncomfortable thoughts and make excuses. “Every man always has handy a dozen glib little reasons why he is right not to sacrifice himself.” Objectively, there are good reasons not to become a one-man revolutionary but individually, it is dishonest to the self to make up lies rather than admit you are too scared to resist. On the contrary, it is foolish to look for excuses to engage in violence.
To the second half of the question of “when,” Solzhenitsyn asks about the point where resistance should begin: "When one's belt is taken away? When one is ordered to face into a corner? When one crosses the threshold of one's home?" There are no clear markers or indicators for the last chance to take action. Usually resistance to arrest has been someone acting impulsively in the moment; that’s usually how criminals act. The dissident citizen probably has never seriously considered that they may be targeted by the State for political persecution, so the thought of what will they do and when never crosses their mind.
After all, if you are innocent, and in America no one would ever be prosecuted for freedom of speech issues or subjected to unfair treatment because of political persuasion, why would you consider such things? Contemplating resistance is like thinking about robbing a bank; good people don’t do it. In any case, resistance is felonious, is murder, or is treasonous. Probably from 1865 to very recently nearly all Americans would laugh at the thought of not allowing the judicial process to play out.
Criminals engage in high-risk behavior because they think they will never be caught. Guileless dissidents think that It’ll never come to that or It won’t happen to me. Denial and normalcy bias has so warped the dissident’s perception that they do not see the signs all around them. A crook knows the game and either has decided what he’ll do (I’m not back to prison) or he knows it at an impulsive level.
Solzhenitsyn tells us “A person who is not inwardly prepared for the use of violence against him is always weaker than the person committing the violence.” The dissidents were not mentally prepared for the possibility of being arrested, let alone fighting back! The NKVD took advantage of this by seizing people in the middle of night when they were tired, confused, and unprepared to resist. There would be no time to think, to summon up courage, or to seek help. The whole thing would be over before the individual fully understood what is happening to them.
By contrast, many criminals have no such debate but start shooting the moment they think they may be apprehended, even if their crime is trivial. A violent criminal doesn’t even have the moral high ground!
Solzhenitsyn’s choice, therefore, is a decision that must be made ahead of time. How will you react when you are arrested for badthink? Will you run? Will you fight? Will you comply? Even understanding your own reluctance to resist ahead of time is better than regretting bewilderment and inaction later. If you do believe that you will resist, it is better to determine your feelings and commitment now. The consequences of resistance will be damn ugly. Decide now, because you will not have a chance to think or plan when the moment comes.
Author Don Shift
Don Shift is a veteran of the Ventura County Sheriff's Office and avid fan of post-apocalyptic literature and film who has pushed a black and white for a mile or two. He is a student of disasters, history, and current events.