How to keep one’s human decency

I read something amazing yesterday.  In a book entitled The Notebooks of Sologdin, Dimitri Panin records his experiences as a prisoner in Stalin’s concentration camps during WWII.  He was an engineer and was put to work in the machine-tool workshop at his particular camp.

I stumbled across this reflection, and found it so encouraging and inspiring I just had to share it…

In the winter of 1941-1942 the underworld precept ‘You die today and I’ll die tomorrow’ was [extensively] in operation. […] In the feverish effort at mere survival, many prisoners peddled information to the authorities and denounced each other.  Everybody hated and feared his neighbours and thought nothing of sending someone else to the grave.

Standing in opposition to this general philosophy was our fraternity of five, bound together in misfortune and close friendship…

Because we stood up for one another, we had been able to resist the assaults of the criminal element [within the prison population], which was tightly knit together by its own bloody code of discipline, accepted as an ally of the regime, experienced in the arts of oppression, and skillful in taking advantage of disunity among the rank-and-file workers.

By winter’s end, however, only a pathetic handful of the criminal element remained alive; at the outset there had been about three hundred [fifty of these were sent to the war front].  Of the seventy ordinary prisoners, on the other hand … not more than three had died.  This discrepancy [was due to the fact that] the thieves’ code was based on false premises.  Our brigade had been properly fed during the winter because it was led by people who rejected this code. […] In the nearby locomotive repair shop where everything was controlled by secret informers the casualties were almost as high as those among the criminal element.

The deadly feud between regular and renegade criminals had sprung from the same ruthless code to which both sides adhered, namely, that you can put off your own death till tomorrow by killing your enemies today.

The contrast I am drawing here is between the tremendous strength of good and the self-destructiveness of evil.  To be sure, one must be strict in defining the good.  A man who embodies good must be capable of loving those around him, of sacrificing his wellbeing, or, if necessary, even life itself – his own, not someone else’s.

Isn’t that amazing?!  Living by a moral code (informed by Christianity – I haven’t from the snatches I’ve read yet been able to discover how Panin would describe his faith-position, but he certainly makes reference to God at intervals, and rejects atheism) in extreme circumstances can actually be the means of securing life for yourself and those around you.  Much of what he did (for details of which, you’ll have to read the book!) was quite counter-intuitive in a world where survival was so hard, but it secured his own survival where ‘dog eat dog’ tactics led to the deaths of so many of the criminal majority.

For most of us today, doing the right thing isn’t a life-or-death decision, but it can be incredibly hard and risky in its own way. I share this story to demonstrate the power of living righteous lives in the hardest of circumstances.

Panin and his friends changed the culture of their workshop; can we change the culture of our workplaces using the same principles?

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  1. Bill Drake
    on Mar 1st at 2:10 am


    Brilliant! You write well (as always), and this is compelling stuff! Thanks – you are awesome!

  2. Simona
    on Mar 4th at 11:07 am

    Hi Jennie,

    This is an amazing post and I really love the conclusion Panin is drawing in his story! How great to see that people even if they are in greatest stress can strengthen each other!

    I’m glad you started this blog! Looking forward to reading more inspiring stuff!


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