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Klejn L.S. The Savage society (the Russian title: The world turned upside down)

Publ. in German 1991 at Berlin, Aufbau; in Russian 1993 at St.Petersburg, Farn; in Slovenian 2001 at Ljubljana, ŠKUC

By Leo S. Klejn


  The adventures of a Russian scholar in prison and GULAG camp in the very end of the Brezhnev epoch are related in the first person. In the opinion of the known Russian anthropologist Alexander Kozintsev (the son of the famous film director) this book effects one of the great portrayals of drudgery in Russian literature: - the others being those of Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, and Solzhenitsyn.


Yet, as distinct from other similar books, its focus is not the description of oppression, but the contemplation of human nature. The book contains scholarly but vivid description and analysis of the closed criminal society. The author adduces a detailed comparison of this specific world with prehistoric society and advances a theory as to the cause of this similarity. The similarity is manifold: tattooing as a system of signs, rites of initiation, the developed system of taboo, three castes, clan conflicts, chieftains and their retinues, blood brotherhood, non-monetary exchange, etc.


The author considers this to be closer to natural human society, in comparison to which our own society is artificial. The point is that human nature was formed in the Cromagnon period and biologically has not changed since. Homo sapiens sapiens, as this species is called with some exaggeration, has existed no less than 40 000 years (and in the East much longer). With all our intellectual and social attainments we owe more to our culture than to our nature. This is seen in examples from in India, in reports of feral children nurtured by wolfs.  When people are deprived of modern culture (or there is shortage of it), and they are left to self-organisation (as happened in coercive Soviet labour camps), they build a savage society very close to a prehistoric one, to the society of Upper Palaeolithic.


The theme is important, the entire Soviet society experienced at least the influence of camp society with its slang, songs, rituals, customs, notions and morals, for in the space of 30 years more than 30 millions people, i. e. a considerable part of the adult population of the country passed through the prisons and camps. This is why the book, whilst still in journal form (serialized over four years, 1988-91) aroused a veritable storm of comments in the most popular Leningrad 'thick monthly' Neva, achieving then a total sale of 700,000. As the KGB and the censors were still then very powerful, these sketches were published under the pseudonym Lev Samoylov (rather a transparent pseudonym: first name and patronym). In the year 1988 Neva awarded the author a medal "For the best publication of the year". The most interesting readers’ letters were published in the journal after each instalment (they are now included in the book after each chapter). There was also a discussion of the book in the journal "Sovetskaya Etnografiya" (some excerpts from this are also included). When the book was published in Germany some reviewers compared the book with "Notes from the Dead house" by Dostoevsky, saying: "This surpasses even the Dead House!"


The author of the book, a world-renowned archaeologist, who taught at Leningrad University, was arrested in the last wave of repression, which befell the Leningrad intelligentsia in the early 80s, when Soviet troupes entered Afghanistan, the détente policy was wrecked and Sakharov was exiled to Gorki. At that time the blow fell upon professors who supported unorthodox positions; who were too often published in the West; or who were too popular among the student youth. In large part these professors were, in addition, of Jewish origin. The author was accused of homosexuality. The investigation and the court trial - resembling that one of Oscar Wilde in its tension, - are recreated in minute detail, and facts the facts are also given that relate to the participation of KGB.


The Editor of Neva (where these sketches were published for the first time) requested the former investigator who led the case to say whether the author’s facts were reliable. In a letter to the Editor the investigator confirmed that the facts have not been distorted by the author. In addition he admitted that the case was organised by the “sily zastoya” (“forces of the stagnation”) and that he deplores his participation. The text of the letter is attached to the book.


The book is written as a series of recollections and journalistic sketches. As an offence against norms, such as was imputed to the author, was severely punished in the criminal world by the prisoners themselves, his survival, with dignity, is fraught with great difficulties. How, and why, did he survive? The book reads like a detective story.


The story, as it appeared in journal form (1988 – 91), was censored. The German edition of 1991 is incomplete (not everything could be taken over the border). A full Russian edition was published in 1993, and from this edition the Slovene edition of 2001 was made. The length of the book is ca. 225 pages. There are currently plans for a new Russian edition to be published in the Ukraine.


A new title for the English translation has been chosen because it it was found that an English book already exists under the old title (by another author and on a completely on different theme).

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Publishers’ preface

Author’s preface

Ch. I. Danger

1. Night call

2. With a song through life

3. The gold-rush

4. A Varangian battle

5. A Musical story

6. Theory with practice

7. Theatre of absurdity

8. The right of mortmain

9. Life under the bell-glass

10. The very competent


Ch. II. Justice and the two crosses

1. The time stopped

2. “Abandon hope…”

3. From beggar’s bag and prison don’t swear off

4. In a tight place

5. Two crosses

6. Unequal competition

7. “Remember the baker!”

8. Perestroika, the time of reforms


Ch. III. Short work with the help of the law

1. Me, Distributor of Sugar

2. The forgotten letter

3. The person behind the stage

4. A play with the roles played by…

5. Themis – with and without a blindfolded band

6. Suicide checkers

7. The Presumption of innocence and the “pornography of mind”

8. The Themis swindle

9. The sentence that ran away

10. Will you please complain

11. Zheglov’s syndrome

12. Seven guarantees

Supplement: two letters


Ch. IV. Seventeenth expedition

1. Watch-towers on the steppe

2. The other side of the Moon

3. ‘The severe zone’ - my own home

4. Dual power

5. The scale of terror

6. Pedagogical tragedy

7. Pedagogical parody: labour and collective

8. Reconstruction, reformation, revolution

9. The far near things


Ch. V. Under the red sun

1. Own view on the hell

2. Case history

3. Hell, as seen by the French


Ethnography of the camp

From the article by V. R. Kabo “Structure of the camp and archetypes of conscience”

From the article by A. G. Kozintsev “On the world turned upside down”

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