The audience exploded into applause. Every person in the room jumped up and began to wildly clap, as if racing each other to see who could get to their feet the fastest. The applause was all to honor the dictator Joseph Stalin at a 1937 conference of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union.
But the big question soon became: Who would have the nerve to be the first person to stop clapping in honor of Comrade Stalin? No one had the courage, so the clapping went on…and on…and on.
You might be wondering why in the world anyone would be afraid to stop clapping for any leader. To understand this, you need to know Joseph Stalin.
Stalin was a ruthless dictator who ruled the Soviet Union from 1922 to 1952. Although no one knows the precise number of political prisoners he executed, estimates usually reach well over a million.
Historian Roy Aleksandrovich Medvedev estimated that Stalin had about 1 million political prisoners executed during the Great Terror of 1937-38 alone. That doesn’t even count the 6 or 7 million who died in the famine that Stalin created through his policies, or the millions who had to do long, hard sentences in the Gulag labor camps.
So when people were afraid to stop clapping for Stalin, they had good reason.
Here is how the Nobel Prize-winning writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn described the surreal scene in his great book, The Gulag Archipelago:
“The applause went on—six, seven, eight minutes! They were done for! Their goose was cooked! They couldn’t stop now till they collapsed with heart attacks! At the rear of the hall, which was crowded, they could of course cheat a bit, clap less frequently, less vigorously, not so eagerly…Nine minutes! Ten!…Insanity! To the last man! With make-believe enthusiasm on their faces, looking at each other with faint hope, the district leaders were just going to go on and on applauding till they fell where they stood, till they were carried out of the hall on stretchers.”
At last, after eleven minutes of non-stop clapping, the director of a paper factory finally decided enough was enough. He stopped clapping and sat down—a miracle!
“To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down,” Solzhenitsyn says.
That same night, the director of the paper factory was arrested and sent to prison for ten years. Authorities came up with some official reason for his sentence, but during his interrogation, he was told: “Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding!”
Solzhenitsysn himself was a victim of Stalin’s because he was sent to the Gulag labor camps for eight years for criticizing Stalin in a letter to a friend. The goal of the labor camp was to brainwash prisoners and change them into good, obedient Communists. But an amazing thing happened to Solzhenitsyn: He came out of the camp a Christian. While he was in a prison hospital bed, one of the doctors sat at his bedside and told him the story of how and why he became a follower of Jesus.
That night, the doctor was clubbed to death, but Solzhenitsyn never forgot him. Solzhenitsyn went on to devote his life to Christ and to speaking the truth about what had been happening in the Soviet Union. His Gulag Archipelago, Parts 1 and 2, were perhaps the most influential books of the 20th Century. After all, those books, in telling the story of Stalin’s Great Terror, helped to topple the Communist empire.
Solzhenitsyn shocked people by saying that he was actually thankful for his time in prison because it taught him about the nature of good and evil. “Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts,” he wrote.
Ironically, he emerged from prison stronger—a resurrection of sorts.
One of Solzhenitsyn’s many books was called The Oak and the Calf—a title that refers to an old, Russian fable about a calf that kept butting its head against a big oak tree again and again and again until the huge tree finally toppled. Solzhenitsyn was that calf, and so were many heroic people, who kept butting their heads against the giant oak that was once the Soviet empire. They didn’t give up, and that tree eventually fell.
It takes courage to be the person who doesn’t give up. It takes courage to be the person who is willing to stop applauding evil, when everyone else in the room just keeps on going. There is often a price to pay for this kind of courage, but there’s also a reward beyond measure.
By Doug Peterson