We live near a small park in London. One day last summer there were suddenly hundreds of young people there, staring at their phones, swiping, talking, slowly moving towards something or other – it was like a scene out of Ray Bradbury; a vision of the future. I understood later that they were playing Pokémon GO, and had been brought outside by the hunt, mesmerised by their screens and the merging of the virtual and the real, the old realm of religion.
In this issue, four writers describe growing up in religious sects: Miriam Toews, Matilda Gustavsson, Lauren Hough and Ken Follett. Each of them is marked by their upbringing, from Toews’s experience of the emotionally stultifying radical pacifism of the Mennonites to Gustavsson’s memories of the eerie false miracles of a Swedish cult and Hough’s account of the brutality and neglect of the Family. We end the first part of the issue with international best-selling author Ken Follett, who describes, for the first time, family life with the Plymouth Brethren, a Protestant sect which banned its followers from most forms of ‘worldly’ pleasures.
‘I heard Another World Is Possible!’, runs a line in Kelly Schirmann’s poem ‘Your Youth’. But so often the new world turns out more oppressive than the old one. The Russian proverb ‘when you cut wood, chips fly’ was often quoted in the heyday of Soviet repression, meaning that if you want to achieve a goal you have to make (or inflict) sacrifices. Ivan Chistyakov, whose diary was handed in to Memorial, the Russian human rights organisation dedicated to preserving the memories and history of Soviet Russia, was not a wood chip in that particular sense – on the contrary, he was a perpetrator, a Gulag guard, albeit a reluctant and somewhat sceptical one. He was drafted in the mid-1930s, just as the GULag, the network of forced labour camps, was in a phase of massive expansion, and sent to guard prisoners working on a section of BAM, the Baikal–Amur Mainline Railway.
BAM was originally a civilian project, transferred to GULag control as BAMLag in the early 1930s, when it became clear that it could not be completed with ordinary labour. BAMLag had a vast supply of prisoners and deportees – in 1938 the headcount was some 200,000 people – working under extremely harsh conditions.
Ivan Chistyakov’s diary is probably unique: there are few, if any, camp-guard diaries left, not least because being discovered writing such a diary would have been very dangerous. He was, as he expected to be, eventually arrested. Beyond that fact, we know almost nothing about him – we only have a blurred snapshot, with this note: ‘Chistyakov, Ivan Petrovich, repressed in 1937–38. Killed at the front in Tula Province in 1941.’
And yet, for all my scepticism about political and religious movements, there are people who would probably be better off in a sect than out on the street. Julie Baird, a San Francisco drug addict, was one of them. Emmanuel Carrère captures photographer Darcy Padilla’s engagement with Julie from the early days in San Francisco to the end, when Julie is dying of Aids in a hospital bed in Alaska. I suppose a sect might at least have given her a belief in something other than the dreamy highs of the Ambassador Hotel, that squalid temporary home of San Francisco down-and-outs.
Protest movements are building, on the right and on the left. Perhaps social media is a movement too, with its rules and traditions, its likes and followers, its candid and benign participants goaded by destructive trolls. By mid-September Pokémon GO had been downloaded 500 million times. What future youth movement might capture them, those international participants in virtual hunts? What do they have in common; what messages might reach them through a game?
The working title of this issue was Followers – but writing about a cult actually implies having left it. Perhaps this issue is about being free rather than about being a follower.