by Anne Applebaum


AUTHOR's SITE: http://www.anneapplebaum.com/gulag/gulag.html

Circles of Hell
'Gulag: A History' by Anne Applebaum

Reviewed by Lars T. Lih

Sunday, April 13, 2003; Page BW06

A History
By Anne Applebaum
Doubleday. 680 pp. $35

What was the Gulag? It was a massive prison labor system, erected in the U.S.S.R. during the Stalin years, whose unique characteristic was a strange and volatile combination of punitive hysteria, economic exploitation and heartbreaking waste. During the 25 years or so from its full realization until its dismantling after Stalin's death in 1953, the Gulag made substantial contributions to the Soviet economy at the cost of the grotesque suffering of millions. Yet ultimately, it was a costly drag on the economy as a whole.

Anne Applebaum's Gulag is an epic portrait of this crime against humanity. Applebaum needs all of her 600 pages of text to describe the rise and fall of the Gulag, along with the repressive prison systems that preceded and replaced it. More important, she sets before us "the experience of the victims" who were caught up in a cold vortex of senseless cruelty. Her book is a vast synthesis of all the available Gulag memoirs, supplemented by archival research. (One of the real surprises for me was the official inspector reports, which are often as damning as the memoirs of the bitterest of ex-prisoners.) Given the nature of the material, Applebaum wisely adopts a calm and unobtrusive style as our guide on a journey through hell.

Which anecdote best expresses the horror of the Gulag? Is it the massive gang-rapes on the transport ships, calmly observed by indifferent guards, or the way officials allowed the career criminals to terrorize the political prisoners? If I had to choose one story, it would be the calm assertion of a former supervisor of a camp nursery who told Applebaum that she had forbidden mothers to go on walks with their children because the mothers would try to kill their offspring. The statement is equally horrifying whether the camps had truly driven the mothers to attempt such acts or whether the supervisor's claim is just a rationale for the cruel separation of family members.

One of Applebaum's main achievements is her demonstration that the Gulag prisoners were not simply helpless victims -- in fact, in many ways the nature of the camps at a particular time was determined as much by the population of prisoners as by the intentions of the authorities. This was especially true in the early 1950s, when the camp system was challenged from above (for inefficiency) and from below (for inhumanity). The prisoners at this time were to a large extent members of targeted national groups whom the Soviet government repressed for reasons arising from the war. They dealt the final blow to the system in a series of camp revolts.

Applebaum succeeds magnificently in setting before us a portrait of the Gulag in all its vast criminality. She is much less successful in taking on the complicated questions surrounding the causes of the Gulag and its impact on Soviet society -- in fact, she barely tries. Insofar as she makes a stab at explanation, she puts her emphasis on the personal qualities of Joseph Stalin. She argues that Stalin had an almost aesthetic preference for slave labor over free labor (a claim that she supports by pointing to Stalin's love of Hollywood musicals "with their enormous casts of coordinated singers and dancers."

The obvious implication of this line of argument is that, without Stalin, there would have been no Gulag as we now understand the term. Yet Applebaum also insists that the Gulag was inherent in the Russian revolution and in no way a deformation of its ideals. A good case can be made for this interpretation. A good case can also be made for alternate interpretations. My objection is not to Applebaum's opinions on this matter, but to her attempts to short-circuit a difficult and necessary debate.

In her final chapter, Applebaum stresses the importance of remembering the Gulag. Her aim is to make Russian society feel worse about itself and American society to feel better. She is irritated by Russians who refuse to face up to the full extent of their own victimhood. Don't they realize that the Gulag means that the entire Soviet experience was nothing but pointless lies? Americans, on the other hand, opposed the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and we need to remember the Gulag because, it seems, we are in danger of forgetting how virtuous we are.

But these contentious questions must be thrashed out elsewhere. In the meantime, we must be grateful to Anne Applebaum for a portrait of the Gulag that combines epic scope and human detail. •

Lars T. Lih, the author of "Bread and Authority in Russia, 1914-1921" and the American editor of "Stalin's Letters to Molotov," is now completing a study of Lenin's "What Is to Be Done."



A History.
By Anne Applebaum.
Illustrated. 677 pp. New York: Doubleday. $35.


May 11, 2003

'Gulag': The Other Killing Machine


In the introduction to this important book, Anne Applebaum, a columnist for The Washington Post, ponders why the Soviet and Nazi regimes are treated so differently in the popular imagination. Young people who would never purchase Nazi regalia think nothing of sporting T-shirts emblazoned with the Communist hammer and sickle. Yet, as Applebaum shows, the Soviet killing machine was certainly equal to its Nazi counterpart. Wisely, she avoids wandering into the muck of comparing the two totalitarian terror apparatus to decide which was worse, but she argues that ''at a very deep level, the two systems are related.''

Ever since Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn published his magisterial three-volume history of the Soviet concentration-camp network, ''The Gulag Archipelago,'' in the early 1970's, the grim details of life in what he called the Soviet sewage system have been well known. From arrest by the Soviet secret police through interrogation, to deportation and hard labor, the life-and-death cycle of the gulag is a familiar story. Other witnesses, like Varlam Shalamov and Evgeniya Ginzburg, have also brilliantly described prisoners' constant struggle against hunger, cold and disease. So a great deal of what Applebaum writes about in ''Gulag: A History'' has been told before.

But that does not lessen her achievement. When Solzhenitsyn's volumes first appeared they had an enormous impact. Yet he soon fell from favor, dismissed by some as an anti-Communist crank, by others as a nationalist anti-Semite. As documents from the Soviet archives have now shown, much of this defamation campaign was financed and encouraged by the K.G.B. But the attacks had their effect: a group of so-called revisionist historians, who dominated the study of the Stalin years in the United States and Britain during the 1980's, waged a war against the portrayal of the Soviet Union by Solzhenitsyn and other anti-Soviet memoirists.

Instead of the slave empire, these historians stressed the country's rapid economic development and urbanization under Stalin, which supposedly fostered widespread support for the regime. None questioned the existence of the gulag. Rather, they minimized its place in Soviet life and denied that the population as a whole was ever terrorized.

Applebaum's book weighs in heavily in support of Solzhenitsyn on almost every point, and her account is backed not only by a careful use of the vast memoir literature but also by a thorough mining of the long-closed Soviet archives. Most important, she supports Solzhenitsyn's central argument: that the gulag was not some incidental Stalinist accretion to Lenin's visionary concept of Socialism. The cancer of police terror was embedded in the original DNA of Lenin's creation, ''an integral part of the Soviet system,'' in Applebaum's words. Under Lenin, the first concentration camps were created; the first mass executions were carried out. He bequeathed to his successor a well-functioning police state.

Applebaum estimates that from 1929 through 1953 -- the years of high Stalinism -- more than 18 million people coursed through the camps, with a further six million being exiled to remote regions of the Soviet Union. The vast majority of these people were guilty of nothing. An Orwellian logic underlay the whole enterprise. As one police investigator explained to his victim: ''We never arrest anyone who is not guilty. And even if you weren't guilty, we can't release you, because then people would say that we are picking up innocent people.''

Particularly useful is Applebaum's account of the camps during World War II. It was precisely at this time that the system reached its peak of lethality. Fully a quarter of the inmates perished during 1942, but the appetite of the security forces was so insatiable that the gulag's population dropped less than 20 percent. Following the war, whole new categories of inmates flooded into the camps: German P.O.W.'s, anti-Communists from the western borderlands or from the new Soviet empire in Eastern Europe. Little known in the West, some 600,000 Japanese troops fell into Soviet hands, forced to labor for years after the cessation of hostilities; only a fraction ever returned home. Stalin also punished with deportation entire nationalities -- Chechens, Ingush and Crimean Tatars notably -- ostensibly for collaboration with the Nazis but, in fact, Applebaum argues persuasively, to eliminate nationalist resistance to Moscow.

One great difference distinguished the Soviet and German systems: there was no Soviet equivalent of the death camps. People sentenced to death in the Soviet Union were generally shot before entering the camp network. Applebaum estimates these victims at just under one million during the Stalin years. Instead, Soviet prisoners were expected to earn their keep by contributing to the creation of Soviet Socialism. They mined gold, felled timber, dug canals or lay rails, most often in harsh areas to which free labor could never be enticed. By the outbreak of war in 1941, the gulag was the single largest employer in the world.

Yet the Soviets never managed to make it pay for itself. Leon Trotsky had once defiantly stated that it was ''the worst sort of bourgeois prejudice'' to call slave labor inefficient; such labor could contribute mightily to the growth of the Soviet economy. Lenin believed him, as did Stalin -- with even greater zeal.

Defenders of the Soviet system have all too often played Stalin's game, excusing -- or, rather, ''explaining'' -- the gulag as a direct descendant of the czarist Siberian exile system. But Applebaum's numbers tell their own story: on the eve of the 1917 revolution, under the czar, only 28,600 convicts were serving sentences of hard labor, compared with the millions committed to the gulag under Lenin and Stalin. At some point numbers matter; quantity becomes quality. It is simply wrong to maintain that the gulag was nothing more than a modernized version of its czarist predecessor.

In the end, bourgeois economic realities defeated Bolshevik will and ruthlessness. Projects created with slave labor proved to be shoddily built and inefficient. One notable Stalinist showpiece, the White Sea canal, was designed to allow warships and commercial vessels to pass between the Baltic and the White Seas. Perhaps 25,000 people died digging this canal, yet despite the enormous human cost the canal was too narrow for warships; only shallow draft boats could navigate its course. Touted at the time as one of the great achievements of Stalinist planning, it stands instead as proof of its titanic moral and economic failure.

Applebaum gives due consideration to the post-Stalin years of the gulag and to the way the memory of this vast crime against humanity has played out since the Soviet Union's collapse. It is all too easy to assume that Stalin's death in 1953 brought an immediate end to the camp system; in fact, it persisted and, though it wound down dramatically during Khrushchev's thaw, did not finally disappear until well into the Gorbachev years. A brave but small band of Russians, notably the organization Memorial, commemorates the victims of the gulag. But most of their countrymen seem uninterested. The revelations about the crimes of the Stalin era have all come too late, and life today in the former Soviet Union is so hard.

Significantly, there have been no trials, no truth and reconciliation commissions. Many of the mass graves have been unearthed, but these attract little notice in Russia and scarcely more than a paragraph in Western newspapers. Irreconcilable versions of the past contend for the current Russian soul. An astonishing number of Russians -- perhaps as many as 15 or 20 percent -- reject Memorial's documentation of the terror and view Stalin as a positive historical figure. Applebaum cites Russians saying that the gulag was somehow a historical necessity; that without it Russia could never have tapped the vast resources of the Far East.

Most worrisome, Russia's current leader is a product of the unrepentant and largely unreformed F.S.B., successor to the K.G.B. The talk in Moscow is of restoring the statue of Feliks Dzerzhinsky -- the first head of the secret police, and a man who can justly be called the Patriarch of the Gulag -- to its place in Lubyanka Square, right in front of the headquarters where so many innocent Soviets were swept into Solzhenitsyn's sewer system. This would be a historical obscenity. It is fervently to be hoped that people will read Anne Applebaum's excellent, tautly written and very damning history. Even more fervently, one hopes that it will soon be translated into Russian.

Steven Merritt Miner, a professor of history at Ohio University, is the author of ''Stalin's Holy War.''




Books: The Other Camps

A new book puts the Soviet Gulag system in its rightful, horrifying place

April 28 issue Visitors to Russia are happy to snap up Soviet memorabilia featuring hammer-and-sickle emblems, but visitors to Germany would recoil at the idea of buying swastika trinkets.

DESPITE EARLIER WORKS by former prisoners, the Soviet concentration-camp system has never haunted the popular imagination the way the Nazi version has. Anne Applebaum’s 677-page “Gulag: A History,” the most authoritative—and comprehensive—account of this Soviet blight ever published by a Western writer, puts the Gulag in its rightful, horrifying place.
       In theory, the Gulag was a system of forced labor rather than a death machine. But of the 18 million people sent there between 1929 and 1953, Applebaum points to a death count of almost 3 million, which is far from a complete tabulation. Drawing on a flood of new memoirs and documents from archives, Applebaum paints a mesmerizing picture of starvation, torture, sadism and, sometimes, incredible resistance and heroism. When Nikita Khrushchev acknowledged “grave abuse” in 1956, one Politburo member argued against rehabilitating the prisoners too quickly. Otherwise, he warned, “it would be clear that the country was not being run by a legal government but by a group of gangsters.” Which is exactly the case Applebaum makes with elegant restraint, allowing the brutal record to speak for itself.
     —Andrew Nagorski



The horror of Soviet prison system
Reviewed by Brian Richard Boylan
Sunday, April 27, 2003


A History

By Ann Applebaum

DOUBLEDAY; 677 Pages; $35

"Gulag" is a single word to describe the vast prison system, labor and concentration camps that populated the Soviet Union during the 60 years from the Russian Revolution in 1918 until the fall of communism. Some 30 million prisoners -- both criminal and political -- passed through the gulag, according to Ann Applebaum's thorough, engrossing history devoted to the subject.

It is a refreshingly anecdotal history, told almost exclusively from the testimony of survivors. It speaks of the brutality, the extreme weather conditions, and the life that managed to flourish in the camps.

Attempting to draw a clear line between the Russian and the Nazi concentration camps, Applebaum has shown how the German camps were used for both slave labor and extermination facilities, whereas the Russian system sometimes seemed to have loftier goals. "Gulag" is also a fascinating story of the work and hunger strikes, rebellions, escapes and recaptures that happened.

Because the initial Soviet regimes, especially under Stalin, made wholesale arrest so popular, the gulag grew until it expanded into every stretch of wasteland in the U.S.S.R. Even more remarkable is the book's documentation of how the system expanded from isolated camps to a bulwark of self-sufficient slave labor, producing everything from heavy machinery to household goods.

Applebaum, who has been a correspondent for several years, describes the midnight arrests and deportations and details the social and sexual life in the camp. Some prisoners refused to work, while others were fed on an as-you- work basis. She describes the men's and women's camps in considerable detail, noting the frequency with which conjugal visits were allowed (or that rape was carried out by murderous prisoners).

Although each camp was virtually isolated, an underground news service developed, bringing inmates news of the activities in the real world. Intra-camp communication, especially within isolation or punishment blocks, progressed from knocking out code on pipes to actual conversations. Applebaum also discusses the use of family visits as a reward for good behavior and work output.

"Not all prisoners were in a position to receive visitors," she writes. "For one, their relatives had to be mentally courageous enough to maintain contact with their 'enemy' husband or son. Even for a free citizen, the journey to Kolyma, Vorkuta, Norilslir, and Kazakhstan required physical bravery as well. Not only would a relative have to suffer a long train journey to a distant, primitive city, he then would have to walk or hitch a bumpy ride in the back of a truck. . . . After that, the visitor might then have to wait for several days or longer, begging sneering camp commanders for permission to see his prisoner relative -- permission which might well be refused, for no reason at all. Afterwards, the visitor faced another long journey home. By the same tedious route."

Applebaum writes in an upbeat, almost cheerful manner, describing the chaos out of which the gulag eventually emerged to become a source of profitable labor. Of course, there are the usual asides, about this batch of prisoners arbitrarily being shot, that group being severely beaten for no good reason. People are left out without heat, in the Arctic tundra, to slowly freeze to death. After the endless tales of transports, frozen box cars, brutalized prisoners and malevolent guards, the reality of the gulag becomes oppressive. Yet there is a ruggedness in the Russian people that has enabled them to survive such organized horror and carnage. It just is not very encouraging to read so much about so much evil.

In what clearly is designed to be the major source book on the gulag, Applebaum manages to overlook the frequent horrors in favor of a smooth narrative. This is not a testimonial to the charity and pity of observers. Rather, it is a searing attack on the corruption and the viciousness that seemed to rule the system and a testimonial to the resilience of the Russian people.

Her research is impeccable, drawing from recently opened Russian government files, scores of autobiographies and memoirs and personal recollections. Students of contemporary Russian history will find it indispensable.

Brian Richard Boylan is an author and critic who lives in Minneapolis.



Dark side of the moon

Gulag, A History. Anne Applebaum, Doubleday: 680 pp., $35

By Lesley Chamberlain

April 27 2003

There can hardly be a greater task in 20th century world history than to understand the Holocaust and the Gulag. Why did these related extermination projects happen, and how did similar phenomena occur in other parts of communist Europe in the early 1950s and in Cambodia in the 1970s? We need to realize how the shock of the inhuman has probably had a more detrimental effect on Western culture and thought than any of the more common accounts of postmodernism. At the same time, if we are to resist using the word "evil" carelessly and want to preserve what remains of a good modernity, we must differentiate between the Nazi horror and what happened to Russia under Joseph Stalin. To understand the lower depths of the Russian experience is partly to understand the power and attraction of communism in that country over 75 years. Every culture has its own ideals and its own way with depravity.

Anne Applebaum has spent the last several years researching and writing this first comprehensive history. "Gulag: A History" is a model of patient, readable scholarship. Lucid, painstakingly detailed, never sensational, it should have a place on every educated reader's shelves.

The gulag, named by Nobel Prize-winning author and dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, was the vast network of labor camps ranged across the bleakest parts of the Soviet Union. Although they functioned in one form or another roughly from the end of V.I. Lenin's end until the beginning of Mikhail Gorbachev's, Stalin's name will forever be attached to the lethal years 1929 to 1953. During 1937 to 1938 and 1942 to 1943, the time of Stalin's ideological purges and Russia's worst war years, the political police recorded nearly 1,800,000 camp inmates, and these figures still don't reflect the huge turnover of prisoners. In the year of Stalin's death, 1953, the camps were at their largest and most terrible, with thousands of political deportees from Estonia, Poland, Czechoslovakia and other communist satellites swelling their numbers.

Many memoirs tell the stories of Stalin's arbitrary victims, people in the wrong country at the wrong time. Often, the foreign victims were people who had traveled to Russia to help realize the communist political ideal they cherished. Red Army officers who had been German prisoners of war were treated with gross injustice in the postwar camps, as, inevitably, were Russians who had fought with Adolf Hitler against Stalin. By the 1970s, the number of political prisoners had dwindled to about 20,000. But the gulag lasted right up to the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 and went on being relatively unknown, and unprotested, in the West. (In the winter of 1979, when U.S.-Soviet relations were at a nadir and I was a foreign correspondent in Moscow, what bothered visiting American congressmen was not the gulag but the issue of Jewish refuseniks' not getting exit visas to Israel. Applebaum, an American journalist and scholar, has explicitly written her history to overcome that ignorance.

It is not the case, as those who see communism as the equivalent of or worse than Nazism have argued, that Leonid Brezhnev's Russia was Stalinist. Under communism, people slept more easily in their beds and led happier lives. Nevertheless, as Russia came under intense pressure from the West to live up to its human rights agreements, political prisoners were still tortured. Poet Joseph Brodsky, who later won the Nobel Prize for literature, lived to deliver his testimony. Dissident Anatoly Marchenko did not. Three years after Gorbachev's general pardon for all political prisoners in 1986, an event that received surprisingly little attention in the foreign press, the KGB sent 2,000 people to psychiatric hospitals (psykhushki). Political arrests still happened in 1989. Then, finally, Russia became a free country. Since then a minority of historians and interested individuals have been combing the archives, trying to recover the past and creating the opportunity to mourn. The Russians evidently have difficulty coming to terms with the past. This disappoints Applebaum, but we should remember that the Germans spent 50 years mastering their own dark history. Germany was pointed in the right direction by its occupier-liberators, but the Russians have liberated themselves. So perhaps we should be patient.

Because of the pervasive ignorance of the gulag, the positions of Europe and America in the Cold War need reexamining. America's under-awareness of the gulag had to do with geographical distance but also with the reduction of the Soviet phenomenon to an unqualified political evil, which discouraged sympathy for mass injustice. At the same time, educated Americans imagined the fate of the Jews under Nazism so vividly that it became part of the domestic heritage. From the mid-1970s to the present, the Holocaust was the crime against humanity. There was no moral energy left over for the Russian tragedy.

Ignorance in the outside world about the gulag persisted through the Cold War despite landmark accounts by writer-victims. Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" even appeared in Russia in a short period of political opportunity in 1962, followed by his foreign-published novels "Cancer Ward," "The First Circle" and his infinitely distressing memoir, "The Gulag Archipelago." In "To Build a Castle -- My Life as a Dissenter" (1978), Vladimir Bukovsky wrote of his torment at the mercy of politically motivated psychiatrists. Varlam Shalamov's "Kolyma Tales" (1994) described daily life in Russia's most notorious corrective hellhole inside the Arctic Circle.

Applebaum, though, is not motivated only by Western ignorance. She deplores the fact that the crimes of Stalin should for so long have been minimized by the left in the West. It's true that the difficulty of the elderly Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir to accept what Solzhenitsyn wrote, after their long years of communist sympathizing, sticks in one's gullet. For Applebaum, it is not just an American preoccupation with the Holocaust and a readiness to dismiss Russia as the evil empire but also the ardent desire of the intellectual left for socialism to work in Russia that have resulted in a lasting imbalance in East-West understanding.

The first idea of the concentration camp, one learns, came to Russia from British practice in the Boer War and from German practice in southwest Africa. The name came from a Spanish practice of rounding up peasants to stop local insurgencies in Cuba in 1895. In Russia, it attached itself to the long czarist tradition of Siberian exile. Liberal-minded aristocrats, who staged a botched insurrection in 1825, became the first famous victims of the system (later to be followed by novelist Feodor Dostoevsky, who was sentenced to corrective labor for socialist agitation and wrote about it in "From the House of the Dead"). In the 19th and 20th centuries, almost as many Siberia-bound prisoners died on the ill-supplied journey as succumbed to prison or camp conditions. For those merely exiled, arriving in Siberia was almost a reprieve.

Nevertheless, to understand the gulag and its czarist antecedents, one has to grasp that this brutal way of dealing with political prisoners and criminals had a much broader function in society than merely a penal one. For the country at large, the system had obvious social and economic benefits: Exiles created villages, took culture to huge empty areas that few Russians would settle willingly and created wealth by providing labor for expanding industries in mineral-rich areas. The British pursued such a penal-economic policy in Australia and Tasmania in the 19th century; only the Russians carried the practice on into the later 20th century. Today's major industrial cities of Noril'sk, Vorkuta, Kolyma and Magadan, were camps originally built by prisoners and run by ex-prisoners.

The gulag regimes became so cruel from about 1937 on that they were known as meat grinders.This was the watershed, Applebaum records, "the year that the Soviet camps ... transformed themselves from indifferently managed prisons in which people died by accident into genuinely deadly camps where prisoners were deliberately worked to death, or actually murdered, in far larger number than they had been in the past." On this record of human degradation, the gulag bears comparison with Auschwitz. What makes the phenomenon different overall, however, is how and why it came about.

Everyone knows that Soviet economics were disastrous. But it is not widely known that the gulag was a version of that mind-boggling economic and organizational inefficiency, creatively accounted for by absurd inventions of political conspiracy. The early camps in the 1920s, with their theaters, fountains and parks, were in some ways more like collective farms than prisons. Designed more for political re-education than for punishment, they were meant to function as self-sufficient economic units, though they never did. But always, as the political climate worsened, the ideological and practical justification for the camps remained economic. The hundreds of thousands of arrests in the 1930s were based on quotas for the expertise required to man the growing "Camp-Industrial Complexes": so many engineers here and lumberjacks there, doctors, metalworkers and so on.

To mobilize mass productivity, to transfer manpower from one end of the country to another, was to build socialism and serve the motherland. The planners saw it this way and so did the majority of the population. Applebaum suggests that these Soviet thought processes, with the gulag at their center, were genuine on the part of both officialdom and people and that what went wrong -- and where evil entered -- was always in inefficient practice. This embattled, distorted, outrageous genuineness is why in Russia not only a shallow reluctance to confront the past but also real moral ambivalence surrounds the gulag disaster. When Solzhenitsyn first published "Ivan Denisovich," former inmates leaped to the camps' partial defense. Applebaum is in a slightly difficult position with this material, which, though it does not condone mass murder through the semi-willingness of many Russians, makes the gulag more intelligible than the Holocaust. If she wanted to add to that sad intelligibility, she could have said that Russian culture, under Christian influence, attaches the highest value to suffering as the means to the highest understanding of the human condition. "We suffer, therefore we are," is how American scholar Daniel Rancour-Laferriere formulated an attitude no student of Russia's fate in the 20th century can ignore.

The true horror of the gulag lay in the way Russia's culture and social-political organization could not constrain the growth of an inhuman fantasy. Human prisoners were treated as units of labor. By bizarrely misapplied logic, the camps ran into trouble with their central controllers because they had production goals they couldn't meet because their inmates kept falling sick and dying. The gulag phenomenon was almost literally demented, as if Russia's brain had been invaded by a demon seed.

In a central section of her fine and judicious survey, Applebaum considers the nature of life in the camps; the cold, the hunger, the outrageous overcrowding and hence the continuous hunger, insanitation and sickness. Professional criminals tyrannized over the weaker political inmates. The prisoners, subject to the whims of guards and brigade leaders risen from their own number, suffered further appalling physical and mental punishments. The temptation in many men and women, not least the major figures who survived to write their memoirs, was to collaborate to save their lives. Bodies were broken; souls were destroyed. The most harrowing stories, a few now embedded in Russian literature, are of prisoners who tried to return to normal life after their release.

After World War II, the most severe conditions prevailed in so-called special camps, newly created for those hundreds of thousands of deportees from Eastern Europe and for the Red Army officers stranded there and accused of treason. Occasionally Westerners also turned up in the camps, including two American airmen who crashed over Ukraine in 1949 and were arrested by the Red Army. Postwar camp inmates wore striped uniforms with numbers and had bars on their windows. The specialness of these relatively late measures suggests an eerie borrowing from the Nazis, as if the Soviets were not to be outdone by the wartime Germans even in regimes of cruelty. Still, and once again against the Holocaust example, the Soviet camps were not driven by ethnic vengeance. Gulag guards did not consider themselves a superior race to their victims. And, still using a conservative figure, at least 2 million died in the camps from their inception to their end.

For this reviewer, the pride and self-belief that Soviet ideology generated, the willingness to make sacrifices for the collective good, has constantly to be kept in mind when judging the gulag. Applebaum might fear too many potential excuses lurking in the realms of psychology and ideology, but in fact they are lethal for the culture in which they make the gulag intelligible: One has only to think of the traditional Russian neglect of the individual or the Marxist ideological desire to strip men and women of their inner, potentially private, life. The "confessions" extracted by torture in the 1930s were designed to exterminate the inner man. The political authorities wanted to master the spheres of motive and of action, which they could not do except by destroying the person as such. Without making this point, Applebaum speaks of the right of every man and woman to lead his or her own life. Evil is not morally complex, but the nature of the society that sustained the gulag was. The difficulty of embracing absurdity alongside tragedy may be yet another reason why we lag so far behind in our understanding of this terrible aspect of the 20th century and why, happily, no Hollywood director has yet attempted the impossible.

Applebaum's "Gulag" is a work of history that does its own moral good. It says who were the victims and what happened to them. It persists in asking over and over why the West remains distanced from Russian history. Is it naiveté? How did it happen that Henry Wallace, the U.S. vice president when he visited Kolyma in May 1944, didn't know he was visiting a prison? Is it ignorance? Applebaum suggests that for the Russians to invade Chechnya after Stalin had inflicted mass deportations and exile on the Chechens was as great a crime as if postwar Germany had invaded western Poland, and yet still few of us realize the seriousness of Soviet and post-Soviet crime.

But I want to end by returning to the vexed Auschwitz comparison. The Nazi death camps and Stalin's labor camps meted out the final solution to unwanted masses. Both phenomena were the extreme negative outcome of a mania in the 1930s for collective solutions to mass living and working. Both were tragedies of humanity, and each was a tragedy of its particular nation. There will be interpretations of both and illuminating parallels for years to come. But in the end, their histories will be best kept separate, for who can compare pain as the subject feels it? No historian, no onlooker, no book reader. As a writer-prisoner told Applebaum, as he cast a skeptical eye over the growing pile of files, statistics and books, the only person who can know was someone who was there.

Lesley Chamberlain, who worked for Reuters in Moscow in 1978 and 1979, is the author of several books, including "In the Communist Mirror," "Volga Volga: A Journey Down the Great River" and "In a Place Like That." She is working on a study of Russian philosophy, "The Good Man in Russia."

 May 11, 2003


Soviet labor camps The April 27 review of "Gulag: A History" stated that the system of labor camps known as the gulag was named by author and dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In fact, the Soviets began referring to the camps as gulags in the early 1930s. The word is an acronym for the Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Labor Settlements, also known as Main Camp Administration or, in Russian, Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei.


Russia's unwilling builders

Stalin used labour camps as a way of industrialising his country writes Stefan Wagstyl

Published: April 17 2003 17:54 | Last Updated: April 17 2003 17:54

Vorkuta, Norilsk and Magadan are words that once evoked terror in millions. They were among the most important prison camps in a chain of cruelty that extended across the former Soviet Union. For decades, they were the scene of crimes against humanity on a similar scale to Hitler's. Yet their names are scarcely known in the west.

While historians have examined the rise and fall of the Soviet Union in great detail, their efforts have failed to reach the popular consciousness. It is impossible in educated company to profess ignorance of Hitler's atrocities. But Stalin seems more distant. Tourists in Prague routinely buy Lenin badges and other Soviet paraphernalia from stalls, when they would shudder at the thought of buying swastikas.

Anne Applebaum attempts to fill this moral void. As she points out, there were many similarities between Nazi and Stalinist camps, of which the most important was the destruction of millions of lives. But there were also many differences. While the Nazis concentrated with terrible single-mindedness on the extermination of Jews, Soviet leaders terrorised different victims at different times, including aristocrats, peasants, professors, engineers and soldiers. Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, Balts, Georgians, Jews and a dozen other nationalities went through what they termed the "meat grinder".

The first Soviet prison camps were established within months of the October Revolution and by the end of 1920 there were already 107. But it took Stalin's ferocious desire to transform his backward country and his implacable hatred of his real and imagined enemies to turn the camps into an instrument that touched the lives of millions. The launch of forced industrialisation in 1929 was the trigger for the camps' huge expansion, as planners decided that prison labourers could be used to open up the vast spaces of northern Siberia, the Far East and northern Kazakhstan. Stalin paid close attention to the camps' economic role, especially in grandiose projects such as the building of the White Sea canal. But he also saw to it that they were employed to terrorise the population, including in mass arrests the old and the sick and even children.

Extermination was not the principal aim, as in the Nazi death camps. Rather, mass murder was the inevitable by-product of a system designed to humiliate and to punish people while extracting the maximum labour at the lowest cost. Prisoners who worked hard were rewarded with extra food. Those who failed to meet the cruelly high norms saw their rations cut until they died of hunger or disease.

As Applebaum says, most were not the well-known intellectuals who later wrote harrowing memoirs, such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, but poorly educated peasants and workers whose "political" crime may have been to mutter some drunken joke about Stalin. In most camps the "politicals" were mixed with ordinary criminals, who brutalised their fellow inmates through robbery, rape and murder.

In the late 1930s, the authorities realised that excessive abuse of the prisoners was economically counterproductive and they improved conditions. But with the onset of war, as the Soviet Union fought for its survival, the camps also suffered, and in one year - 1942 - 25 per cent of their prisoners died. After the war, the camps expanded as a vengeful Stalin swept ever more people through their gates and conceived ever-bigger building projects.

Mass terror ended only with his death in 1953. But a handful of camps survived for decades, and the last, in Perm, closed only in February 1992, well after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Applebaum bases her work on careful research, drawing on memoirs, interviews and recently released official documents. Where she can, she cross-checks the claims of writer-survivors such as Solzhenitsyn, Varlam Shalamov and the Pole Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski with the dry prose of the camp commandants' reports. With great skill, she re- creates the daily details of camp life - the cold, the dirt, the disease, the obsession with food. She also finds moments of intense light: men and women who found love in the camps and were married in secret ceremonies of heart-breaking emotion. Some survivors emerged from the camps stronger than when they went in. One such was Isaac Vogelfanger, in later life a surgeon in Canada, who wrote: "Wounds heal and you become whole again, a little stronger and more human than before."

Applebaum pulls few punches. She points out that most of the well-known gulag writers, including Solzhenitsyn, survived by securing work as prison trusties, who cooperated in return for more food or better work. Some, again including Solzhenitsyn (as he admitted in The Gulag Archipelago), agreed to inform on other prisoners. She is unsentimental about the experiences of release and rehabilitation. Far from being welcomed back into their families and communities, ex-prisoners were often shunned. In the streets, they had to endure the sight of their former interrogators and jailers. As the poet Anna Akhmatova, whom Applebaum quotes, wrote: "Two Russias are eyeball to eyeball. Those who were in prison and those who put them there."

Russia has yet to come to terms with this horror. Before the fall of Communism, the authorities banned open discussion. Today, they avoid it. As a former KGB officer, president Vladimir Putin is not much interested in walking into a swamp from which he cannot emerge untainted. As Applebaum says, too many people participated in collaboration and compromise to want to re-open the past. That is why this book is so valuable. There is nothing like it in Russian, or in any other language. It deserves to be widely read. Stefan Wagstyl is the FT's East European editor





Soviet Russia

Worked to death

Apr 3rd 2003
From The Economist print edition

Is there a moral equivalence between Hitler's concentration camps and the Russian Gulag? A new book looks at the singular history of Stalin's labour camps

Gulag: A History
By Anne Applebaum
Doubleday; 736 pages; $35. To be published in
Britain by Penguin/Allen Lane in May 2003


IN POST-COMMUNIST Prague you can buy Soviet mementoes: red stars, hammers and sickles, portraits of Lenin. So at least Anne Applebaum discovered one day while crossing the Charles Bridge. She reflected that selling swastikas and portraits of Hitler would rightly be considered an outrage. What was the difference? Why does western public opinion seem so indifferent towards the legacy of the Soviet concentration camps while continuing to regard the Nazi ones with justified abhorrence? This question was one of the impulses that led her to write the history of the Gulag.

The two penal systems were similar in their end result: millions of deaths. But there were many differences in their origin, purpose and way of operating. The first Soviet camp, the former Solovki monastery on islands in the White Sea, was initially conceived as a remote place where the Reds' enemies could be isolated. Only gradually were its inmates compelled to engage in productive labour, felling trees and building roads. Then, as the Soviet Union launched a crash programme of industrialisation in the late 1920s, the planners decided that forced labourers could usefully be made to open up remote and forbidding areas of the country, where free workers would not settle. In short, they could become part of the planned economy. So coalfields were developed at Vorkuta, in the Komi Republic in the arctic north of European Russia. In the Far East, the Dalstroi camp complex exploited the gold and platinum deposits of the Kolyma region.

The archives demonstrate that Stalin and the Politburo paid regular close attention to both, in particular to Dalstroi, whose gold was vitally needed to finance the import of western technology during the industrialisation drive. The records show them discussing it in the accountant's bland language of input, output and profit, paying no attention to human cost.

By the 1930s the human cost could be ignored because the labour camp inmates, or zeki, were branded as enemies of the people—it was an offence to call them comrades—and were therefore expendable. Mass murder was not actually an aim of the system, as it was in Nazi Germany, but the imperatives of forced industrialisation, combined with the stigmatisation of those arrested, made it possible to impose inhuman work conditions which invariably killed many.

The only way to motivate convicts with no prospect of early release was to feed well those who worked hard. Those who failed to fulfil their targets had their rations cut; weakened by inadequate nutrition, they fell even further behind, and the resultant vicious circle was a death sentence in all but name. In time, the Soviet leaders realised that, even in a populous country, such heedless consumption of human resources was damaging. From 1939, when Stalin's chief of the secret police, Lavrenti Beria, was put in charge of the Gulag empire, the zeki were given adequate food and medical care when possible, not out of humanity, but because healthy workers were more productive than sick ones.

Ms Applebaum, who covered eastern Europe for The Economist during the collapse of Soviet-run communism, devotes an effective chapter to the camp guards. Most of them behaved with appalling callousness to their charges, especially in the cattle trucks used for rail transports and in the convict ships of the Far East. What explains their behaviour? They were not all sadists, but they were poorly educated and some had been criminals. They belonged, for the most part, to the lowest rung of the NKVD, a forerunner of the KGB, and lived in conditions only slightly better than those of the zeki themselves.

Years of state propaganda had taught them that the zeki were not fully human: the term “sub-human” was not used, as it was by the Nazis, but “enemy of the people” was intended to be almost as demeaning, and was combined in propaganda with terms like “vermin”, “filth” and “poisonous weeds”. To treat prisoners well meant performing duties conscientiously, taking trouble, sometimes intervening to restrain criminal thugs—and most of the guards saw no point in thus exerting themselves for charges whom they regarded as worthless. It is as well to ponder this dehumanisation of ordinary people, for this is how atrocities come about.

Ms Applebaum has some distinguished predecessors in writing the history of the Gulag system, notably Robert Conquest and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. She can well stand comparison with them, and in some respects supersedes them. She takes the story right up to the end of the Soviet period, and she has made good use of published material and archives which have become available only in the last ten years or so. They include those of Memorial, the association set up in the late 1990s to retrieve and make known the full truth about the Soviet penal system and its victims. Some of her most interesting sources, though, come from the state archives, notably the long and detailed reports of the NKVD's Gulag Inspectorate of the 1930s and 1940s. These were as frank as Mr Solzhenitsyn was to be decades later in the “The Gulag Archipelago” in revealing the deficiencies and abuses rife within the system, and they recommended ways to curtail them, in the interests of higher productivity. Usually nothing effective was done at the time, but those reports left a rich resource for the historian.

“Gulag” is lucid and well-researched, and its moral message is clear without being obtrusive. It should become the standard history of one of the greatest evils of the 20th century.





How the Gulag grew.

Issue of 2003-04-14
Posted 2003-04-07

On a winter afternoon just before the collapse of the Soviet regime, I paid a call on Dmitri Likhachev, an eminent scholar of medieval Russian literature and an embodiment of the tragic history of his city. (The city was called St. Petersburg when he was born, Petrograd when he was growing up, Leningrad through his long adulthood, and, for the last eight years of his life, St. Petersburg again.) Likhachev was then eighty-four and a director of the literary institute known as Pushkin House. He had vivid memories of the first days of the Communist era—“When we opened the windows of our flat in Lakhtinskaya Street, we could hear all night long the volleys and short bursts of automatic fire from the Peter and Paul Fortress”—and now he was stealing time from his literary work to make impassioned, morally serious speeches about the liberal era that he hoped was coming. A great deal of Likhachev’s authority derived from his biography. He was living proof that the Gulag had been the invention not of Stalin but, rather, of Lenin, the Bolshevik founder, because, he said wearily, “I was a prisoner at Lenin’s first concentration camp.”

As a young man, Likhachev was a member of a student group that jokingly called itself the Cosmic Academy of Sciences. The members greeted each other by saying, “Khaire,” Greek for “rejoice.” They gathered to present, with mock solemnity, nonsense papers on “Apologetic Theology” or “Elegant Chemistry.” To win admission as an “academician,” Likhachev wrote a treatise on the urgent need to restore the letter “yat” to the Russian alphabet. It was all a way of escaping the increasingly oppressive atmosphere of the times. Then, in February, 1928, there was a knock on his door. Likhachev was arrested and provided with a cell. During the subsequent interrogation, one officer shouted, “What do you mean by language reform? Perhaps we won’t have any language at all under socialism.”

In time, Likhachev was transported to the Solovetsky Islands—or Solovki—a string of small islands in the White Sea near the Arctic Circle, where medieval Orthodox monks built monasteries, tsars of the sixteenth century built prisons, and, in 1923, the Bolsheviks established a camp. When I was getting to know him, Dmitri Sergeyevich spoke hardly at all of his sentence at Solovki. Glasnost allowed it; his modesty did not. But in 1999, shortly before he died, at ninety-two, Likhachev handed me a gift, a copy of his memoirs. In the book, Likhachev sketches the complicated topography of Solovki, the conditions there, the scholars and criminals he befriended, the varieties of cruelty he witnessed and experienced. Solovki was where the structures and basic tenets of the labor-camp system began to take shape. It was at Solovki, for example, that a system was put in place of feeding prisoners according to their work output (thereby insuring that the weak died of hunger and exposure, while the strong helped to build the industrial infrastructure of the state). It was at Solovki that guards devised such tortures as crippling a man by forcing him to sit on a pole for eighteen hours straight or killing him by throwing him down a long outdoor stairway. It was where guards exposed prisoners for days to the clouds of mosquitoes that swarmed around the island in summer. Another prisoner recalls, in a memoir, how this torture was modified at a Siberian camp:

The mosquitoes crawled up our sleeves, under our trousers. One’s face would blow up from the bites. At the work site, we were brought lunch, and it happened that as you were eating your soup, the mosquitoes would fill up the bowl like buckwheat porridge. They filled up your eyes, your nose and throat, and the taste of them was sweet, like blood.

The prisoners at Solovki were isolated from the world. No one, save the guards and a few monks, witnessed their suffering; they were sure that they would die there and be buried in unmarked graves. And yet, a year after Likhachev arrived at Solovki, he and his fellow-prisoners learned that Maxim Gorky, perhaps the most popular Soviet writer of the time, was coming to visit. Here, at last, was their witness and savior. Gorky was a hero to Russians, not merely for his prose but also for his proletarian authenticity, his adventures as an urchin and a juvenile delinquent, described in “Childhood” and “The Lower Depths.” Now Gorky’s ship, the Gleb Boky, named for the camp chief, was about to dock at Solovki. “All we prisoners were delighted,” Likhachev wrote. “‘That Gorky will spot everything, find out everything. He’s been around, you can’t fool him. About the logging and the torture on the tree-stumps, the hunger, the disease, the three-tier bunks, those without clothes, the sentences without conviction.’”

For the occasion, the Solovki administration had spruced up the camp, painted walls, planted trees, allowed husbands and wives to be together (as they never were ordinarily). And, as it turned out, Gorky failed to see beyond the façade that had been erected for him. He seemed disinclined to try. He visited the punishment cells and, after a few short minutes, pronounced them “excellent.” He spent hardly any time at all with prisoners, though he did speak for forty minutes with a young boy and declared himself fascinated and pleased. (After Gorky left the camp, Likhachev writes, that boy was never seen again.) The writer stayed for three days and spent nearly all of it with the secret-police officers who ran the complex.

The Soviet leadership could hardly complain about the essay that Gorky eventually wrote about his experience: “There is no impression of life being over-regulated. No, there is no resemblance to a prison; instead it seems as if these rooms are inhabited by passengers rescued from a drowned ship.” The political prisoners at Solovki—men like Likhachev—were, according to Gorky, merely “counter-revolutionaries, emotional types, monarchists.” It is hard to know to what degree the censors shaped Gorky’s thoughts, but the text certainly suggests a man well satisfied with Soviet conditions and Soviet kindness. “If any so-called cultured European society dared to conduct an experiment such as this colony,” he wrote, “and if this experiment yielded fruits as ours had, that country would blow all its trumpets and boast about its accomplishments.”

After Gorky left Solovki, the guards began a round of mass executions. “The graves had been dug a day before the shootings,” Likhachev recalled. “The executioners were drunk. One bullet per victim. Many were buried alive, just a thin layer of earth over them. In the morning, the earth on the pit was still moving. . . . The camp had been cleared of ‘superfluous’ persons.”

The administration at Solovki put up a sign at the main camp, which captured perfectly the Leninist program. It read, “With an Iron Fist, We Will Lead Humanity to Happiness.”

Lenin came to power in November, 1917, and the Bolsheviks practiced terror from the first days of the regime. They shuttered the Constituent Assembly and murdered leaders of rival parties such as the Kadets and the Left Socialist Revolutionaries. Yet, as early as January of 1918, Lenin complained that his secret police, originally known as the Cheka, were “inordinately soft, at every step more like jelly than iron.” Lenin cast an iron example. In September, 1918, he ordered the authorities in Nizhni Novgorod to “introduce at once mass terror, execute and deport hundreds of prostitutes, drunken soldiers, ex-officers, etc.” Trotsky, for his part, warned that if soldiers drafted into the Red Army defied their officers “nothing will remain of them but a wet spot.”

Thus began the Red Terror, which helped win the civil war for the Bolsheviks and defined the nature of Communist power. At a meeting of Communists, Grigori Zinoviev, one of Lenin’s lieutenants, declared that the Party had to carry with it ninety million of the country’s hundred million people: “As for the rest, we have nothing to say to them. They must be annihilated.” This edict, the historian Richard Pipes has pointed out, was, in effect, “a death sentence on 10 million.”

In a new book, “Gulag: A History” (Doubleday; $35), Anne Applebaum, an op-ed columnist at the Washington Post, provides an ambitious and well-documented survey of the forced-labor system from its inception until its elimination under Gorbachev. (“Gulag” is an acronym forGlavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, or Main Camp Administration, but it came to mean, simply, “camp,” or, more generally, “the camps.”) Applebaum’s book is invaluable not so much for the facts it uncovers but, rather, for the extraordinary care with which they are assembled. She draws on an impressive range of sources—camp memoirs, literary works, archival material, personal interviews, and histories in a variety of languages. Although no book on the camp system can ever eclipse Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago,” there is surely a place for a comprehensive, popular history such as Applebaum’s. At any sizable bookstore, there are dozens of historical works on the Holocaust—beginning with Raul Hilberg’s magisterial three-volume work, “The Destruction of the European Jews”—and far fewer on what one of the characters in Milan Kundera’s “Ignorance” archly labels the “evil number two” of the twentieth century. The Holocaust has been approached from so many angles of scholarly inquiry and at so many artistic levels—from Anne Frank to Primo Levi, from Claude Lanzmann to Steven Spielberg—that it is impossible to plead ignorance, except willfully. The literature of the Gulag, though also rich, is far less familiar to the public. A survey like Applebaum’s is welcome.

The concentration camp, as both a term and a concept, has complicated beginnings. It was first used to refer to a form of incarceration, when the Spanish military during the Cuban insurrection, Americans in the Philippines, and the British during the Boer War established what were called “concentration camps.” These camps were harsh places, where many prisoners died, but they did not begin to suggest the horror that “concentration camp” would soon convey.

Lenin and Trotsky began using the term kontslager in 1918, during the civil war, with Trotsky initiating construction of camps to house Czech soldiers fighting Bolshevik forces in Siberia and Lenin calling for their use to sequester the kulaks, wealthier farmers with hired hands. The Resolution on Red Terror, issued later that year, provided for the “safeguarding of the Soviet Republic from class enemies by means of isolating them in concentration camps.” The idea was to separate, suppress, or destroy “categories of individuals”—priests, landowners, and other “enemies of the Revolution”—and to begin creating a pool of slave labor. Construction began in 1919. By the end of 1920, Soviet Russia had eighty-four camps, with around fifty thousand prisoners; within three years, the number of camps had quadrupled.

The Soviets did everything possible to conceal the details and statistics of their nascent Gulag system, but the camps were hardly unknown abroad. In fact, they attracted admirers. In March, 1921, a young German politician published an article in the Fascist newspaper Völkischer Beobachter, saying, “One prevents the Jewish corruption of our people, if necessary, by confining its instigators to concentration camps.” The author, of course, was Adolf Hitler. Nine months later, speaking at the National Club in Berlin, Hitler said that if he was fortunate enough to take power he would build such camps. (In this, he could rely on experienced assistance. Hermann Göring, who directed the building of the first Nazi camps, was the son of Dr. Heinrich Göring, who built labor camps in southern Africa.)

What Lenin initiated, Stalin expanded. The Gulag “metastasized,” as Solzhenitsyn put it. All in all, the system had four hundred and seventy-six camp complexes; within each complex there were often dozens, sometimes hundreds, of smaller camp units, called lagpunkts. From 1929 until Stalin’s death, in 1953, eighteen million people passed through the camp system, both political prisoners and common criminals. Six million more were exiled to isolated, well-policed villages in the Siberian forest or the Kazakh desert, or to spetsposelki, special settlements. Under Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, and Gorbachev, the stream of “politicals” into the camps slowed, but it did not stop completely until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Where was the Gulag? It was everywhere. There were camps not only in the frozen wastes of the Siberian north and in the Far East but in every corner of the empire, including the biggest cities. When I was living in Moscow as a newspaper reporter, during the Gorbachev-Yeltsin era, a few of my Russian friends lived in apartments built by prisoners. (One prisoner who worked on a Moscow construction site was Solzhenitsyn; the building still stands, on Leninski Prospekt.) In other cities, what are now called apartments were once camp barracks. The Gulag, in a sense, was inscribed into the country as a whole. Enormous regions of the Eurasian landmass, particularly the north and east, were colonized through the establishment of camps. In the Komi region, cities such as Ukhta, Syktyvkar, Pechora, Vorkuta, Inta, and many others either barely existed or did not exist at all until they became camp centers. Stalin hoped to use the camps to help industrialize the Soviet Union. He even thought that the Gulag could be run as a profitable enterprise, though it never was. The architecture of terror is a costly thing. And yet, in what had been a largely peasant country, prisoners built roads, railways, dams, and factories; staffed steel mills, coal mines, ironworks, oil fields; cleared forests in Komi, fished salmon off Sakhalin, slaughtered livestock in the Caucasus. As Applebaum writes, Gulag prisoners made everything from missiles to “mechanical rabbits playing drums.” At Stalin’s order, prisoners even built preposterous public-works projects: rail lines that cut through the forest and then were abandoned when Stalin died; dams to reverse the direction of rivers; canals that proved useless. Prisoners equipped with nothing more than shovels, saws, picks, and wheelbarrows dug an infamous canal between the Baltic Sea and the White Sea; thousands worked themselves to death and were buried in the banks. The leadership published a book extolling the greatness of slave labor and the White Sea Canal. Its editor and principal author was Maxim Gorky.

If Auschwitz-Birkenau was the archetypal camp in the Nazi constellation, then the best known in the Gulag system was Kolyma, in the Russian Far East. Kolyma was not a single camp but, rather, a region six times the size of France, with more than a hundred camps; three million people died there between 1931, when it was inaugurated as an island in the Gulag archipelago, and Stalin’s death. Prisoners from all over Russia and other Soviet republics were packed, standing up, into railcars and were transported, on journeys that sometimes lasted for weeks, to the Far East, to port cities such as Vladivostok. If they survived the rail journey, and many did not, they were herded onto ships for the final trip north, through the Sea of Okhotsk to Magadan, the newly created capital of Kolyma. In the absence of Dante, those hellish journeys were best described by Yevgenia Ginzburg, in her classic memoir, “Journey Into the Whirlwind,” and by Varlam Shalamov, in his short stories, “Kolyma Tales.” Ginzburg, for example, remembers her fear as murderers and thieves joined the “politicals” on the ship to Magadan: “When I saw this half-naked, tattooed apelike horde invade the hold, I thought that it had been decided that we were to be killed off by mad women. The fetid air reverberated to their shrieks, their ferocious obscenities, their wild laughter and their caterwaulings. . . . Within five minutes we had a thorough introduction to the law of the jungle.”

The ships to Magadan would often stall in the ice. Trapped for days, even weeks, thousands died in the holds. Sometimes the guards fed the corpses to the living; sometimes they pitched them overboard onto the ice floes, where they remained, rotting, until summer. The prisoners who made it to Kolyma labored in the gold mines and other enterprises and often died of starvation and overwork. Shalamov, who was invited years later by Solzhenitsyn to collaborate on “Gulag” (he declined because of illness), survived seventeen years in Kolyma. “I believed a person could consider himself a human being as long as he felt totally prepared to kill himself, to interfere in his own biography,” a character says in the story “The Life of the Engineer Kipreev.” “It was this awareness that provided the will to live. I checked myself—frequently—and felt I had the strength to die, and thus remained alive.”

"Gulag: A History” is structured in three parts: the origins of the camps; the experience of the zeks (prisoners), from arrest until death or release; and then a history of the decline of the “camp-industrial complex” until its final collapse, under Gorbachev. Applebaum is a deft synthesizer of both the better-known works and the more obscure, yet astonishingly vivid materials that remain, for the most part, untranslated. Her portrait of the politics of the era is straightforward and sufficient for her survey; the book’s emotional power is in her portrait of the victims and what they endured.

Through copious quotation and anecdote, Applebaum methodically, and unflinchingly, provides a sense of what it was like to enter and inhabit the netherworld of the Gulag. From the sources she has assembled, we learn what the daily soup was made of (“spoiled cabbage and potatoes, sometimes with pieces of pig fat, sometimes with herring heads” or “fish or animal lungs and a few potatoes”); the regulation height of the camp fences; the dimensions of the barracks; how women made buttons from bits of chewed bread, sewing needles from fish bones.

The Gulag was a universe with its own languages and codes, and we get a sampling of them: for camp administrators, pregnant women were “books,” women with children were “receipts,” men were “accounts,” exiles were “rubbish,” prisoners under investigation were “envelopes,” a camp division was a “factory.” We learn about the tattoo designs for politicals, addicts, rapists, murderers; we learn of tufta, the art of pretending to work, and of mastyrka, the art of malingering. The slang of the Gulag eventually became the slang of the entire Soviet Union; the rich vocabulary of Russian obscenity developed mainly in the camps. We learn the telegraphic system—the “alphabet”—used by one prisoner tapping on a cell wall to communicate with another.

Applebaum also catalogues the innovations of camp punishments. Dmitri Panin, a friend of Solzhenitsyn’s, describes executions that required no technology: “An offender caught in the act of stealing bread would be tossed in the air by other prisoners and allowed to crash to the ground; this was repeated several times, damaging his kidneys. Then they would heave him out of the barracks like so much carrion.” Anatoly Marchenko, a human-rights activist who died in the Christopol prison in 1986, describes the varieties of self-mutilation, which included injecting oneself with a dirty needle to induce infection or exposing oneself to the Siberian cold to get frostbitten. Marchenko writes that he saw one prisoner nail his own testicles to a prison bench. Even escape had an unimaginable history. Cannibalism, Applebaum writes, was sometimes a gambit: “Pairs of criminals would agree in advance to escape along with a third man (‘the meat’) who was destined to become the sustenance for the other two on their journey.”

Applebaum, like any intelligent writer who encounters the subject of the Gulag, gives credit to Solzhenitsyn and “The Gulag Archipelago.” It is impossible to name a book that had a greater effect on the political and moral consciousness of the late twentieth century. Not only did Solzhenitsyn deliver the historical truth of the Gulag; he conveyed, as no one else did, its demonic atmosphere and the psychology of both the prisoners and the guards, as well as the mark it left on the entire society. In fact, if Applebaum’s “Gulag” leads more readers to Solzhenitsyn then her book will have served an important function. It is not disparaging to Applebaum to say that the relation between the two works is like that between a history of the Trojan War and the Iliad.

“The Gulag Archipelago,” which was published in the United States by Harper & Row, in three volumes, between 1974 and 1978, was a best-seller, a sensation in the press. It seems a fair guess that hundreds of thousands of copies of “The Gulag Archipelago” sold at the time went unread. Countless copies of Volume 1, its jacket the color of wet cement, sat as still as cinder blocks on the bookshelves of earnest purchasers. Nevertheless, in some countries, particularly France, the book was the decisive event in exploding the lingering illusions of the left about the nature of the Soviet era.

Many factors contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union—an antiquated economy, a senseless political system incapable of modernizing—and surely the publication of “The Gulag Archipelago” was among them. Solzhenitsyn, who had been a prisoner for eight years, first began making notes for such a project in 1958. With Khrushchev’s sanction, he was able to publish his novella “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” in the mass-circulation journal Novy Mir, in 1962, and old zeks began to write him letters filled with information about life in different camps. He received letters not only from ex-prisoners but from ex-guards, and even ex-secret policemen. He also travelled widely and furtively, visiting friends from his own days in the camps and other witnesses who bravely told him their stories. Working between sixteen and twenty hours a day, Solzhenitsyn finished the book in 1968 but kept his copies of the manuscript hidden.

On September 1, 1973, Solzhenitsyn learned that the Leningrad K.G.B. had confiscated a copy of the manuscript; his devoted typist, Elizaveta Voronyanskaya, had been interrogated by the K.G.B. and had told of a copy that she had buried at a friend’s dacha. Shortly after her arrest, she was found dead of asphyxiation—a suicide. Solzhenitsyn no longer had any choice: he sent a signal to his confederates abroad to publish in the West. Just before the new year, YMCA Press, in Paris, published “The Gulag Archipelago,” in Russian. Solzhenitsyn heard the news on the BBC while eating lunch. “I heard the news calmly,” he writes in his memoir “The Oak and the Calf,” “and continued forking cabbage into my mouth.” Solzhenitsyn, who had been awarded the Nobel Prize in 1970, was soon arrested by the K.G.B. and exiled to the West.

The Soviet camp system was not the relatively high-tech factory of death that the Nazis put in place at Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. There were executions in the Gulag, usually a pistol shot to the back of the head; sometimes exhaust fumes were used to asphyxiate prisoners. But, as Applebaum reminds us, the difference was in intention: “The Soviet camp system as a whole was not deliberately organized to mass-produce corpses—even if, at times, it did.” After the occupation of Poland and the Wannsee conference of January, 1942, the main purpose of the Nazi camps was the eradication of the Jews. Stalin intended something else. Using the Gulag, he meant to build a state and hold it in a permanent condition of terror. For a generation, he succeeded.

The Nazi extermination project came to an end, of course, because of military defeat. What followed was a long and complicated process of “de-Nazification.” The memory of the war, and of the Holocaust in particular, has come to play an enormous role in Germany’s consciousness and politics. Nearly sixty years after the fall of the Third Reich, Berlin’s most celebrated building is its Holocaust museum. Such books as Daniel Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” and Victor Klemperer’s wartime diaries are best-sellers and are obsessively debated.

In the post-Soviet world, by contrast, almost no one seems to care about the victims of the old regime. After 1991, there were no “truth commissions,” as there were in South Africa and Argentina. The Russian government under Yeltsin did organize a trial of the Communist Party, but it drifted into irrelevance; its verdict went unnoticed. Solzhenitsyn, who returned to Moscow after two decades of American exile, is mocked by much of the liberal intelligentsia; in today’s Russia, the readership of “The Gulag Archipelago” is no greater than it is anywhere else. There are a few groups, notably the Memorial Human Rights Center, that do serious work on camp archives. But their popular effect is almost nil.

In August, 1991, after the quick collapse of a K.G.B.-led coup, demonstrators gathered outside the Lubyanka at a huge statue of Lenin’s secret-police chief, Feliks Dzerzhinsky. From a crane, a noose was lowered around Iron Feliks’s neck and the statue was dragged away. This was the singular picture promising a new epoch. Not long afterward, the Memorial brought a large stone from Solovki to a spot outside the Lubyanka. At a ceremony, a group of activists dedicated the stone to those killed during the Soviet repressions. If I remember accurately, there were no more than a hundred or so people there, and the coverage in the Russian press was fleeting.

A decade later, little has changed. Occasionally, a new statue or plaque is dedicated at a camp or a mass grave, but millions of the dead remain as anonymous and as unremembered as they were in Stalin’s time. President Vladimir Putin, a former colonel in the K.G.B. who is wildly popular for having guided the country to some semblance of economic stability, does not hesitate to pay tribute to the wartime heroism of Josef Stalin. Last month marked the fiftieth anniversary of Stalin’s death. There were many articles and television programs, but none focussed much on the Gulag and its victims. According to the most reliable polling organization in the country, fifty-three per cent of the people believed that, “in the life of our country,” Stalin had played a predominantly positive role.


Doomed men and rotten ideals
(Filed: 12/05/2003)

Simon Sebag Montefiore reviews Gulag by Anne Applebaum

When a man was arrested in Soviet Russia and disappeared into the benighted Gulag concentration-camp system, he stepped off a precipice into a detached, parallel netherworld with its own laws and language and its own terrible destiny. The Soviet leaders regarded such prisoners as useful economically, but no longer human: in the newly opened Stalin archives, I recently found a note to Stalin from one of his henchmen who, on a visit to the White Sea Canal project, wrote that the slave-labourers had impressed him so much that "some of them might actually become humans again".

During Stalin's reign, 18 million people toiled in 476 Gulag (an acronym for Main Camp Administration) complexes, such as Kolyma or Magadan, territories sometimes as big as France, in a colossal enterprise of slavery and death. The USSR was founded on this slavery – it served both as an incentive to obey and as the engine of the Soviet economy.

Despite Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, many memoirs and open archives, we have until now lacked an accessible Gulag history. Fifty years after Stalin's death, Anne Applebaum fills the gap.

The lack of recognition for the colossal crime known as the Soviet experiment was symptomatic of the Western Left-liberal feeling that Stalin may have been brutal – but in a good cause. Applebaum demolishes this shameful nonsense. She demonstrates that the Gulags were comparable to Hitler's camps – though they were not, of course, identical, since Stalin's slaves were worked to death but not industrially exterminated like the Jews.

The camps began in Lenin's time. It was Stalin who developed the system into an economic powerhouse in which slaves, whether intellectuals or peasant "kulaks", victims of collectivisation, built canals, slaved in goldmines, felled timber. The number of prisoners rose in the early 1930s, but Applebaum recounts how the Great Terror of 1937-38, the most notorious of Stalin's bloodbaths, was far from the worst time for the Gulags. That came during the Second World War and after, when the camps were filled with the innocent flotsam of wartime: the camp population reached its height in 1950. Millions died of starvation.

Gulag is divided into three sections: two are narrative, but the core of the book is a portrait of the system and what it was like to live in it. Applebaum's chapter on the journey to Magadan in the far east of the Soviet Union is harrowing: the transit camps and the boats were simply diabolical; the mass rapes and murders beggar belief.

Patiently compiling a picture of this hell using anecdotes and statistics, Applebaum masters a complex dystopia where the genuine criminals lorded it over the political slaves. She reveals the stupidity, cruelty and corruption of the guards. The boss of the Magadan camp lived like a pharaoh.

Applebaum tells us how the dying were known as "wicks" (as in burnt-out candles); how the prisoners – the "zeks'', in camp vernacular – survived by pretending to work; how the best-connected prisoners, often the intellectuals such as Solzhenitsyn, managed to survive by becoming "trusties", or informers. She is too shrewd to make judgments about these desperate struggles to survive.

The book is not stalked by death but steeped in it: murder, execution, starvation, cannibalism (escapees would take a man known as the "meat" to eat when their provisions ran out), suicide (prisoners were sometimes reduced to nailing their own testicles to furniture). Babies were taken from their mothers once they stopped breastfeeding; mass rapes were encouraged; many women survived by becoming mistresses of criminals or guards.

This important book is not only a chronicle of ghastly human suffering, a history of one of the greatest abuses of power in the story of our species, and a cautionary tale of towering moral significance, it is also the anthropological lexicon of a bizarre culture of words, tattoos and codes, and a literary guide to the poetry of suffering.

Applebaum, using new archival research and interviews while synthesising the Gulag literature by survivors, has created a magisterial work, written in an unflinching style that moves as much as it shocks, and that glistens with the teeming life and stinking putrefaction of doomed men and rotten ideals.

Academic purists may criticise her dependence on memoirs and literature – but Applebaum uses her sources judiciously. Besides, it takes poets to describe this inferno: Anna Akhmatova lamented how in Stalin's Terror "Russia, guiltless, beloved, writhed under the crunch of bloodstained boots." But Applebaum's narrative sections are sometimes too cursory. I would like to have known more about the Gulag's political history; perhaps that would be another book.

This story will remain relevant as long as we grasp the value of freedom. Solzhenitsyn wrote that "we didn't love freedom enough" and so deserved everything that came after. No one was punished for the crimes of the Gulag. "And the killers?" wrote another prisoner, Lev Razgon: "The killers live on…" None the less, these lessons will outlive the murderers and the victims.



May 14, 2003

Applebaum captures the absurdity and paradoxes of the camp system, says Simon Finch

Honouring souls lost in history


By Anne Applebaum
Allen Lane, £25; 610 pp
ISBN 0 7139 9322 7

SOME years ago Anne Applebaum was walking through the newly democratic city of Prague when she saw tourists, mostly Americans and West Europeans, buying up Soviet military paraphernalia: caps, badges, belt buckles, decorated with the hammer and sickle, or pictures of Soviet leaders.

It was hardly an unusual sight. Yet none of the people paying for such tyrant kitsch would have dreamt of wearing a swastika. Why, she wondered, does the symbol of one mass murder fill us with horror, whereas the symbol of another makes us laugh?

Why do we not take Communism’s victims seriously?

As the columnist and editorial board member of the Washington Post outlines in the introduction to this remarkable volume, for a long time there was no shortage of ostensible reasons. Until the Soviet Union’s collapse, the regime’s absolute control of primary sources made for an absence of hard information. Yet now our excuses have been swept away. A flood of new memoirs from gulag prisoners is available, dozens of new archival sources have been opened, and academia is beginning to engage with the camps system. So why is there still so often at best an indifference to Soviet crimes and at worst a continued tendency to downplay them? Why is Western popular consciousness so unengaged by the Soviet Union’s concentration camps, yet so fixated on the Nazis’?

In a monumental, scholarly achievement, Applebaum has set out not merely to answer this question but to redress the obscene disparity it highlights. Intended for the general reader, her moving work of synthesis offers a uniquely documented history of the camp system. Amazingly, this is the first such authoritative history of the gulag to be available in any language.

Drawing on hundreds of memoirs, her own interviews with dozens of gulag survivors, and carefully chosen statistics from the increasing range of academic studies and Russian archives now available, Applebaum divides her book into three sections. The first and last describe the evolution of the camp system chronologically. From the first concentration camp on islands in the White City (complete with the slogan “Through Labour — Freedom”: where have we heard that before?), to Kolyma, a sprawling piece of territory in the furthest North-East corner of Siberia, where millions perished, Applebaum captures the absurdity and paradoxes of the camp system. Yet it is the middle section which is the most affecting. In this thematic compilation of life in the camps, the full wanton horror of the Soviet system is catalogued as never before. Measured prose relates immeasurable pain.

The literature of the gulag is rich, yet apart from Solzhenitzyn, little known in the West. Applebaum quotes frequently from many accounts that deserve a wider readership, including those of Gustav Herling-Grudzinski and Evgeniya Ginzburg, but she also unearths more obscure works that on this evidence warrant urgent translation.

By the end of the 1930s, the forced-labour system (“Gulag” is an acronym for Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, or “Main Camp Administration”) had penetrated nearly every region of the Soviet Union, all twelve of its time zones and most of its republics. Millions of people were incarcerated, or had passed through, thousands of concentration camps. The gulag was a world apart, with “its own laws, its own customs, its own morality, even its own slang”. Zeks or prisoners’ accounts reveal patterns of arrest and interrogation, and the transportations and struggle for survival that inevitably followed them. But Applebaum is too patient a writer to conclude that lessons can neatly be extracted out of such misery. Some victims survived for what we might like to regard as the best of reasons — mutual support and communal solidarity. Others survived for perhaps the worst — ruthlessness and complicity with their perpetrators. But who can ultimately say? As the author comments at one point, a tale of moral degradation can also be a story of survival. Even as one reads of the gang rapes and the cannibalism, the bodies lying unburied in the permafrost, the breathtakingly pointless construction projects that cost the lives of thousands, a shocking realisation dawns.

The book itself is dedicated to those who described what happened, who were by definition, survivors, at least for a time. Hard though it is to believe, their accounts may represent, in certain respects, the best of what the gulag had to offer its citizens. What would those who died tell us if they could only speak?

It is typical of Applebaum’s clear-sighted realism that she should end a thought-provoking volume sounding a warning. “This book was not written ‘so that it will not happen again’, as the cliché would have it. This book was written because it almost certainly will happen again.”



May 11, 2003

This is a history of the Gulag from its beginning to the end. Or, rather, the history of the Soviet system, says Vladimir Bukovsky

Could it happen again?

GULAG: A History of the Soviet Camps
Anne Applebaum
Allen Lane £25;  pp610

Anyone who writes a history of the Gulag after Solzhenitsyn must have a special reason — beyond a simple interest in historical detail — before taking on such a monumental task. It is true, of course, that at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, when Solzhenitsyn was writing his famous book, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956, he had no access to the documents that are now available, and political repression was still continuing, albeit on a much smaller scale than it had under Stalin. The saga of the Gulag was far from over, and nobody could predict how it would end. Solzhenitsyn’s task, therefore, was that of a memoirist rather than that of a historian, while his approach was that of an eyewitness to crimes against humanity.

In contrast, Anne Applebaum’s book is a fully documented study of this monstrosity, including its post mortem. It is the first such undertaking by a Western writer with no personal experience as an inmate of the camps. It is a truly impressive achievement, bearing in mind the sheer amount of work it required and the number of trips the author had to make to Russia. We all should be grateful to her, including Solzhenitsyn himself.

Applebaum makes us follow, step by step, the evolutionary path of this system of mass extermination as it emerged from the Marxist utopia on the one hand, and the brutality of civil war between 1918 and 1921 on the other. She demonstrates how the general failure of the socialist experiment in Russia by the end of the 1930s slowly altered the goals of the Gulag from its rather idealistic intention of “re-educating” political opponents and hardcore criminals, to a cynical exploitation of slave labour leading to its ultimate dehumanisation when human life became cheaper than a piece of bread. Finally, we are able to see the last stages of this drama when the ossified, stagnating regime under Brezhnev was already unable to cope with growing public resistance. In short, this is a history of the Gulag from its beginning to the end. Or, rather, the history of the Soviet system, because they are inseparable.

The last thing one can say after reading Applebaum’s Gulag, however, is that it has been written by a dispassionate academic treating the subject as something quite remote from his or her personal life. On the contrary, her book is full of emotion and reads easily. But, if in Solzhenitsyn’s voice we hear anger, even fury, the predominant emotion here is sadness. And shame. Indeed, after all the crimes, trials and revelations of the past century, perhaps the bloodiest in the history of mankind, the Gulag remains in our collective conscience as an unhealed wound. We still don’t know precisely how many people fell victim to political repression under communism in the former Soviet Union (let alone in the world). Some estimate it as 40m, others as 60m (perhaps 100m globally as guesstimated by the French scholars in The Black Book of Communism). Unlike Nazism, communism has never been put on trial, never been condemned unequivocally by any international body.

As a result, we live in a time of double standards, which we have become so used to that we don’t even notice the most ridiculous manifestations of this moral schizophrenia. When in some British town a BNP member wins a seat on the council, it is an international scandal. But at the same time, communists have quietly returned to power in the Ukraine, Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland (and even Berlin) without anyone in the West being particularly alarmed.

And when, going down the street in Cambridge, I see young people sporting the hammer and sickle on their t-shirts, I, like Applebaum, feel sad.

Meanwhile, hordes of former Soviet apologists and fellow- travellers, without the slightest regret for their past, are back in the streets teaching us how to conduct foreign policy. Many of them have become quite respectable, have been elected to parliaments and become ministers. And not one of them has ever admitted their past mistakes. On the contrary, some still shamelessly defend their behaviour, while others rewrite history claiming that the cold war was “one of the most unnecessary conflicts of all time”.

And we don’t even dare to point them out publicly, lest we are accused of “witch hunting”. As Applebaum writes: “Already, we are forgetting what it was that mobilised us, what inspired us, what held the civilisation of ‘the West’ together for so long: we are forgetting what it was that we were fighting against. If we do not try harder to remember the history of the other half of the European continent, the history of the other 20th-century totalitarian regime, in the end it is we in the West who will not understand our past, we who will not know how our world came to be the way it is.

“The more we are able to understand how different societies have transformed their neighbours and fellow citizens from people into objects, the more we know of the specific circumstances which led to each episode of mass torture and mass murder, the better we will understand the darker side of our own human nature. This book was not written ‘so that it will not happen again’, as the cliché would have it. This book was written because it almost certainly will happen again. Totalitarian philosophies have had, and will continue to have, a profound appeal to many millions of people. Destruction of the ‘objective enemy’, as Hannah Arendt once put it, remains a fundamental object of many dictatorships. We need to know why — and each story, each memoir, each document in the history of the Gulag is a piece of the puzzle, a part of the explanation. Without them, we will wake up one day and realise that we do not know who we are”.

I can only agree with this conclusion, and confirm that the “darker side” of our human nature is remarkably similar in all nations. The craving for utopia, the need to create one’s enemies and then to destroy them is as common in the West as it is in the East.

And what particular form the new gulags might take, what new “crimes” our utopians will crusade against, be they political incorrectness, or a new European crime of “xenophobia”, is not so important. The ghost of the Gulag is still wandering among us, and Applebaum’s book is a first attempt to exorcise it.

Great survivor
A dissident who suffered for 12 years in Soviet labour camps and psychiatric hospitals in the 1960s and 1970s, Vladimir Bukovsky has lasting memories of prison brutality, particularly of a punishment called “the roll-up”.

This “involved the use of wet canvas — long pieces of it — in which the patient is rolled up from head to foot, so tightly that it was difficult for him to breathe, and as the canvas began to dry out it would get tighter and tighter and make the patient feel even worse”.

Read on... websites:
Powerful Gulag exhibition

The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956 by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (Harvill £14)
Epic account of his own experiences, and those of survivors, in the labour camps



Gulag: a history of the Soviet camps, by Anne Applebaum

A butcher's bill from the meat-grinder

Catherine Merridale hails a great history of Stalin's camps, but warns its readers against post-Cold War complacency

17 May 2003

Anne Applebaum's new history of the Gulag begins with a disclaimer. "The emotions and politics which have long surrounded the historiography of the Soviet concentration camps do not lie at the heart of this book," she writes. "That space is reserved, instead, for the experience of the victims." What follows is grim and unrelenting, an enlightening but difficult read. If the contemplation of evil, on its own, could make us better human beings, this book would be an excellent investment.

The ideological disclaimer, however, is either naïve or it is misleading. Soviet Communism has collapsed, and the battlegrounds between right and left have certainly shifted, but the struggles between rich and poor, between those without power and those free to abuse it, have not ended. A history that draws explicit comparisons between Stalin's prison camps and those created in the Forties for Hitler's Final Solution is making a point. At the very least, the German edition of this book will sell like hot cakes to nationalists and neo-Nazis in Bavaria. The challenge for the rest of us will be to question the response of our emotions.

A response there will certainly be, for Applebaum's account of the Gulag is magnificent: 35 years after Robert Conquest's classic, The Great Terror (1968), she brings the terrible history of the Soviet camps to life again. She has also gone further than Conquest could, making brilliant use of Gulag and secret police archives. Her book is one of the most vivid histories we have of a system – "the meat grinder", Russians called it – that marked or destroyed the lives of millions.

Anyone could end up in the Gulag. No individual, however eminent, however loyal to Stalin, however apparently unobtrusive, could count themselves immune. Within hours of arrest, they would be standing at the door of their first cell, confronting the comrades whose haggard, desperate expressions they would come to share. Most would also share an exile, often to the coldest and least hospitable of the Soviet Union's provinces.

From prison, a convict was usually taken to his labour camp by train. The journey itself was enough to kill the sick, the very young, and the elderly. One of its rigours was lack of water, with prisoners often having to survive on a single cup a day. Then there was the possibility of assault, robbery or rape, for hardened criminals shared the trains with "politicals" and their families. By the time the convoy pulled to its last stop, the disorientated travellers would know that they had entered a new universe, parallel to their own but utterly different.

Applebaum's description of this, the core of the book, is as riveting as it is appalling. The Gulag had its own culture, much of it derived from the criminal underworld, its own informal power structures, and its own language. Life went on – thousands of babies were born to women prisoners, and there were even Gulag marriages – but survival was often a matter of ruthless cunning. As one ex-prisoner told me, the secret was to make sure you were never the first to die.

Every scrap of advantage – a larger crust of bread, a warmer place on the crowded sleeping-plank, a softer job with the camp administration – was hungrily exploited. But exhaustion, cold, disease and despair claimed millions all the same. The dead were buried with numbers, not names, and many were consigned to pits. The thought that no one would ever know of their deaths was one of the greatest sources of prisoners' psychological distress.

Although it reached its cruellest and most extreme form under Stalin, political exile was not invented by the Bolshevik revolutionaries, most of whom experienced it in the last years of Tsarism. The Gulag itself had a history: bad times and worse times, moments of revolt. Applebaum's other achievement is to tell this story. An early camp, at Solovki in the White Sea, had cells where "politicals" could live "like human beings". One survivor recalled white cloths on the tables, books, and tea served daintily from pots.

All this would change after 1929, the first year of Stalin's all-out drive for industrial growth. Prisoners began to be used as slaves, working for forestry, construction and mining projects. The camp population swelled in 1937-8, the years of the Great Terror, but the harshest time was 1941-2, when prisoners were worked to death to support the Soviet Union's war against Nazism.

The war changed the Gulag world. The convict hierarchy of the Thirties was dominated by criminals, many pitiless killers with nothing left to lose. But by 1945 these "bitches" were supplanted by a new elite.

The leaders of camp revolts in the Forties were ex-soldiers, nationalists, mostly from Ukraine, Poland and the Soviet Baltic. Many had experience of partisan warfare; they were organised and fearless. Those in Stalin's circle who knew the most about the camps, police chief Lavrenti Beria in particular, began to suspect that the system could not be sustained. The Gulag, as a concentration of the angriest and most desperate of oppositionists, was not merely dangerous, it was also uneconomic, expensive, difficult and draining. Stalin's death in 1953 removed the last obstacle to its abolition.

This, too, was a grim process. Prisoners were not freed in deference to their human rights, and little effort was made to establish them in civilian lives. Even if they had families to help (and many had been rejected or forgotten), former convicts were unnerved by the postwar world, by intimacy, leisure, indoor work. Though they were free, there was no restitution. It would be more than 30 years before the state, in the person of Boris Yeltsin, formally recognised its responsibility to them.

The former prisoners' interests are now the concern of Memorial, the human rights organisation that provided Applebaum with much of her material. Memorial continues to research the whole dark story, following every individual case. Many of its staff have been looking forward to this book, eager for their findings to be laid before the world. They will not be disappointed.

But readers in Britain and America should beware. Neither they, nor I, nor Applebaum, are victims or survivors in this tale. Our place is not among the righteous, complacent as the winners of Cold War, and nor is it to be found in a clean, bright space where ideology is dead. The debates about freedom, justice and inequality rage on. The Gulag has gone, but individual responsibility for collective and ideologically driven excess, whether it be racist slaughter, imprisonment without trial, or abominations like Death Row, begins at home.

Catherine Merridale's 'Night of Stone: death and memory in Russia' is published by Granta



America, the Gulag

By Anne Applebaum

Wednesday, June 11, 2003; Page A35

"Do you see any parallels between the security state that George Bush has created in America since 9/11 and the Gulag?" For a moment, the question struck me dumb. It had been put by a BBC radio interviewer, and we were on the air. It seemed impolitic to say, "What a ridiculous question," and I was too surprised to laugh. Finally I mumbled something about not having noticed that great a difference between daily life in George Bush's America and daily life in Bill Clinton's America, and left it at that. What I should have done was point out, tartly, that access to information is still far freer in America than it is in Britain, that immigrants are far better treated in America than in Britain, and that democracy remains a more open affair in America than in Britain. One always thinks of these things too late.

Yet in the days that followed, I did, rather surprisingly, have the opportunity to try out a few more answers. I was in London because a book I wrote about Soviet concentration camps had just been published there. For some, it seemed, the combination of that subject and my nationality offered the perfect opportunity to discuss the viciousness of contemporary American society. Several times I was asked if Guantanamo Bay should be considered a concentration camp. One reviewer, after saying a few neutral words about my book, complained that "the author has missed an opportunity to condemn human rights violations in her own country." Another interviewer asked whether people in America are often arrested for insulting the president on the Internet.

Partly, I suspect that this extraordinary new perception of America as a vile source of human rights abuse and repression comes from London-based Americans, one of whom told me she had moved to Britain to escape George Bush's abuses. Partly, and more legitimately, it comes from ill-judged decisions by the administration, such as the refusal to call the Guantanamo Bay captives "prisoners of war," which happens to be what they are.

Partly, though, it reflects something I first noticed two years ago and am still at a loss to explain fully. This is the animus that George W. Bush personally inspires among what the British, among others, call the "chattering classes," in Europe as elsewhere. Recently, a Pew Research Center poll gave statistical backing to a phenomenon that many have observed anecdotally. Much of the world -- and Europe is no exception -- has a love-hate relationship with America. They consume our mass culture but simultaneously resent the impact of that mass culture on their own. They watch our television programs but are wary of importing them. On a host of issues, ranging from beliefs about the death penalty to preferred brands of sneakers, Europeans and Americans are actually growing closer, and the much-vaunted "values gap" is growing narrower. Yet when asked about it, Europeans often focus on what drives us apart.

Somehow -- and the Pew results support this too -- Bush has come to stand for the hate part of the love-hate relationship, symbolizing the downside of mass culture and the pushy side of our foreign policy, rather than the economic freedom and political openness that many admire. Largely this is because Bush, as a fully paid-up conservative, is at odds with Europe's left-leaning political elites, most of whom hate not only him but also the things with which he is associated, rightly or wrongly, such as a freer rein for the private sector. What they hate, in other words, is his domestic policy, more than his foreign policy.

Hatred of Bush has, in turn, slanted the reporting in the European press. Huge amounts of attention were given to the reports, after the fall of Baghdad, of the looting of the Iraqi state museum, which played into negative stereotypes (anti-culture Americans!). Far less attention has been paid to subsequent discoveries of the museum's treasures, hidden in vaults, safe from looters. Much was made a year or two ago of the administration's apparent lack of interest in Middle East peace (warmongering Americans!). By contrast, there has been relatively little interest in the president's recent trip to the Middle East, which has been widely dismissed as a cynical maneuver.

At the moment, prospects for change are slim. The administration's stunningly inept diplomacy in Europe isn't doing much to improve matters, nor is the low-level arrogance that still drips out of the White House and the Pentagon. One can talk weakly of student exchanges and conferences, but those sorts of things reach limited audiences. Besides, increased communication sometimes makes for increased misunderstanding. Perhaps the best thing to do is invite your foreign friends to visit, switch on Jay Leno and reassure them, in case they don't believe it, that it is still pretty hard to be arrested -- as Stalin's victims once were -- for telling jokes about the nation's leader.







Foreign Affairs

May/June 2003

Robert Legvold


National Review

May 6, 2003

Michael Ledeen

Inside the Dark

Boston Globe

May 4, 2003

Matthew Price

Evil Empire

The New Criterion

May 2003

Hilton Cramer

Remembering the Gulag

Skagit Valley Herald

May 8, 2003

Kathy Lally


Washington Times

May 4, 2003

Arnold Beichman

Russian Amnesia

The Daily Telegraph

May 20, 2003

Richard Overy

A world built on slavery


June 7, 2003

Robert Service

The accountancy of pain

The New York Times

June 11, 2003

Michael McFaul

Camps of Terror, Often Overlooked

Rocky Mountain News

June 5. 2003


Keeping the memory of the gulags alive


May 27, 2003

Stephen Kotkin

Unmarked Monuments

Human Events

June 1, 2003

Brian Crozier

The Gulag, as it really was

Evening Standard

June 9, 2003

Alison Roberts

Inside Soviet Labour camps

The Observer

June 15, 2003

Roy Hattersley

The coldest circle of hell

The Seattle Times

June 15, 2003

Bruce Ramsey

'Gulag' is an eye-opener to Stalin's atrocities


April 28, 2003

Andrew Nagorski 

The world of the Gulag


May10, 2003

David Harsanyi

Deep inside the Soviet Gulag

Jerusalem Post

August 5, 2003

Eli Kazhdan

The evil empire's evil empire

Read these reviews here

First Chapter of the book here







Die Welt


Hannes Stein

Weil es immer wieder geschieht

Frankfurter Rundschau



Übt massiven Terror gegen Kulaken, Popen und weiße Garden



Arno Widmann

Vom Nachttisch geräumt

Chicago Tribune


Michael R. Marrus

Ocean of misery in Russia

Chicago Tribune


Robin Dougherty

A holocaust's shadowy imprint

Süddeutsche Zeitung



Die letzten Kreise der Hölle



Leona Toker

One hundred years of evil



José Manuel Fernandes

A escravatura em nome do ‘homem novo’


Read these reviews here