main page, here
GULAG: A HISTORY OF THE SOVIET CAMPS,
Gulag: A history. Anne Applebaum New York: Doubleday, 2003, 736 pp. $35.00
Reviewed by Robert Legvold, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2003
Gulag, the searing acronym for the Soviet bureaucracy that administered penal labor camps, ruled a sprawling empire comprising 476 complexes. Each complex contained thousands of individual camps, through which more than 18 million people passed between 1929 and 1953, maybe 3 million or more of whom perished. Applebaum examines this monster from many angles, including its origins, its "function," especially in the Stalinist system, its exponential growth after 1929 and in the 1940s, as well as moments in the "meat grinder" (as it was known): arrest, transit, in, out, and back. Her separate portraits of the guards, the "thieves in law," the common criminals (whose crime may have been coming to work ten minutes late), and the political prisoners (whose transgression may have been telling a political joke) have a special vividness and poignancy. Gulag is a tightly told, complex, heartbreaking, and mind-bending story.
May 6, 2003, 9:15 a.m.
Inside the Dark
If our schools and universities cared about history, Anne Applebaum's magisterial work, Gulag would be required reading. Not because our children need to master the enormous body of detail concerning the infamous Soviet forced-labor system — made famous by Solzhenitsyn's works some 30 years ago — but because it is only by working their way through the chilling details, year by year and camp by camp, that they can begin to understand the horrors of Communism and the magnitude of our successful war against it.
The first thing that needs to be said about this rare and wonderful work is that it defines the subject. Here, for the first time, a serious scholar has actually consulted the documentary evidence. It thus takes its place alongside Renzo De Felice's work on Italian fascism and Raoul Hilberg's The Destruction of the European Jews, as an amazing work of historical reconstruction. Anyone who wants to know about the darkest side of the Soviet Empire, and anyone who wishes to pursue other inquiries into the subject, will have to start here.
Like Hitler's slave-labor and extermination camps, the Soviet Gulag was the symbol of the regime. Like the Nazi camps, the Soviet ones started to solve a particular political problem — how to eliminate unwanted elements from the society at large — and then took on a life of their own, sometimes becoming the driving force of policy rather than a tool of it. The horrors found underneath the rocks of silence that long protected both systems from public examination are similar, and I rather think that anyone who analyzes such a phenomenon is compelled to write — as Anne Applebaum does — with an almost bloodless detachment. There are very few adjectives in Gulag, as in the great works on the other monstrous regimes of the recent past, because no adjective can do justice to the subject. The only way to get at it is by piling up the evidence. Gulag is nearly 700 pages long, and yet it is not burdensome; indeed, it could easily have been longer.
The result of all those pages and all that evidence is quite overwhelming, dizzying in fact. One is forced back into the dark hole of the past century, once again trying to cope with the amazing dimensions of totalitarianism. Tens of millions of people were herded animal-like away from civil society, into the Gulag archipelago, where they were brutalized by their overlords, their mates, and sometimes even by their relatives. As in Nazi Germany, entire categories were shipped off en bloc, whether members of undesirable nationalities or races (all blacks were enslaved in the thirties), political critics or mere suspects of disloyalty, or elements of the wrong "class." As in Nazi Germany, the war forced dramatic change on the system, and "for the first time, Stalin had decided to eliminate — entire nations — men, women, children, grandparents — and wipe them off the map."
Ms. Applebaum insists that this campaign was not, strictly speaking, "genocide," since the victims were not all exterminated. But she also insists that "cultural genocide" is a fair description, since all the deportees were transformed into non-persons in all the ways that Orwell described so well. All traces of their existence were eliminated. Their names were expunged from public records, their homelands were eliminated from the maps, their family cemeteries were plowed under, and the history books were rewritten. Just as photographs of the Soviet elite would be airbrushed to eliminate victims of the purges, so documentary evidence of the deportees was brushed away.
Gulag rests primarily upon the documentary evidence, but there is a lot of anecdotal material that was gathered in years of interviews, and of course from a considerable body of autobiographical literature. This enables Ms. Applebaum to provide us with some excellent discussions of "life" inside the camps, from the necessarily deranged sexual activities (rape was so common as to be considered routine), to the heart-rending attempts at resistance and escape. Once again, the effect is accomplished by simple retelling, not colorful language.
Ms. Applebaum has a fine eye for the paradoxes of the period, especially for those that carried over to the world's reaction to it. She reminds us that the Soviet people loved Stalin, and for a very long time even the victims of the Stalinist system told themselves that the whole thing was a terrible mistake, a confusion, even a betrayal of the great leader. All through the Thirties and Forties, most Soviet citizens believed that Stalin did not know about the Gulag, even though those who entered it saw all the trappings of totalitarian legalism: the trials, the official papers consigning them to hell, the Kafkaesque bureaucracy, the constant reminders that they had been duly and properly judged to be enemies of the state.
This sort of denial metastasized into a broader denial in the years following Stalin's death. Despite Khrushchev's revelations, nobody seriously attempted an analysis of the camp system until Solzhenitsyn, a full 20 years later, and there was an enormous effort to gainsay the accuracy of his portrait. As Ms. Applebaum reminds us, Hollywood has yet to make a defining movie about the horrors of the Gulag, and although the evils of Stalinism are surely on a par with those of the Third Reich, Hitler remains the symbol of 20th-century evil, while Stalin has largely escaped. She ponders this double standard, and provides a series of explanations, all convincing, and all important. But there is one that she has missed, I think, possibly because she is not familiar with the self-deceptions of Western policymakers.
I think it was easier for governments and scholars to look deeply into the Nazi horrors because they were looking at a system that had been destroyed. Telling the truth about Hitler did not require any government or any individual to take any dramatic action. No great risk was required, only honesty. But to tell the story of the Gulag at any moment from the rise of Stalin to the end of the Cold War was to lay down a moral and political challenge to the West, and to force men and women of good faith to fight against the Soviet Empire. Thus, for several generations, Westerners were reluctant to take a hard look at Soviet Communism, because they were unprepared to fulfill the imperatives that flowed automatically from the subject itself.
This, in turn, created a mindset and a pattern of behavior in the West that shunned the truth. We did not want to know it. And the power of that mindset was seen as the Soviet Empire collapsed, and passed into history. No Western government wished to celebrate our great victory over Soviet Communism. On the contrary; there was an active effort to downplay its significance. And when the Soviet Archives were briefly available to anyone who wished to copy them and open them to scholars and aggrieved citizens, no Western government, no Western academic institution, moved quickly enough to accomplish the task. The result: Secrecy regulations were imposed by Gorbachev's successors, and much of the material is now locked away.
So read this book, ponder its important messages, and ask yourself if we are not doing the same thing today, as Western leaders refuse to accept the horrors of regimes like those in North Korea or Iran. And be grateful that the terrible question asked by Leonid Sitko in 1949 has finally been answered:
I was a soldier, now I'm a convict
My soul is frozen, my tongue is silent.
What poet, what artist
Will depict my terrible captivity?
Anne Applebaum has done it.
— Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. Ledeen, Resident Scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute, can be reached through Benador Associates
Anne Applebaum's Gulag painstakingly chronicles the origins, and the human toll, of the Soviet camp system
By Matthew Price, 5/4/2003
A half century has passed since the death of Stalin, but the long work of reckoning with his legacy remains unfinished business in Russia. There, ambivalence mixes with unease -- or admiration. Understandably, many Russians prefer to forget his blood-drenched reign, which killed upward of 20 million people. Yet others consider Stalin a latter-day Peter the Great who transformed a peasant society into a military and industrial colossus. It is fair to say that Russia has not yet put Stalin in his proper place in history. As Anne Applebaum tells us in ''Gulag,'' her titanic account of the labor camps that formed the heart of Stalin's apparatus of repression, there is no national museum devoted to the history of Stalinist repression, or a monument to its victims. But her book is something very like a memorial to those brutalized millions and, given the grimness of her task, an impressively dispassionate chronicle of the rise and fall of the camps.
What are the origins of the gulag? After the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917 during the Russian Revolution, their foes, real and imagined, were seen to be everywhere: priests, former czarist officials, bourgeois speculators, White Army officers, and legions of left-wing rivals -- in short, anyone who was deemed an ''enemy of the people.'' Bolshevik leaders thought the ordinary prison system not up to the task of holding these new charges, so their secret police (the Cheka) hastily set up special labor camps. ''Like so many other Bolshevik institutions,'' writes Applebaum, ''they were created ad hoc, in a hurry, as an emergency measure in the heat of the civil war.''
However, the camps came to be an enduring feature of the Soviet landscape. In exhaustive if not numbing detail, Applebaum traces the evolution of the camp system in the '20s and '30s. In 1923, Solovetsky, a monastery complex on a chain of White Sea islands, became, she notes, ''the first Soviet camp to be planned and built with any expectation of permanence.'' Solovetsky would serve as a laboratory of sorts, where the secret police learned how to use ''slave labor for profit.'' By the end of the '20s, with the commencement of Stalin's Five-Year Plan, which required massive amounts of coal, gas, oil, and wood, the camp system spread eastward into Siberia, where many of these resources were located. Solovetsky provided ''an example to be cloned many thousands of times, all across the USSR.''
While Applebaum writes at length about the debates that roiled Stalin's fractious ruling circles over the purpose of the camps -- were they for reform or punishment? -- the most fascinating and horrifying chapters of this long book are her detailed explorations of day-to-day life in the camps, based on archival research in Russia and a wealth of survivors' memoirs. Applebaum provides a richly textured brief on everything from the way prisoners were shipped to the camps (weeks-long train journeys to the wastes of Siberia, or harrowing ship voyages through icy seas), how they bathed, what they ate, how they survived -- or perished. Consider the building of the White Sea Canal in 1932-33, a 21-month set piece of furious building and digging Stalin used to advertise the glories of Soviet ingenuity. Some 170,000 prisoners wielded improvised handsaws, pickaxes, and often their own hands to dig the canal; pictures show how shockingly primitive their tools were. Though nearly 100,000 people died in the effort, Stalin considered the canal a triumph of engineering.
Still, as Applebaum writes, ''the `real' achievements of the gulag were not for foreign or even domestic consumption''; the newer camps ''were not for show.'' Reading ''Gulag,'' one comes away with a profound sense of the sheer immensity of the camp world, which seemed to go on forever -- into the farthest reaches of eastern Siberia at Kolyma, where some 100 camps were located; into southern deserts; and into Moscow and Leningrad. By the mid-'30s, the secret police (now called the NKVD) were running a great portion of the economy, planning mining expeditions, culling forests, building rail links, dams, airplane factories. In a purely objective sense, it was an awesome effort, which, for a time, made the Soviet economy a formidable rival to the capitalist economies of the West.
Yet the human cost overwhelms this perspective. Writing about this period in Russian history cannot be easy, but Applebaum, to her credit, manages to retain her historical sense. She sensibly grapples with one of the most fraught questions about the gulag, its arguable equivalence with the death camps of Nazi Germany, a point Martin Amis made recently in ''Koba the Dread,'' his polemical tract on Stalin. To be sure, both existed on a continuum of totalitarian oppression, but Applebaum rightly notes, ''The Soviet camp system as a whole was not deliberately organized to mass-produce corpses -- even if, at times, it did.''
Certainly, the gulag system was not remotely humane. Though not all prisoners lived miserably -- some even prospered, doing deals with guards, becoming snitches or chiefs of work crews -- for the great majority, life was a relentless struggle. Prisoners were often worked to death, not to say starved, deprived of medicines, or forced to live in squalor. Cutting timber in a Siberian forest in winter meant certain death; working in a nickel mine was not much safer. Yet prisoners availed themselves of several survival techniques, Applebaum tells us, like simply pretending not to work, the practice of ''tufta''; others collaborated with their captors, becoming ''pridurki,'' or trusties.
The ''camp-industrial complex,'' as Applebaum dubs the gulag world, reached its apogee just before Stalin's death, in 1953; but it was a system built on a rickety, rotting foundation. In 1954, Soviet authorities finally accepted that the camps were simply unprofitable. A series of uprisings and strikes by the ''zeks'' (prisoners) made the gulag harder and harder to govern, even though authorities initiated reforms, among them eight-hour workdays. After Khrushchev's landmark speech in 1956 on Stalin's crimes, millions of amnesties were granted. The gulag was being transformed, and was slowly wound down: After Stalin, ''nobody ever again proposed to revive concentration camps on a large scale,'' Applebaum writes. Of course, the camps did not vanish, nor did repressive measures, which accelerated again under Brezhnev's rule in the '60s and '70s. Though the gulag era now belongs to the past, Applebaum's researches are a sobering, necessary reminder of why understanding that past matters.
Gulag: A History
By Anne Applebaum
Doubleday, 677 pp., illustrated
Matthew Price is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.
This story ran on page H8 of the Boston Globe on 5/4/2003.
Remembering the Gulag
by Hilton Kramer
The first account of the concentration camps that I can remember reading was an essay by Hannah Arendt in the July 1948 number of Partisan Review when I was a sophomore in college. What I now mainly recall about my first reading of this essay, “The Concentration Camps,” is that I was greatly put off by it. Expecting, somewhat fearfully, to be given a gruesome account of life (and death) in the camps, what I encountered instead was a succession of apodictic abstractions and pronouncements that seemed, to my undergraduate mind, unduly eager to place the whole subject beyond the reader’s ability to comprehend it. Innocent as I then was about the details of the camps, this approach nonetheless struck me as an odd way to deal with a human catastrophe on an epic scale.
Rereading that essay today, more than half a century later, I can easily see what had put me off. This is a representative passage:
The horror of the concentration and extermination camps can never be fully embraced by the imagination for the very reason that it stands outside of life and death. The inmates are more effectively cut off from the world of the living than if they were dead, because terror compels oblivion among those who know or love them… . The fear of the absolute Evil which permits of no escape knows that this is the end of dialectical evolutions and developments. It knows that modern politics revolves around a question which, strictly speaking, should never enter into politics, the question of all or nothing: of all, that is, a human society rich with infinite possibilities; or exactly nothing, that is, the end of mankind.
Exactly what it could mean for any human experience to stand “outside of life and death” was never explained. Nor was Hannah Arendt’s own response to early accounts of the camps ever in danger of succumbing to “the end of dialectical evolutions and developments.” On the contrary, in her case it marked the beginning of an illustrious career as a connoisseur of the totalitarian “dialectical evolutions and developments” that led to the camps.
Two other aspects of “The Concentration Camps” essay are also worth noting. One is Arendt’s bizarre insistence on downgrading the importance of eyewitness accounts of the camps.
If it is true that the concentration camps are the most consequential institution of totalitarian rule, “dwelling on horrors” would seem to be indispensable for the understanding of totalitarianism. But recollection can no more do this than can the uncommunicative eye-witness report. In both these genres there is an inherent tendency to run away from the experience; instinctively or rationally, both types of writer are so much aware of the terrible abyss that separates the world of the living from that of the living dead, that they cannot supply anything more than a series of remembered occurrences that must seem just as incredible to those who relate them as to their audience.
There was ample reason to doubt that any of this was true even before the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in the 1970s, but with respect to the Soviet camps, anyway, the claim of an alleged “tendency to run away from the experience” is scarcely credible in the light of the abundant first-hand testimony to the contrary. The author of The Gulag Archipelago was himself, after all, a zek, as inmates of the Soviet camps were called, and he was also an assiduous compiler of other zeks’ personal accounts of their servitude and suffering.
What was true, however, was that the West wasn’t especially eager to hear about the Soviet camps, and that for a long time the Soviets were remarkably successful in preventing the circulation of information about them. Even the word “Gulag” does not appear to have made its entry into our English-language dictionaries prior to the early 1970s, almost two decades after the death of Stalin and half a century after the creation of the Gulag itself. It can no longer surprise us, then, to find that another curious thing about Hannah Arendt’s 1948 “Concentration Camps” essay is that it paid only the most cursory attention to the Soviet camps even though they had been in existence far longer than their Nazi counterparts—since, indeed, the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power in 1917—and commanded vastly greater resources, populations, and territories.
What has to be understood, of course, is that the horrors of the Soviet system had never penetrated the public imagination in this country on anything like the scale that made the Nazis a familiar symbol of evil and criminality. Even as kids Americans of my generation recognized the swastika as an emblem of the “bad guys,” if only from the movies we saw and the comic books we read. No Soviet symbol ever acquired a comparable status in the public mind. Nor did Hollywood make any movies about heroic anti-Soviet resistance movements. As Anne Applebaum writes in the introduction to her magisterial study of the Soviet camps—Gulag: A History, a book that is certain to remain the definitive account of its subject for many years to come—
The Cold War produced James Bond and thrillers, and cartoon Russians of the sort who appear in Rambo films, but nothing as ambitious as Schindler’s List or Sophie’s Choice. Steven Spielberg, probably Hollywood’s leading director (like it or not) has chosen to make films about Japanese concentration camps (Empire of the Sun) and Nazi concentration camps, but not about Stalinist concentration camps. The latter haven’t caught Hollywood’s imagination in the same way.
Besides, Russia (as most people still called the Soviet Union) had been an ally in the war against Hitler, and was thus identified in the public mind as somehow belonging to “our” side. In the mainstream media and entertainment industries, the Soviet Union remained exempt from critical scrutiny, and the Gulag did not exist. Yet, as Ms. Applebaum also writes:
[N]ot all of our attitudes to the Soviet past are linked to political ideology… . Many, in fact, are rather a fading by-product of our memories of the Second World War. We have, at present, a firm conviction that the Second World War was a wholly just war, and few want that conviction shaken. We remember D-Day, the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, the children welcoming American GIs with cheers on the streets. No one wants to be told that there was another, darker side to the Allied victory, or that the camps of Stalin, our ally, expanded just as the camps of Hitler, our enemy, were liberated. To admit that by sending thousands of Russians to their deaths by forcibly repatriating them after the war, or by consigning millions of people to Soviet rule at Yalta, the Western Allies might have helped others commit crimes against humanity would undermine the moral clarity of our memories of that era. No one wants to think that we defeated one mass murderer with the help of another. No one wants to remember how well that mass murderer got on with Western statesmen. “I have a real liking for Stalin,” the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, told a friend, “he has never broken his word.” There are many, many photographs of Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt all together, all smiling.
This is why The Gulag Archipelago and Solzhenitsyn himself met with such resistance and hostility in this country after his expulsion from the Soviet Union. “Soviet propaganda was not without its effect,” writes Ms. Applebaum. “Soviet attempts to cast doubt upon Solzhenitsyn’s writing, for example, to paint him as a madman or an anti-Semite or a drunk, had some impact.” Let us never forget the infamous passage in George Steiner’s New Yorker review of The Gulag Archipelago in 1974: “To infer that the Soviet terror is as hideous as Hitlerism is not only a brutal simplification but a moral indecency.” Nor was Steiner alone in his hostile response to Solzhenitsyn’s revelations. The late Irving Howe, who had found so much to admire in Leon Trotsky, took to the pages of The New Republic to offer Solzhenitsyn moral instruction on the correct way to think about socialism.
Has anything really changed in our public comprehension—or incomprehension—of the Gulag since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the final dismantling of the Soviet camps? We shall all be in a better position to answer this question when we see what kind of critical reception is accorded to Ms. Applebaum’s extraordinary account of the Soviet camps. Or, what is even more important, what impact that reception may have beyond the sphere of the book-review pages of our newspapers and magazines—in the realm of media opinion and public awareness. For make no mistake: Gulag: A History is a landmark achievement in the writing of modern history. Until some work of a comparable size is devoted to the millions who have perished under Communist rule in China, this book will remain a model for what is, in effect, a new historical genre: the history, that is, of what may rightly be called an anti-civilization on a colossal scale whose sole claim to distinction has been the degradation and destruction of millions of innocents. In the anti-civilization of the Soviet Gulag in the years 1929 to the death of Stalin in 1953, it encompasses some eighteen million people, four and a half million of whom never returned.
Gulag: A History is not, then, to be mistaken for a comprehensive history of the Soviet Union; it is rather a history of Soviet society’s most distinctive institution, described by Ms. Applebaum as
the vast network of labor camps that were once scattered across the length and breadth of the Soviet Union, from the islands of the White Sea to the shores of the Black Sea, from the Arctic Circle to the plains of central Asia, from Murmansk to Vorkuta to Kazakhstan, from central Moscow to the Leningrad suburbs. Literally, the word GULAG is an acronym, meaning Glavnoe Uppravlenie Lagerei, or Main Camp Administration. Over time, the word “Gulag” has also come to signify not only the administration of the concentration camps but also the system of Soviet slave labor itself, in all its forms and varieties: labor camps, punishment camps, criminal and political camps, women’s camps, children’s camps, transit camps. Even more broadly, “Gulag” has come to mean the Soviet repressive system itself, the set of procedures that prisoners once called the “meat-grinder”: the arrests, the interrogations, the transport in unheated cattle cars, the forced labor, the destruction of families, the years spent in exile, the early and unnecessary deaths.
It is Ms. Applebaum’s distinctive accomplishment to have traced the tortuous history of this anti-civilization in scrupulously documented detail from its Bolshevik beginnings to the Great Terror, the Second World War, the early years of the Cold War, the death of Stalin, the Thaw that followed, the era of the Soviet dissidents, and the final collapse of the Soviet regime. And while Gulag: A History is written throughout in a prose that is exemplary for its clarity, its gravity, and its moral candor, it must also be acknowledged that the book is a long and difficult read—difficult, above all, because of the feeling of outrage and despair it induces in the reader. I could not myself get through the chapter devoted to “Women and Children” without pausing to wipe the tears from my eyes more than once. And that is by no means the only section of the book to induce such a response.
For Ms. Applebaum lavishes a great deal of attention on what may be called the social and domestic history of the Gulag—the food that was provided the inmates, the bedding, the hygiene (if it could still be called by that name), the sexual customs and even the romantic attachments that developed in the camps. Worst of all, perhaps, are the accounts of the inhuman work schedules demanded by what she nicely describes as the Camp-Industrial Complex in the Soviet workers’ paradise. It is an immense achievement to have written this book. What now remains to be seen is whether our own society, which for so many decades has refused to acknowledge the moral enormity of the Gulag, is even now equal to the challenge of giving this achievement its due.
Book review: History of Soviet labor camps offers context
By Kathy Lally, The Baltimore Sun
Once, the Russian czar owned everything in the empire, even the people, who could, at his pleasure, be sent off to exile in Siberia or pressed into forced labor to build the city of St. Petersburg. The Soviets replaced the czar with the state, which owned everything, even the people.
Stalin, in manic pursuit of ostensible progress and industrialization, offered up millions of his citizens to that end. His slave labor system was regulated by the GULAG, an acronym that, in Russian, stands for Main Camp Administration, which oversaw the imprisonment of millions of people, for crimes mostly imagined.
After the Revolution, the Bolsheviks imprisoned people who might threaten them, but the camps began their real growth in 1929, as Stalin saw he could use forced labor to develop his empire. They only began to dwindle, Anne Applebaum writes, with Stalin's death in 1953, when it became apparent the labor system was unprofitable. By then, 18 million people had gone through the camps, another 6 million had spent time in exile and millions more had died, in the camps or shortly after release.
As a journalist based in Poland for the Economist in 1988, Applebaum noticed how Western tourists loved to collect Lenin pins and hammer and sickle insignia, finding Soviet symbols charming souvenirs. ''To many people,'' she realized, ''the crimes of Stalin do not inspire the same visceral reaction as do the crimes of Hitler.''
If Westerners have not understood this, Russians have refused to confront it. There have been no commissions seeking the truth; no funds compensating the injured. The victims have been mostly forgotten.
Applebaum, now a columnist for The Washington Post, set out to remember those victims, to write the record of the camps, of the terrible suffering endured there, of the people whose lives were lost and damaged. She has produced the first comprehensive history of the gulag, using Soviet archives that have become available in recent years, memoirs and interviews with survivors.
She writes clearly, directly and carefully, and her words carry the weight of authority, truth and revelation. For the raw human experience of the camps, read Solzhenitsyn's ''One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich'' or Irina Ratushinskaya's ''Grey is the Colour of Hope.'' For the scope, and context, and the terrible extent of the criminality, read this history.
And to understand, emotionally, why the victims must be remembered, read the lines from the poet Anna Akhmatova that introduce this volume:
''In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent 17 months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):
'Can you describe this?'
And I said: 'I can.'
Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face ...''
Published May 4, 2003
By Anne Applebaum.
Doubleday. 736 pages. $35
This book is a justifiable indictment not only of the Soviet Union but also, even more justifiably, of its successor state, Russia. And why Russia? Because from President Vladimir Putin down, few Russians today, with honorable exceptions like Alexander Yakovlev, have been willing to face the hideous Gulag history of the criminal Bolshevik dictatorship. And why won't Mr. Putin and the Russian people face up to the crimes of V.I. Lenin, Joseph Stalin and their heirs? Because, said Mr. Putin, an ex-KGB officer, it would be a "mistake to get bogged down in old problems from the past."
Here are Mr. Putin's own words (Agence France Presse, Jan. 16, 2002) which explain Russia's refusal to face up to its sanguinary past: "We don't want and we will not equate Nazi crimes with Stalinist repression."
But Mr. Yakovlev, a onetime member of the Soviet Politburo and the intellectual architect of perestroika, sees it differently. Unlike Mr. Putin, he thinks Russia should get "bogged down in old problems from the past." Appointed by Mikhail Gorbachev and reappointed by Boris Yeltsin as chairman of the Russian Presidential Commission for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Repression, he has become the conscience of Russia. He told Anne Applebaum,the author of "Gulag: A History," that "Society is indifferent to the crimes of the past because so many people participated in them."
Adds Ms. Applebaum: "The Soviet system dragged millions of its citizens into many forms of collaboration and compromise. Although many willingly participated, otherwise decent people were also forced to do terrible things. They, their children, and their grandchildren, do not always want to remember that now."
The situation is even worse today. Stalin's approval rating is going up, according to All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion. A March 4th report of its latest poll shows that more than half of all Russians, 53 per cent, interviewed the previous month in 100 Russian towns and cities in 40 regions approved of Stalin overall, 33 per cent disapproved and 14 per cent declined to indicate any opinion.
The seven Bolshevik decades were among the most horrible in modern history. Millions and millions of innocent men, women and little children were slaughtered before the Marxist Moloch. And yet, the author points out, Russia "continues to act as if it has not inherited the Soviet Union's history." Russia does not have a national museum dedicated to the history of repression nor a national place of mourning, nor "a monument which officially recognizes the suffering of victims and their families."
In fact, Mr. Putin granted a legitimacy to the KGB when, after the November 2000 Duma elections, he and other party leaders in a post-election Kremlin conclave commemorated Stalin's 120th birthday with a toast. Earlier,Mr. Putin placed flowers at Yuri Andropov's grave in Red Square and on his monument at the onetime KGB Lubyanka headquarters.
One result of Mr. Putin's politics of amnesia is that the heroic opponents of the Soviet regime remain unhonored. The dissidents like Andrei Sakharov, Vladimir Bukovsky, Yuri Orlov, and many others who fought the regime at risk of their lives, are unpersons rather than heroes in today's Russia. In fact, Mr. Putin doesn't even have the guts that Nikita Khrushchev had. in 1956 Khrushchev exposed the horrors of Stalinism. Thanks to Putinist policies, Russia is a country without a past. Or, as Ms. Applebaum puts it, for Russians "The past is a bad dream to be forgotten . . ."
A pathetic event occurred a few weeks ago, too late for inclusion in Ms. Applebaum's book. The Duma upper house, the Federation Council, in late January approved a bill whereby children who before they became adults lost one or both parents because of political repression were granted the status of victims and became eligible for state benefits. Approximately 150,000 people are affected by this bill. It is estimated, according to ITAR-TASS news agency, that the cost of implementing the bill will be $880,000, or $5.87 for each of the victims.
I note here Ms. Applebaum's report that in contrast the KGB hierarchs have kept their apartments, their dachas and their large pensions. And that would include the KGB torturers in the basement of the Lubyanka and the KGB monsters who policed the Soviet Auschwitzes.
This appalling Russian behavior is in sharp contrast to democratic Germany which has faced up to the Holocaust. Imagine the public outcry if a German chancellor were to say that he would not discuss the Holocaust and Adolf Hitler since, to use Mr. Putin's formulation,it would be a "mistake to get bogged down in old problems from the past."
Half a century after the end of World War II, writes Ms. Applebaum, "the Germans still conduct regular public disputes about victims' compensation, about memorials, about the interpretations of German history, even whether a younger generation of Germans ought to go on shouldering the burden of guilt about the crimes of the Nazis. Half a century after Stalin's death, there were no equivalent arguments taking place in Russia, because the past was not a living part of public discourse."
Ms. Applebaum is a little too forgiving about the Germans. In a recent book, "Adenauer's Germany and the Nazi Past," Norbert Frei, a German historian, writes that "the overwhelming majority of West Germans were clearly in favor of . . . forgetting everything to do with Nazism." The actions of the Adenauer government from 1949 restored Nazis, even onetime Gestapo and Waffen SS members, to their former positions. Even so, the post-Nazi Germany can compare favorably with a willfully blind Russia.
One of the fascinating chapters of this fine work is the comparison of the Stalinist Gulag with the comparatively paradisiacal Czarist prisons even in far off Siberia. The revolutionariesreceived favorable treatment because they were "political" not criminal prisoners. Torture was out of the question. The prisoners were allowed books, paper and writing implements and they were well fed.
A photograph of an exiled Leon Trotsky shows him in a fur hat, a heavy coat, surrounded by other men and women, also in boots and furs. And if Czarist exile became onerous, escape was easy. Stalin himself was arrested and exiled four times. In fact, arrest and exile became a rite of passage for young subversionists. Even more interesting is that the Czarist political prisoners weren't forced to work or if they did, it wasn't too unmanageable.
Under the Czar, political prisoners were small in number: In 1906, there were 6,000 convicts and in 1916, on the eve of the Revolution, there were 28,600. In comparison, between 1929 and 1953 some 18 million people passed through the Gulag and another six million were exiled within the Soviet Union. As Bukovsky put it: "Truly being in the camps was like having entered a land beyond the grave."
The Bolshevik Gulag began its expansion in 1929 when Stalin became the undisputed dictator. It played a central role in the Soviet economy. According to Ms. Applebaum, the Gulag produced one-third of the country's gold and much of its coal and timber. While the expansion stopped with Stalin's death in 1953, his successors allowed the Gulag to continue its inhuman existence.
As World War II came to an end cameras recorded for posterity the gruesome images of the Nazi death camps, and they are played and replayed on TV documentaries but so far as we know there were no Soviet cameras around when Mr. Gorbachev, himself the grandson of Gulag prisoners, dissolved the political camps in 1987. And there are no documentaries about the Bolshevik death camps.
Ms. Applebaum's book, which comes 30 years after Alexander Solzhenitsyn's first volume of "Gulag Archipelago" appeared, is an essential volume in the history of Soviet oppression. (Gulag is an acronym formed from the official Soviet designation of its system of prisons and labor camps.) This new history is based on Soviet archives which have only become available since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. As such, it is a work of great scholarship. It is also a forcible reminder to the Russian people that if they and their leaders are determined to bury the Gulag, the West will remember. Perhaps, a new generation of Russians will someday reopen those archives and thus recover their lost history.
Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times.
A world built on slavery
Richard Overy reviews Gulag by Anne Applebaum
The word Gulag (an acronym from the Russian for the more cumbersome "Main Administration of Labour Camps") has become synonymous with the accumulated evils of 70 years of Soviet dictatorship. Yet the West knows little about the Soviet concentration camp system. Even to call them "concentration camps", equivalent to the much better-known Nazi system, will come as a surprise to some.
This is one of the central motives behind this book. Anne Applebaum, a Washington Post journalist, can see no reason why the Soviet system has got off relatively lightly compared with the Third Reich. The terrifying, searing story that she tells only makes the answer to her question more difficult to fathom. Perhaps, she suggests, Western opinion has always been inclined to view the Soviet system as in some sense progressive. The Third Reich, on the other hand, is regarded as a complete moral dead end.
No one after reading this overpowering, almost bewildering history can be left in any doubt that the Soviet system for all its pious idealism was as cruel, arbitrary and capricious as any dictatorship in history. Applebaum's book is a triumph: the writing is compelling but never simply voyeuristic; the conclusions are balanced and intelligent; the research scrupulous. There are no Cold War hatreds here, but neither are there misplaced sympathies. This is a model of sound historical judgment.
The history of the Gulag can be traced back to the time of the Tsars. Forced labour, exile to Siberia, a tough prison regime were the stock-in-trade of Russia's penal system. After the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks set up camps to house "enemies" of the people, which included not only class enemies but political rivals as well. A permanent camp for political prisoners was set up in the Solovetsky monastery in the Russian far north. From the late 1920s collectivisation and industrialisation created millions more "enemies of the people" and in 1932 the Gulag prison system was set up to exploit prisoner labour for the modernisation of Russia.
Under Stalin the camp population steadily increased to around two million by the time of his death. An estimated 18 million prisoners passed through the camps during his era. The important way in which they differed from the German camps, as Applebaum points out, is that most people left them alive, if battered and scarred both physically and mentally. The other big difference is that most of the Soviet prisoners were ordinary criminals, not political opponents.
One of the enduring myths of the Soviet system is the idea that the camps were filled with anti-communist dissidents. In the 1930s less than one-quarter of the prisoners were "politicals" and most of them were guiltless, the victims of malicious denunciation. Applebaum points out this distinction, though she might have made much more of the development of the Soviet criminal system which came to define the most trivial offences as heinous crimes. The State Theft Law of 1947, designed to prevent a starving population from pilfering goods and food from work, produced one and half million camp prisoners between 1947 and 1952, who were simply exploited like so many serfs for Soviet post-war reconstruction.
The predominance of criminals in the camps emerges clearly from Applebaum's reconstruction of the unremitting harshness of camp life. The camps were a Hobbesian nightmare, a war of all against all. Most were run by the urki, the traditional criminal caste in Russia. Anarchic, vicious beyond belief, they mercilessly tormented and abused the other prisoners.
But every camp could have its own mafia wars; a top urka one day could be butchered by a rival gang the next. Even the guards were afraid of the professional criminals. For political prisoners, already the victims of a warped and violent justice system, the camps were a second torment from which there was no release save death. All prisoners had to accept the tough rules of camp society; the more astute learned, like primitive man, the simple art of survival.
No review can do full justice to the complex social structures and norms of camp life so ably described here. Applebaum traces the fate of the millions of women and juveniles who also passed through the camp system. Mass rape and casual sex were endemic in the camps. Young prisoners were inducted by the professionals into a doomed life of crime and animal violence. The more educated among the "politicals" were able, in the midst of all this grimness, to organise story-telling sessions, or to put on camp plays.
The camps reflected the astonishing spectrum of Russian life: vice and depravity at one end, the heights of cultural sensibility at the other. One woman prisoner wrote an opera in her camp, but had to volunteer for the solitary job of cleaning the camp sewers and latrines to give herself time to think through her composition.
The camp system was overhauled after Stalin's death. Millions were released, a tiny few were rehabilitated, tens of thousands of prisoners, mainly ordinary criminals, re mained the victims of the tough penal system. The last political camp, at Perm, was closed only in 1992.
Applebaum explores the dilemmas of release as well. Prisoners suddenly freed part-way through their term were disorientated rather than elated. Some hung around the camps, looking for regular work. Others became vagrants, or clung to low-paid jobs, seeking the company of other former prisoners. One man simply did not want to be released: "Out there, everything is fantastically unreal," he wrote in his diary. "Here everything is real."
This is an extraordinarily rich and powerful account of one of the great untold stories of the 20th century. The horror of the Gulag was made possible by the explosive combination of a huge, chaotic, ill-disciplined society with a political movement inspired by an exclusive and self-righteous idealism. Bolsheviks liked to think that the Gulag reformed people for the socialist paradise. In fact the Gulag exposed more cruelly and candidly than anything else the irreconcilable paradoxes of the Soviet experiment.
Richard Overy's 'Interrogations: The Nazi Elite in Allied Hands, 1945' is published in paperback by Penguin.
accountancy of pain
Robert Service reads Gulag by Anne Applebaum, a study of Stalin's forced labour camps that examines the logistics of the gulag system as well as its horror
Saturday June 7, 2003
History of the Soviet Camps
610pp, Allen Lane
At the end of 1941 Time magazine made Joseph Stalin its Man of the Year. The US had entered the war a few weeks earlier and the USSR had become its main ally in Europe. Stalin's popularity in New York was not a new phenomenon. He had won the same award two years previously, when the citation had praised his statesmanship in signing a treaty with Adolf Hitler; this had been a period when Soviet armed forces were carrying out a brutal repression in eastern Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia - and the Soviet-Finnish war was in spate. Time magazine was calibrating its editorial line to the perceived American interests of the moment. And its double award to the Soviet dictator gives the lie to the assumption that only the political left had a soft spot for Stalinism.
Unfortunately Anne Applebaum begins her book on the gulag with this very assumption. Crediting Senator Joe McCarthy with having the right ideas about Stalin, she suggests that his message failed to get across to the public because his style of behaviour brought him into disrepute. This is a garbled version of what happened before and after Stalin's death. There was never a secret about the forced-labour system in the USSR, and when the cold war erupted after the second world war, plenty of politicians and writers castigated the Soviet order. Not only Harry Truman and Winston Churchill but also George Orwell and Arthur Koestler indicted the terrorist dictatorship in the USSR. Fellow travellers certainly existed. But the situation was complex and ever-changing and it is a pity that Applebaum has repeated a solecism that has become widespread since the fall of communism in Europe.
Yet once she has cleared her throat, she tells a gripping and convincing story about the Soviet camp system. Alexander Solzhenitsyn preceded her, in much more difficult circumstances, with his Gulag Archipelago . He drew on the experiences of himself and his fellow convicts, and read widely in published records and secondary historical accounts. But he wrote before Gorbachev's perestroika. In recent years the pile of evidence has become mountainous as countless memoirs and documentary collections have appeared. A few scholars were even allowed into the archives of the police. Although this book contains little which has not yet appeared in the Russian press, she has interviewed several survivors of the gulag and has thoroughly examined recent publications. The result is an admirable summary of the present state of our knowledge.
Forced labour had been used by the tsars; but although the communists were not slow to arrest political enemies and conduct terror, it was not until Stalin introduced his first five-year plan at the end of the 1920s that a consolidated system of labour camps was fully established in the USSR. The author highlights the importance of economic motives in the politburo's policy. The first camps were established in the inhospitable regions of the Russian north, eastern Siberia and elsewhere where natural resources awaited exploitation and where free labourers were reluctant to settle. It was a massive operation requiring a huge structure of personnel and institutions. Over it all stood the OGPU (forerunner of the KGB), soon to be incorporated in the NKVD. Successive police chiefs Yagoda, Yezhov and Beria refined the procedures so that the Main Administration of Camps (the Gulag, in its Russian acronym) might function normally as an integral organ of the Soviet institutional network.
Subordinate to these police chiefs were the territorial leaders of the OGPU-NKVD, each of whom had to fulfil the arrest quotas assigned to their republic or province. They ran their own mini-economies. In their employment were guards, interrogators, journalists, lorry-drivers, railwaymen and informers. With Stalin's mania for signed confessions, indeed, the demand for shorthand secretaries rose exponentially as the number of arrests soared to a peak in 1937-1938.
While Applebaum is correct in emphasising economics, she might have given more weight to politics. Stalin's propaganda left no doubt about who dominated Soviet politics. The corollary was that the vast strata of society which had been hurt by state policies knew exactly whom to blame. His campaign of repression, therefore, had a rational basis. Certainly the arrests were arbitrary in the sense that the police picked up millions of people who bore no grudge against him or his regime. But this happened mainly because the Soviet state, including its police, was worse informed and equipped than Hitler's security agencies in Germany; and the NKVD had to meet the quotas set in the Kremlin regardless of individual guilt or innocence. Nevertheless, Stalin really did have millions of enemies: former Bolshevik oppositionists, priests, ex-Mensheviks, nationalists, kulaks and traders. Deporting all of them to Turkey, as was done with Trotsky in 1929, was impractical. Nor was it safe to dump them unguarded in remote towns of the USSR. Since even Stalin did not see the point of universal extermination, the gulag was his alternative.
Yet what did he intend for the camp inmates? A strength of the book is the author's insistence that conditions in the camp were meant to be severe but bearable. Only in the second world war, when malnutrition afflicted most people in the USSR, were the rations lowered below those levels. The problem was that the NKVD was corrupt and the food supplies and medicines assigned to the gulag were siphoned off at each stage of delivery to the camps. The consequent need arose for serial replenishment of convicts.
Not that the authorities in Moscow were oblivious to these technical difficulties. (They did not give a toss for the human tragedy or for conventional morality.) Exposures of corruption and maladministration occasionally took place. Indeed confidential reports were produced which proved that the Gulag cost more than it produced for the state. Slave labour was diseconomic. It is one of the merits of Applebaum's survey that she shows not only the horror but also the stupidity of Vorkuta, Kolyma and Norilsk. Thus it becomes readily explicable why the camps started to be emptied in 1953 almost before Stalin's corpse had cooled. If anything, the accountancy of forced labour was still worse than the book allows. Soviet uranium, gold, nickel and timber were obtained by the wretches who were tipped like human debris into the remotest and coldest regions. Many hundreds of thousands belonged to groups in Soviet society with expertise and managerial skills. Unfit for hard labour, they were a massive loss to the "free economy".
In fact, Stalin had a penchant for re-sentencing convicts once their term of forced labour had ended. The question arises how any remained alive when the camps started to be emptied after 1953. The answer is that most survivors had obtained jobs that gave them extra rations or lighter work. Solzhenitsyn was an example. He served his time in a camp dedicated to scientific research where the discipline was tough but the food was sufficient and the climate tolerable. In the worse camps of northern Russia and Siberia a convict needed to get transferred to medical work or to the kitchen in order to get by. The result was that their conditions improved, but this happened at the expense of the rest of the inmates who remained on less than adequate rations.
Bread became the object of obsessive desire. Theft of it was one of the few forms of behaviour which drew universal hostility from prisoners whether they were politicals or ordinary criminals. Few inmates thought murder too strong a reaction for thieving a person's bread ration.
Although the labour camps were not closed in 1953, the number of inmates was reduced and the degree of state terror was attenuated. Arrests of law-abiding citizens continued to take place under Khrushchev and Brezhnev. Persecution of religious believers was common in the 1960s and the political dissenters of later decades could expect to be thrown in a camp, a psychiatric hospital or else deported. Yet judicial rehabilitation of victims was patchy. Systematic investigations of wrongful arrest and imprisonment were begun by Gorbachev when most victims were already dead. The process continues to this day. Historians have exposed the nature of Stalin's regime, but trials of known persecutors have been few. It would be difficult to put every guilty official on trial, but Anne Applebaum is right that more could have been done and could still be done.
Robert Service's Russia: Experiment With a People, From 1991 to the Present is published by Macmillan.
June 11, 2003
Camps of Terror, Often Overlooked
By MICHAEL McFAUL
GULAG A History
By Anne Applebaum
Illustrated. 677 pages. Doubleday. $35.
In visiting Poland last month, President Bush took the time to go to Auschwitz and tour one of the most ghastly assaults to humanity in the history of mankind. After finishing his tour, he remarked: "And this site is also a strong reminder that the civilized world must never forget what took place on this site. May God bless the victims and the families of the victims, and may we always remember."
The next day, Mr. Bush was in St. Petersburg, Russia. While there, he did not make it up to the Solovetsky Islands, the site of the first camp of the gulag. Nor did he call upon the world to "always remember" the millions of people who perished in the Soviet concentration camps well before Auschwitz was constructed and well after Auschwitz was dismantled. The families of the victims of Soviet Communism — much more numerous than the families who lost loved ones in Hitler's camps — received no special blessing from the leader of the free world.
Mr. Bush should not be singled out for failing to remember the innocents killed in the gulag. Rarely do visiting dignitaries take time to remember the tragedies of Soviet Communism. The Russian state has done little to commemorate the millions who died or lived miserable lives inside the hundreds of camps scattered throughout the former Soviet Union. Tour buses do not haul visitors to Auschwitz-like memorials, because they do not exist. While private, informal memorials have sprouted, the Russian state and most of Russian society seem determined to avoid coming to grips with their Soviet past.
Strangely, the coming parliamentary elections in Russia will be dominated by two parties with historical links to the gulag. The forefathers of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (not a Socialist or Social Democratic party) created the gulag. The informal head of Russia's other major political party, United Russia, is President Vladimir V. Putin, an alumnus of the K.G.B., the last incarnation of the Soviet secret police, which ran the gulag. Putin and the Communist Party leadership practice very different politics than their predecessors, but they have also spent very little energy recognizing the atrocities of their organizations' pasts.
Anne Applebaum, a columnist for The Washington Post, however, has not forgotten. In her new book, "Gulag: A History," she is determined to make sure the victims of the Soviet concentration camps are remembered and their oppressors exposed. Her book is tragic testimony to how evil ideologically inspired dictatorships can be. In the Soviet camps, as Ms. Applebaum documents in a straightforward, just-the-facts way, people were tortured and died in the most inhumane of ways — packed in boxcars, lying in excrement, raped, starved, frostbitten or standing naked, hands and feet tied, exposed to swarms of mosquitoes. These are horrors of a scale and scope that few in Russia or the West can imagine. Many of my students at Stanford have never even heard of the gulag. (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's account was published long ago.) However heavy and difficult the reading can be, this book should be a required text for every student of 20th-century history in Moscow, Russia, and Moscow, Idaho.
For scholars of the Soviet era, this book does not uncover shocking new material. It should now be known to all serious scholars that the camps began under Lenin and not Stalin. It should be recognized by all that people were sent to the camps not because of what they did, but because of who they were. Some may be surprised to learn about the economic function that the camps were designed to perform. Under Stalin, the camps were simply a crueler but equally inefficient way to exploit labor in the cause of building socialism than the one practiced outside the camps in the Soviet Union. Yet, even this economic role of the camps has been exposed before.
What is remarkable is that the facts about this monstrous system so well documented in Ms. Applebaum's book are still so poorly known and even, by some, contested. For decades, academic historians have gravitated away from event-focused history and toward social history. Yet, the social history of the gulag somehow has escaped notice. Compared with the volumes and volumes written about the Holocaust, the literature on the gulag is thin.
In one meticulously researched and well-written account, Ms. Applebaum's book makes an enormous contribution to filling the void. But rather than the last word, "Gulag" should serve as a foundation for a new literature. The book begins to answer many important questions, but more must be said.
Did Stalin really believe that the camps might re-educate enemies of the state into productive socialist citizens? Why were Stalin and his henchmen so obsessed with obtaining confessions? Why did they take so seriously judicial procedures? And all the classic debates about the Holocaust need to be asked systematically again with this case (and hopefully by others about camps in China, Cambodia and contemporary North Korea). How could the guards have been so cruel? What did these conspirators in genocide actually believe they were doing? Why did those interned in the camps not revolt? And in contrast to Hitler's death camps, why were so many gulag inmates released? Ms. Applebaum advances our understanding of all these questions but also sets the stage for future scholars to take the analysis one step further. In academic circles, there can be no more excuses for neglect.
Nor in political circles. President Bush should take Ms. Applebaum's book with him to his ranch this August. After reading it, he could never travel to Russia again without remembering the victims of Soviet concentration camps. If Solovetsky is too hard to get to, he might at least make the 10-minute drive from the Kremlin to the offices of Memorial, the Russian group dedicated to preserving the memory of Stalin's victims. From their modest offices, he might call upon the civilized world to "never forget."
Michael McFaul is a Hoover fellow and associate professor of political science at Stanford University. His latest book is "Russia's Unfinished Revolution: Political Change From Gorbachev to Putin."
Keeping the memory of the gulags alive
Author Applebaum revisits the infamous Soviet camp system
June 5, 2003
President Bush joined Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg Sunday for a summit as the city celebrated its 300th anniversary. In the run-up to the celebrations, historic sites were restored and roads paved. But the construction yielded terrible secrets: the remains of perhaps as many as 30,000 political prisoners murdered in 1937-1938 by the regime of Joseph Stalin. Moscow's disapproval and public indifference have virtually silenced calls for an official investigation.
More than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union the struggle for Russia's post-communist soul is far from over. Those who advocate national introspection and repentance are not winning. In a poll conducted last year, more than half of Russians said they regard Stalin with respect, admiration or indifference, while only a quarter expressed negative feelings toward him.
The first Soviet gulags were built in 1919 under Lenin. But Stalin expanded what Lenin began, and over time the system "metastasized," as Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, to 476 camp complexes, within which there were often hundreds of smaller units.
From 1929 until Stalin's death in 1953, more than 18 million men, women and children passed through the camp system. Another 15 million experienced some other form of forced hard labor. A conservative estimate is that some 2 million people died of disease, starvation or execution in the gulags, though this number does not include millions more who were shot before they made it to the camps or executed during Stalin's various terror campaigns.
Anne Applebaum, editorial writer of The Washington Post, writes about life in the camps in Gulag: A History (2003), Doubleday). She is interveiwed here by Thom Beal, deputy editor of the editorial pages.
Thom Beal: You were the Moscow correspondent for The Economist for a number of years. How did you come to be interested in the Soviet concentration camps?
Anne Applebaum: My real interest was the people. The Soviet legacy is such that Russian society remains deeply divided between a majority who hold no real grudge against the former state and millions of others who suffered personally or lost relatives. As I understood more about the forces that had created this peculiar atmosphere of fear and passivity, I became interested in the camps.
Beal: You begin your book by asking why the crimes of Stalin have not inspired in the West the same visceral reaction as do the crimes of Hitler. How important was it for you to answer that question?
Applebaum: I kept returning to the West convinced that, despite the publication of Solzhenitsyn's work and a rich gulag literature, people knew almost nothing of the concentration camps. And I was shocked that some people didn't think communism was all that bad.
In general though, most of our views of the Soviet Union, the good and the bad, were derived from politics here. There was a tremendous amount of information in the West about the camps in 1920s, along with heated discussion about the Bolshevik revolution, so intellectually Americans and West Europeans knew what was going on. But in the 1930s, Americans were increasingly interested in socialism.
During the Depression, there was huge interest in the Soviet Five-Year Plan, with the editorial pages of many American newspapers asking if we could apply something like that here. There was the rise of the American Communist Party. The peak of our admiration was during World War II when the Soviet Union was considered our ally. That was followed by the Cold War and McCarthyism, which in fact undermined the cause of anti-communism and led to yet another mood change. But in almost every phase, our views of the Soviet Union were shaped more by American politics than anything that was happening there.
Beal: Hasn't the end of the Cold War helped us regain our perspective?
Applebaum: With the war against terrorism we have a very different set of foreign policy objectives. So, yes, we're at a point, I think, where we can now begin looking pretty neutrally at Soviet history. It used to be that only so-called right-wing commentators wrote about the camps and repression and so on. That is no longer the case. This is a question of human interest, of understanding Russian, Soviet and European history. There's nothing right or left in talking about concentration camps and the Soviet experience.
Beal: Much of your narrative is devoted to showing how the state used the terror of the camps to maintain if not increase its power. You write that initially the Soviet Union jailed people "not for what they had done but for who they were." Stalin however instituted an ever-broadening definition of class enemy.
Applebaum: Yes. In the beginning the Bolsheviks went out of their way to send their intellectual and political opponents to the labor camps. But by the late 1930s most gulag prisoners were peasants, workers and persons of various ethnicities, many of whom had committed only petty crimes. Some hadn't committed crimes at all. Nevertheless, the two categories of gulag prisoner - "political" and "criminal" - were vague up until the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Beal: In terms of understanding the system and how it affected the lives of people, how much of an advantage was it for you to have actually lived and worked in the Soviet Union's police state?
Applebaum: As a Westerner, it helps. A lot of readers of the book have come up to me and asked how this was possible. I think it's because for us it's very hard to understand that the average Soviet citizen could literally be swept from the street, locked up and sent to the gulag for 10 years for doing nothing at all. It's particularly hard for the American mind to get around this. Why didn't anyone protest? Why wasn't there a newspaper campaign about it? Why didn't CNN complain? We live in such an incredibly open society, so open that we can easily know intimate details of the private lives of our politicians. It's hard for us to imagine living in a country in which people could just disappear and be locked away for no reason.
Beal: You unflinchingly describe in vivid detail the hell of gulag life - the back-breaking work people performed, the rotten food they ate, the clothes they wore, how they survived, escaped and died. We learn, for example, how women made buttons out of chewed bread and about the varieties of camp punishments. The book's emotional power comes from your portrait of the victims and what they endured. You read hundreds of memoirs and conducted dozens of interviews. Did you ever suffer from victim fatigue?
Applebaum: I certainly did. It sort of went in phases. After months of research I became somewhat clinical; you read and listen but rather than pay attention you skim for the details you want. But then I came upon the stories of the children. And they affected me deeply. Some were so horrible and so upsetting that I needed frequent breaks. Interviewing people is tricky but so fascinating because they respond in the most interesting ways.
I had a very specific set of questions that I wanted people to answer about life in the camps. I was looking for very specific descriptions of how they lived and so on. There were people who would listen carefully, answer each question thoroughly, and we'd say "thank you" and that would be the end of it. But there were also people who would say, "I'm not interested in your questions, these are not good questions" and then they would talk for three hours about what they wanted to talk about. Those were often very emotionally exhausting interviews.
There are a lot of survivors who've been telling their stories their whole lives to everyone they know, though until the glasnost reforms of the 1980s they were not allowed to discuss in public what happened to them. There is a growing body of gulag memoirs. I found that the most talkative survivors were those who'd always been talking, and they were the most valuable. The people who I interviewed who'd never spoken to anybody before tended to be very brief; they still find it difficult to talk about their experiences.
Some still fear the consequences of discussing the past in private. I met with people who were well known if not famous in the survivor community. But then I also interviewed people who were completely unknown.
Beal: I did find the chapter about women and children in the camps disconcerting. Millions of children were either imprisoned with their mothers or born in the gulag. Their misery, as you describe it, was abject. That chapter also touches upon the outrageous culture of adolescents, whose tyranny and cruelty was remarkable. Someone you interviewed warned you off trying to find people who were incarcerated in the camps as juveniles.
Applebaum: That's because almost all of them grew up to be criminals.
Beal: What did you find out about them?
Applebaum: I did make some effort to find them. I met one or two people who'd been in the juvenile criminal camps, but many more who'd been children in camps or in camp orphanages. It's hard to generalize, but there are people who went through the camps, left them and went on to live perfectly normal lives. That said, there was a significant number of people who, once released, ended up part of the professional criminal class.
Beal: You raise this question of the absence in Russia today of any kind of social repentance for the gulag system.
Applebaum: There are other books that better tackle the question of how the two Russias - the victimizers and victims - managed to live together for so long. Catherine Merri- dale's brilliant Night of Stone comes at it by looking at the history of the Soviet death cult. Still, we're far from understanding the strange phenomenon of totalitarian conformity. Why did some people rebel and others not? Asking why the camps turned some people into dissidents and some into loyal communists is like asking why some people survived and went home healthy both physically and psychologically and why others either died or left tormented forever.
Beal: Will your book be translated into Russian?
Applebaum: I hope so. I've talked to a couple of people who may translate it. It is being translated into Polish, German, French, Italian and Dutch.
Beal: What are your hopes for its reception in Russia?
Applebaum: I would like to be able to tell you, but I'm uncertain. The Russians at the moment are very touchy about foreigners writing about this subject and they may not like it that I wrote it. On the other hand, the younger generation is much more open to discussing these things. They don't see it as taboo. However, given the recent history of how this subject has been discussed in Russia, it's more likely that nobody will notice the book. I don't know, but we'll see.
The legacy of the Gulag is everywhere, so why don't we know more about it?
By Stephen Kotkin
Posted Tuesday, May 27, 2003, at 8:58 AM PT
Ever been to the Gulag?
Chances are you've seen Auschwitz-Birkenau. Perhaps you've also toured one or more of the museums at Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblinka, Belzec, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Mauthausen, and Terezin, hauntingly familiar names. But what about Ukhta, Iskitim, Karaganda, and Kolyma? Probably not. And although Soviet travel restrictions collapsed with the country, it's too late. Soviet labor camps never made any landmarks commission. Even ruins are scarce.
In researching her fluent book on the Gulag (the Soviet prison-labor system) Anne Applebaum crisscrossed Eurasia—and found the old brick punishment block from camp No. 7 of Ukhtpechlag that an Armenian car mechanic was using as a workshop. She also discovered a few memorials, in the outskirts of Petrozavodsk (Karelia), Tomsk (Siberia), and Kiev (Ukraine); crosses at the Vorkuta (Arctic Circle) coal mines; a modest exhibition room at Solovki (Russia's far Northwest); and a commemorative chapel in Syktyvkar (Komi). Only Perm-36 proved to have a full-scale Gulag museum in the barracks of an actual camp, which local historians rebuilt, establishing camp-reminiscent logging operations to defray reconstruction costs. No national Gulag museum exists.
And yet the Gulag is everywhere. Some camps were incorporated into newer and still functioning industrial-production prisons, especially in Western Siberia, the densest part of Russia's regular prison system today. (Hard to get a peek unless you get arrested.) The dank cells of a prison at the former Dalstroi camps, headquartered in remote Magadan, house the archives of the gold trust's accounting department—at least, they did as of 1993: crumbling, moldy copies of reports to Moscow, phony statistics that turned up on Stalin's desk.
In plain view, too, a continent's worth of monuments to slavery survive. The main building of the Soviet Union's, and now Russia's, most prestigious university, Moscow State, is a wedding cake to forced labor. Ditto many airports, railroads, dams, and other infrastructure also built by the Gulag penal system and inherited by the 15 former Soviet republics. A sizable share of the property now owned by Russia's filthy rich gas monopoly, Gazprom, was bequeathed by the Gulag. And don't forget the nickel mines, diamond collieries, copper pits, and many oil fields that deliver phenomenal revenues for today's private owners comprising Russia's or Kazakhstan's Fortune 500. They were founded by involuntary pioneers, buried in unmarked graves.
Applebaum, author of the prize-winning travelogue Between East and West (1994), could have written a spectacular guide to the Gulag in the present, probing moral ambiguity. She has written an encyclopedic synthesis of the Gulag's past, advocating moral clarity.
Evoking the Nazis, Applebaum calls the Gulag sites "concentration camps" even as she effectively details the Soviet obsession with captive, albeit unproductive labor for their economy. At any given time, the Gulag held 2.5 million or so people, but turnover was fantastic, given the many short sentences and releases. Once-secret reports record 18 million convicts passing through the camps between 1929 and 1953. Another 6 million were deported or exiled to far-flung work sites, and at least 4 million more POWs were enslaved—for an estimated 28 million "zeks" during Stalin's time. Between one-quarter and one-third were "politicals"—that is, fabricated "counter-revolutionaries," innocents. The overwhelming majority consisted of "criminals," a category that included unfortunates who were a few minutes late to work or engaged in survivalist "speculation" as well as thieves, rapists, and murderers. The latter, infamously, ruled the camps, until genuine politicals—Baltic and West Ukrainian integral nationalists—got swept up into the Gulag in the 1940s and organized mass revolts, forcing regime concessions and auguring the onset of the end.
An idiot academic obligingly always turns up to minimize or rationalize the horrific crimes, but, as Applebaum writes, the Gulag story suffers principally from indifference. How many people read even Alexander Solzhenitsyn's three-volume best seller The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956 (1974-78), unsurpassable in its score-settling panache and psychological depth? Applebaum's comprehensive account marshals the secret data Solzhenitsyn lacked from the now declassified Gulag central archives in Moscow (available also in sunny California's Hoover Institution, like a Cold War victory trophy). After 2,000 endnotes referencing documents, memoirs, interviews, and profuse scholarly studies in Russian, Polish, French, and English, she delivers readers essentially to where the anti-Soviet master's "literary investigation" did, despite gingerly criticisms of him: Lenin, not Stalin, founded the camps; they were integral to the Soviet system; they were evil. Still, it took cheek to tread where the former zek Solzhenitsyn left such bigfoot imprints.
Incarcerated musicians, actors, ballerinas, and opera singers performed on demand for camp bosses, whose commemorative photo albums constitute the Gulag archive's perverse treasure. It was a multinational, wretched, grotesque world, with its own convoluted customs and inventive argot, set apart from, yet intimately linked to, the rest of Soviet society. "He who has not been there will get his turn," says the labor camp proverb quoted by Applebaum. "He who has been there will never forget."
Varlam Shalamov (1907-1982)
Samizdat poem to camp "goners," set in what today is a recreational destination in Russia's Magadan province (translated by Anne Applebaum and Galya Vinogradova).
I raise my glass to a road in
To their bluish hard lips
To the water they sip, from
an old tin can
To the sullen sun,
To the ration of raw, sticky
Я поднял стакан
за глухую дорогу,
За одинаковость лиц,
За рваные, инеем крытые шубы,
За руки без рукавиц.
мерку воды - консервную банку,
солнце, что с неба глядит исподлобья
пайку сырого, липучего хлеба,
Kotkin is the author of Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as a Civilization.
New Books This Summer fo Conservative Readers
Required Reading for Conservatives
by Jeff Rubin
Posted Jun 1, 2003
From 1929 until the death of
Stalin in 1953, some 18 million people passed through the vast system of
repression and punishment known simply as the Gulag; an estimated 4.5 million
never returned. In
Gulag: A History,
Anne Applebaum draws on accounts by survivors, archives, and studies made
available only since the collapse of the former Soviet Union to chart the
inception and development of the Gulag from its origins in the Russian
Revolution to its collapse in the era of glasnost (see review on p. 18). She
vividly describes daily life in the camps; explains the role that the camps
played in the Soviet political system; and reveals the disturbing reasons the
Gulag has remained relatively obscure in the historical memory of former Soviet
Union and the West.
"If our schools and universities cared about history," remarks Michael Ledeen in National Review, "Anne Applebaum’s magisterial work. . . would be required reading. . . . because it is only by working their way through the chilling details, year by year and camp by camp, that they can begin to understand the horrors of Communism and the magnitude of our successful war against it."
The Gulag, as It Really Was
Posted Jun 1, 2003
It was bold, as well as ambitious, for Anne Applebaum to take on the gigantic
task of writing a history of the late Soviet Union’s Gulag, and it pleases me to
say that she has proved herself right. Her book,
Gulag: A History, is
an outstanding achievement.
It is illuminating to compare her coverage and analysis of the CHEKA (the "All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combatting Counter-Revolution and Sabotage") with that of the British pair, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, in their monumental work, Soviet Communism: A New Civilization (1937), one of the major choices of the London-based Left Book Club, which I confessed I joined in my late ‘teens.
Factually there is little to choose between the two. The contrast is ideological: the webs saluted Stalin’s regime as "a new civilization;" Anne Applebaum (admittedly with the advantage of the recent collapse of the Soviet regime) sees the Gulag as the greatest organ of repression in history (although these are not her exact words).
Applebaum rightly points out that the Gulag was not exactly a creation of the Russian Revolution. Indeed as she points out (on p. xvi of her introduction), it "had its antecedents in Czarist Russia." The important point, of course, was that Lenin, having inherited it, used it as a weapon to lock up "unreliable elements" in the concentration camps known collectively as "the Gulag."
The scope of her book is impressive. Whereas most Sovietologists and "Communologists" (such as Roy Medvedev, Dmitri Volkognov and the French writers Stéphane Courtois and Nicolas Werth) understandably cover the Gulag as a major element in Soviet history, no one (to my knowledge) has devoted a major work entirely to the theme of her title. She ranges from the first concentration camp, in the old Solovetsky monastery, 15 miles or so north of the Kremlin, in 1923, to "the zenith of the camp industrial complex" which reigned at the end of World War II.
Rightly, the author recalls Hitler’s concentration camps, primarily reserved for the large Jewish minority in Nazi Germany, and points out their differences, the most important of which was ideological: the Nazi regime was anti-Semitic; the Soviet one was considerably wider, covering all elements that might be considered anti-Communist, or at any rate anti-Stalinist. She right points out that the Nazi camps were death factories (Vernichtungslager) rather than labor camps; whereas the Gulag camps were partly devoted to economic projects, while prisoners considered useless were quickly turned into corpses.
Rightly, in my view, the author recalls that as late as the 1980s, the post-Stalinist camps survived. Indeed, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were still discussing the Soviet camps. She points out that Gorbachev—"himself the grandson of Gulag prisoners—did not begin to dissolve the camps until 1987.
The range of Applebaum’s book could scarcely be wider. She rightly starts with the origins of the Gulag, from 1917 to 1939, devotes a major chapter to Stalin’s "great terror" and its aftermath; goes on to deal, in horrific detail, with life in the camps, including the the deadly cold in the Arctic camp (with temperatures falling to 50 degrees below zero) and notes that a number of punishment isolaters" (acronym: SHIZO) have curvived well into the post-Soviet period, although no longer with occupants.
Her chapter devoted to "the prisoners" quotes Mariya Joffe, wife of a famous Bolshevik, describing the professional criminals (as distinct from the merely politically suspect) as having sex openly, walking naked around the barracks, and having no true feelings for one another (p. 281).
She devoted another chapter (15) to women and children, and notes (surprisingly, perhaps) that man female survivors felt that there were "great advantages" to being female within the camp system.
For instance, they seemed able to survive on less food than male captives, were most likely to form true and enduring friendships and to help each other in ways the male captives seemed incapable of using (pp. 307—et seq). (Whether this is the truth and not an innate female assumption is not for a male writer to say.)
Not surprisingly, her chapter on "the dying" is packed with horrific words and descriptions. In a sub-dialect of camp slang, those about to die were called "candle wicks" (soon to be blown out). Other expressions reserved for them were slop swillers (pomoechniki) or "shit eaters" (gaunoedy).
In the interesting chapter that follows, she deals with what she rightly calls "strategies of survival," a reference to the minority who managed, by skill and self-determination, to survive psychologically more or less intact, sufficiently to return home and to live relatively normal lives (p. 344). She goes on to describe, in fascinating detail, the devices used to prevent escapes from the Gulag camps, and the ingenuity of those who defied or overcame those same devices (Ch. 18).
Part three, described as "The Rise and Fall of the Camp Industrial Complex, (1940-1986)," deals interestingly with the inevitable presence of many Red Army prisoners among the Gulag population. These included, notably, 230,000 Polish officers and soldiers.
Not surprisingly, she deals in details with the notorious murder of more than 20,000 captured Polish officers in a secret massacre ordered by Stalin. (The secrecy faded, inevitably, after Stalin’s death, and I was personally involved, among many other sympathizers, in the inauguration of a London monument in commemoration of the victims.)
Other captives, whose fate is also dealt with in Applebaum’s book included Hungarians and victims of the Korean War.
A particularly interesting chapter (24) is devoted to the consequences of Stalin’s death in 1953 for the Gulag. One the night of his death, a man named Viktor Bulgakov was arrested for allegedly participating in an anti-Stalinist student circle and sent to Minlag, a special camp in a coal-mining complex, north of the Arctic Circle. There, in the short summer days, the prisoners, angered for being by-passed in the post-Stalin amnesty, murdered four camp informers with pickaxes.
As Anne Applebaum rightly notes, Stalin’s death signaled the end of the era of massive slave labor in the Soviet Union. She closes her admirable book with a personal chapter entitled "Memory" which deals, among other things, with her boat journey across the White Sea in the early summer of 1998—a pardonable personal recollection after lengthy and productive labor.
09/06/03 - Books section
Inside Soviet Labour camps
By Alison Roberts, Evening Standard
While Anne Applebaum was researching her extraordinary history of the Soviet labour camps, simply titled Gulag, she began to suffer the same recurrent nightmare: she would be climbing the steps of a wooden bell tower in the old Solovetsky monastery on an island in the White Sea, the site of the first permanent Soviet concentration camp - and at the same time climbing over, and on, the bodies of the dead. "It happened on numerous occasions," she says, "and it's the only time I've ever had that kind of repetitive nightmare in my life."
Gulag (just published by Penguin) is populated by the ghosts of many millions of dead people, the victims first of Lenin's Red Terror and the early Bolshevik prisons, and later of Stalin's great network of hellish slave labour camps the length and breadth of the former Soviet Union.
It took Applebaum seven years to research and write the book, burrowing among the dead in Muscovite archives, discovering their lumpy mass graves in forests and fields, revealing both the gross extent and the minute detail of their remarkable suffering in life.
It is a story of almost limitless misery - of female inmates raped to death, of children torn from their mothers and neglected to the point of starvation, of men tortured until they "confessed" to anti-Stalinist "crimes", of a dehumanised and brutalised workforce upon whose hard labour the communist project was partially built. It is also a story almost wholly unknown here in the West, where, by grisly contrast, the names of Nazi concentration camps are household words.
Applebaum, a former columnist for the Evening Standard who now, at 38, writes for The Washington Post, has been an Eastern European specialist all her career - she is married to Radek Sikorski, until recently Poland's deputy foreign minister - yet even she was unaware of the size and scope of Stalin's "camp-industrial complex".
"When you think of Auschwitz, a picture comes into your head," she says, "but I had no mental image of the Soviet camps: I didn't know how people lived, or died, or in what numbers. It was really my own ignorance that got me interested."
It is still impossible to say how many people died in the camps of Soviet Russia - Applebaum's book quotes various estimates from 10 to 20 million. Yet, "in terms of numbers," she says, "the Soviet system certainly killed more people than did the Nazis, partly because it was there longer. The Nazi experience was a short, extremely brutal 12 years, and the Soviet experience lasted more or less throughout the 20th century.
"It's not a competition in atrocity, but I would say that the Nazi and the Soviet camps belong in the same context. These were two terrible people, Hitler and Stalin, who both did terrible things on the same continent at the same time. In some ways their camps had the same intellectual origins, and they should be compared."
The differences lay in the camps' function, she says, and in the kinds of people imprisoned. "There's no direct equivalent in the Soviet system of the six Nazi extermination camps. When you entered Auschwitz, you were pretty sure you were going to die; in the Soviet camps you could very well die, you could be worked to death, but your life was more flexible. You could also climb the camp hierarchy, you could wheel and deal and make friends with the guards. You could even become a guard."
That does not mean to say that life was "better" as a prisoner of the Russian regime - if one can classify relative levels of inhumanity - nor that entire camps did not die of starvation, say, simply because a prison commandant had not organised regular deliveries of food.
Applebaum had two children while she was writing and researching the book - Alexander, now five, and Tadeusz, two - and perhaps inevitably found "the details about women and children the most disturbing" of all her discoveries.
There is, for example, the tale of political prisoner Hava Volovich who gave birth to Eleonora in a camp in 1942, but was forced to give her up after a year to a brutal camp nurse, who looked after 17 children.
Unable to protect her daughter, Volovich watched Eleonora fade and die within four months, her emaciated body covered in bruises. Other children, separated from their mothers, became lost in the system and were never found again; few could read, some could not speak. Special "children's camps" were eventually established: "Children were picked up off the street in mass raids and sent to the colonies to be educated and prepared for the workforce.
"I found the parts about women and children sometimes just incapacitated me," says Applebaum now. "I'd be unable to work on the book for days, and at one point weeks. What I was reading was so terrible. It was impossible not to imagine myself in that position."
Her researches have led her radically to reappraise some of the most basic historical assumptions made in the West. There are many reasons why Soviet camps like Solevetsky and Vorkutlag, Dalstroi and Vyatlag, have been airbrushed from 20th century history: Stalin was our ally in the Second World War; the communist project was perceived as an ideologically attractive experiment to many within western European labour and trade union movements.
"World War Two is still remembered in Britain and America as a wholly just war," Applebaum says, "the one war in which we did nothing wrong. It's very difficult for people to understand that we fought a war against one genocidal dictator with the help of another genocidal dictator, and that we liberated the camps of Nazi Germany while allowing the camps of Stalin's Soviet Union to expand.
"That's something I learned while I was writing the book. They did expand after the war: we assumed that they didn't, but they did. Soviet tyranny expanded. To this day we have trouble thinking about the Second World War as a real failure, which on those terms it was."
The Cold War, on the other hand, was "one of the great achievements of the West," she says. "The Soviet system was a criminal system, and Stalin wanted to spread it around the world." It's her hope, therefore, that the experience of those imprisoned within the Gulag "will become part of our popular memory of the 20th century".
Worryingly, it's becoming harder, not easier, to access Moscow's longhidden archives and in Russia "there's no national debate" about the Gulag at all. "You only have one life," says Applebaum, "and to be told that you've lived it within a worthless or even criminal system isn't something people want to hear." To understand the Gulag, however, is also to understand something horribly important about the human psyche, she says.
Torture cells, the dehumanisation of one's victims, racial segregation and oppression - as journalists move freely about another country once tyrannised by a totalitarian regime, our nightly news bulletins have featured them all.
The coldest circle of hell
Even Anne Applebaum's restrained history of Stalin's camps, Gulag, chills the bones, says Roy Hattersley
Sunday June 15, 2003
Gulag : the History of the Soviet Labour Camps
by Anne Applebaum
Penguin £25, pp624
The story needed to be told and Anne Applebaum tells it with admirable attention to detail, proper restraint and a generally successful attempt not to allow horror to drive out objectivity. But, as I read Gulag, I experienced what is, for me, a rare emotion. Normally I cannot open a book without wishing that I had written on the same subject. With Gulag, I felt from start to finish, 'Rather her than me'. Does she, I wonder, still have nightmares about the atrocities committed by Stalin between the opening of the first forced labour camp on Solovetsky Island in 1923 and the virtual end of the system 30 years later?
The appendix - essential reading in Gulag - makes a properly cautious estimate of the number of men, women and children who endured the living hell. There were so many different sorts of camps and so many different categories of prisoners that it is impossible to be precise. But according to the NKVD secret police's own documents - putting aside 'forced labour', prisoner of war camps, 'filtration camps' (in which the hope of release was always offered but never realised) and the kulak 'special exiles' - there was never a year between 1936 and 1953 when the Gulags contained less than a million detainees. By 1948 the figure had grown to 2 million. And there it stayed until the camps were closed.
Those totals do not, Applebaum, tells us, reflect the numbers who passed through in any one year. Prisoners escaped, were released into the Red Army and died. They died of overwork, starvation and disease. Suicide was comparatively rare, although probably not as rare as survivors claim. The essential Russian 'myth of stoicism' exaggerated, in hindsight, the determination which one survivor described as the sustaining goal - 'to get out of that suffering and hope to meet with the people one loved'.
Brutality on the scale that Applebaum describes must, in part, be the product of mental disorder. Stalin, sitting comfortable and warm in the Kremlin, could slaughter his enemies (and those whom he feared), motivated by nothing more than evil. But what of the men who ran the gulags?
Two women, both 'intellectuals', who were unaccustomed to physical work and weakened from years in prison, were sent to chop down trees. At the end of the first day they were adjudged to have completed only 18 per cent of their designated task and so received only 18 per cent of their already meagre rations. They were 'led out next day, literally staggering from weakness' while their jailer kept repeating that there was no food for 'traitors who could not fulfil their tasks'. Of course the jailer was a brute. It seems to me that he was also crazy.
Perhaps you had to be to work in a gulag. Official reports referred to camp guards as 'not second-class but fourth-class people, the very dregs'. Even the commandants were men of minimal education. Most posts with any responsibility were filled by 'leftovers' and 'hopeless drunkards' from other sections of the NKVD. Who else, sadists aside, would have chosen to live in the most inhospitable parts of the Soviet Union among the outcasts of the glorious revolution?
The accounts of punishment, torture, rape, enforced prostitution (which may be an extension of the same thing), self-mutilation when deranged, the 'goners' who were left to die of disease or starvation and the madness I leave to readers with the stomach to digest such details. But even the faint-hearted should rejoice at the stories of genuine heroism that emerge from the Stygian darkness. To rise up in such circumstances must, even allowing for the recklessness of despair, have taken extraordinary courage. But there were men bold or mad enough to circulate pamphlets calling for uprisings and freedom. And at the Kengir camp there was a strike - led by a committee that included a common criminal as well as the usual political prisoners - which at least hastened the end of the whole foul system.
Forty-six prisoners were killed in the suppression of the uprising. But (in one of her few clichés) Applebaum describes them as losing the battle but winning the war. Admittedly they did not open hostilities until Stalin was dead. And the relaxation had already begun. NKVD chief Beria had written a report to the Praesidium of the Central Committee, saying that less than 10 per cent of the gulags' inmates were 'dangerous state criminals'. The figures for the rest were in themselves terrifying - 438,788 women (of whom 6,286 were pregnant), 35,505 women accompanied by children under two, 198,000 men and women with incurable illnesses.
The precision of the calculations does credit to the Soviet statistical system. The economic analysis was not, however, of the same high quality. 'By 1954 the unprofitability of the camps was widely recognised.' Was there ever anyone in Moscow who really thought that the gulags could make money? The food and shelter cost very little. Much of the administration was carried on by promoted prisoners. The guards were of such low quality that one woman warder was found on duty with a rag stuck down the barrel of her rifle. But, although the camp commandants aspired to impress their superiors with the production of goods as diverse as barrels, telephone boxes, soap and sheepskin coats, men and women working in those conditions are essentially unproductive.
The most extraordinary revelation in Gulag, which will haunt everyone who reads it, is that life in the camps was far worse than anything described by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The gulags were the last circle of ice in a modern inferno. No wonder at the end of the war Soviet citizens captured wearing German uniforms barricaded themselves into their barracks to avoid being repatriated to Mother Russia. But repatriated they were, along with 20,000 Cossacks - anti-Bolshevik partisans who had not so much fought for Hitler as against Stalin. British troops were ordered to send the Cossacks home with their wives and children. But then, in 1944, 'Uncle Joe' was our ally. In truth, his tyranny was barely better than Hitler's.
Sunday, June 15, 2003, 12:00 A.M. Pacific
'Gulag' is an eye-opener to Stalin's atrocities
By Bruce Ramsey
Seattle Times editorial writer
by Anne Applebaum
Americans know about the death camps of Nazi Germany. We have chosen to know far less about the death camps of Communist Russia.
Part of it is an attitude, writes Anne Applebaum, that Nazism was evil but that Soviet Communism was only mistaken. Those who want to preserve that attitude had better not read "Gulag: A History."
Applebaum, a Russian-speaking American who covered Eastern Europe for the online magazine Slate, is now on the editorial board of The Washington Post. She writes clearly and devastatingly in this powerful book.
Here is the story of a network of concentration camps that between 1929 and 1953 — the Stalin years — sucked in 18 million unfortunate souls. The best estimate is that at least 2.75 million of them died, often through overwork, malnutrition and diseases such as typhus and pellagra.
Only once in 40 years has this story been in the American spotlight: in the 1970s, when Alexander Solzhenitsyn smuggled "The Gulag Archipelago" to the West. He called it "an experiment in literary investigation" and published it in three thick volumes. It was not organized as a proper history nor written in an historian's tone.
Here is the proper history — a long one (720 pages), but at least in one book. Applebaum relies on survivor accounts but also on the archives of the Gulag inspectorate, opened to historians in the 1990s. There, she says, reports were "remarkable for their honesty."
The Gulag, she says, was not planned as a system of extermination. It was designed to squeeze work from prisoners by giving them a calculated ration and having them dig canals, mine gold and cut timber. The goal was to earn a profit for the Soviet state. Apparently it never did; it wasted labor and capital, and many of its biggest projects were not worth doing at all. One was the effort to dig a tunnel to Sakhalin Island in Russian East Asia, a task abandoned less than a month after Stalin died.
In practice, the Gulag was capricious, from Stalin on down. People were arrested for no good reason. Sometimes the system provided enough to eat and sometimes not. Some prisoners were left to die, some were revived in hospitals, some were amnestied and some were amnestied and rearrested.
The highest death rates — up to 25 percent per year — were during World War II, when food was short all over the Soviet Union. Applebaum tells the story of the Gulag's most prominent American visitor, Vice President Henry Wallace, who was sent to Russia in 1944 right before he was dumped as FDR's running mate in favor of Harry Truman. At Magadan, the administrative center for the Kolyma gold mines, Wallace was escorted by a Gulag boss and thoroughly hornswoggled. Already predisposed to be pro-Soviet, Wallace said there were "no other two countries more alike" than Russia and America.
"Uncle Joe" Stalin was our ally then, which is one of the reasons we hear less about his atrocities than Hitler's. "We have, at present, a firm conviction that the Second World War was a wholly just war, and few want that conviction shaken," Applebaum writes. "We remember D-Day, the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, the children welcoming American GIs with cheers on the streets. No one wants to be told that there was another darker side to the Allied victory."
At war's end, Stalin filled the Gulag with Poles, Ukrainians and Balts, and with Red Army men who had been captured by the Germans. Instead of shrinking, the Gulag grew, reaching its peak in 1950.
A fascinating part of Applebaum's book is the trouble the Gulag made for Stalin's heirs. Lavrenti Beria, Stalin's last head of the secret police, began shrinking the Gulag right after Stalin died. His eagerness to correct the tyrant's errors helped cost him his life.
Then came the camp revolts. As is so often the case, revolt was fostered not by increasing the pressure but by easing it.
In the end, the stories from the Gulag, such as Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," helped to undermine the Soviet state. The West played a role as a forum for Soviet embarrassment.
But reading this book, one is struck by the thought that it took an immense amount of evidence over many years to get the West's attention. Most of the time, it was not something with which people outside the Soviet Union wanted to be bothered.
The World of the Gulag
A definitive account portrays the Soviet Union not as a noble experiment gone awry but as a system of murder
By Andrew Nagorski
April 28 issue — During a couple of tours as a correspondent in Russia and Germany, I was struck by a remarkable contrast. Visitors to Moscow are happy to snap up memorabilia featuring hammer-and-sickle emblems and images of Lenin and Stalin, but visitors to Berlin wouldn’t dream of buying swastika trinkets or Hitler portraits—even if they were on offer, which they aren’t.
“WHILE THE SYMBOL of one mass murder fills us with horror,
the symbol of another mass murder makes us laugh,” writes Anne Applebaum, now a
Washington Post columnist. Her 677-page book “Gulag: A History” (Doubleday)
should stop the laughter. It should also immediately claim its rightful place as
the most authoritative—and comprehensive—account of the Soviet
concentration-camp system ever published by a Western writer.
The explosive growth of that network of camps has been chronicled before, most memorably by former zeks, or prisoners, like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Evgeniya Ginzburg and Gustaw Herling-Grudzinski. Western scholars like Robert Conquest have also contributed a rich body of literature on the subject. But in the West, the Soviet camp system has never haunted the popular imagination like the Nazi version has. By writing a vivid, detailed history for a general audience, Applebaum has clearly set out to change what she sees as a fundamental misperception of many outsiders to this day: that the Soviet experience was a noble experiment gone awry rather than a system based on murder and destruction from day one.
While the Gulag is most closely associated with Stalin, it was started under Lenin right after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. As part of Lenin’s Red Terror, “special camps” were quickly established. In theory, what came to be known as the Gulag was a system of forced labor rather than a death machine. But of the 18 million people who passed through between 1929 and 1953, Applebaum points to a death count of almost 3 million. And this is far from a complete tabulation. It doesn’t include those who perished in the early or late years of the system, which outlived Stalin’s death in 1953 and continued, albeit with smaller numbers of political prisoners, until 1986. It also omits the millions of others who died as a result of the regime-orchestrated Ukrainian famine, outright executions and political exile in remote regions.
Drawing on a flood of new memoirs and documents from archives that were at least briefly opened, Applebaum paints a mesmerizing picture of every stage of the life and death of zeks. After the already terrifying ordeal of arrest and interrogation in prison, they faced transport—usually in sealed railroad cars—across vast distances to reach freezing destinations in the North and Far East. Hunger, thirst, torture and sadism were the norm, anything to break the spirit of the “enemies of the people.” Charges were a mere formality and often forgotten, and new sentences were added on top of old ones at a guard’s or interrogator’s whim. Common criminals engaged in gang rapes and even murder of the “politicals” as the authorities looked the other way. Taken to orphanages, children of prisoners were told to “forget their parents”—and often disappeared forever.
But along with the horrors, there were impressive displays of humanity, heroism and resistance. From the earliest days of the Gulag, some prisoners staged hunger strikes, refused to work or escaped—although all those actions could lead to death. Applebaum tells the riveting story of “The Forty Days of Kengir,” a huge revolt that broke out at a camp in Kazakhstan in 1954, a year after Stalin’s death. A rare alliance between the criminals and the politicals allowed the prisoners to drive the authorities out in a short-lived victory. When they returned, it was with troops and tanks that—unlike the tank at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989—didn’t hesitate to crush the resisters, including women, who stood in their way.
When Nikita Khrushchev finally acknowledged “grave abuse” in his famous 1956 speech, one Politburo member argued against too quickly rehabilitating those who suffered in the Gulag. 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.
Deep inside the Soviet Gulag
By DAVID HARSANYI
Saturday, May. 10, 2003
Gulag: A History
By Anne Applebaum
677 pages, $53
In truth, the genocidal events of the 20th century are often too cataclysmic to wrap our minds around. It's not due to a lack of compassion; it's simply that the revolting efficiency and sheer figures involved often dehumanize genocide into abstraction.
How can anyone really comprehend the terrifying plight of six-million Jews murdered by Nazis during the Holocaust? Or understand the horror experienced by two-million Cambodians who died of starvation, torture or execution during the hyper-fanatical reign of Pol Pot? Even in the 1990s, machete-wielding Hutu militias in Rwanda made a premeditated attempt to exterminate the country's ethnic Tutsi population, killing an estimated 500,000 innocent people. The West looked the other way.
Anne Applebaum, an op-ed columnist at the Washington Post, covered Poland for the Economist and was foreign editor of the Spectator. Her first book, Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe, describes a journey through Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus, then on the verge of independence.
In her new book, Gulag: A History, she brings us a greatly needed work, one that refuses to allow the victims of the Soviet slave labour and concentration camps to be degraded into historical pie charts.
Culling from a wide range of sources, Gulag is an astonishingly comprehensive testimony, the first of its kind in English, meticulously documenting the history and apparatus of the camps. In it, Applebaum depicts the fate of millions and the chilling daily despair of the common prisoner, many of whose offenses were as innocuous as telling a joke, being late for work or having the bad luck to be named by a terrified friend or a jealous neigbour as a "co-conspirator" in a non-existent plot.
It is a widely held belief that the Western world first discovered the Gulag through author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich offered a shocking account of life in a Soviet labour camp. His subsequent work, The Gulag Archipelago, expansively illustrated the slave-labour system at its most barbarous and was, until now, the definitive book on the topic. Historian Robert Conquest is also credited with bringing Stalin's terror and the Gulag into the West's consciousness with his books, The Great Terror and Harvest of Sorrow.
While crediting these writers, as well as others, Applebaum points out that, contrary to popular opinion, a host of foreigners knew exactly what was going on in the vast network of labour camps as early as the 1920s, yet the West remained disengaged.
The Gulag, which is often coupled with Stalin's reign, was actually created at the dawn of the Soviet State in 1918, as part of Lenin's "Red Terror." Special prisons for political prisoners and intellectuals were established to squash dissent. The camps were partially beholden to the Czarist exile system (which Gulag prisoners would have considered an enjoyable excursion), most notably depicted in Dostoevsky's The House of the Dead.
Although the Soviets also looked to the British and Germans, who utilized similar camps on a small scale in Africa in the late 19th century. Applebaum points out that the first modern "concentration" camps were actually used by the colonial Spanish to round up peasants in an effort to impede local insurgencies in 1895 Cuba. But, regardless of where they got the idea, from the first camps in Solovetsky, the prison system grew and lasted as long as the Soviet Union itself, outlasting Stalin's death and functioning in many ways until 1986.
Applebaum vividly lays out the prisoners' harsh lives as forced labourers, often at the whim of Soviet leadership's plans to industrialize Russia. This included digging a senseless canal from the White Sea to the Baltic, where prisoners often used only their hands as shovels. Thousands more were forced into exile to remote and dreadfully inhospitable areas. Between 1930 and 1933 alone, more than two million kulaks, so-called "rich" peasants, were transported to Siberia, Kazakstan and other underpopulated regions of the Soviet Union, where they lived the rest of their lives as exiles, often for political or imaginary crimes. In 1937, Applebaum tells us, events took an even more sinister turn when the camps temporarily transformed themselves from "indifferently managed prisons in which people died by accident, into death camps where prisoners were deliberately worked to death, or actually murdered."
Mass murder, however, was not the definitive goal of the camp system, as it was in Nazi Germany, though the results were, sadly, comparable. Applebaum explains that to be designated an "enemy of the people" under Stalin was akin to being considered almost inhuman -- the equivalent of a Jew in Nazi Germany. But Applebaum doesn't just describe the exceptional brutality these zekis endured, most often administered by guards (the real criminals in the Gulag), she also unravels the complex lives and relationships the prisoners had with their tormentors and with each other. Drawing on an avalanche of new documents from archives and interviewing many survivors, she paints a compelling picture of every stage of the life and death of these ill-fated exiles.
How many died? Applebaum calculates that as many as 18-million people went through the Gulag system, and attributes about three-million deaths directly to the camps. She does an admirable effort in piecing together the numbers, though even she admits that any tabulation was "a matter of sheer guesswork while the Soviet Union existed, and remains a matter of educated guesswork today." In any event, the extent of the damage to Russia and its citizenry goes far beyond the murdered, as Applebaum demonstrates. Only after the death of Stalin did massive slave labour and exile in the Soviet Union come to an end. Though varying levels of oppressive rule would continue for 40 years, the state would never revive the concentration camps.
By the 1980s, the main political victims of the Gulag were the refuseniks, Soviet Jews who were denied visas to emigrate to Israel. Their plight took on such political weight that in 1986, meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in Iceland, former U.S. president Ronald Reagan personally presented him with a list of 1,200 Jews who wanted to emigrate. Gorbachev finally decided to grant a general pardon to all political prisoners of the Gulag that same year. Applebaum writes of a bizarre episode: "Nothing was stranger than the scarce amount of attention it attracted. . . . This was a real moment of historical transformation, yet no one noticed."
Why didn't anyone notice? Why didn't the Gulag evoke the same reaction as Nazi concentration camps? "While the symbol of one mass murder fills us with horror, the symbol of another mass murder makes us laugh," a baffled Applebaum observed after a visit to Prague's Charles Bridge, where she witnessed merchants selling hammer-and-sickle plaques and pins of Lenin to tourists. Wouldn't the selling of swastika pins and Nazi paraphernalia be considered despicable? What was the difference?
Gulag will go a long way toward convincing people that there wasn't much difference at all.
David Harsanyi is a writer and editor in New York City with an interest in Eastern Europe.
The evil empire's evil empire
Aug. 5, 2003
Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps by Anne Applebaum. Doubleday. 736 pp. $35
Auschwitz, Birkenau and Treblinka are words whose mere mention evokes images of suffering and death, memories of the worst horrors the world has ever experienced. At the same time, Solovki, Kolyma and Magadan - three of the most notorious Soviet camps, or camp regions, where millions lost their lives - are virtually unknown to the Western public, or even to the 150 million citizens of the former Soviet Union.
Those of us who have strolled leisurely across the Charles Bridge in Prague, or by the vendor stalls of the Arbat in Moscow have surely passed, unfazed, the Soviet paraphernalia on sale: hammers and sickles, Lenin portraits, Stalin matryoshkas. And yet, if swastikas or portraits of Hitler were offered for sale, we would be outraged.
What is the difference? Why the different visceral reactions to the two ruthless regimes? Clearly, sheer numbers - millions of deaths - do not tell the full story.
According to Anne Applebaum, they should.
In her important and well-documented book, Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps, Applebaum, an op-ed columnist at the Washington Post, analyzes the birth, life and death of the Gulag - an acronym for the Soviet Main Camp Administration. She follows the development of the Gulag from its roots as a 're-education' system for political opponents and criminals established soon after the October Revolution of 1917, to a slave labor and mass-murder machine under Stalin, back to a political repression machine for another 40 years after Stalin's death, and through its post-mortem.
The first camps, known as kontslagerya (concentration camps), were established by Lenin and Trotsky as part of the 'Red Terror' in order to separate, re-educate if possible and destroy if necessary those 'categories of individuals' such as wealthy farmers and priests who were deemed 'enemies of the Revolution.' Within five years, by 1923, more than 200,000 people were inmates of 300 such camps.
During the 24 years of Stalin's rule (1929-1954), 18 million people passed through the 476 camp complexes of the Gulag, each composed of dozens and even hundreds of smaller units known as lagpunkts.
Applebaum, who of course is not a survivor of the Gulag system herself, does not proffer the intimate insider's view of the camps in the same way as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago or Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma Tales. In tracing the rise and fall of the Gulag - which, not accidentally, wholly overlaps with the rise and fall of the Soviet Union - Applebaum bases her work on dozens of memoirs written by former prisoners, recently released official documents, personal interviews with survivors, and the archives of 'Memorial,' an organization established 10 years ago in Russia to retrieve and expose the full truth about the Soviet camp system and its victims. The result is an impressive, vivid and captivating volume, integrating and synthesizing numbers, statistics and dry facts with anecdotes and heart-wrenching stories. Applebaum succeeds in giving a real taste of the day-to-day life experiences of the zeki, the prisoners. She goes to great lengths to describe their interaction with the authorities and amongst themselves, their unique idioms, expressions and codes (many of which, like tufta - the science of pretending to work - are still an integral part of the Russian lexicon), their hygiene, their food rations, their romantic and sexual customs, as well as their survival and escape tactics.
'Pairs of criminals,' she explains, '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.'
She transfixes the reader with her poignant portrayal of the horrifying ranting and ravings of the dokhodyagi (the 'goners') - 'the creatures distantly reminiscent of human beings,' in the last throes of their miserable lives. Her vivid account of Hava Volovich and her daughter Eleonora, born in 1942 in the camps, presents a shuddering picture of the lives of women and children.
'In giving birth to my only child, I committed the worst crime there is,' says Hava, after her daughter's tragic and perhaps inevitable death. (Applebaum does not single out the plight of the Gulag's Jewish prisoner; by and large, their lives and deaths did not differ greatly from those of the other 18 million prisoners.)
Applebaum attributes at least three million deaths directly to the camps. At least another six million were exiled to the Siberian tundra or the Kazakh desert to live in remote isolation, or to die from hunger. Many hundreds of thousands - some estimate the numbers in millions - perished on the way.
The Soviet system, even at its peak - or rather, its nadir - in the 1940s did not set mass murder as a goal. Not even as one of its goals. Ostensibly, in this it differs from Nazi Germany.
'The Soviet camp system,' writes Applebaum, 'as a whole was not deliberately organized to mass-produce corpses - even if, at times, it did.'
But, to a great extent, the difference is semantic. The Soviet system was a system of slave labor, demanding maximum production at minimum cost. Those who were able to fulfill the requisite work norms often received their food rations and survived. Those who failed saw their rations cut, and inevitably died of disease and hunger.
Psik reisha vlo yamut?! - 'if you cut off [a chicken's] head, will it not die?!' is a graphic description in Aramaic, coined by Talmudic tradition 2,000 years ago, which is exceptionally relevant to the Soviet camp system. This depiction epitomizes the responsibility for an act whose outcome is predestined, even if allegedly inadvertent. If hundreds of prisoners in a given lagpunkt are not fed, if thousands are left to freeze in the Siberian forests, if tens of thousands do not receive the necessary medicines for diseases contracted in the camps, if hundreds of thousands are transported in cattle cars without food or water for weeks at a time, and as a result millions of people die: the system is guilty of mass murder.
Gulag: A History is not merely a history book. It is a work which should promote discussion of an issue which somehow has been swept under the proverbial rug. More than a half a century after the demise of the Nazi regime, the Holocaust is an integral part of the German collective consciousness, Holocaust museums have been established around the world, books and movies about the Holocaust abound, and trials of ex-Nazis continue. But for the Gulag camp system, which affected tens of millions of people in the former Soviet Union, and posed a threat to tens of millions of others, the silence is deafening. No trials, no truth commissions, no remembrance museums, no serious discussion - either in Russia or abroad.
Perhaps, in the eyes of the post-Soviet citizen, the Soviet Union's vanguard stance in World War II against the Nazi army gives Stalin an 'alibi' for all the years of terror and persecution. Perhaps the image of the Soviet Union as a great industrial power would be undermined in the eyes of its citizens were they to admit that not only was the success of the industrialization greatly questionable, but that it came on the back of history's most horrific and deadly slave labor.
Or perhaps too many people - including some of Russia's top leaders today - were involved, in one way or another, in the old system, and are therefore loath to open this Pandora's Box to public discussion and debate.
The writer is a senior researcher at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and the former executive- director of the Yisrael B'Aliya party
May 11, 2003
By ANNE APPLEBAUM
In the year 1917, two waves of revolution rolled across Russia, sweeping Imperial Russian society aside as if it were destroying so many houses of cards. After Czar Nicholas II abdicated in February, events proved extremely difficult for anyone to halt or control. Alexander Kerensky, the leader of the first post-revolutionary Provisional Government, later wrote that, in the void following the collapse of the old regime, "all existing political and tactical programs, however bold and well conceived, appeared hanging aimlessly and uselessly in space."
But although the Provisional Government was weak, although popular dissatisfaction was widespread, although anger at the carnage caused by the First World War ran high, few expected power to fall into the hands of the Bolsheviks, one of several radical socialist parties agitating for even more rapid change. Abroad, the Bolsheviks were scarcely known. One apocryphal tale illustrates foreign attitudes very well: in 1917, so the story goes, a bureaucrat rushed into the office of the Austrian Foreign Minister, shouting, "Your Excellency, there has been a revolution in Russia!" The minister snorted. "Who could make a revolution in Russia? Surely not harmless Herr Trotsky, down at the Cafe Central?"
If the nature of the Bolsheviks was mysterious, their leader, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov-the man the world would come to know by his revolutionary pseudonym, "Lenin"-was even more so. During his many years as an emigre revolutionary, Lenin had been recognized for his brilliance, but also disliked for his intemperance and his factionalism. He picked frequent fights with other socialist leaders, and had a penchant for turning minor disagreements over seemingly irrelevant matters of dogma into major arguments.
In the first months following the February Revolution, Lenin was very far from holding a position of unchallenged authority, even within his own Party. As late as mid-October 1917, a handful of leading Bolsheviks continued to oppose his plan to carry out a coup d'etat against the Provisional Government, arguing that the Party was unprepared to take power, and that it did not yet have popular support. He won the argument, however, and on October 25 the coup took place. Under the influence of Lenin's agitation, a mob sacked the Winter Palace. The Bolsheviks arrested the ministers of the Provisional Government. Within hours, Lenin had become the leader of the country he renamed Soviet Russia.
Yet although Lenin had succeeded in taking power, his Bolshevik critics had not been entirely wrong. The Bolsheviks were indeed wildly unprepared. As a result, most of their early decisions, including the creation of the one-party state, were taken to suit the needs of the moment. Their popular support was indeed weak, and almost immediately they began to wage a bloody civil war, simply in order to stay in power. From 1918, when the White Army of the old regime regrouped to fight the new Red Army-led by Lenin's comrade, "Herr Trotsky" from the "Cafe Central"-some of the most brutal fighting ever seen in Europe raged across the Russian countryside. Nor did all of the violence take place in battlefields. The Bolsheviks went out of their way to quash intellectual and political opposition in any form it took, attacking not only the representatives of the old regime but also other socialists: Mensheviks, Anarchists, Social Revolutionaries. The new Soviet state would not know relative peace until 1921.
Against this background of improvisation and violence, the first Soviet labor camps were born. Like so many other Bolshevik institutions, they were created ad hoc, in a hurry, as an emergency measure in the heat of the civil war. This is not to say the idea had no prior appeal. Three weeks before the October Revolution, Lenin himself was already sketching out an admittedly vague plan to organize "obligatory work duty" for wealthy capitalists. By January 1918, angered by the depth of the anti-Bolshevik resistance, he was even more vehement, writing that he welcomed "the arrest of millionaire-saboteurs traveling in first- and second-class train compartments. I suggest sentencing them to half a year's forced labor in a mine."
Lenin's vision of labor camps as a special form of punishment for a particular sort of bourgeois "enemy" sat well with his other beliefs about crime and criminals. On the one hand, the first Soviet leader felt ambivalent about the jailing and punishment of traditional criminals-thieves, pickpockets, murderers-whom he perceived as potential allies. In his view, the basic cause of "social excess" (meaning crime) was "the exploitation of the masses." The removal of the cause, he believed, "will lead to the withering away of the excess." No special punishments were therefore necessary to deter criminals: in time, the Revolution itself would do away with them. Some of the language in the Bolsheviks' first criminal code would have thus warmed the hearts of the most radical, progressive criminal reformers in the West. Among other things, the code decreed that there was "no such thing as individual guilt," and that punishment "should not be seen as retribution."
On the other hand, Lenin-like the Bolshevik legal theorists who followed in his wake-also reckoned that the creation of the Soviet state would create a new kind of criminal: the "class enemy." A class enemy opposed the Revolution, and worked openly, or more often secretly, to destroy it. The class enemy was harder to identify than an ordinary criminal, and much harder to reform. Unlike an ordinary criminal, a class enemy could never be trusted to cooperate with the Soviet regime, and required harsher punishment than would an ordinary murderer or thief. Thus in May 1918, the first Bolshevik "decree on bribery" declared that: "If the person guilty of taking or offering bribes belongs to the propertied classes and is using the bribe to preserve or acquire privileges, linked to property rights, then he should be sentenced to the harshest and most unpleasant forced labor and all of his property should be confiscated."
From the very earliest days of the new Soviet state, in other words, people were to be sentenced not for what they had done, but for who they were.
Unfortunately, nobody ever provided a clear description of what, exactly, a "class enemy" was supposed to look like. As a result, arrests of all sorts increased dramatically in the wake of the Bolshevik coup. From November 1917, revolutionary tribunals, composed of random "supporters" of the Revolution, began convicting random "enemies" of the Revolution. Prison sentences, forced-labor terms, and even capital punishment were arbitrarily meted out to bankers, to merchants' wives, to "speculators"-meaning anyone engaged in independent economic activity-to former Czarist-era prison warders and to anyone else who seemed suspicious.
The definition of who was and who was not an "enemy" also varied from place to place, sometimes overlapping with the definition of "prisoner of war." Upon occupying a new city, Trotsky's Red Army frequently took bourgeois hostages, who could be shot in case the White Army returned, as it often did along the fluctuating lines of the front. In the interim they could be made to do forced labor, often digging trenches and building barricades. The distinction between political prisoners and common criminals was equally arbitrary. The uneducated members of the temporary commissions and revolutionary tribunals might, for example, suddenly decide that a man caught riding a tram without a ticket had offended society, and sentence him for political crimes. In the end, many such decisions were left up to the policeman or soldiers doing the arresting. Feliks Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka-Lenin's secret police, the forerunner of the KGB-personally kept a little black notebook in which he scribbled down the names and addresses of random "enemies" he came across while doing his job.
These distinctions would remain vague right up until the collapse of the Soviet Union itself, eighty years later. Nevertheless, the existence of two categories of prisoner-"political" and "criminal"-had a profound effect on the formation of the Soviet penal system. During the first decade of Bolshevik rule, Soviet penitentiaries even split into two categories, one for each type of prisoner. The split arose spontaneously, as a reaction to the chaos of the existing prison system. In the very early days of the Revolution, all prisoners were incarcerated under the jurisdiction of the "traditional" judicial ministries, first the Commissariat of Justice, later the Commissariat of the Interior, and placed in the "ordinary" prison system. That is, they were thrown into the remnants of the Czarist system, usually into the dirty, gloomy stone prisons which occupied a central position in every major town. During the revolutionary years of 1917 to 1920, these institutions were in total disarray. Mobs had stormed the jails, self-appointed commissars had sacked the guards, prisoners had received wide-ranging amnesties or had simply walked away.
By the time the Bolsheviks took charge, the few prisons that remained in operation were overcrowded and inadequate. Only weeks after the Revolution, Lenin himself demanded "extreme measures for the immediate improvement of food supplies to the Petrograd prisons." A few months later, a member of the Moscow Cheka visited the city's Taganskaya prison and reported "terrible cold and filth," as well as typhus and hunger. Most of the prisoners could not carry out their forced-labor sentences because they had no clothes. A newspaper report claimed that Butyrka prison in Moscow, designed to hold 1,000 prisoners, already contained 2,500. Another newspaper complained that the Red Guards "unsystematically arrest hundreds of people every day, and then don't know what to do with them."
Overcrowding led to "creative" solutions. Lacking anything better, the new authorities incarcerated prisoners in basements, attics, empty palaces, and old churches. One survivor later remembered being placed in the cellar of a deserted house, in a single room with fifty people, no furniture, and little food: those who did not get packages from their families simply starved. In December 1917, a Cheka commission discussed the fate of fifty-six assorted prisoners-"thieves, drunks and various `politicals'"-who were being kept in the basement of the Smolny Institute, Lenin's headquarters in Petrograd.
Not everyone suffered from the chaotic conditions. Robert Bruce Lockhart, a British diplomat accused of spying (accurately, as it happened), was imprisoned in 1918 in a room in the Kremlin. He occupied himself playing Patience, and reading Thucydides and Carlyle. From time to time, a former imperial servant brought him hot tea and newspapers.
But even in the remaining traditional jails, prison regimes were erratic, and prison wardens were inexperienced. A prisoner in the northern Russian city of Vyborg discovered that, in the topsy-turvy post-revolutionary world, his former chauffeur had become a prison guard. The man was delighted to help his former master move to a better, drier cell, and eventually to escape. One White Army colonel also recalled that in the Petrograd prison in December 1917 prisoners came and left at will, while homeless people slept in the cells at night. Looking back on this era, one Soviet official remembered that "the only people who didn't escape were those who were too lazy."
The disarray forced the Cheka to come up with new solutions: the Bolsheviks could hardly allow their "real" enemies to enter the ordinary prison system. Chaotic jails and lazy guards might be suitable for pickpockets and juvenile delinquents, but for the saboteurs, parasites, speculators, White Army officers, priests, bourgeois capitalists, and others who loomed so large in the Bolshevik imagination, more creative solutions were needed.
A solution was found as early as June 4, 1918, Trotsky called for a group of unruly Czech war prisoners to be pacified, disarmed, and placed in a kontslager: a concentration camp. Twelve days later, in a memorandum addressed to the Soviet government Trotsky again spoke of concentration camps, outdoor prisons in which "the city and village bourgeoisie ... shall be mobilized and organized into rear-service battalions to do menial work (cleaning barracks, camps, streets, digging trenches, etc.). Those refusing will be fined, and held under arrest until the fine is paid."
In August, Lenin made use of the term as well. In a telegram to the commissars of Penza, site of an anti-Bolshevik uprising, he called for "mass terror against the kulaks [rich peasants], priests and White Guards" and for the "unreliable" to be "locked up in a concentration camp outside town." The facilities were already in place. During the summer of 1918-in the wake of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty which ended Russia's participation in the First World War-the regime freed two million war prisoners. The empty camps were immediately turned over to the Cheka.
At the time, the Cheka must have seemed the ideal body to take over the task of incarcerating "enemies" in "special" camps. A completely new organization, the Cheka was designed to be the "sword and shield" of the Communist Party, and had no allegiance to the official Soviet government or any of its departments. It had no traditions of legality, no obligation to obey the rule of law, no need to consult with the police or the courts or the Commissar of Justice. Its very name spoke of its special status: the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage-or, using the Russian abbreviation for "Extraordinary Commission"-the Ch-K, or Cheka. It was "extraordinary" precisely because it existed outside of "ordinary" legality.
Almost as soon as it was
created, the Cheka was given an extraordinary task to carry out. On September 5,
1918, Dzerzhinsky was directed to implement Lenin's policy of Red Terror.
Launched in the wake of an assassination attempt on Lenin's life, this wave of
terror-arrests, imprisonments, murders-more organized than the random terror of
the previous months, was in fact an important component of the civil war,
directed against those suspected of working to destroy the Revolution on the