Added 31 May 2006.


Ann Applebaum: Gulag

A History of the Soviet Camps

Auschwitz, Belsen, Treblinka..... these names have rightly been burnt into the annals of human history as places of infamy and symbols of man's inhumanity to man. The names of Kolyma, Solovetsky Island and Norilsk are less well-known but deserve a similar status in the hall of infamy. These camps were run not by the Nazis but by the Soviet Communist Party. The word Gulag is in fact an acronym (the Soviets being notably fond of these) for Gosoodarstvyennoe Oopravleniye Lagyeray, or State Administration of Camps.

Ann Applebaum's book is a political and social history of the Gulag, a phenomenon that had its roots partly in old Russia's history of exile and punishment and partly in the twentieth century's orgy of euphemism-laden totalitarianism. The author appears to have gone to considerable lengths in researching the material for the book, drawing not only on celebrated but well-known accounts such as that of Solzhenitsyn but also on extensive archive material from the old USSR itself and interviews with survivors and veterans of the Gulag, administrators as well as prisoners. While Ms Applebaum is a regular contributor to conservative and right-wing publications, she appears not to be grinding a particular axe, and the tone is restrained. Indeed, she notes early on that although the Soviet camps were places of brutality and barbarity, none were intended strictly speaking to be extermination camps in the same way as the Nazi camps in Poland, and also that the cause of establishing the truth about Communist oppression was actually damaged by right-wing ideologues such as Joseph McCartney.

The book falls into three sections. The first part traces the history of the Gulag from the days following the Bolshevik revolution (and noting its Tsarist antecedents) up to 1939, thus including the Great Terror of the Thirties and the work on huge, intensive labour projects such as the White Sea Canal. The second examines various facets of life pertaining to the Gulag: arrest, prison, transportation, the lives of prisoners, guards and so on. The third covers the period from the Second World War through the zenith of the "complex" to Stalin's death and then its changing face until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

As has been noted above, the camps were not intended to be de jure death camps: there were no gas chambers or other industrialised means of exterminating prisoners. Indeed, in the twenties some Bolsheviks regarded the role of the camps as genuine reeducation and the transformation of prisoners into contrite Soviet citizens. Likewise the authorities were initially at a loss as to how to deal with hardened political prisoners such as anarchists or Social Revolutionaries, many of whom were used to pre-Revolutionary prison and who were militant in demanding their rights. The camps began to assume their more infamous face with the Solovetsky Island prison in the White Sea, where conditions were harsh and fatal accidents could be arranged, and here Applebaum traces something of the career of the mysterious Frenkel, himself a one-time prisoner who seems to have been instrumental in forging the tools of oppression. Stalin saw the camps as useful sources of slave labour (thus sharing something of the attitude of the Germans and Japanese in the coming world war) who could be profitably used to build great projects. With the waves of terror in the thirties, the camps were soon expanding, and in fact convicts - zeks - were often the far people to set foot in the far north of Russia and Siberia, dumped there in terrible conditions hundreds of miles from the nearest civilisation which made escape almost impossible. Despite the ostensible (and sometimes conflicting) aims of reeducation and slave labour, in reality the appalling suffering and death rate of the zeks, particularly among heavy labourers, made both impractical. Some camps were worse than others in this respect, the goldmines of Kolyma in north-east Siberia being notorious as well as some of the Arctic logging camps. Casualties and suffering were also heavy on the transports from prison to camp.

Despite the bloodletting of the thirties, the Gulag population did not reach its zenith until the forties, when numbers were swollen by the war and influxes of other national groups. However by the fifties it was beginning to dawn on apparently all except Stalin that the camps, far from being a profitable source of labour, were actually becoming a drain on the economy, as well as signally failing to "reeducate". On the tyrant's death it was ironically his secret police chief, Beria, who began to break up the Gulag, although he did not long survive his master's demise. Thereafter the era of the dissidents began, which was still one of arbitrary lawlessness and repression but much preferable to the ugliness of the Stalin years.

Although the general outlines of Gulag history may already be known to some people, Applebaum offers some interesting insights. One is how arbitrary, in practice, the system was, swinging in one direction and then another and keeping not only prisoners but even guards and administrators in a state of uncertainty. Thus on some occasions guards could be rewarded for shooting prisoners, while on the other hand a commission might descend from Moscow and decide to shoot the guards themselves for overzealous brutality. Indeed, guards could become prisoners and then later reenter their old careers again. Similarly the desire to punish obstinate prisoners by severely restricted rations always conflicted with the need to adequately feed those engaged in heavy labour (and some "politicals" were allowed to do no other form of work). The negligent treatment of the children of politicals (under Stalin, almost any crime could be "political") ensured worse problems later on, when the same children became hardened in their attitudes and embarked on the path of either political dissent or - far worse - a life of crime. The discussion of genuine criminals is also useful in Applebaum's book and serves as a healthy antidote to the idea among some Westerners and Russians that the Russian Mafia somehow sprang fully-formed from the ground once authoritarian restraint was removed. In truth a segment of the criminal population could almost be considered as extremely anarchistic, which might sound something like Robin Hood were it not for the fact that many of these radical criminal elements were also extremely brutal and coarsened. The most extreme were the "thieves-in-law", who were hated and feared not only by politicals but also by ordinary criminals. Elaborate tattooing, card games for dangerously high stakes that could include loss of fingers, and collaboration with the camp authorities to terrorise the politicals are all mentioned in this account. After the war, however, the baleful influence of the criminals began to decline, not least because trying to harass hardened Ukrainian partisans or tough ex-Red Army men was a lot more difficult than robbing and raping cowed politicals, and indeed some of the thugs met bad ends in this way. A general trend can be detected that by the fifties, resistance to the authorities was organised in the camps, made easier by the voluntary and involuntary segregation of different national, political and religious groups. Belonging to one of the camp groups could make a prisoner's life less difficult. There were even occasional "revolutions", escapes and breakouts, and although most ended in bloodshed and loss of life this demonstrates that the traditional picture of stoic submission is not wholly accurate.

At the end of the book Applebaum draws some sobering conclusions. The main is that Russia, and particularly its current leadership, still has not come to terms with its recent past in the same way as the Germans have had to deal with Nazism. (Some of the "labour" slogans above the gates of the Soviet camps have an uncomfortable resemblance to the Nazi slogan Arbeit macht frei). To be fair, she remarks at the beginning of the book that similarly the West have had a similarly ambivalent attitude to the Gulag, partly through the embarrassment of the Left but also because of distant memories of the Soviet Union as a valiant wartime ally (which indeed it was). The sudden silence and disinterest after the ferment of the Gorbachev years may seem strange, but can partly be explained by the subsequent discrediting of the last Soviet Premier and the liberals in the eyes of many ordinary Russians, who blame this group for their current hardships. Understandably, many Russians would like to remember the achievements of the USSR, such as the space programme, rather than dwell gloomily on the sins of the past. Applebaum records that Putin, himself a proud ex-"Chekist", laid a wreath at Lyubyanka in memory of his old boss Yuri Andropov, and suggests that the current tragedy of Chechnya echoes Stalin's deportation of that people over 60 years ago. But it is vital to remember, if only to note how ordinary people can be turned into "enemies of the people", "weeds" or "vermin" - as has happened since the Gulag, in places as far apart as Rwanda, North Korea and the former Yugoslavia. The book concludes with some weighing up of the figures for the Gulag population, and a sobering estimate that no less than eighteen million went through the gates at some point or another. As for the number of dead during Stalin's lifetime, figures vary between ten and twenty million, although Applebaum stresses that in the last resort it is not possible to give accurate figures for varying reasons.

Gulag is obviously not a book intended for entertainment, yet it flows well and reads fairly easily without being superficial, smug or trite. There are hundreds of footnotes, a bibliography and a glossary of geographical terms, Russian acronyms and foreign words. In the light of current uncertainties about the direction Russia will go in the next few years, Ann Applebaum has done us all a great favour in reminding of us of an infamous period that must not be repeated.

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