Seasons in Hell – How the Gulag grew.

April 14th, 2003

by David Remnick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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