Russia’s unwilling builders

  • By
  • Stefan Wagstyl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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