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.