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.