Deep inside the Soviet Gulag

  • By
  • David Harsanyi

In truth, the genocidal events of the 20th century are often too cataclysmic to wrap our minds around. It’s not due to a lack of compassion; it’s simply that the revolting efficiency and sheer figures involved often dehumanize genocide into abstraction.

How can anyone really comprehend the terrifying plight of six-million Jews murdered by Nazis during the Holocaust? Or understand the horror experienced by two-million Cambodians who died of starvation, torture or execution during the hyper-fanatical reign of Pol Pot? Even in the 1990s, machete-wielding Hutu militias in Rwanda made a premeditated attempt to exterminate the country’s ethnic Tutsi population, killing an estimated 500,000 innocent people. The West looked the other way.

Anne Applebaum, an op-ed columnist at the Washington Post, covered Poland for the Economist and was foreign editor of the Spectator. Her first book, Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe, describes a journey through Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus, then on the verge of independence.

In her new book, Gulag: A History, she brings us a greatly needed work, one that refuses to allow the victims of the Soviet slave labour and concentration camps to be degraded into historical pie charts.

Culling from a wide range of sources, Gulag is an astonishingly comprehensive testimony, the first of its kind in English, meticulously documenting the history and apparatus of the camps. In it, Applebaum depicts the fate of millions and the chilling daily despair of the common prisoner, many of whose offenses were as innocuous as telling a joke, being late for work or having the bad luck to be named by a terrified friend or a jealous neigbour as a “co-conspirator” in a non-existent plot.

It is a widely held belief that the Western world first discovered the Gulag through author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, whose One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich offered a shocking account of life in a Soviet labour camp. His subsequent work, The Gulag Archipelago, expansively illustrated the slave-labour system at its most barbarous and was, until now, the definitive book on the topic. Historian Robert Conquest is also credited with bringing Stalin’s terror and the Gulag into the West’s consciousness with his books, The Great Terror and Harvest of Sorrow.

While crediting these writers, as well as others, Applebaum points out that, contrary to popular opinion, a host of foreigners knew exactly what was going on in the vast network of labour camps as early as the 1920s, yet the West remained disengaged.

The Gulag, which is often coupled with Stalin’s reign, was actually created at the dawn of the Soviet State in 1918, as part of Lenin’s “Red Terror.” Special prisons for political prisoners and intellectuals were established to squash dissent. The camps were partially beholden to the Czarist exile system (which Gulag prisoners would have considered an enjoyable excursion), most notably depicted in Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead.

Although the Soviets also looked to the British and Germans, who utilized similar camps on a small scale in Africa in the late 19th century. Applebaum points out that the first modern “concentration” camps were actually used by the colonial Spanish to round up peasants in an effort to impede local insurgencies in 1895 Cuba. But, regardless of where they got the idea, from the first camps in Solovetsky, the prison system grew and lasted as long as the Soviet Union itself, outlasting Stalin’s death and functioning in many ways until 1986.

Applebaum vividly lays out the prisoners’ harsh lives as forced labourers, often at the whim of Soviet leadership’s plans to industrialize Russia. This included digging a senseless canal from the White Sea to the Baltic, where prisoners often used only their hands as shovels. Thousands more were forced into exile to remote and dreadfully inhospitable areas. Between 1930 and 1933 alone, more than two million kulaks, so-called “rich” peasants, were transported to Siberia, Kazakstan and other underpopulated regions of the Soviet Union, where they lived the rest of their lives as exiles, often for political or imaginary crimes. In 1937, Applebaum tells us, events took an even more sinister turn when the camps temporarily transformed themselves from “indifferently managed prisons in which people died by accident, into death camps where prisoners were deliberately worked to death, or actually murdered.”

Mass murder, however, was not the definitive goal of the camp system, as it was in Nazi Germany, though the results were, sadly, comparable. Applebaum explains that to be designated an “enemy of the people” under Stalin was akin to being considered almost inhuman — the equivalent of a Jew in Nazi Germany. But Applebaum doesn’t just describe the exceptional brutality these zekis endured, most often administered by guards (the real criminals in the Gulag), she also unravels the complex lives and relationships the prisoners had with their tormentors and with each other. Drawing on an avalanche of new documents from archives and interviewing many survivors, she paints a compelling picture of every stage of the life and death of these ill-fated exiles.

How many died? Applebaum calculates that as many as 18-million people went through the Gulag system, and attributes about three-million deaths directly to the camps. She does an admirable effort in piecing together the numbers, though even she admits that any tabulation was “a matter of sheer guesswork while the Soviet Union existed, and remains a matter of educated guesswork today.” In any event, the extent of the damage to Russia and its citizenry goes far beyond the murdered, as Applebaum demonstrates. Only after the death of Stalin did massive slave labour and exile in the Soviet Union come to an end. Though varying levels of oppressive rule would continue for 40 years, the state would never revive the concentration camps.

By the 1980s, the main political victims of the Gulag were the refuseniks, Soviet Jews who were denied visas to emigrate to Israel. Their plight took on such political weight that in 1986, meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in Iceland, former U.S. president Ronald Reagan personally presented him with a list of 1,200 Jews who wanted to emigrate. Gorbachev finally decided to grant a general pardon to all political prisoners of the Gulag that same year. Applebaum writes of a bizarre episode: “Nothing was stranger than the scarce amount of attention it attracted. . . . This was a real moment of historical transformation, yet no one noticed.”

Why didn’t anyone notice? Why didn’t the Gulag evoke the same reaction as Nazi concentration camps? “While the symbol of one mass murder fills us with horror, the symbol of another mass murder makes us laugh,” a baffled Applebaum observed after a visit to Prague’s Charles Bridge, where she witnessed merchants selling hammer-and-sickle plaques and pins of Lenin to tourists. Wouldn’t the selling of swastika pins and Nazi paraphernalia be considered despicable? What was the difference?

Gulag will go a long way toward convincing people that there wasn’t much difference at all.