Could it happen again?

Anyone who writes a history of the Gulag after Solzhenitsyn must have a special reason — beyond a simple interest in historical detail — before taking on such a monumental task. It is true, of course, that at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, when Solzhenitsyn was writing his famous book, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956, he had no access to the documents that are now available, and political repression was still continuing, albeit on a much smaller scale than it had under Stalin. The saga of the Gulag was far from over, and nobody could predict how it would end. Solzhenitsyn’s task, therefore, was that of a memoirist rather than that of a historian, while his approach was that of an eyewitness to crimes against humanity. In contrast, Anne Applebaum’s book is a fully documented study of this monstrosity, including its post mortem. It is the first such undertaking by a Western writer with no personal experience as an inmate of the camps. It is a truly impressive achievement, bearing in mind the sheer amount of work it required and the number of trips the author had to make to Russia. We all should be grateful to her, including Solzhenitsyn himself.

Applebaum makes us follow, step by step, the evolutionary path of this system of mass extermination as it emerged from the Marxist utopia on the one hand, and the brutality of civil war between 1918 and 1921 on the other. She demonstrates how the general failure of the socialist experiment in Russia by the end of the 1930s slowly altered the goals of the Gulag from its rather idealistic intention of “re-educating” political opponents and hardcore criminals, to a cynical exploitation of slave labour leading to its ultimate dehumanisation when human life became cheaper than a piece of bread. Finally, we are able to see the last stages of this drama when the ossified, stagnating regime under Brezhnev was already unable to cope with growing public resistance. In short, this is a history of the Gulag from its beginning to the end.

Or, rather, the history of the Soviet system, because they are inseparable. The last thing one can say after reading Applebaum’s Gulag, however, is that it has been written by a dispassionate academic treating the subject as something quite remote from his or her personal life. On the contrary, her book is full of emotion and reads easily. But, if in Solzhenitsyn’s voice we hear anger, even fury, the predominant emotion here is sadness. And shame. Indeed, after all the crimes, trials and revelations of the past century, perhaps the bloodiest in the history of mankind, the Gulag remains in our collective conscience as an unhealed wound. We still don’t know precisely how many people fell victim to political repression under communism in the former Soviet Union (let alone in the world). Some estimate it as 40m, others as 60m (perhaps 100m globally as guesstimated by the French scholars in The Black Book of Communism). Unlike Nazism, communism has never been put on trial, never been condemned unequivocally by any international body.
As a result, we live in a time of double standards, which we have become so used to that we don’t even notice the most ridiculous manifestations of this moral schizophrenia. When in some British town a BNP member wins a seat on the council, it is an international scandal. But at the same time, communists have quietly returned to power in the Ukraine, Bulgaria, Hungary and Poland (and even Berlin) without anyone in the West being particularly alarmed.

And when, going down the street in Cambridge, I see young people sporting the hammer and sickle on their t-shirts, I, like Applebaum, feel sad. Meanwhile, hordes of former Soviet apologists and fellow- travellers, without the slightest regret for their past, are back in the streets teaching us how to conduct foreign policy. Many of them have become quite respectable, have been elected to parliaments and become ministers. And not one of them has ever admitted their past mistakes.

On the contrary, some still shamelessly defend their behaviour, while others rewrite history claiming that the cold war was “one of the most unnecessary conflicts of all time”. And we don’t even dare to point them out publicly, lest we are accused of “witch hunting”. As Applebaum writes: “Already, we are forgetting what it was that mobilised us, what inspired us, what held the civilisation of ‘the West’ together for so long: we are forgetting what it was that we were fighting against. If we do not try harder to remember the history of the other half of the European continent, the history of the other 20th-century totalitarian regime, in the end it is we in the West who will not understand our past, we who will not know how our world came to be the way it is.

“The more we are able to understand how different societies have transformed their neighbours and fellow citizens from people into objects, the more we know of the specific circumstances which led to
each episode of mass torture and mass murder, the better we will understand the darker side of our own human nature. This book was not written ‘so that it will not happen again’, as the cliché would have it. This book was written because it almost certainly will happen again. Totalitarian philosophies have had, and will continue to have, a profound appeal to many millions of people. Destruction of the ‘objective enemy’, as Hannah Arendt once put it, remains a fundamental object of many dictatorships. We need to know why — and each story, each memoir, each document in the history of the Gulag is a piece of the puzzle, a part of the explanation. Without them, we will wake up one day and realise that we do not know who we are”.

I can only agree with this conclusion, and confirm that the “darker side” of our human nature is remarkably similar in all nations. The craving for utopia, the need to create one’s enemies and then to
destroy them is as common in the West as it is in the East. And what particular form the new gulags might take, what new “crimes” our utopians will crusade against, be they political incorrectness, or a new European crime of “xenophobia”, is not so important. The ghost of the Gulag is still wandering among us, and Applebaum’s book is a first attempt to exorcise it.

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