Honouring souls lost in history

  • By
  • Simon Finch

Some years ago Anne Applebaum was walking through the newly democratic city of Prague when she saw tourists, mostly Americans and West Europeans, buying up Soviet military paraphernalia: caps, badges, belt buckles, decorated with the hammer and sickle, or pictures of Soviet leaders.

It was hardly an unusual sight. Yet none of the people paying for such tyrant kitsch would have dreamt of wearing a swastika. Why, she wondered, does the symbol of one mass murder fill us with horror, whereas the symbol of another makes us laugh?

Why do we not take Communism’s victims seriously?

As the columnist and editorial board member of the Washington Post outlines in the introduction to this remarkable volume, for a long time there was no shortage of ostensible reasons. Until the Soviet Union’s collapse, the regime’s absolute control of primary sources made for an absence of hard information. Yet now our excuses have been swept away. A flood of new memoirs from gulag prisoners is available, dozens of new archival sources have been opened, and academia is beginning to engage with the camps system. So why is there still so often at best an indifference to Soviet crimes and at worst a continued tendency to downplay them? Why is Western popular consciousness so unengaged by the Soviet Union’s concentration camps, yet so fixated on the Nazis’?

In a monumental, scholarly achievement, Applebaum has set out not merely to answer this question but to redress the obscene disparity it highlights. Intended for the general reader, her moving work of synthesis offers a uniquely documented history of the camp system. Amazingly, this is the first such authoritative history of the gulag to be available in any language.

Drawing on hundreds of memoirs, her own interviews with dozens of gulag survivors, and carefully chosen statistics from the increasing range of academic studies and Russian archives now available, Applebaum divides her book into three sections. The first and last describe the evolution of the camp system chronologically. From the first concentration camp on islands in the White City (complete with the slogan “Through Labour — Freedom”: where have we heard that before?), to Kolyma, a sprawling piece of territory in the furthest North-East corner of Siberia, where millions perished, Applebaum captures the absurdity and paradoxes of the camp system. Yet it is the middle section which is the most affecting. In this thematic compilation of life in the camps, the full wanton horror of the Soviet system is catalogued as never before. Measured prose relates immeasurable pain.

The literature of the gulag is rich, yet apart from Solzhenitzyn, little known in the West. Applebaum quotes frequently from many accounts that deserve a wider readership, including those of Gustav Herling-Grudzinski and Evgeniya Ginzburg, but she also unearths more obscure works that on this evidence warrant urgent translation.

By the end of the 1930s, the forced-labour system (“Gulag” is an acronym for Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, or “Main Camp Administration”) had penetrated nearly every region of the Soviet Union, all twelve of its time zones and most of its republics. Millions of people were incarcerated, or had passed through, thousands of concentration camps. The gulag was a world apart, with “its own laws, its own customs, its own morality, even its own slang”. Zeks or prisoners’ accounts reveal patterns of arrest and interrogation, and the transportations and struggle for survival that inevitably followed them. But Applebaum is too patient a writer to conclude that lessons can neatly be extracted out of such misery. Some victims survived for what we might like to regard as the best of reasons — mutual support and communal solidarity. Others survived for perhaps the worst — ruthlessness and complicity with their perpetrators. But who can ultimately say? As the author comments at one point, a tale of moral degradation can also be a story of survival. Even as one reads of the gang rapes and the cannibalism, the bodies lying unburied in the permafrost, the breathtakingly pointless construction projects that cost the lives of thousands, a shocking realisation dawns.

The book itself is dedicated to those who described what happened, who were by definition, survivors, at least for a time. Hard though it is to believe, their accounts may represent, in certain respects, the best of what the gulag had to offer its citizens. What would those who died tell us if they could only speak?

It is typical of Applebaum’s clear-sighted realism that she should end a thought-provoking volume sounding a warning. “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.”