A world built on slavery

  • By
  • Richard Overy

The word Gulag (an acronym from the Russian for the more cumbersome “Main Administration of Labour Camps”) has become synonymous with the accumulated evils of 70 years of Soviet dictatorship. Yet the West knows little about the Soviet concentration camp system. Even to call them “concentration camps”, equivalent to the much better-known Nazi system, will come as a surprise to some.

This is one of the central motives behind this book. Anne Applebaum, a Washington Post journalist, can see no reason why the Soviet system has got off relatively lightly compared with the Third Reich. The terrifying, searing story that she tells only makes the answer to her question more difficult to fathom. Perhaps, she suggests, Western opinion has always been inclined to view the Soviet system as in some sense progressive. The Third Reich, on the other hand, is regarded as a complete moral dead end.

No one after reading this overpowering, almost bewildering history can be left in any doubt that the Soviet system for all its pious idealism was as cruel, arbitrary and capricious as any dictatorship in history. Applebaum’s book is a triumph: the writing is compelling but never simply voyeuristic; the conclusions are balanced and intelligent; the research scrupulous. There are no Cold War hatreds here, but neither are there misplaced sympathies. This is a model of sound historical judgment.

The history of the Gulag can be traced back to the time of the Tsars. Forced labour, exile to Siberia, a tough prison regime were the stock-in-trade of Russia’s penal system. After the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks set up camps to house “enemies” of the people, which included not only class enemies but political rivals as well. A permanent camp for political prisoners was set up in the Solovetsky monastery in the Russian far north. From the late 1920s collectivisation and industrialisation created millions more “enemies of the people” and in 1932 the Gulag prison system was set up to exploit prisoner labour for the modernisation of Russia.

Under Stalin the camp population steadily increased to around two million by the time of his death. An estimated 18 million prisoners passed through the camps during his era. The important way in which they differed from the German camps, as Applebaum points out, is that most people left them alive, if battered and scarred both physically and mentally. The other big difference is that most of the Soviet prisoners were ordinary criminals, not political opponents.

One of the enduring myths of the Soviet system is the idea that the camps were filled with anti-communist dissidents. In the 1930s less than one-quarter of the prisoners were “politicals” and most of them were guiltless, the victims of malicious denunciation. Applebaum points out this distinction, though she might have made much more of the development of the Soviet criminal system which came to define the most trivial offences as heinous crimes. The State Theft Law of 1947, designed to prevent a starving population from pilfering goods and food from work, produced one and half million camp prisoners between 1947 and 1952, who were simply exploited like so many serfs for Soviet post-war reconstruction.

The predominance of criminals in the camps emerges clearly from Applebaum’s reconstruction of the unremitting harshness of camp life. The camps were a Hobbesian nightmare, a war of all against all. Most were run by the urki, the traditional criminal caste in Russia. Anarchic, vicious beyond belief, they mercilessly tormented and abused the other prisoners.

But every camp could have its own mafia wars; a top urka one day could be butchered by a rival gang the next. Even the guards were afraid of the professional criminals. For political prisoners, already the victims of a warped and violent justice system, the camps were a second torment from which there was no release save death. All prisoners had to accept the tough rules of camp society; the more astute learned, like primitive man, the simple art of survival.

No review can do full justice to the complex social structures and norms of camp life so ably described here. Applebaum traces the fate of the millions of women and juveniles who also passed through the camp system. Mass rape and casual sex were endemic in the camps. Young prisoners were inducted by the professionals into a doomed life of crime and animal violence. The more educated among the “politicals” were able, in the midst of all this grimness, to organise story-telling sessions, or to put on camp plays.

The camps reflected the astonishing spectrum of Russian life: vice and depravity at one end, the heights of cultural sensibility at the other. One woman prisoner wrote an opera in her camp, but had to volunteer for the solitary job of cleaning the camp sewers and latrines to give herself time to think through her composition.

The camp system was overhauled after Stalin’s death. Millions were released, a tiny few were rehabilitated, tens of thousands of prisoners, mainly ordinary criminals, re mained the victims of the tough penal system. The last political camp, at Perm, was closed only in 1992.

Applebaum explores the dilemmas of release as well. Prisoners suddenly freed part-way through their term were disorientated rather than elated. Some hung around the camps, looking for regular work. Others became vagrants, or clung to low-paid jobs, seeking the company of other former prisoners. One man simply did not want to be released: “Out there, everything is fantastically unreal,” he wrote in his diary. “Here everything is real.”

This is an extraordinarily rich and powerful account of one of the great untold stories of the 20th century. The horror of the Gulag was made possible by the explosive combination of a huge, chaotic, ill-disciplined society with a political movement inspired by an exclusive and self-righteous idealism. Bolsheviks liked to think that the Gulag reformed people for the socialist paradise. In fact the Gulag exposed more cruelly and candidly than anything else the irreconcilable paradoxes of the Soviet experiment.