The Gulag, as It Really Was

It was bold, as well as ambitious, for Anne Applebaum to take on the gigantic task of writing a history of the late Soviet Union’s Gulag, and it pleases me to say that she has proved herself right. Her book, Gulag: A History, is an outstanding achievement.

It is illuminating to compare her coverage and analysis of the CHEKA (the “All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combatting Counter-Revolution and Sabotage”) with that of the British pair, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, in their monumental work, Soviet Communism: A New Civilization (1937), one of the major choices of the London-based Left Book Club, which I confessed I joined in my late ‘teens.

Factually there is little to choose between the two. The contrast is ideological: the webs saluted Stalin’s regime as “a new civilization;” Anne Applebaum (admittedly with the advantage of the recent collapse of the Soviet regime) sees the Gulag as the greatest organ of repression in history (although these are not her exact words).

Applebaum rightly points out that the Gulag was not exactly a creation of the Russian Revolution. Indeed as she points out (on p. xvi of her introduction), it “had its antecedents in Czarist Russia.” The important point, of course, was that Lenin, having inherited it, used it as a weapon to lock up “unreliable elements” in the concentration camps known collectively as “the Gulag.”

The scope of her book is impressive. Whereas most Sovietologists and “Communologists” (such as Roy Medvedev, Dmitri Volkognov and the French writers Stéphane Courtois and Nicolas Werth) understandably cover the Gulag as a major element in Soviet history, no one (to my knowledge) has devoted a major work entirely to the theme of her title. She ranges from the first concentration camp, in the old Solovetsky monastery, 15 miles or so north of the Kremlin, in 1923, to “the zenith of the camp industrial complex” which reigned at the end of World War II.

Rightly, the author recalls Hitler’s concentration camps, primarily reserved for the large Jewish minority in Nazi Germany, and points out their differences, the most important of which was ideological: the Nazi regime was anti-Semitic; the Soviet one was considerably wider, covering all elements that might be considered anti-Communist, or at any rate anti-Stalinist. She right points out that the Nazi camps were death factories (Vernichtungslager) rather than labor camps; whereas the Gulag camps were partly devoted to economic projects, while prisoners considered useless were quickly turned into corpses.

Rightly, in my view, the author recalls that as late as the 1980s, the post-Stalinist camps survived. Indeed, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were still discussing the Soviet camps. She points out that Gorbachev—”himself the grandson of Gulag prisoners—did not begin to dissolve the camps until 1987.

The range of Applebaum’s book could scarcely be wider. She rightly starts with the origins of the Gulag, from 1917 to 1939, devotes a major chapter to Stalin’s “great terror” and its aftermath; goes on to deal, in horrific detail, with life in the camps, including the the deadly cold in the Arctic camp (with temperatures falling to 50 degrees below zero) and notes that a number of punishment isolaters” (acronym: SHIZO) have curvived well into the post-Soviet period, although no longer with occupants.

Her chapter devoted to “the prisoners” quotes Mariya Joffe, wife of a famous Bolshevik, describing the professional criminals (as distinct from the merely politically suspect) as having sex openly, walking naked around the barracks, and having no true feelings for one another (p. 281).

She devoted another chapter (15) to women and children, and notes (surprisingly, perhaps) that man female survivors felt that there were “great advantages” to being female within the camp system.

For instance, they seemed able to survive on less food than male captives, were most likely to form true and enduring friendships and to help each other in ways the male captives seemed incapable of using (pp. 307—et seq). (Whether this is the truth and not an innate female assumption is not for a male writer to say.)

Not surprisingly, her chapter on “the dying” is packed with horrific words and descriptions. In a sub-dialect of camp slang, those about to die were called “candle wicks” (soon to be blown out). Other expressions reserved for them were slop swillers (pomoechniki) or “shit eaters” (gaunoedy).

In the interesting chapter that follows, she deals with what she rightly calls “strategies of survival,” a reference to the minority who managed, by skill and self-determination, to survive psychologically more or less intact, sufficiently to return home and to live relatively normal lives (p. 344). She goes on to describe, in fascinating detail, the devices used to prevent escapes from the Gulag camps, and the ingenuity of those who defied or overcame those same devices (Ch. 18).

Part three, described as “The Rise and Fall of the Camp Industrial Complex, (1940-1986),” deals interestingly with the inevitable presence of many Red Army prisoners among the Gulag population. These included, notably, 230,000 Polish officers and soldiers.

Not surprisingly, she deals in details with the notorious murder of more than 20,000 captured Polish officers in a secret massacre ordered by Stalin. (The secrecy faded, inevitably, after Stalin’s death, and I was personally involved, among many other sympathizers, in the inauguration of a London monument in commemoration of the victims.)

Other captives, whose fate is also dealt with in Applebaum’s book included Hungarians and victims of the Korean War.

A particularly interesting chapter (24) is devoted to the consequences of Stalin’s death in 1953 for the Gulag. One the night of his death, a man named Viktor Bulgakov was arrested for allegedly participating in an anti-Stalinist student circle and sent to Minlag, a special camp in a coal-mining complex, north of the Arctic Circle. There, in the short summer days, the prisoners, angered for being by-passed in the post-Stalin amnesty, murdered four camp informers with pickaxes.

As Anne Applebaum rightly notes, Stalin’s death signaled the end of the era of massive slave labor in the Soviet Union. She closes her admirable book with a personal chapter entitled “Memory” which deals, among other things, with her boat journey across the White Sea in the early summer of 1998—a pardonable personal recollection after lengthy and productive labor.

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