The coldest circle of hell

The story needed to be told and Anne Applebaum tells it with admirable attention to detail, proper restraint and a generally successful attempt not to allow horror to drive out objectivity. But, as I read Gulag, I experienced what is, for me, a rare emotion. Normally I cannot open a book without wishing that I had written on the same subject. With Gulag, I felt from start to finish, ‘Rather her than me’. Does she, I wonder, still have nightmares about the atrocities committed by Stalin between the opening of the first forced labour camp on Solovetsky Island in 1923 and the virtual end of the system 30 years later?

The appendix – essential reading in Gulag – makes a properly cautious estimate of the number of men, women and children who endured the living hell. There were so many different sorts of camps and so many different categories of prisoners that it is impossible to be precise. But according to the NKVD secret police’s own documents – putting aside ‘forced labour’, prisoner of war camps, ‘filtration camps’ (in which the hope of release was always offered but never realised) and the kulak ‘special exiles’ – there was never a year between 1936 and 1953 when the Gulags contained less than a million detainees. By 1948 the figure had grown to 2 million. And there it stayed until the camps were closed.

Those totals do not, Applebaum, tells us, reflect the numbers who passed through in any one year. Prisoners escaped, were released into the Red Army and died. They died of overwork, starvation and disease. Suicide was comparatively rare, although probably not as rare as survivors claim. The essential Russian ‘myth of stoicism’ exaggerated, in hindsight, the determination which one survivor described as the sustaining goal – ‘to get out of that suffering and hope to meet with the people one loved’.

Brutality on the scale that Applebaum describes must, in part, be the product of mental disorder. Stalin, sitting comfortable and warm in the Kremlin, could slaughter his enemies (and those whom he feared), motivated by nothing more than evil. But what of the men who ran the gulags?

Two women, both ‘intellectuals’, who were unaccustomed to physical work and weakened from years in prison, were sent to chop down trees. At the end of the first day they were adjudged to have completed only 18 per cent of their designated task and so received only 18 per cent of their already meagre rations. They were ‘led out next day, literally staggering from weakness’ while their jailer kept repeating that there was no food for ‘traitors who could not fulfil their tasks’. Of course the jailer was a brute. It seems to me that he was also crazy.

Perhaps you had to be to work in a gulag. Official reports referred to camp guards as ‘not second-class but fourth-class people, the very dregs’. Even the commandants were men of minimal education. Most posts with any responsibility were filled by ‘leftovers’ and ‘hopeless drunkards’ from other sections of the NKVD. Who else, sadists aside, would have chosen to live in the most inhospitable parts of the Soviet Union among the outcasts of the glorious revolution?

The accounts of punishment, torture, rape, enforced prostitution (which may be an extension of the same thing), self-mutilation when deranged, the ‘goners’ who were left to die of disease or starvation and the madness I leave to readers with the stomach to digest such details. But even the faint-hearted should rejoice at the stories of genuine heroism that emerge from the Stygian darkness. To rise up in such circumstances must, even allowing for the recklessness of despair, have taken extraordinary courage. But there were men bold or mad enough to circulate pamphlets calling for uprisings and freedom. And at the Kengir camp there was a strike – led by a committee that included a common criminal as well as the usual political prisoners – which at least hastened the end of the whole foul system.

Forty-six prisoners were killed in the suppression of the uprising. But (in one of her few clichés) Applebaum describes them as losing the battle but winning the war. Admittedly they did not open hostilities until Stalin was dead. And the relaxation had already begun. NKVD chief Beria had written a report to the Praesidium of the Central Committee, saying that less than 10 per cent of the gulags’ inmates were ‘dangerous state criminals’. The figures for the rest were in themselves terrifying – 438,788 women (of whom 6,286 were pregnant), 35,505 women accompanied by children under two, 198,000 men and women with incurable illnesses.

The precision of the calculations does credit to the Soviet statistical system. The economic analysis was not, however, of the same high quality. ‘By 1954 the unprofitability of the camps was widely recognised.’ Was there ever anyone in Moscow who really thought that the gulags could make money? The food and shelter cost very little. Much of the administration was carried on by promoted prisoners. The guards were of such low quality that one woman warder was found on duty with a rag stuck down the barrel of her rifle. But, although the camp commandants aspired to impress their superiors with the production of goods as diverse as barrels, telephone boxes, soap and sheepskin coats, men and women working in those conditions are essentially unproductive.

The most extraordinary revelation in Gulag, which will haunt everyone who reads it, is that life in the camps was far worse than anything described by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The gulags were the last circle of ice in a modern inferno. No wonder at the end of the war Soviet citizens captured wearing German uniforms barricaded themselves into their barracks to avoid being repatriated to Mother Russia. But repatriated they were, along with 20,000 Cossacks – anti-Bolshevik partisans who had not so much fought for Hitler as against Stalin. British troops were ordered to send the Cossacks home with their wives and children. But then, in 1944, ‘Uncle Joe’ was our ally. In truth, his tyranny was barely better than Hitler’s.

Scroll to Top