The Gulag: Lest we Forget

The more we are able to understand how various societies have transformed their neighbors and fellow citizens from people into objects, and the more we know of the specific circumstances that led to each episode of mass torture and mass murder, the better we will understand the darker side of our own human nature.

In the early autumn of 1998, I took a boat across the White Sea, from the city of Arkhangelsk to the Solovetsky Islands, the distant archipelago that was once home to the Soviet Union’s first political prisons. The ship’s dining room buzzed with good cheer. There were many toasts, many jokes, and hearty applause for the ship’s captain. My assigned dining companions, two middle-aged couples from a naval base down the coast, seemed determined to have a good time.

At first, my presence only added to their general merriment. It is not every day one meets a real American on a rickety ferry boat in the middle of the White Sea, and the oddity amused them. When I told them what I was doing in Russia, however, they grew less cheerful. An American on a pleasure cruise, visiting the Solovetsky Islands to see the scenery and the beautiful old monastery—that was one thing. An American visiting the Solovetsky Islands to see the remains of the concentration camp—that was something else.

One of the men turned hostile. “Why do you foreigners only care about the ugly things in our history?” he wanted to know. “Why write about the Gulag? Why not write about our achievements? We were the first country to put a man into space!” By “we” he meant “we Soviets.” The Soviet Union had ceased to exist seven years earlier, but he still identified himself as a Soviet citizen, not as a Russian.

His wife attacked me as well. “The Gulag isn’t relevant anymore,” she told me. “We have other troubles here. We have unemployment, we have crime. Why don’t you write about our real problems, instead of things that happened a long time ago?”

While this unpleasant conversation continued, the other couple kept silent, and the man never did offer his opinion on the subject of the Soviet past. At one point, however, his wife expressed her support. “I understand why you want to know about the camps,” she said softly. “It is interesting to know what happened. I wish I knew more.”

In my subsequent travels around Russia, I encountered these four attitudes about my project again and again. “It’s none of your business” and “it’s irrelevant” were both common reactions. Silence—or an absence of opinion, as evinced by a shrug of the shoulders—was probably the most frequent reaction. But there were also people who understood why it was important to know about the past and who wished it were easier to find out more.

Monuments and Public Awareness
In fact, with some effort, one can learn a great deal about the past in contemporary Russia. Not all Russian archives are closed, and not all Russian historians are preoccupied with other things. The story of the Gulag has also become part of public debate in some of the former Soviet republics and former Soviet satellites. In a few nations (as a rule, those who remember themselves as victims rather than perpetrators of terror), the memorials and the debates are very prominent indeed.

Dotted around Russia itself, there are also a handful of informal, semi-official, and private monuments and museums, erected by a wide variety of people and organizations. Strange, surprising, individual monuments can sometimes be found in out-of-the-way places. An iron cross has been placed on a barren hill outside the city of Ukhta commemorating the site of a mass murder of prisoners. To see it, I had to drive down an almost impassable muddy road, walk behind a building site, and clamber over a railway track. Even then I was too far away to read the actual inscription. Still, the local activists who had erected the cross a few years earlier beamed with pride as they pointed it out to me.

A few hours north of Petrozavodsk, another ad hoc memorial has been set up outside the village of Sandormokh, where prisoners from the Solovetsky Islands were shot in 1937. Because there are no records stating who is buried where, each family has chosen, at random, to commemorate a particular pile of bones. Relatives of victims have pasted photographs of their relatives, long dead, on wooden stakes, and some have carved epitaphs into the sides. Ribbons, plastic flowers, and other funerary bric-a-brac are strewn throughout the pine forest that has grown up over the killing field. On the sunny August day that I visited (it was the anniversary of the murder, and a delegation had come from St. Petersburg), an elderly woman stood up to speak of her parents, both buried there, both shot when she was seven years old. A whole lifetime had passed before she had been able to visit their graves.

And yet in Russia, a country accustomed to grandiose war memorials and vast, solemn state funerals, these local efforts and private initiatives seem meager, scattered, and incomplete. The majority of Russians are probably not even aware of them. And no wonder: Ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia—the country that has inherited the Soviet Union’s diplomatic and foreign policies, its embassies, its debts, and its seat at the United Nations—continues to act as if it has not inherited the Soviet Union’s history. Russia does not have a national museum dedicated to the history of repression. Neither does Russia have a national place of mourning, a monument officially recognizing the suffering of victims and their families.

More notable than the missing monuments, however, is the missing public awareness. Sometimes it seems as if the enormous emotions and passions raised by the wide-ranging discussions of the Gorbachev era simply vanished, along with the Soviet Union itself. The bitter debate about justice for the victims disappeared just as abruptly. Although there was much talk about it at the end of the 1980s, the Russian government never did examine or try the perpetrators of torture or mass murder, even those who were identifiable.

It is true, of course, that trials may not always be the best way to come to terms with the past. But there are other methods, aside from trials, of doing public justice to the crimes of the past. There are truth commissions, for example, of the sort implemented in South Africa, which allow victims to tell their stories in an official, public place and make the crimes of the past a part of the public debate. There are official investigations, like the British Parliament’s 2002 inquiry into the Northern Irish “Bloody Sunday” massacre, which took place 30 years earlier. There are government inquiries, government commissions, and public apologies. Yet the Russian government has never considered any of these options. Other than the brief, inconclusive “trial” of the Communist Party, there have in fact been no public truth-telling sessions in Russia, no parliamentary hearings, no official investigations of any kind into the murders or the massacres or the camps of the USSR.

The result: half a century after the end of World War II, the Germans still conduct regular public disputes about victims’ compensation, about memorials, about new interpretations of Nazi history, even about whether a younger generation of Germans ought to go on shouldering the burden of guilt about the crimes of the Nazis. Half a century after Stalin’s death, there were no equivalent arguments taking place in Russia because the memory of the past was not a living part of the public discourse.

The Russian rehabilitation process did continue, very quietly, throughout the 1990s. By the end of 2001, about 4.5 million political prisoners had been rehabilitated in Russia, and the national rehabilitation commission estimated that it had a further half million cases to examine. But although the commission itself is serious and well intentioned, and although it is composed of camp survivors as well as bureaucrats, no one associated with it really feels that the politicians who created it were motivated by a real drive for “truth and reconciliation,” in the words of the British historian Catherine Merridale. Rather, the goal has been to end discussion of the past, to pacify the victims by throwing them a few extra rubles and free bus tickets, and to avoid any deeper examination of the causes of Stalinism or of its legacy.

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same…
There are some good, or at least forgivable, explanations for this public silence. Most Russians really do spend all their time coping with the complete transformation of their economy and society. The Stalinist era was a long time ago, and a great deal has happened since it ended. Post-communist Russia is not postwar Germany, where the memories of the worst atrocities were still fresh in people’s minds. In the early twenty-first century, the events of the middle of the twentieth century seem like ancient history to much of the population.

Perhaps more to the point, many Russians also feel that they have had their discussion of the past already and that it produced very little. When one asks older Russians, at least, why the subject of the Gulag is so rarely mentioned nowadays, they wave away the issue: “In the 1990s that was all we could talk about, now we don’t need to talk about it anymore.”

But there are other reasons, less forgivable, for the profound silence. Many Russians experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union as a profound blow to their personal pride. Perhaps the old system was bad, they now feel—but at least we were powerful. And now that we are not powerful, we do not want to hear that it was bad. It is too painful, like speaking ill of the dead.

Some still also fear what they might find out about the past if they were to inquire too closely. Aleksandr Yakovlev, chairman of the Russian rehabilitation commission, put this problem bluntly. “Society is indifferent to the crimes of the past,” he told me, “because so many people participated in them.” The Soviet system dragged millions and millions of its citizens into many forms of collaboration and compromise. Although many willingly participated, otherwise decent people were also forced to do terrible things. They, their children, and their grandchildren do not always want to remember that now.

But the most important explanation for the lack of public debate does not involve the fears of the younger generation or the inferiority complexes and leftover guilt of their parents. The most important issue is rather the power and prestige of those now ruling not only Russia but also most of the other former Soviet states and satellite states. In December 2001, on the 10th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, 13 of the 15 former Soviet republics were run by former Communists, as were many of the former satellite states. Even in those countries not actually run by the direct ideological descendants of the Communist Party, former Communists and their children or fellow travelers continued to figure largely in the intellectual, media, and business elites. The president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, was a former KGB agent who proudly identified himself as a Chekist, a word used to describe Lenin’s political police at the time of the revolution. The dominance of former Communists and the insufficient discussion of the past in the post-communist world is not coincidental. To put it bluntly, former Communists have a clear interest in concealing the past: it tarnishes them, undermines them, hurts their claims to be carrying out “reforms,” even when they personally had nothing to do with past crimes. Many, many excuses have been given for Russia’s failure to build a national monument to its millions of victims, but Aleksandr Yakovlev, again, gave me the most succinct explanation. “The monument will be built,” he said, “when we—the older generation—are all dead.”

This matters because the failure to acknowledge or repent or discuss the history of the communist past weighs like a stone on many of the nations of post-communist Europe. Whispered rumors about the contents of old “secret files” continue to disrupt contemporary politics, destabilizing at least one Polish and one Hungarian prime minister. Deals done in the past, between fraternal communist parties, continue to have ramifications in the present. In many places, the secret police apparatus—the cadres, the equipment, the offices—remains virtually unchanged. The occasional discovery of fresh caches of bones can suddenly spark controversy and anger.

This past weighs on Russia most heavily of all. Russia inherited the trappings of Soviet power—and also the Soviet Union’s great power complex, its military establishment, and its imperial goals. As a result, the political consequences of absent memory in Russia have been much more damaging than they have in other former communist countries. Acting in the name of the Soviet motherland, Stalin deported the Chechen nation to the wastes of Kazakhstan, where half of them died and the rest were meant to disappear, along with their language and culture. Fifty years later, in a repeat performance, the Russian Federation obliterated the Chechen capital, Grozny, and murdered tens of thousands of Chechen civilians in the course of two wars. If the Russian people and the Russian elite remembered—viscerally, emotionally remembered—what Stalin did to the Chechens, they could not have invaded Chechnya in the 1990s, not once and not twice. To do so was the moral equivalent of postwar Germany invading western Poland. Very few Russians saw it that way—which is itself evidence of how little they know about their own history.

There have also been consequences for the formation of Russian civil society and for the development of the rule of law. To put it bluntly, if scoundrels of the old regime go unpunished, good will in no way have been seen to triumph over evil. This may sound apocalyptic, but it is not politically irrelevant. The police do not need to catch all the criminals all of the time for most people to submit to public order, but they need to catch a significant proportion. Nothing encourages lawlessness more than the sight of villains getting away with it, living off their spoils, and laughing in the public’s face. The secret police kept their apartments, their dachas, and their large pensions. Their victims remained poor and marginal. To most Russians, it now seems as if the more you collaborated in the past, the wiser you were. By analogy, the more you cheat and lie in the present, the wiser you are.

In a very deep sense, some of the ideology of the Gulag also survives in the attitudes and worldview of the new Russian elite. The old Stalinist division between categories of humanity, between the all-powerful elite and the worthless “enemies,” lives on in the new Russian elite’s arrogant contempt for its fellow citizens. Unless that elite soon comes to recognize the value and the importance of all of Russia’s citizens, to honor both their civil and their human rights, Russia is ultimately fated to become today’s northern Zaire, a land populated by impoverished peasants and billionaire politicians who keep their assets in Swiss bank vaults and their private jets on runways, engines running.

Tragically, Russia’s lack of interest in its past has deprived the Russians of heroes, as well as villains. The names of those who secretly opposed Stalin, however ineffectively, ought to be as widely known in Russia as are, in Germany, the names of the participants in the plot to kill Hitler. The incredibly rich body of Russian survivors’ literature—tales of people whose humanity triumphed over the horrifying conditions of the Soviet concentration camps—should be better read, better known, more frequently quoted. If schoolchildren knew these heroes and their stories better, they would find something to be proud of even in Russia’s Soviet past, aside from imperial and military triumphs.

Yet the failure to remember has more mundane, practical consequences too. It can be argued, for example, that Russia’s failure to delve properly into the past also explains its insensitivity to certain kinds of censorship and to the continued, heavy presence of secret police, now renamed the Federalnaya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti, or FSB. Most Russians are not especially bothered by the FSB’s ability to open mail, tap telephones, and enter private residences without a court order.

Insensitivity to the past also helps explain the absence of judicial and prison reform. In 1998, I paid a visit to the central prison in the city of Arkhangelsk, once one of the capital cities of the Gulag. The city prison, which dated back to before Stalin’s time, seemed hardly to have changed since then. As I walked the halls of the stone building, accompanied by a silent warder, it seemed as if we had stepped back into one of the many Gulag memoirs I had read. The cells were crowded and airless; the walls were damp; the hygiene was primitive. The prison boss shrugged. It all came down to money, he said: The hallways were dark because electricity was expensive, the prisoners waited weeks for their trials because judges were badly paid. I was not convinced. Money is a problem, but it is not the whole story. If Russia’s prisons still look as they did in Stalin’s era, if Russia’s courts and criminal investigations are a sham, that is partly because the Soviet legacy does not hang like a bad conscience on the shoulders of those who run Russia’s criminal justice system. The past does not haunt Russia’s secret police, Russia’s judges, Russia’s politicians, or Russia’s business elite.

But then, very few people in contemporary Russia feel the past to be a burden, or an obligation, at all. The past is a bad dream to be forgotten or a whispered rumor to be ignored. Like a great, unopened Pandora’s box, it lies in wait for the next generation.

Western Amnesia
Our failure in the West to understand the magnitude of what happened in the Soviet Union and Central Europe does not, of course, have the same profound implications for our way of life as it does for theirs. Our tolerance for the odd “Gulag denier” in our universities will not destroy the moral fabric of our society. The Cold War is over, after all, and there is no real intellectual or political force left in the communist parties of the West.

Nevertheless, if we do not start trying harder to remember, there will be consequences for us too. For one, our understanding of what is happening now in the former Soviet Union will go on being distorted by our misunderstanding of history. Again, if we really knew what Stalin did to the Chechens, and if we felt that it was a terrible crime against the Chechen nation, it is not only Vladimir Putin who would be unable to do the same things to them now, but also we who would be unable to sit back and watch with any equa-nimity. Neither did the Soviet Union’s collapse inspire the same mobilization of Western forces as did the end of the Second World War. When Nazi Germany finally fell, the rest of the West created both NATO and the European Community—in part to prevent Germany from ever breaking away from civilized “normality” again. By contrast, it was not until September 11, 2001, that the nations of the West seriously began rethinking their post–Cold War security policies, and then there were other motivations stronger than the need to bring Russia back into the civilization of the West.

But in the end, the foreign policy consequences are not the most important. For if we forget the Gulag, sooner or later we will find it hard to understand our own history too. Why did we fight the Cold War, after all? Was it because crazed right-wing politicians, in cahoots with the military-industrial complex and the CIA, invented the whole thing and forced two generations of Americans and West Europeans to go along with it? Or was there something more important happening? Confusion is already rife. In 2002, an article in the conservative British Spectator magazine opined that the Cold War was “one of the most unnecessary conflicts of all time.” The American writer Gore Vidal has also described the battles of the Cold War as “forty years of mindless wars which created a debt of $5 trillion.”

Thus we are forgetting what it was that mobilized us, what inspired us, what held the civilization 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 twentieth-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.

And not only our own particular past, for if we go on forgetting half of Europe’s history, some of what we know about mankind itself will be distorted. Every one of the twentieth-century’s mass tragedies was unique: the Gulag, the Holocaust, the Armenian massacre, the Nanking massacre, the Cultural Revolution, the Cambodian revolution, the Bosnian wars, among many others. Every one of these events had different historical, philosophical, and cultural origins; every one arose in particular local circumstances that will never be repeated. Only our ability to debase and destroy and dehumanize our fellow men has been—and will be—repeated again and again: our transformation of our neighbors into “enemies,” our reduction of our opponents to lice or vermin or poisonous weeds, our reinvention of our victims as lower, lesser, or evil beings, worthy only of incarceration or expulsion or death.

The more we are able to understand how different societies have transformed their neighbors and fellow citizens from people into objects, the more we know of the specific circumstances that led to each episode of mass torture and mass murder, the better we will understand the darker side of our own human nature. 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 realize that we do not know who we are.

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