Gulag : A History
by Anne Applebaum
Release Date: 09 April, 2004
With the publication of "The Gulag Archipelago" in the early 1970s, Alexander Solzhenitsyn shocked and dismayed the Western world by masterfully detailing the existence of a horrific shadow culture within the Soviet Union, a culture comprised of a mass society of slave laborers scratching out their bare-knuckled survival in unbelievable difficulty and squalor, and having been recruited into the Gulag for a variety of economic, social, and political reasons. Given the inherent limitations of this superb albeit shocking fictional work, the West had to wait for the fall of the Soviet bloc for a more definitive and more complete treatise on the nature of the Gulag. This new book by scholar-turned-journalist Anne Applebaum represents such a work.
The work is both massive and comprehensive, dealing not only with the ways in which the Gulag came into existence and then thrived under the active sponsorship of Lenin and Stalin, but also with a plethora of aspects of life within the Gulag, ranging from its laws, customs, folklore, and morality on the one hand to its slang, sexual mores, and cuisine on the other. She looks at the prisoners themselves and how they interacted with each other to the relationships between the prisoners and the many sorts of guards and jailers that kept them imprisoned. For what forced the Gulag into becoming a more or less permanent fixture within the Soviet system was its value economically in producing goods and services that were marketable both within the larger Soviet economy as well as in international trade. As it does in China today, forced labor within the Gulag for the Soviets represented a key element in expanding markets for Soviet-made goods ranging from lamps to those prototypically Russian fur hats.
The Gulag came into being as a result of the Communist elite's burning desire for purges of remaining vestiges of bourgeoisie aspects of Soviet culture, and its consequent need for some deep dark hole to stick unlucky cultural offenders into to remove them semi-permanently from the forefront of the Soviet society. Stalin found it useful to expand the uses of the camp system to enhance industrial growth, and the camps became flooded with millions of Soviets found wanting in terms of their ultimate suitability for everyday life in the workers' paradise. Thus, the Gulag flourished throughout the 1920s and 1930s and even through the years of WWII, when slave labor provided an invaluable aid in producing enough war goods to help defeat the Axis powers. By the peak years of Gulag culture in the 1950s, the archipelago stretched into all twelve of the U.S. S. R.'s time zones, although it was largely concentrated in the northernmost and least livable aspects of the country's vast geographical areas.
One of the most interesting and certainly more controversial aspects of the book can be found in its consideration of the relative obscurity with which both the existence and horrors associated with the Gulag has been treated to date. Compared to the much more extensively researched and discussed Holocaust of Europe's Jewish population perpetrated by the Nazi Third Reich over a twelve year period, almost nothing is known about the nearly seventy reign of the Gulag. Given the fairly recent demise of the Soviet state, and the dawning availability of data revealing the particulars of the existence of the Soviet system of political imprisonment, forced labor camps, and summary executions, one expects this massively documented, exhaustively detailed, and memorably written work will serve as the standard in the field for decades to come. This is a terrific book, and one I can heartily recommend to any serious student of 20th century history. Enjoy!
Anne Applebaum has done a magnificent job of shedding light on the 20th century Soviet penal system as embraced by the vast network of Gulag camps. Thoroughly researched, this account draws fascinating and important distinctions between prisons and camps, as well as between the various types of individuals contained therein (e.g. 'politicals' versus 'criminals'), the roles each group played, and the treatment each received. The plight of female prisoners, including those pregnant and already with children, represents one of the more heart-rending threads in the book.
The Gulag camps and their administration were a bewildering mixture of rules and 'norms' issued by Joseph Stalin and his sycophants back in Moscow on the one hand, and arbitrary decisions made by local camp authorities on the other. The whim of a guard often meant the difference between life and death for a camp inmate.
It is difficult to grasp just how much suffering was endured by so many, but Ms. Applebaum, through her numerous anecdotes obtained from persons who survived the camps, gives the reader a very good sense of what it must have been like. Even the prison guards often had insufficient food, and nowhere decent to sleep. There were even bizarre situations in Gulag camps where prisoners were promoted as guards, and guards demoted to be prisoners.
One of the most chilling messages of the book is that, for thousands of Gulag victims, it was preferable to injure or mutilate oneself (e.g. by swallowing barbed wire or glass, or by tearing off and eating one's own flesh) and thereby be unable to work, than it was to suffer the harsh conditions of mining, heavy manufacturing and logging, for which the remote northern camps were notorious. Certain huge construction projects, such as railroads and highways that led to nowhere, and an aborted tunnel (!) to Sakhalin Island near Japan, ended up as mass graves for thousands of helpless souls.
Here are two brief illustrations of just how cruel and destructive the Gulag world was: 1. Camp authorities often released prisoners near death, so as to keep the camp's death count within thresholds that would allow camp authorities to keep their jobs; 2. a husband and wife finally met up in freedom, after over ten years of having lived apart in separate camps. The husband, upon seeing that his wife was in relatively good physical shape, readily concluded that she had slept with her captors in exchange for more food and|or lighter work duties. With this, he decided to have nothing more to do with his wife. Meanwhile, had the wife not done what she did, she could have easily perished; for her, her actions were a matter of survival.
I highly recommend this book. Anyone interested in learning more about the paranoid machinations of Stalin will want to read both "Gulag" and "The Fall of Berlin", by Antony Beevor.