Gulag : A History
by Anne Applebaum
Release Date: 09 April, 2004
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.
The author has written a finely detailed and never-dull survey of the Gulag. One understands upon reading this text the sheer scale of waste of resources, human potential, and the terrible psychological drain that the Gulag had on the U.S.S.R. Without delving into unneeded polemics or victor's dogma over the Cold War, Anne Applebaum nevertheless exposes with ruthless detail why the Gulag must have been one of the contributing factors in the decline of the Soviet Union.
This large volume is managed very shrewdly by the author, with neatly segmented chapters covering many aspects of the Gulag. Chapter by chapter Applebaum covers the Gulag system from several angles: the people and their sufferings in the system, aspects of the system as a bureaucratic institution, historical evolutions in the Gulag, and the people and institutions who ran this sprawling enterprise.
The beginnings, depths, and dismantling of the Gulag are other main themes in this book. We also learn how in many regards the sad legacy of the Gulag seems to have emanated from certain characteristics of the nature of incarceration in Russia, and that the system, sadly, has not completely disappeared.
While a historical account, this book almost reads at time as a (sad) novel. There are fascinating insights into how people perservered and surived in what seems the most hopeless of existences. Within the over-arching evil of the system, evil existed in various degrees and some camps were worse than others. A revelation to this reader was the use of the criminal element within the Gulag as a tool to manage the non-criminal, political inmates. Equally, revealing was the ulimate contribution of the Gulag in fomenting the criminal element in the U.S.S.R. The system saw its insurrections and did not always oppress without sparking reaction from the inmate population.
There is no shortage of interesting (though perhaps often disagreeable) characters in this book. People learn once again of the vastness of Russia, and how the country was such a crossroads for people of so many races and nations whose lives were unsettled so tragically in the Gulag. One learns, for example, how the Gulag created ethnic Eskimo bounty-hunters (for escapees), how nearly entire races of people were displaced by the system, how age old foes of Russia found so many of its citizens trapped in the Gulag. Especially sad was how inmates even entered the system from outside the U.S.S.R. as part of the deals made during the Second World War with the West's Stalinist ally. And of course the book covers the exporting of the Gulag to the Eastern-block countries occurs as an outgrowth of Soviet expansion following the Second World War.
After reading this book, the reader sees how this monstrous system transcended borders and dealt crippling disruptions to the lives of millions who at least managed to survive (and death to the millions who perished in the system). And as always one sees the vastness of Russia itself as a vast island-like prison during the Gulag era. This book takes the reader from the Solevetsky Islands near Finland to the Sea of Japan. One learns of people whose lives as components of the Gulag system enter and exit the system from and to places as distant as Palestine and India.
"Gulag" is a fasinating and thoroughly researched book that I highly recommend.