BOOKS: by Bill JamesNews Weekly
GULAG : A HISTORY, by Anne Applebaum
, September 6, 2003
GULAG: A HISTORY
by Anne Applebaum
Available from News Weekly Books for $69.95 (hb) plus p&hGulag is a pleasant surprise, despite dealing with a grim subject. The reason is that its author is still in her thirties, and writes for the left-liberal Washington Post. She thus personifies the hope that the reluctance to criticise communism on the part of baby-boomers is coming to an end with the emergence of a new, curious and honest generation of scholars.
Applebaum can proudly take her place in a maverick tradition which includes, inter alia, Sidney Hook, Karl Popper, Isaiah Berlin, George Orwell, Raymond Aron, Robert Conquest, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Black Book of Communism
and The Mitrokkhin Archive
. She has produced a history characterised by grip and authority.
Not only is it comprehensive in its coverage of the subject, and meticulously researched and documented, but in the process of writing it she travelled to many remote "sacred sites" across the former USSR. It is no doubt shattering to visit Auschwitz, but in terms of accessibility it is just part of the tourist trail.
Getting to the locations of former Soviet concentration camps and mass graves above the Arctic Circle, particularly in the east, is another matter altogether. When she reached them, usually there was nothing to see except mounds of earth, in some cases remnants of fence or building, and makeshift crosses erected by the locals. It is moving to discover that a pilgrim from the outside world finally took the trouble to honour these forgotten victims with a visit.
Applebaum begins with the Bolshevik origins of the Gulag in 1917, and takes the story through to the immediate aftermath of the Great Terror in 1939. This section includes an account of the controversy over the raison d'etre
of the camps. Unlike their Nazi counterparts, they were not death camps as such, although millions died or were deliberately killed in them. (In fact, reading of the cold, overwork, starvation and neglect which were standard features of the system, we marvel that anyone survived at all).
It was not clear whether they had been set up for punishment, or rehabilitation, or deterrence, or to contain the disease of heresy, or for economic production, or all of the preceding.
Another feature of this period is the speed with which the camps became far bigger, and more brutal and lethal, than the reviled czarist penal system.
The middle section of the book is called "Life and Work in the Camps", and deals with every aspect of the camp experience, beginning with arrest, and ending with release or escape or death. There is a tendency to imagine that everyone in the Gulag was either a principled "political" - Old Bolshevik, Anarchist, SR, Menshevik - or a member of one of the criminal tribes, with their arcane rituals and loyalties predating the Revolution.
The reality is that the majority of prisoners were neither. Under communism, the definition of both political and criminal offences was so broad and so trivial that millions of ordinary Soviet citizens found themselves inadvertently on the wrong side of the law.
There is a return to the chronological account in the third and final section, which runs from 1940 (just after the beginning of the war; the USSR invaded Poland on September 15, 1939), to 1986, when General Secretary Gorbachev announced the policy of glasnost
a year after his accession. It is astonishing that such an economically inept and futile system survived after Stalin's death for more than three decades, and could even introduce refinements such as the psychiatric incarceration and abuse of dissidents.
There were changes during this time, however. For example, vast numbers of ex-Red Army soldiers were thrown into the camps after the war. Their military training, experience and group solidarity made them far less vulnerable than a previous generation of prisoners to intimidation by guards or criminal elements. This era also saw the emergence of high profile protesters such as Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, Sinyavsky and Daniel.
The body of the book is bracketed by an extremely stimulating Introduction and Epilogue. In the former, Applebaum examines the mystery of why communist dictatorship has failed to rouse anything remotely approaching the interest and passion which continues to be invested in its Nazi counterpart. She uses as her jumping-off point the experience of watching Western tourists in Prague buying Soviet bric-a-brac. "All would be sickened by the thought of wearing a swastika. None objected, however, to wearing the hammer and sickle on a T-shirt or a hat."
The Epilogue contains a reflection on Russia's and the West's refusal to face up to all that happened in the USSR between 1917 and 1991. There has been no Nuremberg, no Simon Wiesenthal Institute, no Truth Commission; the egregious Gore Vidal can even describe the Cold War as a waste of money and effort.
But, as Applebaum concludes, the possibility of totalitarianism will continue to threaten us for the foreseeable future. Our understanding of totalitarianism, and ability to prevent it, are enhanced by all the memorials of the Gulag which we can accumulate. "Without them, we will wake up one day and realise that we do not know who we are".
I learned from this book that it is common to find bottles amongst the corpses when excavating mass graves. Apparently even hardened operatives of the KGB (and its Chekist, OGPU and NKVD predecessors) could not bring themselves to liquidate innocent men and women without the stupefying assistance of vodka. Perhaps there is a scrap of reassurance in this otherwise squalid detail.