The Forgotten Gulag

The Ameerican Individualist reviewIn the introduction to Anne Applebaum’s Pulitzer-prize-winning book, Gulag: A History, she ponders why the “crimes of Stalin do not inspire the same visceral reaction to the crimes of Hitler.” Yet Stalin’s actions and policies killed millions more than the Nazis. Maybe it’s because the USSR wrapped itself in as much secrecy as it could muster for so long. Maybe it’s because the Soviet camps were so far removed from sight and never received the pictorial and media coverage the Nazi camps received.*

Maybe it’s because during the Cold War, the West was disinclined to care about the welfare of Soviet citizens. Or maybe Applebaum is projecting her own right-wing American bias on history. She grumbles about Western tourists buying Soviet regalia when Communism fell, and Western youths wearing hammer-and-sickle T-shirts without any sense of the horror that symbol meant for millions.

Blogger Bhavya Ketan represents this clouded view when he wrote a review of Applebaum’s book:

What was the Gulag? I never heard of it. Though the famous Indian anti-communist writer Sita Ram Goel, in his biography ‘How I became a Hindu’, defined the erstwhile Soviet Union as a slave empire, I couldn’t fully understand what he exactly meant. There are many people who still don’t know about the slavery that was practiced in Russia between 1920s and 1980s. And what is more shocking? This gross ignorance, about the human rights in the world’s largest country, exists not only in the developing nations but also in the developed states.

Even today, with so many new books on the Soviet union on the market, with Soviet-era archives open to historians and authors, there’s still a mist that occludes our understanding of the time. We only get occasional glimpses of life behind the Iron Curtain and most of that is focused on the major players – Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev and other leaders.

Applebaum’s 2003 book is a monumental work that goes into great detail about the gulag, more detail in fact than the average reader may appreciate. Even I, who has read extensively about the history and politics of the Soviet Union, find it tough going because of the sheer density of information presented. But it’s fascinating, nonetheless, because so little of the story had been made public before her book. And Applebaum writes well – it’s compelling reading.

A few decades ago, I struggled through the first half of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago trilogy (it’s still upstairs on my bookshelves). It was dreary, depressing work, full of people, places and dates that meant little or nothing to me. The New York Times reviewed the first volume in 1974, noting the widespread sense of desperation that pervaded the book:

The reader follows scores of victims, their biographies effectively generalized, from arrest to first cell and “interrogation,” then onward through transit prisons, across the vast country in overcrowded, pestilent trains, to the ports and ships of the Archipelago. It is a journey into debasement and death, into grotesque torture, execution, rape, starvation, thirst, disease and more. Reduced to “a caricature of humanity,” millions somehow survived the journey, other millions did not.

Frankly, it’s depressing and difficult to absorb. All those lives bent and broken in the system, the horrors, the deprivations, the humanity scraped raw. It’s a tough read. Applebaum’s is easier only in that it documents more bureaucracy than personal desperation; the emotional pressure isn’t as weighty (although it, too, is rich in personal accounts). But even so, it’s easy to get lost trying to remember all the names, places and acronyms.

The New York Times, reviewing Applebaum’s book, wrote that she and Solzhenitsyn have an intersection of intent:

…she supports Solzhenitsyn’s central argument: that the gulag was not some incidental Stalinist accretion to Lenin’s visionary concept of Socialism. The cancer of police terror was embedded in the original DNA of Lenin’s creation, ”an integral part of the Soviet system,” in Applebaum’s words. Under Lenin, the first concentration camps were created; the first mass executions were carried out. He bequeathed to his successor a well-functioning police state.

Solzhenitsyn’s short novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, was much more adept at capturing the grimy, dark and futile word in the camps. Although the Archipelago trilogy was the first major work to expose the depth of the Soviet prison-camp system, and it spawned a shudder in his homeland, and shook pro-USSR politics worldwide, for me, the stark novel had a greater impact.

Forced labour was not new to Stalin: there were camps in Tsarist times and the new Soviet regime set up their own soon after coming to power. However, it wasn’t until Stalin’s first five-year plan, in the 1920s, that the system really started to motor. Within a few years, forced labour – slavery – was a necessary pillar to the economic framework of the USSR. Without it, because it fed so much raw material into the system, the USSR could not have mechanized so many industries so quickly.

A complex bureaucracy also grew up to manage it. The system stayed in place – along with the camps – until Gorbachev. By 1941, the Gulag was the largest employer in the world and was so integrated into the Soviet economy that it would have collapsed without it.

During its existence, Applebaum estimates 18 million people had gone through the camps, and another six million were in internal exile. There were, Applebaum estimates, a total of 287.7 forced labourers in the USSR in its history (p. 581). About 4.5 million of the inmates of the camps died in them.

Applebaum wrote in a review of other literature about the gulag system:

The essence of the OGPU’s “profitable” system, invented in the Solovetsky Islands in the 1920s and sold so successfully to Stalin, was to feed prisoners according to their productivity. Prisoners were at times murdered in mass killings, at times deliberately frozen to death in punishment “isolators,” and at times shot by guards eager to claim bonuses for killing “escapees”; but for the most part, it was this system for allotting or denying food to prisoners, not deliberate killing, that caused the greatest number of deaths.

The camps were lethal to millions. The conditions were harsh, nutrition was poor, oversight was brutal, medical and social care minimal to non-existent. In 1942 alone, Applebaum writes, a quarter of the inmates died. But more prisoners were fed into the system to replace them.Ethnic minorities, intellectuals, dissidents, criminals, prisoners of war: all were grist for the gulag’s mill.

She also noted in the interview above that,

Prisons and prison camps continued to exist during the Khrushchev era, of course, and still do. In 1998, I visited a criminal prison in Arkhangelsk, and emerged reeling from what I’d seen: it was as if I had walked into the cell that Olga Adamova-Sliozberg, one of the authors featured in Till My Tale Is Told, a collection of women’s Gulag memoirs just published in English, entered in 1938:

The arched walls were dripping; on either side, leaving only a narrow passage between them, were low continuous bed boards packed with bodies. Assorted rags were drying on lines overhead. The air was thick with the foul smoke of strong cheap tobacco, and loud with arguments, shouts and sobs….

Nevertheless, the “camp-industrial complex” had, as such, disappeared by the 1960s.

Applebaum wraps up her New York Review of Books overview with this comment that betrays her own political bias :

…the Gulag looks now not like the efficient economic machine it was for so long feared to be (although it was an economic giant) or even like a carefully crafted plot to destroy the intelligentsia (although it did that too). In its demography, in its slovenly working practices, in its criminally stupid bureaucracy, and in its sullen disregard for human life, it is beginning to look, rather, like a microcosm of the Soviet Union itself. Which is fitting, for that is what its prisoners always knew it to be: in prison camp slang, the world outside the barbed wire was not referred to as “freedom,” but as the bolshaya zona, the “big prison zone,” larger and less deadly than the “small zone” of the camp, but no more human, and certainly no more humane, nonetheless.

Still, it’s hard not to disagree with her conclusions.

One cannot appreciate the history of the USSR or the Communist Party without understanding its dark side; from the purges to the show trials to the forced labour camps: it was built on terror, slavery, repression and force. Which is why I believe we should read about it today (even though it is not an easy book): to know the history is to help us avoid repeating it. Yet Applebaum leaves us with this chilling conclusion:

…it almost certainly will happen again. Totalitarian philosophies have had, and will continue to have, a profound appeal to many millions of people.

* GULAG is a acronym for Glavnoye upravleniye lagerey i koloniy, the “Main Camp Administration.”

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