Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History

Of the two great totalitarian ideologies that dominated the 20th century and were directly responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people, communism has received far less attention and condemnation than fascism. It is still possible to march under the flag of the hammer and sickle in a Western society and claim a moral high ground, whereas to sport a swastika instantly marks one as a pariah. One explanation for this discrepancy rests on the reactions of the formerly fascist and communist countries to past atrocities. Germany, to the extent that such a thing is even possible, has sought to atone for the harm it has caused, both in reparations payments made to the victims of the Holocaust and in its education system and public spaces, which have memorialized the Shoah and Germany’s role in precipitating it. Russia, by contrast, has never come to terms with the atrocities committed by the Soviet Union, most of which have been deliberately concealed from the average Russian citizen, with the result that, when polls are taken to rank “great Russians” throughout history, Joseph Stalin regularly finishes in the top five. Blame also rests with the Allied powers, who have preferred to tell the decidedly more compelling story of a union against a murderous despot rather than the less compelling one of a union with a murderous despot to defeat another murderous despot. In 2003, more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Anne Applebaum published Gulag, the first comprehensive history of the Soviet prison and slave labour system, and a powerful first step in correcting our collective memory.

Applebaum presents us with a comprehensive history of the camp system, from its genesis in Czarist Russia to its transformation, under Lenin and Stalin, into a system of national slave labour and political repression, but she grounds her writings in the lived experiences of the prisoners (the “zeks”). Because so much of the government data on the gulag system remains inaccessible to journalists and historians (and because so much of this was notoriously falsified, at every administrative level), the process of finding reliable primary material is fraught with difficulties. By contrast, in the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a treasure trove of journals, diaries and memoirs have been published by the victims of repression. These, however, are not infallible, and Applebaum, being a dutiful historian, is constantly verifying the claims made in the memoirs she cites against the hard data she is able to obtain. This, it seems, was Stalin’s final and most enduring legacy: he not only set in motion a system of great physical evil, of state murder, torture and mass incarceration, but he undermined the very soul of Russia by robbing the country of its history. Fitting, then, that one of the great humanitarian organizations of modern Russia has named itself Memorial, and made it its mission to reconstruct the past through an extensive archive of Soviet-era journals, letters and memorabilia.

In deference to the suffering of the gulag’s victims, and out of reverence for the remarkable job Applebaum has done reconstructing their fates, I will forgo my usual review to present a portrait of the “average” Soviet prisoner, and what they might have experienced during their incarceration. The first thing to understand about the gulag system, however, is that there is no “average.” The camps that made up the gulag were spread out across all of Russia, in cities and in barren landscapes, and so much of what would come to rule a prisoner’s life was determined for them based on where they were sent. The more remote camps, in Siberia, say, were so far removed from civilization that they were often relatively unguarded: no walls, no barbed wire, no constant sentries on watch. To leave the camp was to expose yourself to the elements, and was therefore no less lethal than being shot at. The camps closer to the industrial and urban centres of Russia, by contrast, looked more like prisons, with high walls and barbed-wire fences. Prisoners in such places worked factory jobs, or built roads or government buildings; prisoners consigned to the frontiers of Russia, on the other hand, worked in mines, or felled timber, or drilled for oil. An unlucky few mined uranium, without protective gear, and thus were doomed to die of radiation sickness before the concept was widely understood.

As surely as there was no average camp, there was no “average” prisoner. Hardened criminals – murderers, rapists and career thieves – were thrown into the camp with “politicals,” a term so all-encompassing as to defy definition, though a serviceable definition might be “anyone who opposed, or was thought to oppose, Stalinism” – communists, Trotskyists, liberals, conservatives, free thinkers, reactionaries, the overly religious, the insufficiently Stalinist. Some told the wrong joke in front of the wrong person; others shared a last name with a known dissenter. Poets, playwrights, novelists and academics who did not toe the party line were thrown in the camps. And if one member of a given family was suspected of political dissent, the entire family was likely to be thrown in the camp system as well, including infant children. The term “kulak” was another broad term used to describe the more than two million Ukrainian peasants and farmers who resisted collectivization and were subsequently exiled to Siberia and Kazakstan. “The possession of an extra cow, or an extra bedroom, was enough to qualify some distinctly poor peasants, as was an accusation from a jealous neighbor,” writes Applebaum, bringing to mind the kind of bitter jealousies that catalyzed the Salem witch trials: the lowliest, most dishonest, disreputable person could cast suspicions on the hardest working peasant and have their accusation vindicated without fair trial or hearing.

Women, of course, had their own unique camp experiences. Gang rapes were a constant threat, and Applebaum recounts several chilling reports of the most vicious and inhuman behavior of prisoners, left unsupervised, preying on women and children. The younger, more attractive female prisoners were offered a sick form of protection from the dangers of camp life: they could enter into a clandestine affair with a high-ranking guard, or one of the criminal bosses who controlled camp life, and thereby earn themselves a temporary protection, as well as special privileges (reduced work hours, say, or larger food rations), but these were Faustian bargains, exposing the women in question to an entirely new set of difficulties. To get pregnant in the camps, for example, was a terrible fate, for even if you somehow managed to birth a healthy child (abortions and miscarries, Applebaum reports, were common), the hygiene conditions in the camps were such that many died within their first year of life, and those that survived might – at the whim of some unseen bureaucrat – be thrown into an orphanage, with no paper trail to link mother and child. Indeed, a common sight in post-war Russia were gangs of orphan children sleeping in parks or organizing themselves into criminal gangs.

Unlike the Nazi concentration camps, the Soviet camps were not designed to be lethal, but famine and disease nonetheless managed to make them so. In 1942, for example, when Hitler betrayed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and invaded Russia, nearly a quarter of all gulag prisoners died, succumbing to a combination of famine, disease and sheer exhaustion. So thorough was the Soviet bureaucracy that prisoner rations were calculated to the gram, and these, at all times, were set at mere subsistence levels. But that same bureaucracy was also hopelessly inept and corrupt, and therefore the food the prisoners received was always some fraction of what they had been proscribed by their “government.”

A prosecutors’ office report for 1947, for example, lists many cases of theft, among them one in Vyatlag, where twelve people, including the head of the camp warehouse, helped themselves to 170,000 rubles worth of food products and vegetables. Another report of that year calculated that in thirty-four camps investigated in the second quarter of 1946 alone, a total of 70,000 kilograms of bread had been stolen, along with 132,000 kilograms of potatoes and 17,000 kilograms of meat.

The guards, though hardly well fed, were given significantly better rations than the prisoners, and access to meat and dairy products, so their theft, it should be understood, was a matter of personal profit, at the expense of the lives of the prisoners under their care. The average gulag prisoner, then, spent most his life in a state of starvation. But the privation did not end with the food. Winter clothing was in short supply, as were boots, blankets, pillows, and other comforts we take for granted. Even bowls and cutlery were rare and valuable commodities in the camps. Hot water was, for most, an impossible luxury, and the little access to water they did have had to suffice for the day’s bathing and laundry. Soap, too, was rationed. The inevitable result of all of this thrift was the spread of disease and “vermin” such as lice, rats, cockroaches, and bed bugs. One mother recounted, to Applebaum, nursing her child at her breast while fighting to keep a nearby lice infestation from him.

What Applebaum makes abundantly clear in this book, and what I had no real conception of beforehand, was the extent to which the gulag system was a deliberate form of slave labour, conceived by Stalin as a means of bolstering the economic productivity of the Soviet Union. There was a relentless obsession with production quotas – which were set, not by the camp administrators, who were most aware of the local conditions, but by faraway bureaucrats, who were clueless – and a conscious effort to industrialize and expand the Soviet Union via the gulag system. Whole cities in modern Russia only exist today because thousands of prisoners built roads to faraway places, established a mine or oil well, and subsequently drew industry to the area. And when reforms came to the gulag, they came not out of humanitarian considerations – not out of a concern for the high mortality rates, or the suffering of the zeks – but out of a recognized need to increase the efficiency of the workers. Sick, feeble and famished men and women cannot be maximally productive, so their rations were eventually increased; sleepless men and women succumb to disease more easily, so working days were reduced and sleeping conditions eventually made less intolerable. And for decades, the Soviet Union managed to keep this vast slave labour system a nationally guarded secret, whispered about in the West but rarely acknowledged, and more often denied.

Our modern ignorance – inside and outside Russia – insults the memory of Soviet Russia’s victims, and makes us all more vulnerable to those inside Russia who, even now, are erecting new statues to Stalin and praising his memory. Gulag is a powerful antidote to our collective amnesia, and a warning of what might occur if Russia cannot assimilate its past and reconcile itself to its demons:

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 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.

In a very real sense, though the physical battle against Stalinism has been won, the spiritual war remains undecided.