April 06, 2004,
EDITOR'S NOTE: On Monday, Anne Applebaum was announced a the winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction for her book, Gulag: A History. David Pryce-Jones reviewed Gulag in the May 19, 2003, issue of National Review; his review is reprinted here.
Gulag is an acronym for the Russian phrase meaning Main Camp Administration, or in more direct language the system of concentration and labor camps that was an essential feature of the Soviet Union. Anne Applebaum is tentative about the number of people who passed through Gulag, but comes up with a ballpark figure of 28.7 million: almost half the population of France, and rather more than the total population of Iraq. It appears impossible to compute how many actually died in Gulag or as a result of it: somewhere between one in ten and one in five. And that takes no account of the harm to the entire society wrought by general intimidation and suffering. Here was one of history's most frightful atrocities; the enormity of it calls into question the Enlightenment concept that mankind is innately good.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was one among the victims who survived, to write the three volumes of The Gulag Archipelago. Part memoir, part reportage, this is one of the 20th century's greatest books. Thanks to Solzhenitsyn, Gulag entered everyday speech as a metaphor for the evil of Communism. What he believed with all the passion at his command was that the truth about Gulag would lead to justice for its victims. There are by now some hundreds of other memoirs, almost all by intellectuals, some well known and others which ought to be better known. A few are written by Americans, usually trying to atone for their delusions about Communism.
Anne Applebaum has interviewed survivors and made full use of archival material now available in Russia. In clear but heartfelt prose, she examines all aspects of a horror which has left its stamp on humanity forever. Hers is an impressive achievement.
The book opens with a historical account. Czarist absolutism was a heritage of brutality that the Bolsheviks massively enlarged. Lenin had no qualms about making an example of his opponents by killing or otherwise repressing them. He instituted the secret police to carry out the dirty work. In the aftermath of the 1917 revolution the first scattering of camps was built at Solovetsky, near the Arctic Circle. Earning the unforgettable scorn of Solzhenitsyn, the famous and supposedly liberal writer Maxim Gorky visited Solovetsky, and wrote it up as a progressive experiment in reintegrating criminals into society.
At the end of the 1920s, Stalin was in a position to put into practice his Bolshevik belief that slave labor would be the cheapest and most effective engine of rapid industrialization. The White Sea Canal leading to the Baltic ports was the first such project, and by the time it was finished in 1933, some 25,000 or more slave laborers were dead. (Gorky praised this too.) Deliberate misrepresentation obscured the sinister reality of secret-police crime, fixing in much of the world the absurd notion that Communism was really accomplishing miracles of modernization and progress. Poorly engineered, the canal in fact proved more or less useless. "Surreal" is the word that Applebaum often applies to Gulag, its operation, and its purposes.
Stalin's will was the sole law of the Soviet Union. Arbitrarily, he began to set quotas of people to be arrested, and the secret police rounded them up accordingly. People were arrested "for nothing," in a phrase of the poet Anna Akhmatova. They and their families became "enemies of the people," a blanket condemnation borrowed from Robespierre and the French Revolution. After a spell in prison for the predetermined formalities, they were herded into cattle wagons for transportation to Gulag. Spread far and wide across the country, the camps were also bewilderingly varied some of them for exiles, others "corrective-labor colonies," and still others virtually extermination camps, so dreadful were the conditions of climate, hunger, and illness. The Great Terror of 1937–38 was marked by mass shootings.
In Russian slang, the slave laborers were known as zeks. They lived in flimsy barracks within barbed-wire precincts. In work squads, they were forced to fulfill almost impossible norms, failing which they received diminished rations of food. They had to log virgin forests, and mine for gold, nickel, and coal; they were put to construction and factory work of all sorts. Women were as likely to be doing heavy labor as sewing uniforms. Astonishingly, the numbers of Gulag prisoners rose during World War II, without doubt weakening the nation's military performance. The camp system was in fact too disorganized and wasteful ever to be profitable; the production of free workers would have served Stalin better. But he maintained a primitive preconception that in Gulag he was getting something for nothing, and he was not to be deflected by rational considerations.
Applebaum offers many telling examples of the cruelty that Gulag generated. On one occasion 6,114 peasants, described as "backward elements," were dumped on the uninhabited island of Nazino; after three months 4,000 of them were dead, and those who survived had become cannibals. Barbara Armonas was an American married to a Lithuanian. In the wagon of the train deporting Armonas to Siberia was a woman who had given birth four hours earlier, and a paralyzed 83-year-old woman who could not keep herself clean. When a little boy died, guards just took his body out at a stop in an unknown forest. Elsewhere a camp trusty stopped two men from quarrelling by knocking their eyes out with a pick. One day, another caught an elderly professor eating a rotten fish, and in apparent disgust gave him a blow which killed him. Or again, typically, a prisoner fell in the snow, and the rest of the squad stripped off and divided his clothes; before dying the naked man had time for his last words, "It's so cold." As a matter of daily routine, guards brutalized prisoners, and prisoners brutalized one another with murder, rape (of women and men alike), and theft. Possession of a spoon or a needle might be an issue of life and death. Applebaum confirms Solzhenitsyn's unforgettable description of the war the genuine criminals waged against the "politicals." There were also what she calls "strategies for survival," involving collaboration with the secret police, or ingratiating oneself with powerful camp criminals.
Let Olga Adamova-Sliozberg speak for millions like her. She was in Gulag for 20 years and 41 days. Her husband died in the cellars of the Lubyanka, the secret-police headquarters in Moscow. Eventually the authorities admitted that her arrest and her husband's had been a mistake; she was rehabilitated, and given two months' pay and eleven-and-a-half rubles that had been in her husband's possession at the time of his death. She returned home, she wrote, to weep for her husband, her children who had grown up as orphans, her parents who had died of grief, and for all her friends "who lie beneath the frozen earth of Kolyma." The cumulative effect of so many such fates is shattering.
How could people much like us have done these things to other people much like us? Solzhenitsyn thought that boredom and anger conditioned the secret police and guards to behave so barbarically. Applebaum seems to suggest that at least some of the blame lies in Russian history, and the Russian character, which values the collectivity above the individual. But parallels with the contemporary Nazi camps are striking. German and Soviet camps had similar legalistic fictions to justify their existence, and similar organizational structures and official euphemisms. In many details, such as the use of a camp orchestra to obscure the everyday reality, or the use of such slogans as "Work makes you free," the totalitarian powers were twins. Licensing conduct which in other circumstances would be illegal or taboo, totalitarianism overwhelms the conscience.
Stalin's death allowed his successors to admit, at least among themselves, that Gulag had been a human and economic disaster. Beria, Stalin's faithful henchman, was the first to say so. Beria's motives seemed suspect to Khrushchev, who soon had him judicially murdered; but then, at the celebrated Twentieth Party Congress in 1956, Khrushchev himself disclosed some dimensions of Stalin's criminality. The extent to which Communist bosses had ever been sincere in their beliefs is questionable, but once even the partial truth was out about Gulag, ordinary Communists could no longer believe in themselves and their claims to be building utopia. What had passed as ideology was evidently systematic criminality. Paying tribute to the likes of Vladimir Bukovsky, Natan Sharansky, and Anatoly Marchenko, Applebaum gives a very succinct account of the dissident movement which sprang up out of the immediate disillusion with Communism.
Andropov, as head of the secret police, had some of Stalin's will and temperament. His ill-health and death prevented what might otherwise have been a prolongation of Stalinism. A kindlier man by nature, unwilling to sanction crime, Gorbachev was to discover that Russians were no longer prepared to put up with the system that had subjected them to Gulag. All the same, Applebaum closes her book on a troubling note. In the aftermath of Communism, there has been no reckoning. Nazis responsible for their camps were brought to trial by the thousands, and a good many sentenced and executed. Today's Russia is full of men responsible at all operational levels for Gulag, and they are living comfortably on state pensions. Failure to make any of these men account for their crimes means that there is no firm distinction in the society between right and wrong. Those who ran Gulag seem to have got away with it. Another generation, then, simply has to make what it can of the memory left by all this horror, and the utter pointlessness of it. Never mind Solzhenitsyn, or now Applebaum, the truth about Gulag has not brought justice with it.