Gulag – A History

Gulag – A History by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday Books, 2003)

When I read about an Iraqi longing for the return of Saddam Hussein, because of his “leadership”, and the “order” he ensured, I am reminded of those Russian citizens who can still be relied upon to demonstrate with placards calling for the good old days of Stalin. The poignancy lies in the fact that those citizens whose deaths are attributable to the two tyrants – an estimate of four hundred thousand by Saddam, maybe twenty million by Stalin – have no voice concerning the relative virtue or viciousness of their murderer’s regime, and are so easily forgotten. Anne Applebaum’s searing account of the institutionalized brutality that constituted the Soviet Union’s prison-camp system (the Gulag) represents a solemn tribute to the millions who died in it.

Readers familiar with the memoirs and literature of the Gulag (e.g. Solzhenitsyn, Marchenko, Dolgun, Ginzburg, Mandelstam) will remember their anecdotes of suffering and cruelty. Applebaum (who is a columnist for the Washington Post) seems to have read all such writings, has delved deeply into the official archives (although post-Stalinist records still remain largely closed), and has interviewed dozens of survivors. Hers is an extraordinarily incisive, yet careful, account of how a modern state repressed and tormented its own people. She traces the beginnings of the concentration camp system as a means of eliminating “class enemies”, its evolution into a mechanism for arbitrary terror, and Stalin’s attempts to set it up as a profitable slave-system to exploit the Soviet Union’s mineral resources. The bureaucracy required to administer it, the wretched physical condition of its inmates, and the lunacy of some of the engineering projects, meant that this goal never was achieved. Beria, Stalin’s successor, was executed for trying to liberalize too quickly, and it was not until Gorbachev’s amnesty of 1986 that the system was dismantled.


Many of the episodes and facts she recounts are shocking. In 1933, over 6,000 peasants were dumped on a barren island; three months later the 2,000 survivors, who had resorted to eating their fellow-convicts, were arrested  – for cannibalism.  Prisoners caught stealing others’ bread would be smashed to death by their colleagues. One convict was so hungry that he bit crazily into a food-package of garlic, cigarettes, chocolate etc. that had congealed in the three years it had taken to get to him. Prisoners mutilated themselves by cutting out their own flesh, or swallowing knives and glass, as an act of defiance. Two escaping prisoners tried to stay awake, as they knew the first to do so would be killed by the other for food: sure enough, the first to succumb had his throat slit. After a night of interrogation, a ten-year old broke down, admitting to a three-year membership of a fascist organization. Stalin killed more members of the German Communist Party politburo than Hitler did, and his henchmen tracked down cousins of Hitler’s (who had not seen him since 1906) so that they could die in the Gulag.

Applebaum points out that public awareness of the monstrosities of the Gulag is slim. She observes that each of the last century’s mass tragedies (the Gulag, the Holocaust, Pol Pot’s Cambodian massacres, for instance) was unique, but a vague liberal sympathy for the egalitarian goals of communism (“you can’t make omelets without breaking eggs”), abetted by the current reticence of Russia to open up about the crimes, means that the Gulag has not had the attention it deserves. However, there is commonality in all these mass murders. Those poor broken eggs, sacrificed for nothing in their millions, can be broken down into just that number of individual horrible and lonely deaths. I am reminded of the stark and bone-chilling conclusion of Emanuel Litvinoff’s brilliant Faces of Terror trilogy, where the hero, Peter Piatkov, meets his end in the cellars of the Lubianka prison, minutes after his death sentence is pronounced:

Cold metal against the nape of his neck.  His moment.

“Who am  – ?….

Such moments are still repeated around the world. Read this absorbing study of living history before you read Living History.

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