The Gulag's history: truth and revelation

April 20, 2003|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Sun Staff

Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum. Doubleday. 592 pages. $35.

Once the Russian czar owned everything in the empire, even the people, who could, at his pleasure, be sent off to exile in Siberia or pressed into forced labor to build the city of St. Petersburg. The Soviets replaced the czar with the state, which owned everything, even the people.

Stalin, in manic pursuit of ostensible progress and industrialization, offered up millions of his citizens to that end. His slave labor system was regulated by the GULAG, an acronym that stands for Main Camp Administration, which oversaw the imprisonment of millions of people, for crimes mostly imagined.

After the Revolution, the Bolsheviks imprisoned those who might threaten them, but the camps began their real growth in 1929, as Stalin saw he could use forced labor to develop his empire. They only began to dwindle, Anne Applebaum writes, with Stalin's death in 1953, when it became apparent the labor system was unprofitable. By then, 18 million people had gone through the camps, another 6 million had spent time in exile and millions more had died, in the camps or shortly after release.

As a journalist based in Poland for the Economist in 1988, Applebaum noticed how Western tourists loved to collect Lenin pins and hammer and sickle insignia, finding Soviet symbols charming souvenirs. "To many people," she realized, "the crimes of Stalin do not inspire the same visceral reaction as do the crimes of Hitler."

If Westerners have not understood this, Russians have refused to confront it. There have been no commissions seeking the truth; no funds compensating the injured. The victims have been mostly forgotten.

Applebaum, now a columnist for The Washington Post, set out to remember those victims, to write the record of the camps, of the terrible suffering endured there, of the people whose lives were lost and damaged. She has produced the first comprehensive history of the gulag, using Soviet archives that have become available in recent years, memoirs and interviews with survivors.

She writes clearly, directly and very, very carefully, and her words carry the weight of authority, truth and revelation. For the raw human experience of the camps, read Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or Irina Ratushinskaya's Grey is the Colour of Hope. For the scope, and context, and the terrible extent of the criminality, read this history.

And to understand, emotionally, why the victims must be remembered, read the lines from the poet Anna Akhmatova that introduce this volume:

"In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent 17 months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):

" 'Can you describe this?'

"And I said: 'I can.'

"Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face ..."

Kathy Lally, deputy foreign editor of The Sun, was the newspaper's Moscow correspondent for eight years. She began to understand the gulag on Aug. 19, 1991, when, with the coup under way in Moscow, a former Gulag inmate called and asked her to hide his address books and snapshots because he expected to be among the first picked up and didn't want to incriminate his friends.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.