Remembering and forgetting the Gulag

Stephen Fortescue, University of New South Wales

Anne Applebaum Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps, Penguin, 2003 (624 pp). ISBN 0-71399-322-7 (hard cover) RRP $59.95.

In the early stages of my PhD research at the ANU in the 1970s I began reading the Gulag memoirs that had recently started to appear. Two made a particularly strong impression—Evgenia Ginzburg’s Into the Whirlwind (published in English in 1967) and Anatolii Marchenko’s My Testimony (1969)—and both attract attention in the volume under review. They made such an impression on me that I suddenly felt I didn’t want to go to a place with such a shocking history. This was a serious and strange decision. I was already well informed on the murkier aspects of Soviet history. I was fascinated by the place despite my longstanding and thoroughly jaundiced view of the country’s politics. I had just started a programme of study that included as a matter of course a trip to Moscow on the Moscow State University-ANU exchange. Fortunately when I told my supervisor of my decision he told me quite peremptorily not to be stupid and to go and put in my application for the exchange.

Gulag memoirs can have a powerful effect on the reader, and are not for the squeamish. Nevertheless, although the Gulag has never been my specific field of research, I have read a lot of Gulag literature since then—so much that the effect seems sometimes to have worn off. I have to admit that as I read this very large book I found myself thinking ‘I know all this. Why do we have to go through it all yet again?’ A shameful thought, since no one whose moral and emotional sensibilities are not completely dead could ever find the events described tedious. Indeed, for the reasons Applebaum gives in her Epilogue, they need to be repeated over and over again so that they are never forgotten. I am glad to report that I was moved by the force of the story—not quite as deeply as thirty years ago, but enough at times to take my breath away.

The fact that I could say to myself ‘I know all this’ tells us something about both the events described and the book. About the events: many hundreds of Gulag victims give remarkably consistent accounts in the memoir literature on which Applebaum relies. Presumably this reassures professional historians, who like to see strong corroboration of eyewitness accounts. About the book: it does not contribute to the academic discourse on Soviet repression—Applebaum has written explicitly for the general reader. The book does not, however, just repackage the memoir literature for the general reader, as important a source as that is for the author. Applebaum also makes good use of a smallish number of interviews, most tellingly and most chillingly with former NKVD officials, who not only are unrepentant but who seem unable to conceive that there could be anything they might need to repent of. She has also researched the archives, coming up mainly with reports by NKVD inspectors on conditions in the camps. Those reports we will return to in a moment.

The book does not enter into academic controversies about the history of Soviet repression.

The book does not enter into any academic controversies about the history of Soviet repression, of which there is no shortage. This is not just because Applebaum has written for a general audience. It is also because the book is specifically about the Gulag system, that is, forced labour camps, and so it doesn’t deal directly with the Terror and the executions that went with it. This means that Applebaum doesn’t engage in the vigorous debates over the number and origins of those executed or the broader debate over totalitarianism informed by the ‘death toll’ question. (The word ‘totalitarianism’ is not in the index, and the name ‘Wheatcroft’—the University of Melbourne researcher who is a major participant in the ‘death toll’ debate—does not appear in the bibliography. There is a brief, dispassionate, and rather inconclusive appendix on the numbers who passed through the Gulag.)

Applebaum comes closest to pursuing an ‘academic’ argument, in the sense of trying to answer an historical question, when she considers the fundamental question of what the Gulag was all about. She doesn’t pursue the matter with great persistence; she doesn’t even mention it in the Epilogue that serves as a conclusion. But it is clear that Applebaum believes the Gulag existed primarily to provide labour for national development tasks that would not have been readily or cheaply undertaken by free workers. The punitive element was always there and at times was very strong, but she judges that the Gulag was a network of essentially and precisely labour camps. Ironically, given Applebaum’s obvious ‘hardline’ view of the Soviet Union, this is something of a revisionist position. The Gulag was not a totalitarian killing field; it was an economic institution. Her revisionist tendency is particularly evident when she makes use of the NKVD inspectors’ reports I referred to above. These reports invariably expressed horror at the poor conditions under which prisoners worked and lived. Of course the horror was not motivated by humane concern for the welfare of innocent victims, but rather by worry that the prisoners were in such poor condition that they were unable to work effectively. In this reading the poor conditions and the shocking mortality rates that derived from them were a result of typical Russian disorganisation, slovenliness, and indifference, a genuine lack of resources, and tough times outside. (Applebaum usefully reminds us now and then that life ‘in freedom’ was pretty grim. She mentions the peasant women arrested in the 1930s marvelling at the few grams of mouldy bread they had received in the camp and wondering how they could get it to their children outside. A Georgian dissident considered that he was lucky to have been in a labour camp in the 1980s, rather than a conscript in the Soviet army.) Generally speaking top policy makers were not intentionally malign—indeed they wanted prisoners to be, if not comfortable, at least fit enough to work.

Applebaum wants the story of the Gulag to speak for itself.

This revisionist view—that the Gulag was not about killing large numbers of people in order to terrorise the rest—sits oddly, at least for those who are familiar with the line up of forces in the academic debates, with Applebaum’s clear ‘Cold War warrior’ orientation. In the Introduction she criticises strongly leftist attitudes towards Stalinist repression, including a reprehensible moral relativism when it comes to Stalin and Hitler; in the Epilogue she suggests that one of the reasons we in the West need to know about the Gulag is that it tells us why we were right to wage the Cold War. Along those lines, one might have expected Applebaum to at least claim that ‘death camps’ and ‘labour camps’ were compatible, as long as arrest rates were maintained at high enough levels. In fact she goes no further than to hint strongly that some people might have been arrested purely because of their particular skills, which were needed within the Gulag system.

Applebaum’s ‘Cold War warrior’ orientation is clear enough but she confines such views in an understated way to the two ends of the book. In the great bulk in between they are as much in the background as academic argument. One feels that the author wants the story to speak for itself. That it most definitely does, with difficult and sad moral issues raising themselves in the process. Without discounting the hunger, cold, violence, and death, it was the little things that moved me the most, especially the painful contact with the outside world—the pain of visits (the little girl who, when her mother tells her to go to her father, hugs the guard) and the awkwardness of release and re-entering the lives of long separated loved ones and of those who had denounced you. Applebaum deals gently with the problem that must have occurred to anyone who has read a lot of camp literature: the people whose memoirs we read almost invariably survived by somehow finding themselves a job that got them out of the forests and the mines, that is, they were ‘trusties’ who to a greater or lesser degree survived at the cost of the lives of less fortunate prisoners, often literally by stealing their food. She describes with bewilderment the apparent determination of the non-prisoner population to treat the prisoners as if they were really guilty of the crimes they were accused of committing. In the Epilogue she puzzles over the lack of interest or unwillingness of Russians today to dwell on that part of their history. But in the end the most overwhelming ‘moral’ impression is the sheer callous senselessness of dragging millions of people away from their homes and families to live and work in appalling conditions for years on end for such bizarrely inadequate economic reasons.

The book sets us thinking and feeling about things we must never stop thinking and feeling about.

I believe strongly that the academic debates about Soviet repression, as arid and bad-tempered as they might sometimes seem from the outside, are essential to our understanding not just of Soviet history but of the human condition. Therefore I think Applebaum could usefully have included these debates in the book. Nevertheless, the book as it stands, eschewing those debates and relying primarily on description, makes a major contribution. For the uninformed general reader without the Russian language, it is an excellently written and comprehensive account of the Gulag—as long as it is remembered that there is more, much more, to Soviet repression than the Gulag. For the more informed reader there is not a great deal that is new, but the book sets us thinking—and feeling—again about things that we must never stop thinking and feeling about.

I know people in Russia who were sent into exile as children and saw their brothers and sisters die of hunger, disease, and exposure on the way, their bodies being dumped on the sides of roads or slid off barges into the river; who experienced both Nazi and Soviet camps; who gave birth or were born in prisons; and who simply spent a decade or more cutting timber beyond the Arctic Circle for no good reason at all. They talk about such things with a reticence that seems part of the unwillingness of Russians to face up to the past that frustrates Applebaum in her Epilogue. It sometimes seems to me that it comes simply from their feeling that what happened to them was so ordinary, so much just a part of life, that it doesn’t deserve to be talked about as something special. But surely it’s more than that. I don’t think it’s leftover fear, a life-long habit of never saying anything that doesn’t need to be said. I worry that it’s because they know from bitter experience that we will never understand and even give the impression that we don’t want to understand. This book won’t bridge the gap completely, but it should go some of the way.

I’ll finish with a camp story that comes neither from personal acquaintance nor from Applebaum’s book. It’s a story that was presented as a news item on Russian TV in late 1998. The newsreader said that it was the only occasion in her experience that a news item had been repeated due to overwhelming demand. In 1943 a Soviet war film was released in which the hero sang a song that became so popular that it was decided to release it as a record. The young woman in the record factory responsible for making the pressing was particularly moved by the song, because the actor who sang it reminded her so much of her husband who had been missing in action since early in the war. She was so moved that as she made the pressing a tear dropped onto the surface of the record and spoiled the first pressing. She received a ten-year sentence for ‘economic sabotage’. In 1946 she watched a column of POWs enter the male camp next door to hers. (It did not have to be explained to a Russian audience that these POWs were Soviet soldiers being transferred directly from German to Soviet camps.) She recognised one of them as her husband. They established contact and in 1953, when her sentence ended, she remained in the camp as a free worker. They left ‘to freedom’ together in 1956, when his ten-year term ended. Such stories, of which there are many in Applebaum’s book, in the end don’t need much commentary.

Stephen Fortescue is Associate Professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of New South Wales.