Book Review: Gulag

My copy of Gulag, and I should note, another of my most recent book purchases I’ve actually read, in keeping with my 2022 success on that front!

Western sensibility and imagination has not fully reckoned, if at much at all, with the crimes of the Soviet Union, of Joseph Stalin and of communism, and on that front, Anne Applebaum’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Gulag — which was written nearly 20 years ago in 2003 — still remains as relevant and vital as ever.

I’m one of those Westerners, whose sensibility and imagination has not quite oriented itself toward the crimes of the Gulag system between the 1920s and the 1980s up until the collapse of the Soviet Union three months after my first birthday in 1991. Certainly, that orientation has not oriented in such a way as it has for the Holocaust and the crimes of Nazi Germany during WWII. Applebaum’s introduction gets into why it’s not necessarily appropriate to compare the two, albeit the comparison seems apt at first, but it’s more important to simply reckon with the “thing” rather than avert our gazes. In other words, I don’t take Applebaum to be making a, “Stop paying attention to that (the Holocaust), and pay attention to this (the Gulag).” But rather, to pay attention both.

Generally speaking, I’ve been cognizant of the fact that Stalin was a brutal dictator, whose collectivist policies and his broader totalitarian regime (including the Gulag) was responsible for millions of deaths — and I’d long seen figures suggesting it was millions more than the Holocaust, particularly because of the deaths attributed to the collectivization-induced famines — but beyond that general understanding, I did not know specifics.

Enter Applebaum’s book, which relies heavily on noted memoirists, whose experiences are manifest of the treatment they suffered while imprisoned in the Gulag, so that Gulag becomes a book largely told through the eyes of those who somehow survived and lived it.

Applebaum’s theses, as I interpreted her book, are as follows:

  • The Soviet Union’s crimes, but particularly that of the Gulag, has received scant attention, despite the unprecedented openness and transparency in government, known as glasnot, spearheaded by then-leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the proliferation of the aforementioned scores of memoirs that were published inside and outside of Russia, and that her hope is Gulag will be a formidable harbinger for reckoning with that history. But also, for Russians themselves, who in her own visits to the country, largely seem ambivalent and even at times, hostile, to confronting their history and complicity in the crimes perpetrated. So, Applebaum’s book is a clarion call to Westerns and Russians alike that the crimes of the past matter.
  • To that point, the other thesis that Applebaum offers is that it is important to remember the past, not merely because of the cliché of “never forgetting,” but to gird ourselves against present-day and future potential totalitarianisms. Because to Applebaum, it’s not a matter of if totalitarianism will happen again: it will. Millions of people in the past and millions more in the future will be caught up in the fervor, and we need to understand why that is, she passionately argues (to paraphrase). Applebaum also argues that to learn about the past doesn’t merely serve as a guidepost for the future, but also as a mirror to better understand ourselves, too. After all, it would be easy, a sort of coping mechanism, to think monsters perpetrated the Holocaust and monsters erected the Gulag’s concentration camps, but they were humans like us.
How right you are Dostoevsky. I loved these quotes, poems and such that Applebaum used to introduce chapters. I took pictures of many of them.

To start backward with Applebaum’s book, something I didn’t appreciate until I got to the end was that Applebaum isn’t focused on statistics. Because of course, everyone wants to know the numbers: How many people passed through the Gulag and how many were killed? I wanted that answer when I read the introduction! I was disappointed when I didn’t get it. But again, now I see why.

She does try to arrive at some answers: an estimated 28.7 million prisoners passed through the Gulag between its beginnings in the 1920s until its demise in the 1980s; and at least 2.7 million died during the Stalinist era from 1929 to 1953. Overall, she points to some other figures that suggests the figure of dead could be as high as 20 million to 10 to 12 million on the “low-end.” (Applebaum also rightly points out that the deaths don’t take into account that children, wives, husbands, etc. who were left behind because their relative was taken to a camp (or who were killed) who would then later die themselves, or end up in orphanages.)

And that’s just attributable to the camps. That doesn’t take into account the dead from the government-enforced collectivization policy that resulted in famine and resulting widespread death: six to seven million “free” Soviet citizens. The numbers cited also don’t reckon with those who died on the way to camp, were excited in remote forests, or were sent to exile.

But the reason I came to appreciate Applebaum not focusing on the statistics is because again, the book is about the experiences of those who lived it through their own words using their own memoirs. Still, it’s obviously important to try to wrap our brains around the sheer amount of death and carnage.

In other words, the ripple effect of the Gulag, both directly felt and indirectly, is perhaps too vast to calculate with any semblance of an accurate, and satisfying, round number.

I think what most resonates with me from a macro lens in reading Applebaum’s book is that a single individual, most prominently Stalin — throughout the book, Applebaum references Stalin’s 1953 death as a sort of, “Ahhh, we can breathe now,” moment for all of the USSR, including members of the Politburo, the communist government and party — can have such a profound hold upon a country and its people, whichever form that takes. Whether it’s the people who believed in Stalin as this demigod leader, infallible and beyond reproach; it becomes cult-like. Or it’s the people who are scared, but will inform upon, collaborate with and stay quiet about and avert their eyes as to what Stalin was doing. Or it’s obviously the people who unfortunately would come under the boot of Stalin and his governmental apparatus.

What’s most amazing about it is that Stalin’s paranoia and mania led him to casting such wide nets and aspersions, he’d often arrest and execute people within his own government in short order and yet, still maintained the hold upon people to ensure their loyalty to him, a man without loyalty to them.

You really get a sense in reading Applebaum’s book, which is obviously about the Gulag, but is also about the climate of the USSR throughout the 20th century, of just how oppressive, repressive and claustrophobic it seemed to live in the communist state. Never mind the added struggle for food and material enrichment. The way those in the camps, for example, would marvel at, and be incredulous to, the Americans or other Westerners in the camps who talked about the West, is an example of just how much Stalin’s hold upon them blinded them to what was possible outside of his heel. To just how effective the governmental propaganda seemed to be.

The most profound and moving drawing in the entire book, among many such profound and moving (and disturbing) ones. Zek was the name for a prisoner in the forced-labor camps of the Gulag.

At a micro level, Applebaum’s book is one of the most important books I likely will ever read in my lifetime, and the stories of the prisoners and the camps more broadly will never leave my brain. In particular, I’m getting goosebumps right now even thinking about the depictions of the dokhodyagi, or the people in the camps quite literally starving to death. They were suffering from diseases of starvation, such as scurvy, pellagra and various forms of diarrhea.

It is hard for those of us who have never had to think about where our next meal is coming from to understand what being that hungry and that desperate for food does to the human brain. It’s a form of madness and the way it manifest in the Gulag camps is the stuff of horror nearly beyond description.

But what’s incredible is how low a human being can go and still survive. Again, I’m getting goosebumps because there were actually survivors of this: those who were considered dokhodyagi, but were able to return to health and tell their stories. One, Yakov Éfrussi, explained it like this:

“Constant hunger destroys the human psyche. It is impossible to stop thinking about food, you think about food all the time.”

Then, there are the prisoners who tried to kill themselves, or at least, mutilated themselves so as to not have to be forced to work anymore, or to go into the hospitals at the camps. The descriptions of things they did to themselves, such as eating glass, sewing their eyes shut, stapling their groins to a work bench — when you strip a human being of all dignity, the only recourse left is further suffering.

And yet. Humans are incredible for their ability to persist and persevere in the most abject and awful circumstances. That prisoners still tried to engage in the arts, like dancing, theater, music and poetry (poetry features a great deal in this book and I love it; I’m particularly fond of how agitated the USSR was with poets), is a testament to this.

No matter how barbaric a government is to its people, you can’t put prison bars upon the mind, to loosely paraphrase Virginia Woolf. Which again, astounds me because these people were not just being forced to work ungodly hours (30-hour shifts, 300 hours a month, as an example) to produce ungodly quota goals under horrible conditions, with meager food rations and in very violent circumstances with the guards and actual criminals, but also amid unbelievable weather conditions. The descriptions Applebaum offers of places like Kolyma, the most remote region in northeastern Siberia near the Arctic Circle, where temperatures would reach 60 degrees below 0, and still, they at times would be forced to work anyway, made me shiver in my soul.

And yet.

It also wasn’t just art that still somehow flourished in the camps, but active resistance. Imagine how brave and courageous you have to be to stage protests in the Gulag and for a form of your protest to be a hunger strike. Again, I can barely put words to how much I admire such courage, even if some of them would come to regret their futile attempts to resist, I still find it resonant that they tried, all the same.

Additionally, beyond the arts and resistance, the ingenuity of people in dire circumstances is wondrous, such as using a form of Morse code via tapping, to sneak letters, to sneak vodka, because of course, or to get messages outside of the Gulag entirely, or to fasten makeshift shoes out of old tires, is nothing short of remarkable. The worst of humanity seems to have that corresponding aspect of bringing out the best, most ingenious aspects of humanity. When pushed up against a wall, humans will find a way.

The chaos, the ineptness, the maddening level of micromanaging layers of bureaucracy (when it came to rationing food, for example to six different categories of prisoners, and I’m hardly exaggerating that figure), the ignorance about how slave labor is not actually economically prudent, etc., etc,. offers a nice, if ugly, window into how awful state central planning is, and was then.

Stalin and the USSR had no idea what they were doing in terms of “running” a country, but in so fumbling, they killed millions of people through direct evilness (calling enemies of the state “enemies of the people” in a true populist twist, which is unfortunately a disgusting phrase we still hear today by a former United States president) and indirect ineptness.

Finally, I have no good place to slot this in, but it’s rather frustrating, as an American, to know how obsequious the United States government was to Stalin and the USSR when they became the enemy of our enemy, Nazi Germany. There’s no better representation of that than then-Vice President Henry Wallace (under President Franklin D. Roosevelt) visiting the USSR in 1944 and being taken in by their Gulag propaganda and repeating said propaganda! Disgusting, abhorrent and I say without reservation, screw him (which is the most polite way I can say that for the blog).

To get back on a more positive note, enjoy this exchange between poet Joseph Brodsky and a judge; Brodsky did not care one iota about the stupid State’s accosting of him:

Among the more astonishing two facts of the Gulag system is that a.) It lasted so long, that Gorbachev’s own family were victims of it and that perhaps influenced his own view of wanting to reckon, in part, with history; and b.) that despite the blood spilled in its path for more than 60 years, when the Gulag did finally close, it was met with a mere shrug from the West and Russians alike, as Applebaum notes. That seems to be a metaphor for how these things go, I guess. That one can generate much “fanfare” for a cause, but once the cause is completed, what’s there to celebrate, really?

Overall, this was not an easy read. It was not an easy read because the horrors depicted are hard to read. To know that our fellow humans did that and in recent memory, too! As Applebaum details, there was a brief period there before Gorbachev came into office that prisoners were still being treated poorly (like Brodsky, arrested for being a dang poet!) and heck, even treated poorly thereafter when she visited prisons in the late 1990s.

But admittedly, it’s also a hard read because, as with the book I read in January, Eight Days in May: The Final Collapse of the Third Reich, it’s difficult for me to read books about foreign countries, foreign cities and with foreign names. I can’t pronounce ’em! Sorry, so that makes it a more laborious read.

Even so, obviously, the book, the material, the history, the clarion warning for our present and future societies from Applebaum, makes it worth it. As I mentioned, I think this is one of the most important books I’ve ever read for giving me a better understanding and a fuller picture of the crimes of communism and the Gulag system. If you also don’t know much, if anything, about the Gulag, then I highly recommend Applebaum’s book on it.

You won’t forget it.

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