A searing, engrossing history of the most extensive, longest-lived experiment in “rationalized evil” the world has ever known.
From 1929 to 1953—the years in which Josef Stalin ruled the Soviet Union—at least 18 million people passed through the massive penal and slave-labor system known as the Gulag. Though that system had antecedents in tsarist Russian, former Economist correspondent Applebaum writes, it took Stalin to shape the Gulag into an enormous machine; Stalin believed, she asserts, that “the Gulag was critical to Soviet economic growth,” offering an endless source of free labor to the state. Stalin’s successors, however, saw it as “a source of backwardness and distorted investment,” and within days of Stalin’s death began to dismantle the most infamous camps—though not before untold millions had died within them. Applebaum (Between East and West, 1994) charts the inception and development of the Gulag, showing how it served to channel the millions of deportees during the famines of the 1920s and ’30s, the victims of political purges before WWII, and whole nations—including the Chechens and Tartars—during the war against Germany. Drawing on accounts by survivors, she also documents daily life inside the Gulag, a Dante-esque existence of individual rituals in the face of death: “Never on any account take more than a half-hour to consume your ration,” one such account warns. “Every bite of bread should be chewed thoroughly. . . . Eat it all at one sitting; if, on the other hand, you gobble it down too quickly, as famished people often do in normal circumstances, you will also shorten your days.” Throughout, Applebaum’s account runs a large question: Why did the West do nothing about the Gulag, even though its existence and the reality of other Soviet crimes against humanity were well known? Perhaps because we can’t admit that we allied ourselves with one mass murderer to battle another. But, she adds in closing, we had better not deny such crimes the next time they occur—as they certainly will.
Extraordinary in its range and lucidity: a most welcome companion to Bernard-Henri Levi’s Barbarism With a Human Face, Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, and, of course, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.