on 22 October 2004
One thing I will agree with other reviews on this book is that is certainly heavy going at times, but to counter this one must understand that the subject matter we are dealing with here is in itself very heavy going.
Anna Applebaum, I think, offers a reasonable balanced historical review of what was however one looks at is a tragedy of the human race. One review remarked that the statistics used in the book where way off the mark, stating the reported deaths at the hands of Stalin were far lower. Even at this lower amount I think we can all agree it was still a tragedy and to be honest genocide.
What shocked me most in the book was not the numbers though, and I would urge anyone who is going to read this to look past them and really try and delve into the human stories and aspects of the book - from all participants. Now you must be careful with any eye witness account as we all know but the stories that come out of this book are at times truly horrific.
I don't want anyone how reads this to think that the book glorifies the violence of the time, Applebaum actually deals with it quite sensitively and in truth doesn't spend a huge amount of time on it. That is what makes it horrific.
The vivid accounts of the treatment these prisons received belies believe and even having read in detail the practises I cannot begin to imagine what life must have been like during these times. Having feelings such as this after having finished reading is what makes the book as powerful as it is. No dramatics, no song and dance, just short accounts that could honestly make your toes curl.
I would hope that anyone reading this book is adult enough to make up their own mind and not to be swayed into changing their entire belief system over one book. If you don't believe areas of the book, read other books that I am sure will offer a different, and most certainly valid point. Take this for what it is and I hope from it you will learn something, just as I did.
on 6 April 2005
Anne Applebaum's 'Gulag' is a literary and historiographical vanguard. 'Gulag', at last, recognises the necessity for the acknowledgement and understanding of a political system that demanded the wholesale and tragically meaningless disownment and butchering of entire communities. Even entire races, when we consider, for example, Kruschev's hatred of, and intentions towards the Chechens; something trodden over and often overlooked in the haste with which some historians rush to appraise the figure of Stalin.
Applebaum writes at length about the needless suffering of the hundreds, thousands, and then millions, who were abused, starved, and worked to death daily, under the auspices of the Soviet camp system. Importantly, the individual punishing regimes implemented by the guards and commanders themselves are not ignored, although there is recognition that cruelty and criminality was not universal among them. Having said this, one need look no further for a vision of Hell itself, than to read the depictions of life aboard the transport ships which sailed between the Kamkatchka area and ports such as Vladivostok, built by Gulag labour.
The 'Gulag' itself has become an almost iconic term of oppression and dictatorial power in studies of twentieth century Russia, and what the reader witnesses in Applebaum's book, is the dragging of this Soviet holocaust into the light for all to see. Contrary to the opinions of the obviously misled and misread Mr Podmore, it is not socialism that is portrayed in such excruciatingly horrific detail, but a degenerative communist political system in the guise of Stalinism. Applebaum makes comparisons between the Gulag and the Nazi's system of concentration camps, but reveals such a connection to be inconclusive and limited, the intended ethos of each differing widely from the other.
Applebaum also reveals in her lucid, and painstakingly researched book, much about the rationale behind the Soviet system and its attitude towards its people at all levels, with disgraced ex-party members often occupying cells or camp barracks alongside peasant farmers and criminals, who were commonly favoured by the camp staff. The story of the Gulag is synonymous with that of Stalinism and its immediate aftermath, and it is refreshing to read a book that points equally to the facts that: a) the Gulag spread rapidly under Stalin, its workforce being the pivotal unit in the Five Year Plans, but that: b) the numbers of inmates in the camps wasn't at its highest during the purges of the thirties, but following the Second World War, in fact peaked in the early 1950s.
For a broad and felicitous understanding of twentieth century Russian history, this work is essential. It demonstrates that although corrupt regimes may rise and fall over time, they are ever in the present with regard to their effects on the human psyche. In some respects, Applebaum's book illustrates exactly where the communist dream went wrong in Russia, and where the system's scorn of its own limitations was focused most acutely. It was called the 'Gulag'. Absolutely superb!
on 22 November 2004
A powerfully engrossing and thought provoking boook in sharing the history and personal perspective (prisoner, criminal, jailor) etc of the Soviet Gulag system. Well researched and even balanced with countless notes, personal accounts. etc. A must read
on 14 February 2012
This is an incredible book written by a young woman at the perfect time for this research. It is well written. In her acknowledgements, Anne Applebaum acknowledges the timing of the opening of the archives in Moscow during Yeltsin's last term was perfect for writing this book. A monumental task. Anne was the right person in the right place at the right time to write this book. Just this fact makes it a special book.
This is not an easy book to read. Much chronicles the complete depravity of the ideology that permitted the enslavement of a perhaps at its peak in late 1930's early 1940's and in the post war peak of 1950, of nearly 3-4% of the entire soviet population. These statistics do not really give any sense pf the scale of the prison that the Soviet Union had become. A whole class of people was ready to be the warders of this prison system. This class of people was also the one that was responsible for managing the Vor v Zakonye, the 'criminal in law' that seems to have taken over much of the new Russian local and central government.
Unlike South Africa, there has been no effort in the current "Democratic Russia" to deal with the Gulag legacy. The inhumanity of children being encouraged to denounce their parents as revisionist bourgeois, the taint of being associated with an "enemy of the people".
The question one asks after having read this book is why there is no monument to the Gulag survivors, who were as de-humanised as survivors of the Nazi concentration camp system. The answer is because many who are now in power have no interest in having a light shone on their activities during this sinister dark past, and the masses want to forget, embrace the joys of consumerism, as some wag said, "the Soviet Union collapsed because the average housewife wanted to have western shoes and lingerie". Having lived in the former Soviet Union during the period Anne Applebaum wrote this masterpiece, I must say I was surprised with how prevailing the need to forget the past was. And to throw all energy into the brave new world of Russian Consumerism, regardless of its inequities, injustices and hypocritical burying of the past.
In conclusion Anne Applebaum states that the book was written because this history will happen again. Totalitarian philosophies will continue to have a profound appeal to millions of people. The destruction of an objective enemy is fundamental to dictatorship.
So this book is a memory of those individual stories which otherwise would be lost.
Compared to reading Grundrisse, Althusser, Poulantzas, Lukacs and Milliband this book is a page turning romp. A ride straight through the ripped backsides of 'Socialism in one country'.
When the woodworm creaks, out come the apologists. A mirror image of National Socialist holocaust denial-Treblinka, Auschwitz; out they squirm. Soviet Communists erase the oral history accounts of "revisionists" from memory.
The victims in reality were erstwhile "comrades". In Stalin's coup d'etat, the Old intellectual Guard followed Anarchists escorted after the Whites to labour camps.
Working in death camps transformed human beings into Soviet State machines. Enacted leadership paranoia stripped these humans of all dignity so they became cogs, worked to starvation, for greater societal benefit. The mass triumph of the weak over the intellectually stronger. Beria as the architect. Stalin as the designer. The same pscyhological trick utilised in South Africa, placing the politicals as slaves of the criminal, another degree of brutalisation. Cutting back rations, working long hours, unveiling the human animal.
Applebaum charts the inception; Tsars residences for red torture laterly becoming mass consumers of vast numbers of young men and women. The industrialisation programme enacted for free; Slaves arrested, sentenced and drafted to die in the greatest leap of proletarian progress. The ends justified the means, carrying on until the 50's. Millions dying during the backslapping years.
The dichotomy; these camps created the impetus for victory over National Socialism. Both regimes enacted similar principles, except as Applebaum highlights, National Socialism enacted an exterminating racial policy.
The Soviets wanted to leap ahead. Devastated in destroying National Socialism, Socialism in one country waned on the vine through psychological intertia. Never recovering from the 20 millions war deaths and the millions churned through the camps, it eventually succumbed to mass alcoholism.
Applebaum brings the claustrophobic terror of the Soviet to life. Believers still cling. It could never really have happened, could it?
Ever got the feeling you've been cheated?
on 11 June 2004
To the English reader who does not know the history of the camps, or who has not read the many memoirs published about them, this is a very useful survey. It gives a clear account of the origins and development of the Gulag system and uses the memoir literature to describe the organization of work and daily life within the camps, and to bring to life the suffering of the millions of people inside them. As with any general survey, there is a problem, however, with stereotyping - and this book is guilty on that score. It does not take account of the many different types of camps, not all quite the horror story presented uniformly in this book. And it tends to accept at face value the reminscences of the camp inmates, without questioning the extent to which their memoirs (written for the most part in the period after 1956) were accurate. Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago is better in this sense, because it represents these memories in a direct way, as oral history, and that is still the best account of the Gulag.
on 9 January 2007
A fascinating , very readable history of the Gulag system of labour camps in the Soviet Union. I haven't read a great deal on this subject before but this book seems to be a balanced reasonable account. It is is well notated and referenced, with a large bibliography. Anne Applebaum has used archive material available since the break up of the Soviet Union as well as previous accounts and her own interviews with camp employees and survivors. Obviously the accounts of the suffering of prisoners are very moving and the numbers involved are horrific but what struck me most was the sheer stupidity with which the system was run.
And for the record, my own politics were very left wing in my youth and are less so in my middle age.
on 21 November 2011
This is spellbinding, essential history; meticulous research, measured writing and full of unforgettable, chilling details, such as the eight year old girl in a camp boasting about how she can satisfy an entire team of tree-fellers.
It is the prolonged, casual nature of the horror which stands out; a sort of wearying, leaden evil resting comfortably on the stout shoulders of human gullibility.
It is also striking for the way Soviet evil contrasted with the empty fire and brimstone of Nazi ravings. The obvious stupidity and self-destructive violence of Nazism is absent here. The Soviet system was carefully built to last - and did last longer than Nazism. It was a grander and more efficient deceit.
And it lingers on. The Soviet system is still viewed by the chattering class dilettanti with an ambivalence it simply does not merit. Applebaum had trouble getting this masterpiece published because it states the bald, ugly truth about the Soviet system. This is all the more reason to read it of course.
It is a perfect starting point for anyone with an interest not only in history but also the tragic possibilities afforded to powermongers once you have a fully politicised population. It is more approachable than Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago (superb though that it is). As a follow-up - because this stuff is gripping, both intellectually and in a grim, horror movie way - I would recommend Mochulsky's autobiographical Gulag Boss, which in some ways is even more revealing and scary.
Anne Applebaum's deeply moving human document brushes a raw picture of an, unfortunately, often recurring human tragedy: the use of slave labor in `work' camps, here in their soviet version.
The Gulag system reflected the whole political and social climate in the USSR. The State was a big prison zone and the camps the small ones.
The system was an integral part of the soviet regime. Its role was to speed up industrialization and to excavate natural resources in barely habitable places. There were camps near gold, coal and nickel mines, near chemical, metal-processing, fish canning and electricity plants, near public works (airports, highways, water ways, apartment blocks) and that all over the country.
The gulag system was founded after the October 1917 revolution and came under the control of the secret service in 1929. Another pivotal year was 1937, the beginning of the Great Terror, when Stalin imposed quotas for indiscriminate arrests and executions beginning with the CP hierarchy. There was a partial amnesty during WW II, but the inmates were sent in the front line. After Stalin's death, the system was dismantled, but the camps continued to be used for common criminals and as `reeducation' centers for dissidents.
Who were the inmates?
There was always a mixture of common and `political' criminals.
In the beginning, the political inmates were `counter-revolutionaries', members of the non-Bolshevik revolutionary socialist parties. Afterwards, they were mostly peasants (after the collectivization), national minorities, CP and even Gulag officials (during the Great Terror), prisoners of war (during and after the war) and dissidents.
A total of about 30 million people passed through the camps, of which about 10 % died.
Except the common criminals, people were arrested for what they were, not for what they had done. Their - avowed or not - crimes were imaginary and nonsensical.
Every camp has to be profitable; of course, they weren't.
They were generally run by dump and corrupt bureaucrats, who had absolutely no respect for individual lives. The working practices were very bad.
After three weeks people were turned into wild animals, fighting a naked struggle for survival in an overcrowded world of stench, vermin, filth, promiscuity, prostitution, epidemics, hunger, revolting food, informants, self-mutilation, murders, suicides, punishment cells, tortures and deaths by exhaustion. The `normal' inmates were terrorized by common criminal bands.
After release, the psychological and social integration into the big prison zone was extremely difficult.
Russia as a country has still not digested its past: `Society is indifferent to the crimes of the past, because so many people participated in them.' `Former communists have a clear interest in concealing the past.'
Anne Applebaum illustrates all aspects of Gulag life and its dehumanization process with moving tragic individual fates.
This book is a must read for all those interested in the history of mankind. `The more we are able to understand the specific circumstances which led to mass torture and mass murder, the better we will understand the darker side of our own human nature.'
What an epic! But so heavy (subject- and object-wise) and morbid. This book pulls you down after a while. For all those little human kindnesses that its protagonists encounter during their slavery are just tiny drops in an ocean of pointless suffering. This book paints a very bleak picture of human nature. After a while you get desensitized to all those numbers and statistics. Which is probably how it all started in the first place -- both people shuffling paper being removed from the reality those documents represent and others removed from the wider picture, just doing what they're told. Surely it's no coincidence that underneath the dustjacket this book's cover and endpapers are completely crimson? The colour of blood.
I didn't have any problems with anything the author wrote, any numbers or statistics she cited. As far as I could see they were all accompanied by the necessary caveats. In any case, it surely goes without saying that (1) the author's opinions are her opinions and she needn't state that obvious fact before every opinion, (2) the writings of the slave labourers are likely to be biased to some extent and show the author in a favourable light, and (3) the NKVD's documents are likely to be biased. But just in case the reader can't draw those conclusions for himself, Applebaum does it anyway. The only thing I would have liked a little more of is maps. I don't know who draws them, but I like the ones that appear in Beevor's "Stalingrad" and a few other history books.