Book Review: Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum


Reviewed by Bruce Rhodes


December 26, 2003


Illuminating one of modern history's darkest chapters


Anne Applebaum has done a magnificent job of shedding light on the 20th century Soviet penal system as embraced by the vast network of Gulag camps. Thoroughly researched, this account draws fascinating and important distinctions between prisons and camps, as well as between the various types of individuals contained therein (e.g. 'politicals' versus 'criminals'), the roles each group played, and the treatment each received. The plight of female prisoners, including those pregnant and already with children, represents one of the more heart-rending threads in the book.

The Gulag camps and their administration were a bewildering mixture of rules and 'norms' issued by Joseph Stalin and his sycophants back in Moscow on the one hand, and arbitrary decisions made by local camp authorities on the other. The whim of a guard often meant the difference between life and death for a camp inmate.

It is difficult to grasp just how much suffering was endured by so many, but Ms. Applebaum, through her numerous anecdotes obtained from persons who survived the camps, gives the reader a very good sense of what it must have been like. Even the prison guards often had insufficient food, and nowhere decent to sleep. There were even bizarre situations in Gulag camps where prisoners were promoted as guards, and guards demoted to be prisoners.

One of the most chilling messages of the book is that, for thousands of Gulag victims, it was preferable to injure or mutilate oneself (e.g. by swallowing barbed wire or glass, or by tearing off and eating one's own flesh) and thereby be unable to work, than it was to suffer the harsh conditions of mining, heavy manufacturing and logging, for which the remote northern camps were notorious. Certain huge construction projects, such as railroads and highways that led to nowhere, and an aborted tunnel (!) to Sakhalin Island near Japan, ended up as mass graves for thousands of helpless souls.

Here are two brief illustrations of just how cruel and destructive the Gulag world was: 1. Camp authorities often released prisoners near death, so as to keep the camp's death count within thresholds that would allow camp authorities to keep their jobs; 2. a husband and wife finally met up in freedom, after over ten years of having lived apart in separate camps. The husband, upon seeing that his wife was in relatively good physical shape, readily concluded that she had slept with her captors in exchange for more food and|or lighter work duties. With this, he decided to have nothing more to do with his wife. Meanwhile, had the wife not done what she did, she could have easily perished; for her, her actions were a matter of survival.

I highly recommend this book. Anyone interested in learning more about the paranoid machinations of Stalin will want to read both Gulag and The Fall of Berlin, by Antony Beevor.