Gulag by Anne Applebaum

20 September 2007

This particular book won the Pulitzer Prize a few years back, which in itself isn’t always enough to make me stop and stare at a book but when combined with the subject matter was enough to make me break my No New Books rule when I happened upon it in the bookstore. And I have to say I’m thankful I did break the rule — Gulag both fascinating and horrifying at the same time, and could not be written more clearly and concisely (the latter being two significant criteria in my assessment of any history book, prize-winning or not).

Gulag by Anne Applebaum

The word gulag is one of those Soviet acronyms that became a word of its own, like Cheka (the predecessor of the NKVD/KGB) or SMERSH (Soviet counter-intelligence during WWII). ‘Gulag’ comes from Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, or ‘Main Camp Administration’ — its original meaning only encompassed the actual organ of government that adminstered the camps as a part of the Soviet state. Over time, Applebaum explains, gulag became the general slang term for any prison or labour camp that was part of the system of Soviet corrective labour colonies, including the camps meant for women and children. As the word came into more common use over the years, gulag finally became the term used to refer to the entire Soviet prison system, particularly the aspects of the system which dealt with the sentencing of political prisoners.

In her book, Applebaum traces the origins of the camp system back to the prisons used by the Okhrana, the czar’s secret police, through the early Bolshevik years, into the waves of terror and purges that characterised Stalin’s time, and all the way up to the collapse of the USSR and the end of the gulag as it was known in Soviet times. Along the way, she draws on a huge body of primary and secondary sources, mainly memoirs of those who had survived their time in the camps, as well as interviews with camp survivors, several camp administrators, and those who had lost family to the camps. She explores every aspect of camp life, from the feeding and housing of prisoners and the system of prisoner ‘informers’ to the actual socioeconomic impact that prison camps had on regions of the USSR. The result is a book that reads like a relaxed and friendly history lecture, almost like a story in some ways, and yet manages to convey a very real sense of the terror and suffering inflicted on well over two million individuals by the Soviet Union’s system of ‘justice’.

To go into more detail would be beyond the scope of what’s intended to be a basic review, but two things stand out in my mind. Applebaum never fails to point out how cautious one has to be in dealing with any numerical figures from the Soviet Union. She cites her sources well, but in doing so she deliberately highlights the discrepancies and the problems involved in trying to compare official figures and other amateur estimates. In a way, this careful citation actually keeps the book from being bogged down in nonsensical numbers. (A minor quibble on this point — I did wish at times that she’d give some equivalents for certain numbers. What’s the approximate size of 500 grams of bread, for example? If I want to have some idea of what 500 grams of bread meant to a prisoner in a camp, a visual equivalent would have helped me imagine it in terms of what fits into my hands.) And in addition, Applebaum stresses the importance of learning about the gulag not because of some vague notions that we are doomed to repeat the history we don’t learn about, but rather because without some knowledge of the gulag and the entire system of Soviet-era justice, we have no way of properly understanding the reasons why the gulag and the memory of the gulag still affects Russian and Eastern European society today.


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