One of the most telling features about our memory of the recent past has been the almost total lack of attention to the victims of Communism. In fact, a group created to erect a memorial to those victims on the mall in Washington has been fighting a steep uphill battle. It is not surprising that our intellectuals and other elites who had a soft spot for the murderous system are not much interested in shining alight on its dark secrets.
One of them, a MacArthur “genius award” winner, opined a few years ago that of course we judge Communist atrocities and right-wing atrocities differently, because the Communists were trying to do the right thing. And so a set of beliefs that led to the deaths of roughly 100 million people all over the world gets the historical equivalent of a get-out-of-jail-free card from the Western intelligentsia.
More specifically, there has been very little curiosity about the Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei (Gulag), or Main Camp Administration, which was such a distinctive feature of the Soviet Union for virtually all of its existence. Some commentators have attributed this relative neglect to the fact that there have not been great writers to emerge from the Gulag the way there were literary geniuses who survived the Nazi death camps. But this seems to get things backwards.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn was certainly a gifted writer, and his Gulag Archipelago changed opinion in Europe and here in America. In an earlier generation, even a memoir such as the Jesuit Walter Ciszek’s With God in Russia told a gripping story. The problem is not that there were too few survivors capable of telling a tale, but that the interest in these stories was limited, in part because they supported anti-Communist hardliners during the Cold War.
Jean Paul Sartre once remarked to Albert Camus: “Like you, I find these camps intolerable, but I find equally intolerable the use made of them every day in the bourgeois press.” How much of the deluded self-righteousness of many Western intellectuals is contained in that “equally,” as if an exaggerated anti-Communism (allowing that Sartre, as is not at all clear, had it right) was the equivalent of millions murdered.
But even since the end of the Cold War, some significant and very touching human stories have been overlooked. In 1997, for example, Lev Razgon’s True Stories was translated into English to almost no notice in America—a great loss since it contains some remarkable pages. When Razgon was allowed to look at his own security file and those of his wife and family in 1990, he found himself sitting numb, until he finally stirred himself to go out into Lubyanka Square. Then he writes:
It’s only 5 P.M., but it is already dark and a fine, quiet rain falls uninterruptedly. The building remains beside me and I stand on the pavement outside, wondering what to do next. How terrible that I do not believe in God and cannot go into some quiet little church, stand in the warmth of the candles, gaze into the eyes of Christ on the Cross and say and do those things that make life easier for the believer…. I can remember and recall them, each one. And if I remained alive, then it is my duty to do so.
In passages like these, the whole sad spiritual life of a people in the 20th century comes to the surface.
This story, along with many others, has now received fitting treatment in Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History (Doubleday). Applebaum is a Washington Post columnist and is married to Radek Sikorski, a Polish journalist, politician, and Solidarity supporter; she brings a scholar’s precision, a journalist’s liveliness, and a sympathizer’s passion to the telling of this history. Though not a Gulag survivor herself, Applebaum conveys a great deal of the human dimension of a gruesome epoch.
Applebaum makes it clear that the prison camps took their origins from the very beginning of the Soviet regime and were a crucial part of economic exploitation and political oppression of the Russian peoples. By the 1950s—the peak years—camp labor was one of the most productive and critical sectors of the Soviet economy: “They produced a third of the country’s gold, much of its coal and timber, and a great deal of everything else.”
And no wonder. Eighteen million people were sent to nearly 500 different complexes from 1929 to 1953. Six million more endured internal “exile,” another means of extracting forced labor. Even after Stalin died, the camps remained useful for controlling a variety of dissidents in the 1970s and 1980s. The reach of the oppression was wide: Mikhail Gorbachev, who eventually put an end to the forced labor system, had had grandparents in the Gulag himself.
Furthermore, these labor camps also resulted in many deaths—not even including measures such as the forced famine in Ukraine, which, by common estimation, killed more Ukrainians than Hitler killed Jews. And yet, Applebaum says, young people—Americans as well as Europeans—have had no qualms about buying and wearing old Soviet symbols while traveling in Europe, as if they were campy references to something so out of fashion that it has become, by a reverse action, fashionable. But the very same people who have no problem sporting the hammer and sickle would never dream about wearing Nazi swastikas. The casual difference, she believes, is indicative of something deeply awry: “While the symbol of one mass murder fills us with horror, the symbol of another mass murder makes us laugh.”
Anyone who wants a comprehensive and balanced view of the Gulag— no need to exaggerate or minimize its horrors—will be gratified reading this well-crafted and beautifully written account. Applebaum draws on recent Russian historians who are trying to give a fuller picture of the Soviet regime. But she has also been able to consult the many memoirs that have now appeared in “Russia, America, Israel, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere.” Not all of those eyewitness memories are entirely reliable, however precious they may be as human testimony. So she has supplemented them with primary archival material when possible.
Thus Applebaum is able not only to situate the Gulag’s horrors accurately within the overall history of the Soviet Union but to keep the personal factor close to the surface of her narrative: “I was able to use the language of many different kinds of people, of guards, of policemen, of different kinds of prisoners serving different kinds of sentences at different times. The emotions and the politics which have long surrounded the historiography of the Soviet concentration camps do not lie at the heart of this book. That space is reserved, instead, for the experience of the victims.”
This is the best portrait we are likely to have for some time of the men and women who suffered and, often enough, died under the Soviet masters. It is high time that they received their proper due. And Anne Applebaum has made a good start at a moral reckoning despite decades of scandalous neglect of the largest group of innocent victims in our age.