(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

With the publication of Nobel Prize laureate Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn’s Arkhipelag GULag, 1918-1956 (1973; The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956, 1974), readers outside the Soviet Union became aware of the horrors perpetuated by Joseph Stalin and his successors. In the last decades of the twentieth century, others wrote of their camp experiences, confirming Solzhenitsyn’s damning litany of atrocities committed in the hundreds of work camps maintained in the Soviet Union from the early 1920’s until the 1980’s. In Gulag: A History, Anne Applebaum goes beyond the work of these memorists in surveying the system from its rise under the Bolsheviks, when it seemed to Vladimir Lenin a natural extension of czarist policies for dealing with dissidents. Through the Stalin years it was used as a catchall for economic, political, and legal purposes. Its legacy lingered in the prison camps of the 1970’s and 1980’s.

This book, which won a Pulitzer Prize, could not have been written a decade earlier. Though the survivors of the gulag may have been able to communicate more vividly their memories of experiences in the prison camps, the archives preserved carefully by the Soviets were made available to scholars only in the closing years of the twentieth century. As a consequence, while works such as those by Robert Conquest or Solzhenitsyn capture the terror individuals felt, they are nevertheless skewed by the selectivity of their sources. Conquest was able to glean information from dozens of gulag survivors, but his accounts report only what he was told, unverified by official records. Solzhenitsyn, always the polemicist, assembled his narrative to compel compassion rather than recount the causes and effects of the system as a whole on the Soviet Union as well as on those subjected to life in the camps.

Applebaum takes a different approach. What she does better than any memoirist, novelist, or propagandist who has written about his or her incarceration in the gulag is to show the variety of experiences that occurred in what was actually many disparate institutions. The word “gulag” itself is an acronym, she reminds readers, signifying the innocuous-sounding “Main Camp Administration.” What started out as a term to identify the central authority running a series of camps for political dissidents and for those who broke Soviet law soon came, instead, to designate the camps themselves, hundreds of “islands” arranged, as Solzhenitsyn suggests, in a kind of archipelago ringing the vast expanse of land held by the Soviets and their satellite nations.

Key to understanding the gulag, Applebaum says, is the realization that accounts by those who experienced life in these camps may be incomplete. What they report may be a true story but not the whole story. That is because no two camps were identical. Some were simply places of extreme discomfort, where people chafed under harsh weather and the knowledge that they had no freedom to leave. Others were clearly sites of torture, where guards—themselves prisoners who had been given positions of responsibility for good behavior (or through bribery)—and camp officials took particular pleasure in working inmates to death. By comparing the stories of individual prisoners to the official records, especially those maintained by the Central Ministry, Applebaum demonstrates that what was announced as policy in Moscow was often ignored by ruthless, sadistic administrators in the frozen tundra of the Siberian wilderness. Amassing statistics from archival records, Applebaum demonstrates how millions of Soviet citizens—and many foreigners who ran afoul of Soviet leadership—were subjected to cruelties that came to be depersonalized, ignored, and even justified by those in power.

Perhaps the most chilling revelation is that those sentenced to the gulag became nonpersons in their own homeland. They were referred to in documents as economic units. Their demanded level of productivity was set without regard to the conditions under which they were working and, as was often the case in Stalinist Russia, impossible goals were set for each camp. Lenin had established the first camp on an isolated island above Arkhangelsk, near the Barents Sea, as a place for political dissidents who had fought against the revolution. Stalin, however, saw economic potential in these camps. He believed that the Soviet Union could benefit from...

(The entire section is 1796 words.)