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New Light on Dark Corners of the Gulag

Steven Greenhut

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When life gets rough, religious people often ask in prayer, "God, God, why have you forsaken me?" Yet, as Russian Christians often joke, the Russian believer doesn't cry out in such a prayer when things are particularly bad, but only when things are inexplicably good, when there are no trials, tribulations or sufferings.

There's a strong theological case for feeling abandoned by God when things are going too well, given that the New Testament promises persecution for those people living proper Christian lives. (A fitting thought for today, given that it is Orthodox Pascha, or Easter.)

But the dark Russian outlook is not only theological. It is a reflection of the cold winters, the long history of war and tyranny, of the inordinate amount of suffering that has been experienced by the Russian people.

Suffering is as natural in Russia as the snowfall, and it's far more plentiful than warm summer days. Which may explain, in part, why one of the most brutal episodes of despotism, privation, torture and murder in the 20th century barely registers on modern consciousness.

It is the history of Stalinism, the Great Terror and the Gulag. It's the story of mass murder, prison camps and slave labor, on a scale that exceeds even the Nazi concentration camp system. It is a story too often taken in stride.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn bravely wrote about the Gulag, smuggling his works out of the Soviet Union, but few others have. Whereas the Nazi regime has captured the imagination of writers and filmmakers, the equally dark and fascinating tale of the Stalinist Gulag has rarely been recounted outside of a few nonfiction books and a documentary here and there.

That, perhaps, is about to change. New books are emerging, along with a new willingness to discuss what happened. In 2001, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press released an English translation of a book that circulated underground in Russian during the communist era. "Father Arseny" is a deeply moving story of an Orthodox priest who maintained his faith and helped others during his time in the Gulag.

For a broader view of the Gulag, I recommend a meticulously researched and highly readable new book out this month, "Gulag: A History" by Washington Post writer Anne Applebaum. "Gulag" discusses the camps in the context of Russian history and Soviet society, detailing not only the history and ideology that created them, but the fascinating yet terrifying nature of life within them.

"The Gulag had its own laws, its own customs, its own morality, even its own slang," she wrote. "It spawned its own literature, its own villains, its own heroes, and it left its mark upon all who passed through it, whether as prisoners or guards. Years after being released, the Gulag's inhabitants were often able to recognize former inmates on the street simply from 'the look in their eyes.'"

At one point, nearly 500 slave-labor camp complexes with thousands of individual camps dotted the Russian countryside, spreading like an archipelago across the landscape.

Whereas the Nazi camps were death camps, designed to exterminate undesirable groups and races, the Soviet concentration camps became the backbone of industrialization, forming the foundation of a slave-labor system that built canals, factories, dams, rail lines and other forms of infrastructure. Millions of people were sent to the camps, and while many eventually were freed, many also died miserable deaths, through overwork, starvation or execution.

Within the system were political prisoners along with common criminals who routinely abused the politicals. The camps were home to women and children, who according to the book were treated as harshly as the other prisoners. Children were interrogated as adults, forced to give public confessions as adults, forced to work long and hard hours in backbreaking labor as adults, and subject to the same exploitation, beatings and deprivations as adults.

As a result, children lost their humanity. Applebaum quotes this account of juvenile prisoners: "They feared nothing and no one. The guards and camp bosses were scared to enter the separate barracks where the juveniles lived. It was there that the vilest, most cynical and cruel acts that took place in the camps occurred."

It's astounding to realize that the Soviet Union was literally built on the backs of slaves. But the Gulag system wasn't designed simply to create public works, but also to foster an atmosphere of terror. At any time and for any reason, anyone could be denounced as an enemy of the people and sent packing to a camp in the northern wilderness. The camps were filled with former Communist Party leaders, classes of people such as wealthier farmers, and, of course, Christians.

But things weren't bad only during the Great Terror of 1937 and 1938, which Applebaum explains were the years when the camps were transformed from labor camps into actual death camps, "where prisoners were deliberately worked to death, or actually murdered, in far larger numbers than they had been in the past." It was a time of massive executions and deportations, a time when the camps were simply a worse form of what was happening throughout Soviet society.

After Stalin's death in 1953, the camps began to shut down, but they weren't dismantled altogether. They lasted until the Gorbachev era, although they were never quite as brutal and far-reaching as they were during the dreadful Stalin era.

Yet I recall the unwillingness of the media to discuss the Gulag, even as late as the 1980s. Applebaum hits on the reasons the Gulag has been overlooked: the passage of time, the longtime refusal of the political left to condemn an ideology that shared many of the same philosophical underpinnings, the effects of Soviet propaganda, the limited access to government archives before the fall of communism.

But the "social, cultural and political framework" has shifted, she explained, the records are open and few people - not even most leftists - hold onto any illusions about the Soviet system. The time is ripe for a broad discussion of what happened and why, so that the millions of Russians who lived in the camps didn't suffer in vain. Applebaum's book provides an important step in that direction.

After reading it, one is left praying that no one, ever, should suffer that much again, in Russia or anywhere else.

Steven Greenhut is the senior editorial writer and columnist for The Orange County Register.

Copyright 2003 The Orange County Register. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Read this article on The Orange County Register website.

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