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Gulag: Understanding the Magnitude of What Happened

Anne Applebaum

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I am very delighted to be here--for a number of reasons, but mostly because Heritage was one of the organizations that continued to say what was wrong with Communism and continued to criticize it even before everybody else saw the light and agreed that that was the right thing to do. So thank you very much for having me here.

I'd like to begin by pointing out that I am standing before you today in 2003, the year that marks the 50th anniversary of Stalin's death. In commemoration of that event, I'd like to read a very short excerpt from the memoirs of his daughter, Svetlana, who sat by his deathbed until the very end. For the last twelve hours, she wrote:

The lack of oxygen became acute . . . the death agony was terrible. He literally choked to death as we watched. At what seemed to be the very last moment, he opened his eyes and cast a glance over everyone in the room. It was a terrible glance, insane, or perhaps angry, and full of the fear of death.

Within days of Stalin's demise, his henchman Beria, and then Khrushchev, began dismantling one of the dictator's proudest achievements, namely his concentration camps. They did so for many reasons--some had wives and relatives in the camps; some feared retribution from others who did. Most of all, though, they did so because the camps were an economic disaster and had distorted the society they were supposed to help build.

Yet although they knew this, none of Stalin's Soviet successors--not Nikita Khrushchev and not his reformist successor, Mikhail Gorbachev--was far-seeing enough, or politically powerful enough, to finish the job. As a result, both the economic and the moral legacy of the camps continue to distort Russian and East European society today. One might say that Stalin is dead, but his last, terrible gaze still casts its shadow.

Read the entire article on the Heritage Foundation website.