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Book Review - Gulag: A History

Jonathan Butcher

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The Weekly Standard's review of Anne Applebaum's Gulag: A History suggests reading the first and last chapters of the 586-page tome and saving the rest for a long series of rainy days. The first and last chapters focus mainly on the Soviet Gulags' place in history--their significance, the lessons the West and the East should learn, and the prisons' role in the rise and fall of the USSR. However, if these chapters were read separately from the heart-wrenching pages between, heroic stories of Russian survivors would be lost. Its length is testament to the significance of this part of Soviet and Russian history.

Applebaum's Gulag convincingly describes the prison system as a world unto itself. In the prison system there was love (even marriage), betrayal, birth, murder, friendship, thievery, heroes, villains, obedience, and rebellion. Some prisoners were guilty and some were not. Some were victims of Joseph Stalin's obsessive insecurity and some had committed minor criminal acts attempting to simply survive--which was not a simple thing in Stalin's USSR. Some knew they would eventually end up in the system anyway and joined voluntarily as "free workers." There were acts of goodwill from prisoner to prisoner and from guard to prisoner, but there were also beatings, stealing, and rape. Some prisoners suffered more than others. All who came in contact with Soviet injustice between 1923 and 1986 (Applebaum makes an educated guess in the book's appendix that places the number close to 20 million) are a part of Soviet history that cannot be denied or ignored.

In the midst of Applebaum's accounts of camp life she occasionally surprises the reader with refreshing reminders of the system's idiocy. This is surprising not because one questions the author's intentions but because her appraisal of communist forced labor is so obviously honest: The system was completely inefficient and morally wrong.

"How much more ammunition might have been made if patriotic prisoners had been allowed to work in ordinary factories? Thousands of soldiers who might have been at the front were kept behind the lines, guarding the imprisoned workforce," she says. Earlier in the book she asks, "Did any of the leaders ever believe in what they were doing? The relationship between Soviet propaganda and Soviet reality was always a strange one: the factory is barely functioning, in the shops there is nothing to buy, yet in the streets outside, banners proclaim the 'triumph of socialism' and the 'heroic achievements of the Soviet motherland.'"

Applebaum relies heavily on former prisoners' memoirs to craft the tragic personal accounts that make up much of her work. Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky (both Nobel laureates) are two of the more recognizable names that appear regularly along with their descriptions of the camps. Applebaum also gives a critique of the common interpretation of these two individuals' roles in the larger history of Soviet Gulags. Applebaum's discussions of Solzhenitsyn's role in past and present Gulag research seem ambiguous until the end of the book. For the first 500 pages, she used stories from Solzhenitsyn's writing to describe aspects of camp life and seems to consider him simply as an imperfect human being who was not the only one to write in exceptional prose about the Gulags.

Near the end of the book, though, she suggests that his accounts and accounts of him by others could be more legend than history, and she says that there are many other good accounts of camp life. She says "the many hundreds of Gulag memoirs that have been published since the 1980s are ample testimony to the eloquence and talent of Soviet ex-prisoners, many of whom wrote in secret for years. What made Solzhenitsyn truly unique, in the end, was the simple fact that his work appeared in print." It is worth mention, though, that Solzhenitsyn's contributions to world literature should not be taken lightly. Not only did he write the first exposť about camp life (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich), but he also wrote pieces with a broader scope such as The Gulag Archipelago and Cancer Ward--not to mention a 1978 Harvard commencement speech which has been widely read and which makes uncomfortable those who feel America's moral erosion is harmless. Applebaum does admit that, "For his literary significance, as well as for the role he played in publicizing the existence of the Gulag in the West, Alexander Solzhenitsyn would certainly deserve special mention in any history of the Soviet camp system."

Applebaum closes the book with a powerful assessment of the Gulag's cultural and historical meaning. Many Russians want to ignore the Gulags out of shame and instead talk about Soviet successes, she says, but that is not what should be honored. "Tragically, Russia's lack of interest in its past has deprived the Russians of heroes, as well as victims," she says. "The incredibly rich body of Russian survivors' literature...should be better read, better known, more frequently quoted. If schoolchildren knew these heroes and their stories better, they would find something to be proud of even in Russia's Soviet past, aside from imperial and military triumphs." Applebaum's Gulag honors Russia by preserving accounts of survival and by remembering the innocents who suffered and died unjustly.

Gulag and books like it remind us of the danger of a laissez-faire attitude toward corrupt regimes. These books are important to all mankind because George Santayana's famous words are as true for Gulag and Holocaust survivors as they are for us: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Jonathan Butcher is a Research Assistant in Domestic Policy at The Heritage Foundation.

Read this review on Townhall.com. Reprinted with permission of Townhall.com and the author.

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