A Brief History of the Gulag

“Gulag: A History”
By Anne Appelbaum
Anchor, 736 pages, $16.95

In Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, storefronts hawk medals bearing the hammer and sickle and the KGB’s sword and shield along with $30 replica Soviet hockey jerseys. And yet the young men in this mostly Russian working class neighborhood wear brands like Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren. The Communist nostalgia wares are sold not to the neighborhood residents, but to history’s slummers, trolling for counter-culture knick-knacks. While these ironists would be horrified at, say, displaying a Triumph of the Will film poster, Soviet symbols have become all the rage.

Anne Applebaum describes watching Americans coo over such ideological paraphernalia in a Prague bazaar in the introduction to her “Gulag: A History,” which comprehensively details the emergence, growth and eventual dismantling of the Soviet system of force labor. Perhaps, she proposes, the amnesia surrounding the Gulag stems from a desire not to impugn the sacrifices of Allied soldiers, a noble instinct that leads ineluctably into a kind of reductive Manichaeism holding that no significant moral failures can be attributed to any enemy of Hitler.

Others gloss over Soviet atrocities by attributing them only to Stalin’s abuses. Applebaum recalls a conversation with London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, who mouthed the old canard about how the USSR was merely “deformed,” not “evil” like the Nazis. But of course the Gulag’s origins go back to Lenin, and the first Soviet labor camps, set up shortly after the October coup and populated mostly by the educated and formerly wealthy. And one could hardly define state-sponsored deviancy further down than by defending Communism by favorably comparing it to Nazism.

The Communist spectacle, as it were, did fall short of the pageantry of the Third Reich. And unlike the Soviets, their Nazi counterparts were brought to trial and the evidence against them, particularly images of the camps, with their emaciated survivors and mass graves, left an indelible mark on the Western mind. But such dramatic evidence of Soviet atrocities has heretofore languished in Kremlin archives.

But perhaps the greatest blow to popular American interest in Soviet crimes against humanity came from anti-Communism’s most cartoonish paladins, most famously Senator McCarthy, and the paranoid atmosphere they fostered. Much of Hollywood stills seems convinced the black list was the great crime of the Cold War era. But its excesses of course pale in comparison to concentration camps — defined by Applebaum as detention centers whose inmates are incarcerated not due to their actions, but their identities — as developed by the Soviets.

Such institutions date back to the 1800s and the Spanish colonialists who occupied Cuba prior to the Spanish-American war. In response to a popular uprising, Spanish authorities conceived the policy of Reconcentración in order to isolate the partisans from their bases of popular support, thus concentrating the island’s civilians within fortified positions and treating men, women and children found outside this wall as rebels. Conditions inside the forts were horrendous and deaths attributed to the policy have been counted in the hundreds of thousands.

Nor has America always been above such inhumane temptations. While the Gulag was rapidly expanding during the war years, concentration camps made their appearance on American shores with the detention of Japanese and Japanese-Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Some 120,000 people, half of them children, were incarcerated under heavy guard within ten separate camps for much of the war, their property confiscated and sold. While the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which gave some monetary restitution to former prisoners, hardly makes up for this treatment, it was a way for the government to acknowledge its wrongdoing, a step that the Russian Federation and the former Soviet republics have declined to take for their own, far worse, sins.

The word Gulag itself comes from the Russian acronym for Main Camp Administration and its origins stem from the system of work camps and internal exile inherited from the Czars, which the Bolsheviki quickly adapted to their own purposes. As early as June 1918, Leon Trotsky called for detentions centers to pacify Czech prisoners of war and later the “city and village bourgeoisie”; Lenin echoed the appeal that August. But following the Brest-Litovsk treaty and the release of war prisoners, the revolution’s security apparatus, the Cheka, took to refilling them with “unreliable elements.”

The development of the Gulag as a pervasive system — which at its height had outposts in all twelve of the USSR’s time zones and provided labor for all its major industries, particularly mineral extraction and timber — sprung from the other Soviet policies of the era. The reckless abandon with which the Gulag expanded resulted largely from farm collectivization and the persecution of merchants who had previously flourished during “the great retreat” of Lenin’s New Economic Policy, which provided capital for the fledgling state by legalizing limited capitalism. Sovietologist Shelia Fitzpatrick has suggested that had Russia been allowed to continue under the NEP it would have attained nearly equal the growth attained via Stalin’s five year plans without the needless waste of both human lives and material resources.

Felix Dzerzhinsky, the Cheka’s first commissar, saw the camps as a place for reeducation, where wayward citizens could perform cleansing labor. But the camps quickly became a lynchpin of the Soviet economy, providing labor for every major industry. This slave labor force, working with primitive tools, proved predictably ill-suited to skilled industrial work. One inmate working on the White Sea Canal spoke of “there being no technology whatsoever.” Applebaum describes men working on this brutal endeavor with pickaxes that “are actually slices of barely sharpened metal, tied to wooden staves with leather or string. The saws consisted of slat metal sheets, with teeth crudely cut into them.”

This ad hoc mentality was pervasive. Under Stalin, with a virtually unlimited supply of new prisoners, little attention was paid to the logistics of keeping them alive in forbidding climates. An instance in Siberia in 1939, long thought to be apocryphal, is detailed in Soviet documents recently made public. A party functionary made a report, later forwarded directly to Stalin, relating that nearly 4,000 of the 6,114 inmates sent to colonize the region starved; the survivors were only able to sustain themselves by eating the flesh of the deceased. Later all were arrested and charged with cannibalism.

Camp life became deadlier still following the German invasion of Soviet-controlled Poland as prisoners were relocated east, well behind the front. The internal security agency, now renamed the NKVD, reported that one quarter of the camp population perished in 1942 and nearly as many in 1943. These statistics do not account for deaths in prisons or during transport nor does it include special exiles like the ill-fated Siberian colonists. It is worth bearing in mind when considering these numbers that camp officials had a vested interest in downplaying fatalities.

The camps’ populations and conditions would continue to ebb and flow with political mood (or, to be more succinct, Stalin’s mood) and the perceived need to root out enemies and anti-Soviet conspiracies. Following Stalin’s death, Khrushchev and later Yuri Andropov, the most repressive of the neo-Stalinists, continued to run a totalitarian state, but not with nearly the same ferocity. As opposed to the victims of arbitrary mass arrests, those who now found themselves in psychiatric hospitals allegedly suffering from “sluggish schizophrenia” — defined as an illness whose sufferers possess “ideas about a ?struggle for truth and justice,’” — knew very much why they were imprisoned.

Today above the Arctic Circle, Norilsk still bears scars. Unable to sustain its 300,000 people without heavy government subsidies, this city is home to the descendents of Stalin’s toxic desire to colonize Russia’s expanses.  Built with prison labor, the nickel factory (now privately owned) and surrounding communities stubbornly stand against punishing conditions and Moscow’s relocation efforts. Nearly 50,000 residents have been offered lackluster incentives to move and those that take the state’s money to do so can only afford to live in the poorest of housing developments. Considering that Russia’s GDP per head is $5,830 as opposed to Norway’s $37,024, a country a fraction its size, we have some idea of what poverty there means. Those who argue that the USSR and it crimes are relics of the past should look to places like Norilsk and reconsider such wisdom; especially those proudly bearing hammer and sickle t-shirts.


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