Gulag: a history of the Soviet camps, by Anne Applebaum

A butcher's bill from the meat-grinder
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The Independent Culture

Anne Applebaum's new history of the Gulag begins with a disclaimer. "The emotions and politics which have long surrounded the historiography of the Soviet concentration camps do not lie at the heart of this book," she writes. "That space is reserved, instead, for the experience of the victims." What follows is grim and unrelenting, an enlightening but difficult read. If the contemplation of evil, on its own, could make us better human beings, this book would be an excellent investment.

The ideological disclaimer, however, is either naïve or it is misleading. Soviet Communism has collapsed, and the battlegrounds between right and left have certainly shifted, but the struggles between rich and poor, between those without power and those free to abuse it, have not ended. A history that draws explicit comparisons between Stalin's prison camps and those created in the Forties for Hitler's Final Solution is making a point. At the very least, the German edition of this book will sell like hot cakes to nationalists and neo-Nazis in Bavaria. The challenge for the rest of us will be to question the response of our emotions.

A response there will certainly be, for Applebaum's account of the Gulag is magnificent: 35 years after Robert Conquest's classic, The Great Terror (1968), she brings the terrible history of the Soviet camps to life again. She has also gone further than Conquest could, making brilliant use of Gulag and secret police archives. Her book is one of the most vivid histories we have of a system – "the meat grinder", Russians called it – that marked or destroyed the lives of millions.

Anyone could end up in the Gulag. No individual, however eminent, however loyal to Stalin, however apparently unobtrusive, could count themselves immune. Within hours of arrest, they would be standing at the door of their first cell, confronting the comrades whose haggard, desperate expressions they would come to share. Most would also share an exile, often to the coldest and least hospitable of the Soviet Union's provinces.

From prison, a convict was usually taken to his labour camp by train. The journey itself was enough to kill the sick, the very young, and the elderly. One of its rigours was lack of water, with prisoners often having to survive on a single cup a day. Then there was the possibility of assault, robbery or rape, for hardened criminals shared the trains with "politicals" and their families. By the time the convoy pulled to its last stop, the disorientated travellers would know that they had entered a new universe, parallel to their own but utterly different.

Applebaum's description of this, the core of the book, is as riveting as it is appalling. The Gulag had its own culture, much of it derived from the criminal underworld, its own informal power structures, and its own language. Life went on – thousands of babies were born to women prisoners, and there were even Gulag marriages – but survival was often a matter of ruthless cunning. As one ex-prisoner told me, the secret was to make sure you were never the first to die.

Every scrap of advantage – a larger crust of bread, a warmer place on the crowded sleeping-plank, a softer job with the camp administration – was hungrily exploited. But exhaustion, cold, disease and despair claimed millions all the same. The dead were buried with numbers, not names, and many were consigned to pits. The thought that no one would ever know of their deaths was one of the greatest sources of prisoners' psychological distress.

Although it reached its cruellest and most extreme form under Stalin, political exile was not invented by the Bolshevik revolutionaries, most of whom experienced it in the last years of Tsarism. The Gulag itself had a history: bad times and worse times, moments of revolt. Applebaum's other achievement is to tell this story. An early camp, at Solovki in the White Sea, had cells where "politicals" could live "like human beings". One survivor recalled white cloths on the tables, books, and tea served daintily from pots.

All this would change after 1929, the first year of Stalin's all-out drive for industrial growth. Prisoners began to be used as slaves, working for forestry, construction and mining projects. The camp population swelled in 1937-8, the years of the Great Terror, but the harshest time was 1941-2, when prisoners were worked to death to support the Soviet Union's war against Nazism.

The war changed the Gulag world. The convict hierarchy of the Thirties was dominated by criminals, many pitiless killers with nothing left to lose. But by 1945 these "bitches" were supplanted by a new elite.

The leaders of camp revolts in the Forties were ex-soldiers, nationalists, mostly from Ukraine, Poland and the Soviet Baltic. Many had experience of partisan warfare; they were organised and fearless. Those in Stalin's circle who knew the most about the camps, police chief Lavrenti Beria in particular, began to suspect that the system could not be sustained. The Gulag, as a concentration of the angriest and most desperate of oppositionists, was not merely dangerous, it was also uneconomic, expensive, difficult and draining. Stalin's death in 1953 removed the last obstacle to its abolition.

This, too, was a grim process. Prisoners were not freed in deference to their human rights, and little effort was made to establish them in civilian lives. Even if they had families to help (and many had been rejected or forgotten), former convicts were unnerved by the postwar world, by intimacy, leisure, indoor work. Though they were free, there was no restitution. It would be more than 30 years before the state, in the person of Boris Yeltsin, formally recognised its responsibility to them.

The former prisoners' interests are now the concern of Memorial, the human rights organisation that provided Applebaum with much of her material. Memorial continues to research the whole dark story, following every individual case. Many of its staff have been looking forward to this book, eager for their findings to be laid before the world. They will not be disappointed.

But readers in Britain and America should beware. Neither they, nor I, nor Applebaum, are victims or survivors in this tale. Our place is not among the righteous, complacent as the winners of Cold War, and nor is it to be found in a clean, bright space where ideology is dead. The debates about freedom, justice and inequality rage on. The Gulag has gone, but individual responsibility for collective and ideologically driven excess, whether it be racist slaughter, imprisonment without trial, or abominations like Death Row, begins at home.

Catherine Merridale's 'Night of Stone: death and memory in Russia' is published by Granta