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December 2023

GULAG: A History

By Anne Applebaum

Penguin Books

The book "Gulag" by Anne Applebaum is a book that details the history of the GULAG camp system in the USSR. The overall structure of the book is chronological with different eras of the GULAG's history making up the various parts of the book. Within these parts, the division is thematic with chapters referring to topics such as prisoner transit, the guards of the camps, capture and release. The book begins by reminding the reader that forced labour or exile had also been a staple of Tsarist Russia. At that time prisoners, many of the political prisoners were exiled to Siberia. This had been the case for many prominent Bolshevik leaders such as Vladimir Lenin or Joseph Stalin. As early as 1918 these traditional Russian punishments were adopted by the new Bolshevik regime. In particular, the remote Solovetsky islands north of St. Petersburg became one of the first labour camps of the new regime. At this time, political prisoners in the camps enjoyed some additional privileges, such as the right to read newspapers and books and have elected representatives. Moreover, the conditions in Solovetsky were a lot better than those which would later kill many other inmates in Stalin's camps. In these first labour camps, administered by the secret police, it was maintained that their purpose was to re-educate political prisoners through labour. The Solovetsky islands are also important in the development of the camp system as it was there that GULAG commander Naftaly Frenkel (a convict who rose through the ranks to become camp commander) tested his ideas of making the GULAG system self-sufficient. In fact, despite Frenkel dramatically increasing productivity in the camps, he never prevented them from operating at a deficit. Even so, Joseph Stalin, by now leader of the USSR was impressed and started to think of the GULAG as a possible source of ample cheap labour leading to an increased emphasis on productivity (as opposed to "re-education"). Furthermore, the GULAG was also viewed as a way of settling and exploiting the USSR's most unhospitable environments, particularly in the far north. The camps expanded under Stalin, becoming one of the preferred methods of punishment for the victims of the regime (other punishments included execution and exile). Kulaks, ethnic minorities and ordinary people arrested on false or trumped-up charges were sent to GULAG camps along with criminals serving their sentences. The book portrays the dehumanising and brutal process that these prisoners went through. Having been arrested, they were interrogated and tortured, then thrown into crowded and unsanitary prisons. From there, they were transported to remote GULAG camps on trains and often they were denied adequate water, mistreated by the guards and put into cramped rail cars designed to transport cattle. The journey, which could last many weeks would end when the surviving prisoners reached the labour camp where they had been allocated. The book provides many details about life in the camps. The author relies primarily on primary sources. Regrettably, these sources tend to reflect the standpoint of the political prisoners as there are little to no testimonies that have been left by camp guards or criminal prisoners.  One important theme is nutrition in the camps (which was often accorded based on performance or role) and was usually inadequate. Equally horrifying are the unsanitary conditions in barracks where there were infestations of lice and many infectious diseases. Work was perhaps the defining feature of the GULAG, where productivity and contributing to the soviet economy was considered of the highest importance. More specifically inmates (also known as "zeks") were forced to work on infrastructure projects like railways or canals (the White Sea Canal being a good example) or in the extraction of natural resources such as gold, timber and coal, which were crucial exports for the USSR's economy. The book also details how the prisoners interacted with each other. For instance, some became informants, reporting on the other inmates in exchange for a better job in the camp, or some other form of reward. The criminal prisoners organised into gangs to control and intimidate other inmates. Political prisoners had unwritten rules of their own that were enforced. After the war, groups of prisoners from different nations formed, often replacing the hegemony of the political gangs. This was often the case with nationalities such as Balts, Poles or Ukrainians who were deported in vast numbers. The GULAG reached its maximum amount of prisoners in 1953, the year of Stalin's death. Following the death of Joseph Stalin and the rise of Nikita Khrushchev as Soviet leader the GULAG regime was relaxed and eventually became a shadow of its former self. Many inmates were released and conditions were improved. There were also uprisings from the increasingly emboldened prisoners. In 1960 the GULAG as an organisation ceased to exist. According to the book, two camps remained in the USSR for political prisoners, one of which near the city of Perm only closed in 1987. Following the death of Stalin, the GULAG took on a cultural significance. In the USSR, Solzhenitsin published "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" a book critical of the GULAG regime. Its publication was probably allowed by Khrushchev in order to discredit Stalin. Later, under Leonid Brezhnev, the authorities were less keen to discredit Stalin and accounts of life in the Gulag were limited to underground publications (samizdat). The book also refers to the legacy of the GULAG. For one, forced labour camps existed in the Soviet Union almost until its dissolution. According to the book (published in 2004) North Korea was still home to camps very much reminiscent of the GULAG. The GULAG also accounts for much of the historical debate around political repression in the Soviet Union. Although there may be some groups investigating and remembering the atrocities of the GULAG, the Russian state has been reluctant to get involved and inhibited efforts by keeping some archives closed to historians and the public. The reaction to the GULAG in the west is also a point of interest. Whereas most of us are familiar with the Holocaust, this is not the case with the GULAG, a project of comparable brutality and scale. In fact, two new Soviet prison camps were built on the site of NAZI death camps in the post-war period, including a camp on the site of Buchenwald concentration camp. Overall, the book is well worth reading as it documents the extremes of 20th-century totalitarianism and puts them into perspective. In this light, I believe it furthers the thesis of Timothy Snyder's "Bloodlands" (which discusses the atrocities of Hitler and Stalin in central and eastern Europe) by highlighting less well-known Soviet atrocities, namely the cruel and deadly GULAG camps, which were not unlike NAZI concentration camps in some of the ways they operated.

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