Saturday, August 06, 2011

Gulag: A History

If one has ever studied or read about Russia, even if only to a very slight degree, one has heard about the Gulag. While Gulag (sometimes written GULag to more closely represent the Russian acronym, ГУЛаг, from which it derives) technically indicates the Soviet government agency in charge of forced labor camps, it has come to mean the entire system of prisons and camps that the Soviets, especially Stalin, used to so brutally abuse their own people from the time Lenin took power to the end of Gorbachev’s reign. I had probably heard about it throughout my life, but it really captured my interest and became something I wanted to learn more about as I learned about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s writings (at BYU I even read, in English, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). The idea of reading other Gulag memoirs has also fascinated me.

Anne Applebaum’s Pulitzer Prize-winning and critically acclaimed-by-everyone book, Gulag: A History (ISBN: 978-1-4000-3409-3) is, obviously, not a memoir. Instead, it draws heavily on memoirs and other existing literature, including what little has been made available by the Russian government in their state archives, to give the reader an idea of just what the Gulag was, how it functioned (or didn’t function, as the case may be), who ran it, why they ran it, who the prisoners were, and why it, like the Soviet Union, eventually came crashing down as the result of an implosion more than anything else. The history is quite detailed and dutifully footnoted. It takes the reader from the pre-Bolshevik use of forced labor in imperial Russia through the very end of the system with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Every angle of the story is explored, some of them in more detail than others, but always in such a way that the impact of a particular decision or event is clearly seen. The individual anecdotes that make up a significant portion of the book are both colorful and illustrative, often giving an even more detailed look at what it was like to live, work, and sometimes die (interestingly, it wasn’t all bad, and there was time in some camps for music, theater, and storytelling) in the notorious prison camps of the Soviet Union. One comes away with not just a basic overview, but probably an intermediate-level understanding of the Gulag thanks to the complete coverage of the subject by the author.

I enjoyed the book and found it to be well-written history. As with all things having to do with the Soviet Union, the stuff about the October Revolution and the early struggles by the Bolsheviks to stay in power did little to hold my interest. However, the book had my full attention by the time it got to Solovetsky, the first official camp of the Gulag. I found most of the stories telling about day-to-day life in the camps to be fascinating. It seemed to me that Applebaum had her favorite sources, though, and I wish she would’ve quoted from a wider variety of memoirists. Sometimes I felt like I was reading Evgeniya Ginzburg’s book and not Anne Applebaum’s. Still, it was an impressive work. It was well-written and kept your attention. As with any grizzly subject, the book has sections that describe in detail torture (a favorite Soviet, especially in the early days, interrogation technique), the sexual depravity that is typical of prisons, and death. It is often somber reading because of the fact that it is a constant reminder of the ability of man to debase and treat with such cruelty and absolute disregard his fellow man. It is in this department that I have my largest quibble with the author — she concludes her work by saying that we don’t necessarily need to study the Gulag so we can avoid repeating it in some form or another in the future, since somewhere it will undoubtedly be repeated; we must simply remember it and try to understand it. One needn’t study something in great detail to remember it or memorialize it. Since Applebaum is not a philosopher, but a historian, she doesn’t even touch on the real reasons this cruelty happens (she sticks to political and economical explanations). The problem is, of course, that we can learn from it. Others can, too. In a best-case scenario, such a book will cause elites around the world to rethink their policies toward their political enemies. While that is unlikely, it can help each and every one of us rethink our individual commitments to avoid cruelty toward others in our own lives. It does no good to study history if we aren’t going to learn from it, apply its lessons, and avoid the same deadly mistakes.

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This work, including all text, photographs, and other original work, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 3.0 License and is copyrighted © MMXI John Pruess.

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