Gulag: A History.
By Anne Applebaum.
Doubleday. 720 pp. $35.
Somewhere a young film student is reading Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History, a magisterial survey of the Soviet labor-camp system, and someday he will do what nobody else has succeeded in doing—not even Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He will produce a movie about the Gulag that finally puts it where it belongs in our public moral consciousness. Critics will compare his creation with Schindler’s List, noting that his achievement is even greater because Steven Spielberg only had to tap into a consciousness of Nazi horrors already assiduously cultivated in our popular culture. As Applebaum notes in her introduction, American tourists in Eastern Europe eagerly buy old hammer-and-sickle badges to wear as souvenirs. Few would even think of wearing swastikas.
If this filmmaker really exists and is not just a figment of my hopes, he actually faces a greater challenge today than he would have a decade or two ago. Solzhenitsyn is now a marginal figure even in his own country, his books often hard to find in Moscow bookstores. Russia made only one official attempt at prosecuting deposed Communist Party leaders, a decade ago, and it was a bungled farce. Anticommunist rhetoric is now discredited by its association with the corrupt circle of Boris Yeltsin. Russia’s current president is openly proud of his career as a KGB officer.
In America, the number of us who would even recognize the term “Gulag” is almost certainly smaller now than it was when Solzhenitsyn published his own pioneering history in the 1970s. Nazi killing grounds such as Auschwitz properly draw visits from political leaders, but few have visited such haunted Gulag sites as Perm or Magadan. The current White House is more willing to whitewash Kremlin atrocities, both past and present, than any presidential administration since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s.
Such amnesia matters. For example, it is almost impossible to have a balanced conversation with today’s Russians about Chechnya, conditioned as they are to think of the Chechens only as terrorists and of themselves only as victims. Few truly feel the weight of February 1944, when Stalin had the entire Chechen nation—an estimated 390,000 people—loaded onto train cars and shipped to the wastelands of Central Asia. As many as 78,000 may have died on the train trip alone. If today’s Russians remembered such crimes as today’s Germans remember those of their grandfathers—if they really felt them in their bones—the 1994 war on Chechnya would never have begun. It would certainly never have included such savage tactics as the carpet-bombing of downtown Grozny or the kidnapping and torture of Chechen civilians. As Applebaum observes, such a war would have been as unthinkable as an attack by postwar Germany on postwar Poland.
If our own leaders squarely faced these realities, we would of course still do business with Vladimir Putin as with other heads of other foreign states. But we would avoid giving him special recognition in the form of ceremonial audiences with Queen Elizabeth or intimate barbecues at the Bush ranch—unearned rewards that sully our proclamations about global freedom and fortify the Kremlin’s lies to its own people.
Though Russia is still a repressive country, currently becoming more so, the difference between today’s repression and the classic Gulag is like the difference between Jim Crow and slavery. Applebaum chose her subtitle correctly: the Gulag is now a phenomenon of history. As such it can now be studied with a certain detachment—one of the major differences between Applebaum’s work and Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago trilogy. His work was a flaming call to arms; hers is resigned, melancholy, even funereal. In addition to its impeccable scholarship, her book has a flavor of commemoration and eulogy, perhaps acquired from her sources and friends in Russia’s “Memorial” society, which has done so much to preserve the Gulag’s physical artifacts and to compile memoirs of ex-prisoners (it is a debt which she warmly acknowledges). Russia is a nation of grave-visitors, and some of that Russian spirit seems to have entered Applebaum’s soul.
Indeed, for all of Solzhenitsyn’s passionate anger his work is in some ways more optimistic than Applebaum’s. Having personally been brought from atheism to Christianity by his experience in the camps, he offers a vision of purification through suffering—a vision inseparable from his Orthodox faith. More typical in today’s post-Christian Russia is the vignette that Applebaum appropriately chose as the coda for her book. Sharing the ex-prisoner Lev Razgon’s reflections on visiting the KGB headquarters in 1990 to review his own file, she notes “the ludicrous nature of the charges . . . the tragedy which befell his wife’s mother . . . the opaque motives of his father-in-law . . . the strange absence of repentance on the part of those who had destroyed all of them. But what struck me most about his experience of working in the archives was his description of how ambivalent he felt.”
She quotes Razgon’s words:
I have long since stopped turning the pages of the file and they have lain next to me for more than an hour, growing cold with their own thoughts. . . . I go downstairs, along the empty corridors, past the sentries who do not even ask to see my papers, and step out onto Lubyanka Square. . . . I stand on the pavement outside, wondering what to do next. How terrible that I do not believe in God and cannot go into some quiet little church, stand in the warmth of the candles, gaze into the eyes of Christ on the Cross. . . . I am eighty-two and here I stand, living through it all again. . . . I hear the voices of Oksana and her mother. . . . I can remember and recall them, each one. And if I remained alive, then it is my duty to do so.
Applebaum artfully interweaves such scenes with meticulous analysis of statistics. Of course she has far more tools to work with than Solzhenitsyn did, even though many archives remain closed and many officials tight-lipped. She clearly spent hundreds of hours listening to former prisoners, former guards, and local researchers in some of the most inaccessible parts of Russia in the far north and far east. (She emphasizes her Russian sources’ generosity with their time and information, but not what must be her own considerable gifts as a listener.) Her massive annotations range from the Hoover Institution in California to state archives in Moscow to local collections in places such as Arkhangelsk and Vorkuta.
Gulag, a typically ugly Soviet acronym, stands for “Glavnoe upravlenie lagerei,” or “Main Administration of Camps”—the special section created within the secret police in the early Stalin years as they took full control of the country’s labor camps and prisons from the Commissariat of the Interior. (The rivalry between the secret police and the Ministry of the Interior continues to this day, with the former now gaining ground again.) Though some Western leftists still cling to the myth that the camp system was a uniquely Stalinist perversion, it began under Lenin, who in 1918 suggested arresting “saboteurs” and “sentencing them to half a year’s forced labor in a mine.” The system shrank considerably after Stalin’s death but survived almost as long as the Soviet Union did. Only in the 1990s could one finally say that there were no political prisoners in Russia. (Sadly, one can no longer say this today.) The Soviet Gulag thus ranks as one of the longest-enduring totalitarian institutions of modern times—though its offspring in China and North Korea may still surpass it.
During its long life the system was far from stable, and Applebaum provides a nuanced account of its qualitative and quantitative changes. She does her best with the statistical data now available, warning that they are not complete enough to give us what we really want: “a single round number of dead victims.” In fact, she somewhat overstates this problem. Though a precise, agreed-upon figure would be most welcome, we do not need such a figure in order to know whether Lenin’s disciples killed more than Hitler’s did, just as we do not need a full-scale census to tell us whether China is more populous than America. It is, and they did.
Most of those deaths were not directly caused by the labor camps; as Applebaum observes, what one really wants to know “is how many people died, unnecessarily, as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution. That is, how many died in the Red Terror and the Civil War, the famines which followed in the wake of the brutal policy of collectivization, the mass deportations, the mass executions, the camps. . . . In that case the numbers are not only far larger, but they really are a matter of pure conjecture. The French authors of The Black Book of Communism quote a figure of twenty million deaths. Others cite numbers closer to ten or twelve million.” One might add to these numbers a significant share of the deaths of World War II, in which the Soviet Union was one of the original aggressors. Even that would omit the corpses of Communist China, Southeast Asia, North Korea and Cuba—further scores of millions, with the killing still not over.
But Applebaum’s chosen topic is more than enough for seven hundred pages, and she rightly sticks to it. She finds some of the figures made available by the partial opening of Soviet archives—figures not originally intended for public consumption—to be surprisingly consistent and reliable. The secret police compiled a tally of total Gulag inmates on January 1 of each year. In 1930 the number was 179,000; it surged in the late 1930s, reaching almost two million in 1941. It fell during the war as inmates were released for military service, but spiked again with Stalin’s postwar crackdown and reached its all-time peak of about 2.5 million in 1950. What makes these figures misleading, however, is that “they mask the camp system’s remarkably high turnover,” with new prisoners constantly arriving and old ones leaving—or dying. Applebaum endorses British scholar Edwin Bacon’s calculation of a cumulative total of eighteen million Soviet citizens passing through the system between 1929 and 1953—the year of Stalin’s death. To that figure she adds foreign prisoners of war; Russian émigrés and displaced persons captured by the Red Army in central Europe; Soviet prisoners of war “liberated” from their German captors and then immediately sentenced for treason; Soviet citizens sentenced to forced labor outside the camps; and the millions of Balts, Chechens, and other suspect minorities exiled en masse to Siberia and Central Asia. Putting all these together, she estimates that “the total number of forced laborers in the USSR comes to 28.7 million.”
How many of these slave laborers actually died? Applebaum “reluctantly” cites another historian’s 1997 estimate of about 2.7 million, derived from incomplete official sources. The “Memorial” society’s researchers are trying to produce a reliable count of Gulag deaths. But even if they should succeed, their figure would not include the hundreds of thousands of political executions that took place outside the camps. There were also those who died under interrogation before even being sentenced; the massive fatalities on the overcrowded, disease-ridden, and sometimes even unheated trains that carried prisoners to the camps; and the many who were technically no longer prisoners when they died, having been released just beforehand by camp commanders who knew that they were already on their last legs.
Applebaum eloquently reminds us that no numerical count can “really tell the whole story of suffering. . . . No official figures, for example, can possibly reflect the mortality of the wives and children and aging parents left behind. . . . During the war, old people starved to death without their ration cards: had their convict son not been digging coal in Vorkuta, they might have lived. Small children succumbed easily to epidemics of typhus and measles in cold, ill-equipped orphanages: had their mothers not been sewing uniforms in Kengir, they might have lived too.” Even when they did not die, such children were far more likely to be drawn into criminal gangs. A prisoner’s other relatives would often “cut off all contact from one another, in order to avoid being tainted as well. Families broke apart, friendships ended, fear weighed heavily on those who remained behind.”
What was in the souls of those who ordered such suffering? That question needs to be studied on several levels, from the ethics of Marxist ideology to the strategy of the Soviet political elite to the motivations of the system’s bureaucrats and guards. Intellectual history, political history, and social history all meet in the Gulag. One would expect a researcher working just after the collapse of the system to concentrate on the political and social threads, about which a flood of new information is now available, and that is just what Applebaum does. Was the Gulag essentially the product of a master plan, or was its explosive growth in the 1930s a result of ad hoc responses to circumstances created by other Soviet policies, such as agricultural collectivization? (Before World War II most of the Gulag’s inmates were peasants.) Were the labor camps intended to be self-sustaining, to yield a profit for the Soviet economy—and if so did they succeed? Did the top authorities demand new waves of mass arrests in order to meet the needs of the camps, or did they build new camps in order to create dumping grounds for people whom they intended to arrest in any case? Did they consciously intend the death rates to be as high as they were; for example, did they intend the Kolyma mining camps to function as killing machines in which the average prisoner assigned to heavy labor without extra rations or other special privileges was likely to die?
Applebaum definitively answers some of these questions and lays the groundwork for future historians to pursue others. From Politburo and other records it is clear that Stalin took an intense personal interest in the Gulag. He demanded detailed reports on “inmate productivity,” especially in the Kolyma gold mines, and about particular groups of prisoners such as secessionists from western Ukraine. He often ordered heads of individual camps to visit Moscow to answer questions in person. He even sometimes read petitions from individual prisoners, taking it on himself to decide whether to release them.
Stalin was of course a secular utopian and materialist, and Applebaum seems to have found no evidence that he ever had any moral scruples or hesitations about the Gulag. The same may be said of his comrades in power. A 1928 Politburo commission with representatives from various organs of the young Soviet government made recommendations about creating a mass “system of concentration camps” along the lines of those that the secret police had already established on the far-northern Solovetsky Islands. The commission’s minutes record objections from some quarters—all based on practical considerations such as transportation difficulties, none on ethical grounds.
On a more personal level, Stalin had what Applebaum calls an “obsessive interest in vast construction projects and toiling teams of forced laborers.” He “enjoyed the sight of large numbers of human bodies, marching or dancing in perfect synchronization. He was captivated by the ballet, by orchestrated exhibitions of gymnastics, and by parades featuring giant pyramids built out of anonymous, contorted human figures. Like Hitler, Stalin was also obsessed with the cinema, particularly Hollywood musicals, with their enormous casts of coordinated singers and dancers.” This taste seems to have converged with an equally obsessive focus on certain aspects of Russian history, such as the way Peter the Great worked prisoners and serfs to death three centuries ago in order to build a glorious new capital city on swampland. (One might note that Peter seems to be Solzhenitsyn’s least admired czar, and the one Putin admires most.)
In its early years the Gulag grew somewhat haphazardly, with frequent course changes and reversals. For example, the secret police would declare amnesties to solve overcrowding but then flood the camps with new arrests. It was, Applebaum writes, “as if Stalin and his henchmen were never quite sure if they wanted the system to grow or not—or as if different people were giving different orders at different times.” But in the end she comes down on the side of what she calls “a growing consensus” among today’s researchers “that Stalin himself had, if not a carefully designed plan, then at least a very firm belief in the enormous advantages of prison labor, which he maintained until the end of his life.” Though she does not put it quite this way, the labor camps were the ultimate planned economy—the logical extreme of the Soviet adventure as a whole.
From the late 1920s onward, the Gulag was clearly intended to be an economic asset. Applebaum notes of the Politburo’s closed-door deliberations that “all of the participants used fiercely economic language. All expressed the same concerns about ‘profitability’ and spoke frequently about ‘rational use of labor.’” Applebaum discusses scattered evidence that arrests were sometimes planned with economic goals in mind. For instance, a 1934 letter from the head of the secret police to his subordinates demanded fifteen to twenty thousand prisoners “fit to work” on a canal construction project. She also sees a pattern in the sentences of engineers, geologists, and other technical specialists: “Perhaps it was not sheer accident that the very first group of prisoners sent to the new camps in the Kolyma gold fields included seven well-known mining experts.”
Against such seeming rationality must be set what Applebaum calls the “almost ludicrous inefficiency” of Soviet practice:
Every wave of mass arrests seems to have caught the camp commanders by surprise, making it difficult for them to achieve even a semblance of economic efficiency. Nor did the arresting officers ever choose their victims rationally: instead of limiting arrests to the healthy young men who would have made the best laborers . . . they also imprisoned women, children, and old people in large numbers. The sheer illogic of the mass arrests seems to argue against the idea of a carefully planned labor force—leading many to conclude that arrests were carried out primarily to eliminate Stalin’s perceived enemies, and only secondarily to fill Stalin’s camps.
Nevertheless, once prisoners were in custody the Gulag tried to organize their lives in such a way as to get maximum work out of them. The system of food norms was designed for economic purposes; in its first systematic use in the 1920s, it gave the frailest prisoners half as much food as those deemed capable of heavy labor. “In practice,” notes Applebaum, “the system sorted prisoners very rapidly into those who would survive, and those who would not. . . . Deprived of food, the weak prisoners grew weaker, and eventually became ill or died.” The “commercialization” of the camps took other forms as well. The pioneering Solovetsky Islands camp complex led the way by “slowly discarding everything that did not contribute to the camps’ economic productivity,” such as the journals and newspapers produced by the prisoners as well as “all pretense of reeducation.”
Applebaum makes it undeniably clear that in spite of this commercialization, the Gulag never became profitable; indeed, financially it was a net drain. Slave laborers could not be made to work as productively as the “free” ones outside of the camps and of course the camp system required extra expenditures on guards and the like. The system also diverted resources to gargantuan projects that would have been economically pointless even if labor costs had been zero, such as canals and railroads built by Gulag slaves in remote areas with no hope of commercial traffic. But in this as in other areas, Stalin stubbornly denied economic reality. To the very end of his life, he believed either that the camps were already economic assets or that they could be made to be. Almost immediately after his death the Soviet government canceled some of his most irrational projects.
Characteristically, Stalin and his circle tried to improve the Gulag’s productivity with top-down administrative decrees. Some of these were actually less harsh to prisoners than the practices they tried to change. Even Lavrenty Beria, head of the secret police during its cruelest period, realized that high death rates could be economically inefficient. But, just as characteristically, the Soviet bureaucracy found creative ways to circumvent such decrees. The system was riddled with corruption; embezzling of food and other items intended for the prisoners was commonplace. The most idealistic Communists (there were still many of them in the 1930s) seem to have shunned assignments in the Gulag administration, which was seen as a dumping ground for mediocrities and drunkards.
In practice the Gulag was far less of a tightly run, centralized machine than one might think. Applebaum notes that camp commanders and their staffs had considerable discretion in deciding how to run their domains—“far more than their Nazi counterparts, whose work was more rigidly defined.” A camp boss could work to make sure that his inmates had blankets, proper shoes, and clean barracks; or he could simply neglect such matters; or he could devote maximum energy, as some did, to providing a life of luxury for himself. In her interviews and reading of memoirs, Applebaum found the dominant pattern to have been not deliberate cruelty but sloppy, callous indifference. She recounts some episodes of camp commanders who treated their charges decently but makes it clear that these were rare exceptions; most were simply guided by self-interest. A commander could be punished for being too kind or for being excessively, sadistically cruel—but the great majority stayed within safe boundaries.
Paradoxically, Applebaum senses this indifference even in the internal reports of the Gulag inspectorate. “Remarkable for their honesty . . . they report on camps where death rates are ‘too high.’ They angrily accuse particular camp commanders of providing unsuitable living conditions. . . . Reading them, one can have no doubt that the Gulag bosses in Moscow knew—really and truly knew—what life was like in the camps; it is all there, in language no less frank than that used by Solzhenitsyn.” And yet, she finds that “what is striking about the reports is their very repetitiveness: they call to mind the absurd culture of phony inspection so beautifully described by the nineteenth-century Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. It is as if the forms were observed, the reports were filed, the ritual anger was expressed—and the real effects on human beings were ignored. Camp commanders were routinely reprimanded for failing to improve living standards, living standards continued to fail to improve, and there the discussion ended.”
In reading Applebaum’s comparisons of the Soviet and Nazi camps, one wonders about cultural differences as well as ideological ones and is even tempted to counterfactual fantasy: What if Marxists had first come to power in Germany rather than Russia? Would German Communists have built a highly disciplined, ruthlessly efficient camp system—like the one that was in fact built by the German Nazis—rather than the slipshod Russian version? Applebaum herself is too restrained to indulge in such speculations. She properly notes a major distinction between the actual Nazi and Soviet camp systems: the latter did not include purpose-designed extermination camps with mass murder as their sole function—places where almost all newly arrived prisoners were sent directly into gas chambers to be killed as quickly as possible. But she also notes that the Soviet regime had no principled objection to mass executions—it merely did not use the Gulag for this purpose. Hundreds of thousands fell victim to such Soviet executions: “Usually, they were driven to a forest at night, lined up, shot in the skull, and buried in mass graves before they ever got near a concentration camp—a form of murder no less ‘industrialized’ and anonymous than that used by the Nazis.”
Mass shootings are less efficient than gas chambers, but no less evil. We can be reasonably sure that an indigenous German Communist regime would have been less chaotic than the Soviet Union—but not at all that it would have been more merciful.
The term “chaotic” may seem inappropriate for a totalitarian state. But Applebaum’s account makes it clear that day-to-day life in the Gulag was a lottery. A prisoner’s survival and sanity depended mostly on his local circumstances, including circumstances not directly controlled by his camp commander. A full account of the Gulag must include the relationships between the political prisoners—those sentenced for disloyalty to the Soviet regime—and the thieves, rapists, and others convicted for activities that would be considered crimes anywhere. (Note, however, that there was nothing unusual about trumped-up “criminal” sentences for political enemies, both real and imagined.) One of the Gulag’s diabolically cruel features was that it consciously placed nonviolent political offenders at the mercy of thugs. The fact that these thugs were usually from the lower depths of society was from the Bolshevik standpoint an extra attraction. They were considered “socially close” to the vanguard of the proletariat, while the “socially dangerous” political offenders were in effect dehumanized in much the same way that the Nazis dehumanized Jews.
For the newly sentenced political prisoner—often a mild-mannered intellectual or a bewildered peasant—a common experience was to be thrust into a railroad car with hardened criminals who would attack immediately. The criminals, Applebaum writes, “would descend upon the other prisoners in what appeared to be a mad fury, throwing them off their bunks . . . stealing what remained of their clothing; howling, cursing.” Political prisoners, even military veterans, usually felt so isolated and disoriented that they meekly gave in. The situation might improve once the prisoners reached their camp, where sometimes the political prisoners managed to band together against the criminals—but it also might get worse. Guards often disappeared to the camp perimeter at night, leaving the barracks area as a zone of anarchy where the strong could prey on the weak. Gang rapes, both of women and of adolescent boys, were not unusual. The criminals built alliances with the camp bosses, who used them to keep order and to allocate rations and work assignments.
Though the criminals’ power shrank in the postwar years, as the Gulag administration increasingly realized that they were more harmful than helpful to economic productivity, they remained a major element of Gulag life. Their subculture, with its grotesquely inverted rules of behavior, has taken on a new vigor in today’s hyper-criminalized Russia. The Soviet police state, with its own inverted values, ended up directly nurturing crime.
Applebaum recounts how hard it was for her to find memoirs of people who had been in the Gulag as children, even though there had been tens of thousands of such prisoners. She thought about advertising in a newspaper for interview subjects, but a Russian friend warned her that the most common fate for such survivors was to become full-fledged criminals. Applebaum quotes a woman prisoner who worked in a camp nursery and who found that even four-year-olds had never learned to talk: “Inarticulate howls, mimicry, and blows were the main means of communication.” Mothers who had been arrested with their infants (or who gave birth while imprisoned) were usually denied all contact with them except a few grudging minutes for breast-feeding.
The normal practice was eventually to transfer such children to the Soviet state’s regular orphanages—“overcrowded, dirty, understaffed, and often lethal”—and many lost all contact with their parents. Another tragedy might await those mothers who eventually managed to find their children. One woman, “released after an eight-year sentence, went to get her children from the orphanage, only to find that they refused to go with her. They had been taught that their parents were ‘enemies of the people’ who deserved no love.”
In yet another example of the Gulag’s slipshod administration, investigators repeatedly complained about the practice of housing adolescent prisoners in camps for adults, contrary to Moscow’s instructions. Ex-prisoner Lev Razgon recalled of these youths that “the horror of what had happened had deprived them of all defenses,” and that the adult criminal prisoners found it easy to recruit and corrupt them. They soon “displayed a frightening and incorrigibly vengeful cruelty, without restraint or responsibility. . . . The guards and camp bosses were scared to enter the separate barracks where the juveniles lived. It was there that the vilest, most cynical, and cruel acts that took place in the camps occurred. . . . The girls boasted that they could satisfy an entire team of tree-fellers. There was nothing human left in these children and it was impossible to imagine that they might return to the normal world and become ordinary human beings again.”
Adults of course could also be corrupted by the Gulag—but they could also be ennobled. The memoirists who seem to resonate most with Applebaum are those like Razgon, with their feelings of emptiness and futility. Such feelings are probably much more common among Gulag survivors than Solzhenitsyn’s—perhaps one reason for the latter’s loss of popularity. But Solzhenitsyn is not the only survivor to look back on his Gulag years not as an utter waste but as a gift, even a blessing. His trilogy includes a section, “The Soul and Barbed Wire,” which I think will still be read centuries from now as a classic of prison literature, long after our descendants have lost interest in the details of Soviet politics. Perhaps it will even be excerpted and anthologized separately, like the Grand Inquisitor speech in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.
Solzhenitsyn talks about “the great fork of camp life” where two roads diverge. “If you go to the right—you lose your life, and if you go to the left—you lose your conscience.” He admits with sorrow that most prisoners did not choose the right fork. He mentions by name several who did, including his former cellmate, an Estonian lawyer—and others whom he knew by reputation such as an indomitable, repeatedly arrested schoolteacher.
Once “you have renounced that aim of ‘surviving at any price,’ and gone where the calm and simple people go,” writes Solzhenitsyn, “imprisonment begins to transform your former character in an astonishing way.” It gives you, unwelcome at first, time to think. Previously “you were sharply intolerant. You were constantly in a rush. And you were constantly short of time. And now you have time with interest. You are surfeited with it, with its months and years, behind you and ahead of you—and a beneficial calming fluid pours through your blood vessels—patience.”
Solzhenitsyn had a long conversation in a Gulag hospital with an imprisoned doctor, a new convert to Christianity. He quotes what Dr. Boris Kornfeld told him: “There is no punishment that comes to us in this life on earth which is undeserved. Superficially it can have nothing to do with what we are guilty of in actual fact, but if you go over your life with a fine-tooth comb and ponder it deeply, you will always be able to hunt down that transgression of yours for which you have now received this blow.”
Those words—among the doctor’s last on earth, for another prisoner murdered him the next day—planted the seeds for Solzhenitsyn’s realization “that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart. . . . Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains an unuprooted small corner of evil.”
Applebaum provides an evenhanded account of the continuing debate over Solzhenitsyn’s stern views on the pridurki or trusties—prisoners who collaborated with the camp administration in return for various privileges. (Solzhenitsyn himself agreed to be one during his early, disoriented days of imprisonment—an experience, he writes, that “filled me with shame.”) Some ex-prisoners defend this practice as the only way to survive if one was not accustomed to physical labor—and also as an opportunity (admittedly not taken by all) to help prisoners lower in the hierarchy. Solzhenitsyn’s view is that being a trusty inevitably entangled one in a corrupt system that benefited some prisoners at the direct expense of others. In any case, there is reason to think that most long-term prisoners who survived were trusties during at least part of their sentences. Applebaum relays a survivor’s account of a reunion of old camp friends. As they were reminiscing, “one of them looked around the room and realized what it was that held them together, what made it possible for them to laugh at the past instead of crying: ‘All of us had been pridurki.’”
It seems that serious religious believers were less likely to become collaborators. Applebaum tells of a women’s camp in which the majority of prisoners were believers, who organized so that the Orthodox would do extra work on the Roman Catholic holidays and vice versa, enabling both groups to celebrate their feasts. (This is consistent with what many believers have told me in Russia: oppression inspired a solidarity among the various confessions that sadly has not survived the end of the Soviet Union.) She recounts several cases in which members of minority faiths openly defied their jailers—such as a tiny group of Old Believers who had fled deep into the wilderness of the northern Urals in 1919 and managed to live there secretly for decades. They were finally discovered from the air and sent to the Gulag—where they became “permanent residents of the punishment cells, having categorically refused to work for the Soviet Antichrist.”
Unfortunately, Applebaum fails to give due consideration to the story of the mainstream Orthodox, who produced tens of thousands of imprisoned bishops, priests, and monastics, as well as rank-and-file laymen. She fails to mention Aleksandr Ogorodnikov or Father Gleb Yakunin—two of the most heroic Gulag prisoners, who tenaciously spoke out for religious freedom not just for their fellow Orthodox but for all believers. Roman Catholics she sees largely through the lens of their ethnic identities as Poles or Lithuanians—a true picture but an incomplete one. On the Protestants she is somewhat stronger, reporting that the Khrushchev years, during which religious persecution was growing while other forms of repression were softening, saw the Baptists become “the largest single dissident group behind barbed wire.”
Applebaum also appreciates the importance of the fact that the Solovetsky Islands prison—the model for the rest of the Gulag—was housed in an ancient Orthodox monastery. In its early years it specialized in housing imprisoned clerics, including seventeen bishops who in 1926 and 1927 issued two of the most unjustly neglected religious documents of the twentieth century, protesting the new regime’s persecution of believers. In contrast to the collaborationist policies that were to become the hallmark of the Moscow Patriarchate, the imprisoned bishops proclaimed that “the Church will be ready for the material deprivations to which it could be subjected . . . remembering that its strength does not depend on the existence of an undamaged external structure.”
In the summer of 2000 the Moscow Patriarchate canonized six of these Gulag bishops—a hopeful sign that the Patriarchate is finally, slowly coming to grips with its tainted past. It is as if the Lutheran Church in Germany had taken until the 1960s to honor anti-Nazi clerics such as Martin Niemoeller. But such signs are rare in today’s Russia, which has no state-sponsored equivalents of the West’s Holocaust museums. Secular symbols such as the national anthem are now growing more Sovietized rather than less—as is the school curriculum, from which Gulag victims such as the poets Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam are being squeezed out again after the brief renaissance of the 1990s. As Applebaum observes, the selective memory of Putin’s Russia is impoverishing the country’s political culture—depriving schoolchildren of the chance to be inspired by heroes who “ought to be as widely known in Russia as are, in Germany, the names of the participants in the plot to kill Hitler.”
The failure to remember impoverishes the West as well. Applebaum wisely declares that “this book was not written ‘so that it will not happen again.’ . . . It almost certainly will happen again.” Somewhere, not necessarily in Russia, we shall again have to stare tyranny and mass murder in the face. We can try to prepare ourselves not only by studying the eternal questions of good and evil, the “first things” of theology and political philosophy—but also by mapping the specific historical paths, each uniquely tortuous, of past exterminations. This splendid book contributes in innumerable ways to the latter project.
Lawrence A. Uzzell President of International Religious Freedom Watch, has specialized in religious freedom in Russia since the 1980s.