The Soviet Gulag’s Haunting Legacy
National Post, 14 June 2003
Eighteen million men and women were cast into the concentration camps of the Soviet Gulag. They carved canals, highways and railroads through the Russian wilderness, mined gold, uranium and lead, and even designed military aircraft and rockets. Millions of them perished. Russia’s modern economy is built, quite literally, on the bones of slaves.
But until recently, our knowledge of the Gulag came largely from a handful of survivor accounts smuggled out of the Soviet Union decades ago. They were products of their time. During the Cold War, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, laced with moral outrage and bitter sarcasm, was used more often as an ideological cudgel than a historical resource.
Now, more than a decade after the fall of Communism, English-speaking audiences can finally look soberly, if not dispassionately, on the long history of forced labour in the Soviet Union. In Gulag: A History, the accomplished journalist Anne Applebaum writes that she has tried to avoid the “emotions and the politics which have long surrounded the historiography of the Soviet concentration camps.” Her book is a major achievement on every level — in research, in judgment, in style.
Soviet prison-labour camps might have been born as an “emergency measure in the heat of the civil war” raging in Russia from 1918 to 1921, but Applebaum admits they had considerable “prior appeal.” From their earliest days, Lenin’s Bolsheviks took delight in forcing Russia’s former “exploiting classes” to work. With the end of the civil war, the brutality of the camps flourished. On the northern Solovetsky Islands, Applebaum observes, between one-quarter and one-half of camp inmates may have died each year throughout the 1920s. Prisoners were deliberately crippled, starved or tortured. Some were tied overnight to posts, where mosquitoes would swarm them for hours. Others, perhaps the lucky ones, were executed, seemingly at random.
Soviet authorities were appalled — not by the suffering of the inmates, though, but by the camps’ unprofitability. Throughout the 1930s, economic considerations would transform the camps into the defining symbol of Stalin’s rule. Mortality rates in the Gulag probably declined under Stalin. His industrialization campaign could only succeed if its hardest workers — the swelling ranks of the Gulag — were fed enough to survive.
And yet, even though the Gulag was not an automatic death sentence, its reality was misery enough. Applebaum distills the essence of the camp experience through memoirs, documents and interviews. What kinds of fabricated charges might lead to an arrest? How long might one expect to languish in a Soviet prison? What kinds of assaults and outrages might occur on the journey from prison to work camp? And how did inmates survive the camps’ starvation-level rations, the casual brutality of the camp guards, the special hell reserved for women and children?
Official plans rarely conformed to lived reality. Though prison inmates regularly wallowed in their own filth, Soviet regulations specified that latrine buckets should be 55-60 centimetres high for men, 30-35 centimetres for women, with a capacity of .75 litres per person.
Exactingly detailed formulas governed the feeding of prisoners, but, as Applebaum notes, these rations were “not a reliable guide to what prisoners actually ate.” One 1940 camp inspection determined that the entire lunch for a labouring convict consisted of water, 130 grams of grain and 100 grams of black bread. The camp cook reported that there had been no deliveries of fish, meat or vegetables.
For many recent historians, the worst depravities of Stalinism were a result of such institutional “chaos,” rather than any so-called “master plan.” Applebaum neatly dismisses such nonsense. “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 official reports], in language no less frank than that used by Solzhenitsyn.” Camp guards were traditionally the dregs of society, often former convicts themselves, carefully indoctrinated in the Soviet ideology of class hatred. The results were not only foreseeable; they were inevitable. “In the end,” Applebaum writes, “nobody forced guards to rescue the young and murder the old. Nobody forced camp commanders to kill off the sick. Nobody forced the Gulag bosses in Moscow to ignore the implications of inspectors’ reports. Yet such decisions were made openly, every day, by guards and administrators apparently convinced they had the right to make them.”
Evil on such a scale inevitably draws comparisons with the Holocaust. Few were better qualified to make this judgment than Janusz Bardach, a plastic surgeon who died last year at the age of 83. In his 1998 memoir, Man is Wolf to Man: Surviving the Gulag, Bardach told the story of his arrest and imprisonment as a Polish-Jewish draftee in the Red Army during the Second World War.
After miraculously escaping a death sentence for rolling a Soviet tank, he spent five years in Kolyma. In Surviving Freedom, which was completed just before his death last August, Bardach tells of how he emerged from the camps only to learn that his entire family, including his wife, had been murdered by the Nazis. He travels back to his home town of Wlodzimierz-Wolynski, now cleansed of its Jews, walks through his family’s old home and business, sits in his father’s old office chair. In a particularly shattering passage, he visits the field where 24,000 Jews, his family among them, were slaughtered. Gazing upon the waves of trenches where their bodies are buried, Bardach quietly gathers stones to mark his family’s burial plot. “Even my worst days in the labor camps weren’t as bad as life in the ghetto,” he reflects on his family’s last days. “Although the labor, hunger, cold, filth, and disease decimated prisoners, everyone knew that if he survived his term, he would be free.”
But evil is measured in terms broader than life and death. And while Bardach’s is a success story (he would eventually emigrate to the United States, where he pioneered a surgical procedure for treating cleft palate), Applebaum shows that the Gulag rarely had happy endings. Tens of thousands of children, for instance, were condemned to life in the camps, where they were subjected to horrific abuse. For once, Applebaum’s powers of research fail her. She considers posting a newspaper advertisement to interview survivors. “Don’t,” a friend advises her. “We all know what such people became.”
It is a legacy that continues to haunt Russia. Slave labour created one of the most imposing structures of sheer power ever known. Whether freedom can build something equally impressive, though more humane, remains to be seen.