Highest kudos to Anne Applebaum, for winning the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction for her Gulag: A History, a thorough, clinically detached, and thus all the more searing account of the prison-camp system in Soviet Russia.
Set up in 1918 just months after the communist revolution and still in existence when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the hundreds of brutal camps, deliberately located in the iciest, most inhospitable parts of Siberia and elsewhere, were from the very beginning an integral part of the policy behind the communist workers’ paradise. The aim was to rid Soviet society of those deemed as undesirables, especially intellectuals and others who dissented from the red dream. Some 18 million people deemed politically incorrect passed through the camps, and huge numbers of them died of starvation, cold, overwork, untreated disease, and the unstinting brutality of guards and fellow prisoners. Worst of all was the lesson the camps were deliberately designed to teach Soviet citizens: that any one of them could be picked off the streets or pulled from his home to be reduced to slavery. I’ll quote from David Frum’s fine column on Applebaum’s book in National Review last year:
“The Gulag was the Soviet Union. We may imagine inmates chopping trees, like Ivan Denisovich [of Aleander Solzhenitsyn’s prison-camp novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich], or digging for gold in Kolyma. They were equally likely to be found constructing apartment blocks in Moscow or making toys or canning fish. The Nazi camps were death camps, intended to murder; any industrial contribution they might make to the German war effort was incidental at best. The Soviets, by contrast, built their economy on a foundation of slave labor ‘ the first modern society to try such a thing since the Confederacy, with the difference that any Soviet citizen could be reduced to slavery at any moment.
“No reader will easily forget Applebaum’s vivid accounts of the horrible human suffering of the Gulag: the hunger and frostbite, the lonely, disregarded deaths, the sadism and exploitation, the mothers snatched on the street without so much as a final goodbye to their families, the orphaned children dying of cold and starvation and neglect, the fear and mistrust felt between those who were randomly spared and those who were almost as randomly seized.”
Solzhenytsin, of course, explored the same territory in his The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956. His book, however, was based on his own experiences and those of his fellow prisoners in Soviet camps. Applebaum tells the same story–but through exhaustive methodical research in Soviet archives, meticulously documenting Solzhenytsin’s story of horror with the cold bookkeeping accounts behind it. As Frum writes:
“Any decent person can recognize the inhumanity and cruelty of the Gulag (though as a matter of record, a remarkable number of people who considered themselves decent managed to avoid recognizing it when it counted). But what Applebaum emphasizes, as nobody before her has done, is the Gulag’s sheer stupid pointlessness.
“Who would set prisoners to work digging an unnecessary canal from the White Sea to the Baltic using only hand tools? How could anybody imagine that starving slaves could outproduce American factories? Were the Soviets crazy?”
The answer is: no, they were profoundly evil. Most horrifying of all was the complacency with which liberal Western intellectuals and politicians shrugged off the lives broken in the gulags as the eggs necessary for the happy communist omelette. When Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau visited the Siberian city of Norilsk back in Soviet days, he lamented that Canada had never built any city so large in the far north. He was either unaware or unconcerned that Norilsk had been constructed entirely through prison-camp slave labor. Our thanks to Applebaum for finally setting the record straight.