Review: Anna Applebaum “Gulag: A History”



Applebaum has helped to lift the lid on arguably the most brutal regime in history. The level of systematic and institutional violence was incomprehensible. I am not sure the human brain was designed to think in these terms. I kept asking myself  “how?” while reading “Gulag”. In the Soviet system, they did not view individuals as human beings deserving of their own human rights, but rather as pawns in their quest to “equality”. This justified untold violence.   Applebaum has written a scholarly tomb, researching countless numbers of official documents, speaking to survivors and she succeeds in giving a voice to an untold number of people, humanising the mass terror.   As Applebaum puts it, “without question the system was rigid, inflexible and inhumane”. The history principally analysed here dates from the start of the Revolution in 1917 up until the beginning of the end of the Gulag as a system in 1953, after Stalin had died. She estimates that from 1928-1953, approximately 18 million people went through the 176 Gulags in the old USSR.



Early Gulag history:



Pre Revolution, the Gulag was a typical prison system as could be found across the world at the time. It expanded when Lenin began sentencing increasingly high numbers of political opponents.   This quickly escalated into Lenin sentencing bourgeois people to “half a year in a mine” and so the early expansion of the totalitarian mind-set of simply locking up anybody who disagreed with the Party set in. Applebaum points out that it is dishonest to say the system began with Stalin, as some would imagine. Indeed, Trotsky and Lenin both philosophically justified violence and repression as necessary tools of the Revolution.



Lenin discussed using the camps as soon as the Bolsheviks seized power. Of the early political prisoners, it is intriguing to recall that the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks (the main Political opposition in Russia at the time), whom the Bolsheviks fought with, wrote a letter publicly stating that conditions had worsened in prison under the new regime. An important distinction.  Human rights were bottom of the Bolshevik agenda. Although the situation would gravely deteriorate, this bourgeois attitude to human life paved the way for the senseless violence that was to follow. Some revisionists believe that Lenin and Stalin can be differentiated in this regard. Not so, the level of violence is the only thing separating them. Both believed in the use of force and repression as justified.


Under Lenin, camps were chiefly for prisoners. They became Gulags sometime in 1927 when thirty thousand prisoners were transferred to the secret police, the OGPU. “Prisoners” grew to include Kulaks, who refused to participate in collectivisation. Stalin became paranoid about virtually everyone, especially those within his own Party. Applebaum highlights how, due to the numbers involved, it could not have been only Stalin locking people up. It is too easy to lay the entirety of the blame on his violent shoulders. However, he was instrumental in institutionalising the terror. Laws were ignored and new ones created to justify imprisoning anybody vaguely resembling any political opposition or “counter-revolutionaries” as they became to be known. Regional camp commanders were given the green light to lock up anyone they wished to. Evidence was rarely required.



Brutality and Violence:



The number of hours prisoners had to work slowly doubled after the start of the Revolution.  As the camps began to expand, the ethos that people were just numbers, microscopic cogs in the overarching Soviet machine began to take hold. Prison guards began treating them as “animals”. Twelve-hour shifts were routine but consecutive thirty-six and forty-eight-hour shifts were also inflicted upon people. Evidence of prisoners being viewed as sub human can be proven by the fact that horses were entitled to a day off every eight days. Humans only had one day off a month.



The physical work was so hard that some prisoners nailed their testicles to the prison cells that they were in, just to get out of doing the work. They injected their penises with soap to fake STDs, put acid in their eyes and cut off their fingers. This tells us all we need to know about how hard they worked prisoners within the system.


Prisoners were put in boxes. New arrestees were raped.  When the Gulag system expanded, and new camps were created, there was rarely any accommodation set up for people to live in when they arrived. Prisoners and guards turned up to the location to find…nothing. Nine thousand prisoners died setting up the Kolyma Gulag in the Russian far east. They had nothing to eat for days and built their own habitats in one of the harshest climates on Earth. To this day, there remains proof of mass graves in the area surrounding far northern and eastern Gulags as the ice has kept them unburied. No names were given to the prisoners who died and their families were not informed, meaning that their ancestors never had the dignity of being able to bury their loved ones. 


From 1937 until 1939, workers were “deliberately worked to death” as the economy worsened and physical torture was introduced in an attempt to increase the productivity in the Gulags. The whole point of the communist system was meant to be to smash the social structure and make society equal. You would think that noble aim would be imbued with an innate sense of empathy. Not in Soviet Russia as “those too ill to work were simply put on disciplinary rations and left to starve”. With only a certain amount of food to go around, camp commanders made the decision to give more food to the workers who were in good health. Any people who were starving or disabled, or unable to work for any reason, were not fed. This stemmed from the utilitarian belief that prisoners who could not work were of no use.






Three hundred people were killed by Scurvy during the 1920’s in the Solovki Gulag.  Head lice were impossible to avoid, despite prisoners being shaved upon arrival (often women in front of men).  There were frequent outbreaks of louse based typhus.


From the first quarter in 1941, in one single Gulag, eight thousand people were hospitalised due to pneumonia, frostbite, dysentery and circulation problems. Hundreds perished. The full records for the whole system have still not been released so it is impossible to evaluate an accurate total.


There were no official statistics kept for the suicide rate. However, Applebaum has worked out that the many deaths attributed to “heart attack” within the Gulags, raised suspicion, even with doctors within the system. Applebaum cites an incredible story from Lev Razgon, who recited a conversation he had heard between colonel Tarasyuk (camp commander of Ustvymlag) and Kogan (the camp doctor). The doctor informed the colonel that he had saved 246 prisoners from pellagra by giving them the appropriate food rations. The colonel immediately asked when they would be working in the forest again. The doctor said that they would never be able to work again. The colonel then told him he was to stop giving them rations. Doctor Kogan replied, “obviously I didn’t explain myself clearly. These people will only survive if they are given a special ration”. The colonel shrugged and said, “Do your medical ethics prevent you from doing your job?”. “Of course,” said the doctor. “Well I don’t give a damn for your ethics” was the final response. All 246 prisoners died within a month.






Living conditions in the Gulags were prehistoric. Bed bugs were a fact of life and there were multiple accounts of how “handfuls of them would fall off people at bath time”. Prisoners were given second-hand underwear. The infamous “eat as you work system” translated into people being forced into being asked to achieve increasingly unrealistic targets just to get basic rations to survive.


Applebaum chronicles the “Nazino” affair, which took place on Nazino Island (or “Cannibal Island” as the Russians affectionately refer to it). Four of the six thousand settlers sent there died due to a lack of food, shelter and work tools. Twenty-seven died on the trains there from Moscow and Leningrad and 295 were buried on the first day alone. The people ended up eating each other to survive. A report was commissioned in 1933 to establish what happened. It was released in 2002.


In 1930, workers received up to 1 kilogramme of bread a day. This was halved by 1937. Prisoners were forced to sleep with the lights on and frequently with no pillows. Multiple people slept in cramped rooms.


Letters were not distributed to the prisoners from the camp commanders as the system was so inept and corrupt. The guards did not care if they received them or not. In any case, prisoners had nothing to write with. Prison accountants ended up using wallpaper to write on and prisoners sewed letters into the clothes of their fellow prisoners, who were leaving in a desperate attempt to let their loved ones know that they were still alive. Visits were only allowed every six months for good behaviour. Naturally, corruption was endemic and the most violent thieves, and not the innocent Kulaks, learned how to swindle the system to enhance their living conditions.



Who was put in the Gulags?  



Virtually anyone. Nine thousand German communists, thousands of Polish communists and a disproportionate amount of Jews, who began to be persecuted in greater numbers during the 1950’s, when Stalin thought his Jewish doctors were conspiring to kill him. Rabbi’s used to pray in locked wardrobes to conceal their faith. The Soviet Union was an atheist State, but people were persecuted for their beliefs. Almost all black people that came to Moscow disappeared. Foreign nationals were always suspected of conspiring against Russia, in fact, anyone that had any relation to foreign people was a suspect.  Thousands of Finnish people were sent to the Gulag. The USSR advertised great “working conditions” to unemployed Finnish speaking workers in the United States of America too. Some twenty-five thousand of them came in search of the communist dream. Most were imprisoned when they tried to leave. One hundred and forty thousand Polish people were locked up. Camp commanders were explicitly instructed to “beat the Poles for all they’re worth”. Numerous Japanese & Chinese ended up in the Gulag too. The Japanese, particularly, could not survive the weather.


Women deliberately had children to try to get an easier life. One woman was documented as having a deliberate abortion performed on her. Children were systematically separated from their parents at birth. Later, if they were ever reunited, children refused to go back home with their parents as they had been taught that their parents were enemies of the people. Applebaum refers to Robert Conquest’s unearthing of how the NKVD (the later name for the secret police) used to force confessions from ten-year-old children, after locking them in prison in 1979. Genrikh Yogada, an NKVD official, wrote that “at last count there (were) 4,305 children getting mixed up in adult prisons”. Child prisoners ended up with the adults. The vast majority of the tens of thousands of child prisoners became criminals in their adult lives.



The White Sea canal



Yogada oversaw the production of the White Sea canal project, perhaps the best example of how the ends justified the means in the Soviet system, no matter the human cost. It was only dug twelve feet deep which meant that most ships could not pass through it. This design flaw was the result of not taking the advice of experts. Stalin wanted it constructed immediately as part of the Party controlling the means of production. In fact, the whole idea of canals as a means of transport became irrelevant around about this time as trains became the way to transport goods, a fact widely known at the time.  Twenty-one thousand human beings died building it. Letters from the workers who helped build the canal said that they preferred prison. The tools they used can still be viewed today in Russian museums. They were forced to use basic implements such as pick axes made out of leather boot straps. These were supposed to cut through solid granite. There was no machinery involved.  Soviet intellectuals wrote about the White Sea Canal as if it was a success. Stalin threatened those who said his original target of twenty months was unrealistic. In an example of how nobody was safe, Yogada himself was arrested and shot, on charges of Trotskyism and espionage during the purges.







Stalin referred to the prisoners as “vermin” and “weeds” in his speeches. A dialect named “thieves language” was created in the camps.


 “Political prisoners” were not actually political prisoners. Similarly, “criminal” prisoners also became a meaningless definition. It is impossible not to think of Orwell’s newspeak when analysing how they expanded the definition of certain words. 


By 1948, special new camps within camps began to be created for political and violent inmates near the Arctic Circle. The language used in naming them was revealing, “With a surprisingly poetic touch, the gulag authorities gave them all names derived from the landscape: mineral, mountain, oak, step, seashore, river, lake, sand, meadow. The point was presumably conspiratorial since there were no oak trees at Oak camp”.



The Gulag during World War Two:



Stalin began a “cultural genocide” of Crimeans, Tartars and people from Chechnya by sending them to populate the Northern and Kazakh regions of the USSR. The Soviet government erased records of the names and families of the people who were moved. They “destroyed cemeteries and renamed towns” in a bid to pretend that this did not happen.


In Poland, “Stalin’s intention was to erase the Polish elite”. Schoolteachers, priests and twenty thousand soldiers were killed during the Katyn massacre on the “direct orders of Stalin in 1940”.

Tens of thousands of Poles were sent to Gulags across the Soviet Union.


There was a sixty percent death rate in the prisoners of war camps in 1943. Five hundred and seventy thousand people died.


In 1954, there were eighty-four thousand prisoners in camps in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and Yugoslavia.


In 1950 there were two and a half million prisoners in the Gulag. That was one million more than five years beforehand. The USSR imprisoned a million more people after the years after the war.


The beginning of the end came after Stalin died in 1953. The year after this led to multiple revolts and a slow loosening of the rules.  It is incredible that even after the Gulag’s were disbanded, there was no apology or memorial for the millions of victims. Virtually all of the other old Soviet republics did so.  Yet, the old KGB agents and camp commanders still got their pensions.







Astonishingly, people still celebrate the achievements of the Gulag system.   The roads that were built, the electricity that was provided to remote areas, the butternut squash fields that began to grow in the previously frozen north east and the linking up of remote areas of the USSR.


There were thirty thousand prisoners in 1917 and four million in 1950 in four hundred and seventy-six Gulags. This was first and foremost a failure of humanity.


Applebaum neatly summarises the utilitarian philosophy at the heart of the old Soviet Union, “anything can be justified as long as it brings more gold out of the ground”. The author of the definitive account of life in the Gulag, Solzhenitsyn, “dedicated a chapter of the “Gulag Archipelago” to the communists whom he referred to, not very charitably, as good thinkers. He marvelled at their ability to explain away even their own arrest, torture and incarceration as the very cunning work of foreign intelligence services or wrecking on an enormous scale or a plot by the NKVD. Some came up with an even more magisterial explanation. These repressions were a historical necessity for the development of our society”. The use of propaganda was so effective that it meant that even victims justified it. Nancy Adler, a survivor of the Gulag system, articulated it best when she said that an “allegiance to a belief system can have deep non-rational roots”. This belief often spread to Western communists. Recall Bertold Brecht, “the more innocent they are, the more they deserve to die”.


Applebaum unearths a real problem when it comes to the issue of how the Soviet Union is still viewed by many modern leftists, “the crimes of Stalin do not inspire the same visceral reaction as do the crimes of Hitler… where are the Hollywood movies?”. It is bewildering that people still think that because they were trying to do the right thing, that the violence can somehow be overlooked. Why do people in the West still wear USSR t-shirts and trinkets and yet concurrently believe it is inappropriate to wear Nazi ones?


Applebaum has done a memorable job of voicing the muted stories of millions of innocent victims that the Soviet system tried to silence, “sometimes a local group has put up a monument. More often there is no marking at all. The names, the lives, the individual stories, the family connections, the history. All were lost”. Humanity remains indebted to  Applebaum and her ilk for courageously telling the true story of the Gulag in Twentieth Century Russia. 


About Mick Gilbride

Aside | This entry was posted in Anna Applebaum, Book review, Books, communism, Crime, Crimes against humanity, Death, Democracy, Destruction of the species, Ethics, Gulag, Gulag: A, History, Leon Trotsky, Politics, russia, Socialism, Stalin, Totalitarianism, Trying to make sense of it all, USSR, war, War Crimes and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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