Excellent review of Anne Applebaum's GULAG in this HAARETZ (a lefty rag I generally abhor) but the evil that men do transcends politics.........
One hundred years of evil
By Leona Toker
Paradoxes of public opinion: People worry about the victims of the tsunami but forget about the victims in Darfur. The O.J. Simpson trial competed for ratings with the Rwandan genocide. The Holocaust is commemorated with due solemnity (important to all sides in this period of new anti-Semitism), but talk of "those gulags" is considered boring.
Indeed, in the introduction to her Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Gulag: A History," Anne Applebaum registers her amazement on seeing how Western tourists purchase Soviet-era souvenirs in liberated Prague. The same tourists would never dream of parading Nazi symbols as keepsakes. In his book "Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million," English novelist Martin Amis attempts to reach an imaginative understanding of Stalin's era and of the accommodating attitudes of leftist intellectuals in England toward Soviet totalitarianism (the intellectual left in the United States, France and Israel has also had cause for remorse on this matter) - as well as of the reasons why the study of Soviet history often evokes a bitter laugh.
It is pointless to debate whether it was the Nazi totalitarian regime or the Soviet one that caused more human suffering; one infinity is no greater than another. The comparison, however, is legitimate when one of the two systems can shed light on the other. Amis' bitter laughter while studying Soviet history is associated with the contrast between utopian hopes and the means of achieving them; between humanistic slogans and reality; between the idealist intentions of the Russian revolutionaries and the cynicism with which they forced their social experiment on hundreds of millions of people who may have had their own recipes for happiness. These contradictions were clearly reflected in the empire of concentration/forced labor camps, which was part of the Soviet Union throughout its history and which, in the wake of Aleksander Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago," has come to be widely known as the gulag. Concentration camps were neither a Russian invention nor a German one.
They were first established in 1896 by Spaniards in Cuba, to keep the peasants from supporting local rebels. At that time, the camps supposedly served as a "humane" substitute for massacre. The word "concentration" in the name of this institution is short for "reconcentration" - the transfer of population centers in order to separate civilians from guerrilla combatants. Nevertheless, the age-old drive for genocide found expression here too: It manifested itself in the failure to create the infrastructure necessary for the transfer, in the non-provision (whether deliberate or negligent) of food and medicine, and in the day-to-day cruelty of the perpetrators. The routines of local civilization were shattered, the needs of the community were not addressed, and thousands of women, children and elderly people were left to die of malnutrition and disease without staining the soldiers' hands with their blood.
A cheap alternative
The history of the concentration camps is surveyed in Joel Kotek and Pierre Rigoulot's "Le siecle des camps: Detention, concentration, extermination; Cent ans de mal radical," on which Applebaum relies. She also draws on numerous studies about the concentration camps established in Russia in 1918 at Trotsky and Lenin's initiatives. The camps were then viewed as a temporary measure. The creation of a just socialist regime was supposed to eliminate the conditions that led to crime, and with them the need for penitentiaries. This belief, another cause for bitter laughter, impeded the building of new prisons; instead, "enemies of the people" and suspects arrested in great numbers were placed in temporary facilities. This solution ("humane" in comparison to swift executions, also fashionable at the time) was relatively cheap, a fact that caused it, paradoxically, to spread and endure, continuing to exist even today in countries such as North Korea and China.
The camps served several purposes. The goal of the political police was to have suspected opponents of the regime isolated or vindictively punished, whereas the people's commissariat of justice sought to reeducate prisoners through labor. All the parties involved wanted the camps to be run as economically self-supporting enterprises, getting maximum yield at a minimal investment. During years when food was scarce throughout Russia, this minimum became a death sentence.
The number of prisoners grew steadily, reaching millions by the late 1930s. They were put to work creating infrastructure in areas where survival was difficult, building roads, factories and entire cities, cutting timber in the forests of the north, working in mines, in agriculture and in industry. Marxist political economy recognizes that slave labor is ineffective due to the lack of incentive - but Stalin's henchmen created an incentive: they tied the size of the prisoners' food rations to their labor output. Those who met the "quotas" got more to eat, those who did not, got less. The system was gradually refined, so that eventually the ration scale came to include 17 different norms of nutrition - without, of course, taking into account the systematic theft of food supplies on the way to the mess.
Varlam Shalamov (1907-1982; author of "Kolyma Tales") once said that the subject of the gulag was vast enough for 10 writers like Tolstoy and 100 writers like Solzhenitsyn. It is also vast enough for thousands of historians. The uniqueness of Applebaum's book lies in its combination of a comprehensive vision, accessible prose and a sufficiently penetrating understanding of the material. Among historians there are Holocaust deniers, and there is also a school that denies the dimensions of the Stalinist terror. The main argument of the latter concerns the numbers of people incarcerated in the gulags. After perestroika, historians first gained access to the archives of the gulag administration, and efficiently discovered documents quoting smaller numbers (for example, 2.5 million prisoners in the peak years, in contrast to the estimate of 7 million made by Robert Conquest, the classical historian of Stalinist Russia. Conquest's estimate is conservative in comparison with the insistence of many of the survivors that peak years saw about 10 million prisoners in Soviet camps).
Anne Applebaum sidesteps this trap (although she cautiously leans toward the conservative statistics). Having spoken with survivors and read prisoner testimonies, she is well aware that numbers can be doctored, accounts falsified, and that statistics may fail to reflect a great many realities. She also knows how to read the reports of gulag inspectors, which strike her as surprisingly honest, about the conditions in the camps. As one survivor, author Lev Razgon, explains in his memoirs, only an initiated reader can understand the true meaning of a "shortage of drying facilities" noted in a report - i.e., that the following morning people would go to work wearing clothes that had not dried during the night and freeze to death in them.
Applebaum's contribution to the study of the history of the gulag also involves her use of new archival research (conducted by herself and others) to authenticate stories previously regarded as folklore - for example, the case of the 6,114 peasants who were brought to an uninhabited island on the Ob River and left there without food or supplies. Some 4,000 of them died within four months; the survivors were sent to prison on charges of cannibalism.
Poster from the documentary "Gulag," directed by Angus MacQueen.