GULAG: AN INTRODUCTION

The renowned author Anne Applebaum has published Gulag: A History. She is also the author of an introduction to the history of the vast network of labor camps in the Soviet Union published on the webpage of the Global Museum on Communism.

Anne Applebaum is a columnist for the Washington Post. She is also the Director of Political Studies at the Legatum Institute in London, where she runs projects on political and economic transition.

From 1988-1991 she covered the collapse of communism as the Warsaw correspondent of the Economist magazine.

Her first book, Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe, described a journey through Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus, then on the verge of independence.

Applebaum’s book, Gulag: A History, was published in 2003 and won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 2004. The book narrates the history of the Soviet concentration camps system and describes daily life in the camps, making extensive use of recently opened Russian archives, as well as memoirs and interviews. Gulag: A History has appeared in more than two dozen translations, including all major European languages. Excerpts from the introduction below:

The word “GULAG” is an acronym for Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, or Main Camp Administration, the institution which ran the Soviet camps. But over time, the word has also come to signify the system of Soviet slave labor itself, in all its forms and varieties: labour camps, punishment camps, criminal and political camps, women’s camps, children’s camps, transit camps. Even more broadly, “Gulag” has come to mean the Soviet repressive system itself, the set of procedures that Alexander Solzhenitsyn once called “our meat grinder”: the arrests, the interrogations, the transport in unheated cattle cars, the forced labor, the destruction of families, the years spent in exile, the early and unnecessary deaths.

It took on its modern and more familiar form almost immediately after the Russian Revolution. By the end of the summer of 1918, Lenin, the revolution’s leader, had already called for “mass terror” to put down his opponents, demanding that “unreliable elements” be locked up in concentration camps outside major towns. A string of aristocrats, merchants, and other people defined as potential “enemies” were duly imprisoned. By 1921, there were already 84 camps in 43 provinces, mostly designed to “rehabilitate” these first enemies of the people.

From 1929, the camps took on a new significance. In that year, Stalin decided to use forced labor both to speed up the Soviet Union’s industrialization, and to excavate the natural resources in the Soviet Union’s barely habitable far north.

Contrary to popular assumption, the Gulag did not cease growing in the 1930s, but rather continued to expand throughout the war and into the 1940s, reaching its apex in the early 1950s. By that time the camps had come to play a central role in the Soviet economy. Prisoners worked in almost every industry imaginable – logging, mining, construction, factory work, farming, the designing of airplanes and artillery – and lived, in effect, in a country within a country, almost a separate civilization. The Gulag, which eventually came to include at least 476 camp systems – each of which in turn could contain hundreds of small camps – had its own laws, its own customs, its own morality, even its own slang.

From 1929, when the Gulag began its major expansion, until 1953, when Stalin died, the best estimates indicate that some eighteen million people passed through this massive system. About another six million were sent into exile, deported to the Kazakh deserts or the Siberian forests. Legally obliged to remain in their exile villages, they too were forced laborers, even though they did not live behind barbed wire.

As a system of mass forced labour, the camps disappeared when Stalin died.

Nevertheless, the camps did not disappear altogether. Instead, they evolved. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, a few of them were redesigned, and put to use as prisons for a new generation of democratic activists, anti-Soviet nationalists – and criminals. Thanks to the Soviet dissident network and the international human rights movement, news of these post-Stalinist camps appeared regularly in the West. Gradually, they came to play a role in Cold War diplomacy. Even in the 1980s, the American president, Ronald Reagan, and his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, were still discussing the Soviet camps. Only in 1987 did Gorbachev – himself the grandson of Gulag prisoners – finally begin to dissolve them altogether.

Yet although they lasted as long as the Soviet Union itself, and although many millions of people passed through them, the true history of the Soviet Union’s concentration camps was, until recently, not at all well known…Before the fall of the Soviet Union, archives were closed. Access to camp sites was forbidden. No television cameras ever filmed the Soviet camps or their victims, as they had done in Germany at the end of the Second World War. No images, in turn, meant that the subject, in our image-driven culture, didn’t really exist either.

During the Cold War, it is true, our awareness of Soviet atrocities went up – but in the 1960s, they receded again. Even in the 1980s, there were still American academics who went on describing the advantages of East German health care or Polish peace initiatives. In the academic world, some Western historians downplayed the history of the camps, if not because they were actually pro-Soviet, then because they were opposed to America’s role in the Cold War. Right up to the very end, American views of the Soviet Union, and its repressive system, always had more to do with American politics and American ideological struggles than they did with the Soviet Union itself.

Now, at the beginning of the second decade of the twentieth century, that has finally begun to change. The Soviet Union is well and truly gone. The opening of the Soviet archives has enabled historians to write dozens of new books and monographs on the Soviet camps. The end of the Cold War also means that some of the political taboos which once surrounded Soviet history are gone. Finally, Soviet history has become a neutral subject, not a highly politicized one – at least in the Anglophone world, and at least among historians. Now that the history of the Gulag can be told, I hope that this virtual museum will help to tell it.

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