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Chain of Misery

Author: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
April 29, 2003
Wall Street Journal


In 1958, Alexander Solzhenitsyn began collecting material on the Soviet labor-camp system. When he finally published "The Gulag Archipelago" 15 years later, in three big volumes, he made no claim to have written the last word on the subject. His effort, he wrote, had produced only "a peephole into the Archipelago, not a view from the tower."

It was, of course, false modesty. Mr. Solzhenitsyn had made an obscure bureaucratic acronym -- gulag is short for Main Camps Administration -- into a metaphor for the entire Soviet regime. And he had made himself, with Andrei Sakharov, that regime's greatest critic and judge.

Yet what Mr. Solzhenitsyn had written was not exactly a history of the Gulag, and he said he "would not be so bold as to try" to write one. How could he? He didn't know the end of the story, official documents were not available and few memoirs had yet made it past the censors. Other books, and other writers, would have to finish the job.

What Mr. Solzhenitsyn hoped for, Anne Applebaum has now done. "Gulag: A History" (Doubleday, 677 pages, $35) achieves the "view from the tower" that he was denied. Helped on by all that the collapse of Soviet communism makes possible -- a vast memoir literature, access to official archives, the support of Russian scholars and human-rights organizations, and the chance to interview survivors and tramp the hallowed ground of forgotten camps -- Ms. Applebaum has written an affecting book that enables us at last to see the Gulag whole.

She presents two different histories at once -- the rise-and-fall story of the camps as a Soviet institution and the story of what happened to the prisoners in them. For most readers, the second of these will have the greater emotional impact. Ms. Applebaum portrays every phase of what befell the Gulag's inmates in unflinching detail. Although her table of contents -- with separate chapters devoted to "Arrest," "Prison," "Transport, Arrival, Selection" and so on -- may hint at a dry tale, "Gulag" is in fact relentlessly wet. It does not sensationalize, but its appalling story is choked in blood, mud, ice, feces, filth, pus and tears.

Ms. Applebaum grants that the Soviet camp system was not created, as the Nazi death camps were, for mass extermination. Yet no imaginable brutality or brutishness, no violation of human dignity, seems missing here. Millions of people, over decades, passed through a system in which they were fed barely enough to live; treated like beasts of burden; given little or no protection against climate, disease or sadistic guards; and left to die in large numbers.

For what? Anyone tackling the enormity of the Gulag comes up against this question, and Ms. Applebaum canvasses the explanations, from the ambitions of Lenin and Stalin to the boredom of camp guards ("fourth-class people, the very dregs," one of their commanding officers called them). Many readers are likely to be surprised by how much attention she pays to the economic logic behind the camp system, but she does so for good reason. As an institution the Gulag reflected the Bolshevik drive to remake the human personality by remaking the world of work: hence the term "corrective labor." To achieve this aim, Soviet leaders were ready to enforce their own ideas, however bizarre, of what constituted a "rational use" of the manpower at their disposal.

Coercion and "rationality" went together: hence the euphemistic term "command economy." Did Moscow want to tap the natural resources of the Russian far north? The Gulag could help. As the commander of one of the largest northern mining camps explained: "If we had sent civilians [instead of prisoners], we would first have had to build houses for them to live in."

The idea that the camps could be thought economically rational infuriated Mr. Solzhenitsyn, and he fulminated against it at length. But his rebuttal was heavy on principle, light on proof. Ms. Applebaum, by contrast, gives us an inside sense of how Kremlin views changed over time. Shutting down the Gulag eventually became the rallying cry of Bolshevik budget-cutters, but no one had the courage to tell Stalin himself that this instrument of repression had become too expensive. It was the head of the secret police, Lavrenti Beria, of all people, who first emerged, upon Stalin's death, as the champion of prudent financial management.

Mr. Solzhenitsyn wrote "The Gulag Archipelago" to destroy the Soviet regime. He had to make reading it an overwhelming experience, and he succeeded. Despite his current reputation as moralist scourge and traditionalist bore, Mr. Solzhenitsyn was a polemical genius. Given his material, it was not hard to shock, anger or sicken readers. But he could also charm and persuade them, and make them laugh out loud. Whatever you thought before, once you had read his book you couldn't think about the Soviet regime in quite the same way again.

Anne Applebaum writes to keep that regime alive -- in memory. Compared with its predecessor, "Gulag: A History" is a mere book, not an experience. But it is a valuable and necessary book, the kind that Mr. Solzhenitsyn hoped for and that he, 30 years ago, did much to make possible.

Mr. Sestanovich is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University.