From the very earliest days of the new Soviet state… people were to be sentenced not for what they had done, but for who they were.
Anne Applebaum, Gulag
Both the Russians and the Americans… are groping for a way of life that will enable the common man everywhere in the world to get the most good out of modern technology. There is nothing irreconcilable in our aims and purposes.
American Vice-President Henry Wallace, from a speech given at Kolyma Gulag, May 1944
For years, it has fascinated me that whereas entering a pub or club in London wearing a T-shirt bearing the image of Stalin, Che Guevara or Mao Tse-Tung would count as a hip statement, wearing one with a portrait of Hitler could well lead to jail. In her harrowing but extraordinary history of the Soviet Gulags, Anne Applebaum has a similar epiphany watching Western tourists shopping for souvenirs on the Charles Bridge in newly liberated Prague;
‘Most of the people buying the Soviet paraphernalia were Americans and West Europeans. All would be sickened by the thought of wearing a swastika. None objected, however, to wearing a hammer and sickle on a T-shirt or a hat.’
The simplistic answer is, of course, that Stalin gets a pass because he is seen as a creature of the Left, while Hitler is a bogeyman because our modern myth-makers inform us that he is of the Right, and the Left have won the culture wars. If that is the case, the Left should hang their heads in shame, a commodity to which, however, they have no access. The only position Leftist heads have traditionally maintained where Stalin, the Terror and the Gulag system are concerned is in the sand.
The history of the Glavnoe upravlenie lagerei – GULAG for short – begins in the early 1920s on the northern Solovetsky Islands (a genuine archipelago, a foreshadowing of Solzhenitsyn’s later masterpiece) which set the tone for a death-camp empire from which others learned much as the century slouched on.
The camp system soon spread, and the economic benefits of a captive workforce requiring no wages but a minimum of black bread and brackish water to keep them – sometimes - living was irresistible to a Soviet determined to overcome its native economic incompetence and bestride the technological, industrial and agricultural worlds.
As well as a literal history of the camps, and the pathetic white elephant vanity projects with which Stalin slaughtered hundreds of thousands – like the unusable White Sea Canal – Applebaum concentrates on the physical and mental experience of the prisoners, with separate sections on arrest, arrival, work, guards, the dying, strategies of survival and every facet of this life of the damned.
Much of the power of Applebaum’s book lies in the oral narrative of camp survivors. The details are no less harrowing, but they reach the reader through the dignified strength of memories of camp ‘life’ which would never, could never, disappear. The epigraph to Gulag encapsulates this. Unsurprisingly, the hardest passages to read are those written by children, accounts of which there were, bizarrely, many commissioned by the authorities. What obscure impulse drove these monsters to leave a testament of innocence destroyed to haunt them and the memory of them? It is difficult to read through tears, as when a Polish boy of thirteen writes;
‘There was nothing to eat. People ate nettle and swelled up from it and they left for the other world.’
The book is so gruelling that the only time I smiled was reading the description of Stalin’s final, prolonged death agonies, related by his daughter, Svetlana.
The overwhelming stench that emanates from this essential book is that of lies, as it always is with the Left. Lies about numbers, about treatment of prisoners, about reasons for incarceration, about the very existence of the camps themselves. Anything to maintain a respectable image for Stalin – a contemptible little man – on the world stage, and to make the Soviet Union appear anything but what it was; incompetent and sadistically cruel. The lies continued, although the Soviet tried to spread the myth of the camps’ dissolution after Stalin’s death in 1953. Their mutation into psychiatric institutions and regular prisons was intended to mask their survival, and if anyone thinks that there are no equivalents under Putin – an ex-KGB hard man – they must be dupes as willing as the Western intellectuals taken in by the Potemkin show camps of the 1930s.
A casual acquaintance of mine once told me that Hitler was a far more evil man than Stalin because ‘with Stalin, it’s difficult to get accurate figures’, as though totalitarian slaughter were a game of cribbage in which Soviet incompetence was a strong hand to hold. Socialists want so much to believe; it is the psychopathology of the child. We may yet end up in its grip once more.
If you have the onions, Gulag is one of the books you should read if you wish to understand the great lie of the 20th – and possibly this – century; that the political Right is evil and the political Left sainted. It was partly my own utter hatred of the Left and all its works that gave me the gumption to read on. Any one of the many transcribed eye-witness accounts of camp survivors could have done service to sum up the Soviet Union’s rotten heart, as lice-ridden as the shirts of the millions who perished in its gulags. This lady’s name was Olga Adamova-Sliozberg and, after being lied to by corrupt and incompetent ‘officials’ concerning her promised compensation for a twenty-year incarceration, she finally found the time to weep;
‘To weep for my husband, who perished in the cellars of the Lubyanka… for my children, who grew up orphans, stigmatised as the children of enemies of the people; for my parents, who died of grief; for Nikolai, who was tortured in the camps; and for all my friends who never lived to be rehabilitated but lie beneath the frozen earth of Kolyma.’