By Chet Yarbrough
By Anne Applebaum
Narrated by Laural Merlington
“Gulag” is an important part of history. No one should forget the brutality, paranoia, and human degradation perpetrated by Joseph Stalin after the revolution of 1917. Anne Applebaum capitalizes on Russian glasnost by opening history’s door to forced labor camps during Stalin’s reign (1917-1953).
Interestingly, Applebaum suggests that less approbation follows Stalin than Hitler for the creation of death camps. She suggests the underlying philosophies of these two brilliant, depraved, paranoid, and sociopathic leaders hid much of their malicious intent. Both men were sociopathic murderers but Stalin’s regime practiced equal opportunity degradation while Hitler focused hatred on particular ethnic groups, particularly Jews. This broad generalization discounts ethnic killing that Stalin perpetrated during WWII but post-war Stalin was more about industrialization than purification of race or ethnicity.
Hitler systematically murdered human beings with the delusional belief that ethnic purity improved the world. In contrast, Stalin un-systematically murdered to accelerate Russian industrialization while providing death-camp structure that isolated potential political opponents—Russia’s infamous “Terror” or “Great Purge” of the late 1930s.
Gulags became work camps with leaders that ranged from thugs to industrial managers; with a puppet master in Moscow who demanded achievement through time-framed goals. The thugs used force, the whip and chair. The industrial managers used guile. They separated invalids and the weak from the strong and used what resources they had to reinforce positive production. If an invalid or weak gulag prisoner could not produce, his food allotment reduced. The strongest producers received the most rations; others died from reduced rations, disease, and eventual starvation.
Stalin calculated the number of geologists, scientists, or manual laborers that would be needed to build canals, construct roads, or harvest forests and encouraged arrests of qualified citizens based on need for specialized labor. Guilt or innocence of crime was irrelevant except as required by written confession.
Poor performance of a gulag could lead to ordered incarceration of camp administrators. Stalin’s orders for arrest and imprisonment of administrators could either hide the inefficiency of the gulag system or disguise Stalin’s failure as a leader of U.S.S.R.’ industrialization.
Stalin used the gulag to isolate and execute perceived political rivals. Just as in Stalin’s mandated arrests for specialized labor, he isolated rivals with accusation–guilty or not, rivals would be compelled to sign written confessions. The accused were either executed or sentenced to Siberian gulags.
Late 20th century presumption was that Stalin killed more people than Hitler. “Gulag” suggests otherwise; i.e. though millions died because of Stalin, Hitler retains the 20th century mass murderer’s crown–not because Stalin was less malicious but he was less efficient.
Many of the “Kulacs” (the slightly less poor than the poorest Slavic people) survived Stalin’s gulags—often sick with some likely to die, they were released and able to return home. Rather than Hitler’s 11,000,000 non-combatant murders, Stalin’s figure is nearer 6,000,000. Whatever the actual murder number was, the slaughter of every human being in Ohio (11,544,225) or all of Missouri’s population (6,021,988) seems ignorantly macabre.
Every nation has a history of leaders with blood on their hands. The atrocities of Hitler and Stalin are at the extreme end of human nature’s continuum but Germany and Russia remind the world of how totalitarianism seduces the mind of man.
“Gulag” is well written and fairly documents a history of gulags in Stalinist Russia. Historians and descendants of gulag prisoners will be enlightened by Applebaum’s research but the book is too long and repetitive for general consumption. One doubts most Russian citizens wish to be reminded of gulags’ enforced labor, starvation, and death–just as most Americans would dislike being reminded of slavery.
Gulags did not totally disappear until the 1980s when Gorbachev became leader of the Supreme Soviet. Applebaum writes that soviet citizen response to her inquiries about gulags ranged from “Why talk about it now?” to “How did it happen and why?”
Many gulag’ leaders were never punished for their crimes against humanity. Applebaum explains that the purpose of this book is to let the world know gulag-like imprisonment will occur again; if not in Russia, in some other country that succumbs to totalitarian rule, where the worst in human nature reveals itself.