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Richard M. Ebeling,
Gulag: A History
by Anne Applebaum (New York: Doubleday, 2003); 677 pages; $35.
Siberia. The word has had a chilling connotation for people around the
world for 200 years. Long before Lenin and the Bolsheviks came to power
in 1917, the tsarist regime had used the vast area that stretches from
the Ural Mountains to the Pacific and Arctic Oceans as a place of exile
and forced labor for dissidents, political prisoners, and ordinary
Indeed, the Russian imperial government had sent off many of the leading
figures of the future Soviet government into exile in the years before
the First World War, including Lenin and Stalin.
But as cruel as the tsarist system may have seemed to those who suffered
under it, it was mild and benevolent in comparison with the future
When Lenin and Stalin were ordered into exile by the Russian authorities
at the beginning of the 20th century, they traveled to their places of
exile on their own recognizance, with government railway passes to their
destinations in Siberia.
They lived in isolated villages, but they could hunt and fish, read and
write, and maintain correspondence with their friends and comrades.
Political prisoners sent into exile were considered to be above the
common criminal, people of ideological conscience who were to be treated
Having lived and continued to work for their Marxist cause in Siberian
exile under the tsars, the Bolshevik leaders knew the strengths and
weaknesses of the prison and exile systems of the Russian Empire.
When they came to power in November 1917, they soon introduced their own
system of prisons and forced labor camps in the huge reaches of the
empire they inherited during and after the Russian Civil War of
1918–1921, which had left them fully triumphant.
Lenin and Stalin understood that any system of imprisonment and exile
like the one they had lived through under the tsars would enable their
opponents to maintain and extend their opposition to Soviet power.
Thus, the new prison system that became the Gulag was designed to
prevent and indeed destroy any ability for enemies of the Communist
regime to continue their resistance.
Furthermore, and most especially under Stalin, the Gulag was turned into
a vast slave system to provide the human material for “building
socialism” with cheap and seemingly limitless supplies of labor.
In other words, during the 25 years of Stalin’s leadership of the Soviet
state, the Gulag was made into an essential element in the system of
socialist central planning for the construction of entire new industrial
cities in empty and inhospitable regions of northern Russia, Siberia,
and Central Asia and supplied manpower to extract raw materials and
precious metals from regions of the country that were virtually unfit
for human habitation.
From Lenin’s time to the end of the Soviet system under Gorbachev,
literally millions of victims of the regime entered and passed through
the Gulag system, with many of them never living through the experience.
But among those who did survive the ordeal, hundreds wrote about the
nightmare of it all. And from the 1920s to the 1990s many of these
accounts were published in the West.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s three-volume Gulag Archipelago and Eugeniya Ginsburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind are among the better-known accounts that have been available to the Western reader.
And David Dallen and Boris Nicolaevsky’s Forced Labor in Soviet Russia and Nikolai Tolstoi’s, Stalin’s Secret War have been among the carefully documented secondary summaries of the nature of the system.
The workings of the Gulag
But Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History is the first volume that
attempts to give a detailed and fairly comprehensive narrative of the
origin, purpose, workings, and reality of the system based both on the
memoirs of those who lived through and survived the camps and on the
now-available archive documents in Russia.
The first part of the volume is devoted to explaining how the first
prison camps were established in 1918 on islands in the White Sea in
northern European Russia. The prisoners were mostly non-Bolshevik
socialists. Soon the apparent tsarist style of imprisonment was replaced
with the cruel severity that became the hallmark of the system in
Even so, the Bolsheviks at first tried to make it a showcase of humane
treatment, but the camps on the islands were shortly after closed to
prevent visitors from seeing the reality of how they were run.
The first great exercise with slave labor was also given publicity: the
building of the White Sea Canal. But this was never done again,
especially after the canal fell into disuse because of the poor and
primitive manner in which it was constructed.
The Soviet leadership, in fact, did not want attention for the Gulag.
Its purpose was not propaganda but rather mass labor under increasingly
despicable conditions. Applebaum recounts the arrest processes and the
To obtain confessions prisoners were kept awake day and night, made to
stand during the long hours of interrogation, beaten, tortured, and
dehumanized. Prison cells were often overcrowded with no room to sit or
When it was time to send them off to the camps, they were crowded into
cattle cars with no sanitary facilities, poor ventilation, and meager
food supplies. The journey to the destination camps in these conditions
could last for weeks or even months.
Those who lived through the trip — and many died along the way — often
found themselves deposited in empty wastelands of tundra, swamps, dense
forests, deserts, or the frigid expanse of the Arctic Circle region.
They would have to forage or hunt for food and, with few or no tools,
build living quarters. Then they were set to work clearing timber areas,
mining for metals, minerals, or precious gems, or constructing new
industrial cities out of the barren terrain.
Among the most horrific destinations were the gold fields of Kolyma in
eastern Siberia. Prisoners would be shipped by rail to the Pacific and
then crammed into practically derelict vessels for the sea journey
farther north. The death toll from the sea journey and the harsh
conditions of the mines was especially high.
Life in the Gulag
In the camps there was a system of rank, privilege, and power. The camp
administrators often took advantage of their positions and isolated
locations to rule their domains as if they were kings and princes whom
the prisoners were to grovel before and mindlessly obey.
The guards were also likely to brutalize and exploit the prisoners for
their own purposes and benefit. Among the prisoners there was an
ordering of power, privilege, and control. Informers were everywhere.
Death in the camps took many forms: prisoners were worked to death,
starved to death, beaten to death, shot for disobedience or rebellion.
One inmate later wrote,
Death in the camps possessed another terror: its anonymity. We had no
idea where the dead were buried, or whether, after a prisoner’s death,
any kind of death certificate was ever written…. The certainty that no
one would ever learn of their death, that no one would ever know where
they had been buried, was one of the prisoner’s greatest psychological
Rape and prostitution, both heterosexual and homosexual, were part of
camp life. The children born and raised in the camps were treated no
better than the adults. Applebaum explains:
Infant epidemics were legion. Infant deaths were extremely high — so
high that they were, as the inspectors’ reports record, often
deliberately covered up. But even those children who survived infancy
had little chance at a normal life inside the camp nurseries.
When they were older, they were usually transferred to state orphanages
that “were vastly overcrowded, dirty, understaffed, and often lethal.”
About 30 boys would live in a 12-square-meter room. One report stated
that 38 boys shared seven beds and also said that 140 children shared
one cup. Starvation was not uncommon in places.
There were rebellions and revolts. They were all crushed during Stalin’s
time. But following Stalin’s death in March 1953, there occurred larger
and more successful revolts. Informers would be murdered. The prisoners
went on strike, most notably in the region around Vorkuta and Norilsk.
But these, too, were finally put down, with hundreds of leaders and
activists in the rebellions rounded up and shot.
However, the system never returned to the full madness of Stalin’s time.
And in the years following Stalin’s death, large numbers of Gulag
inmates were released. For the first time, their stories of life in the
camps became known to virtually everyone else in the society, as the
returnees told their tales to relatives and friends around the dinner
table in hushed voices. But many did not want to hear out of fear or
Applebaum takes the story of the Gulag through the period of the
dissident movement of the 1960s and 1970s to the end of the system in
the 1980s. As part of her summary, she attempts to estimate how many
people actually went through the Gulag system. She comes up with a total
of 28.7 million people, out of which millions died as a result of the
system of forced labor. This, of course, does not include the millions
of others who were murdered by the regime during the years of Soviet
power as part of the purges or as “enemies of the people.”
In the short space of this review, it is impossible to do justice to the
detail and care with which Applebaum recounts the subjects mentioned as
well as many others. It is a moving and serious account of one of the
most evil aspects of Soviet communism in the 20th century.
Richard Ebeling is president of The Foundation for Economic Education. Send him email.