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Louis Untermeyer


Gulag
A History

By Anne Applebaum
Doubleday, 677 pp, 2003

This is a fantastic book. It is a must-read for anyone who has any illusions about communism. It sucks. It is evil. It belongs in the dustbin of history.

Anne Applebaum tells the story of the gulag in fascinating detail, using newly available Soviet archives and published and unpublished memoirs from those who survived the camps. Their stories are chilling, to say the least.

There's so much to write about, I'm not sure where to begin. I suppose at the beginning.

In the Introduction, Applebaum discusses the differences and similarities between the Nazi death camps and the Soviet camps. She also explains why so many on the Left were willing to excuse Soviet communism (and particularly Stalin) for its crimes.

She then delves into a general history of the camps, explaining that they were, at heart, an economic enterprise. The first official camp, Solovetsky, spread out over a group of islands in the White Sea, was meant to be profitable. Later, Stalin insisted that the entire gulag must turn a profit, which it never did. But no one had had the guts to tell Stalin that.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Applebaum shows how many prisoners were used for grand construction projects like canals and railroads, with the predictably disappointing results and thousands of lives lost (suffice to say that OSHA would not be pleased with the working conditions).

She writes how the camp system expanded throughout the 1930s until it obtained its permanent form. By 1940, hundreds of camps imprisoned millions of people, many of them criminals, many of them politicals, those whose only "crime" was some sort of dissent against Stalin and the Soviet Union. Many of these politicals were innocent, of course.

In Part Two, in my opinion the heart and most compelling section of the book, Applebaum delves into the minutiae of the camps, chronicling prisoners' experiences through the arrest, transport, and imprisonment in the camps. This is where you get the sense of the monstrosity of the system and the government that ran it. Space doesn't permit me to go into all the details. Suffice to say that as a horror writer, there's enough material to write dozens of short stories and novels, with no need for any supernatural element to make them scary.

In the third section, she switches back to general history and covers the rest of the 20th century, from the death of Stalin to the death of the Soviet Union. The gulag survived Stalin's death, but it did shrink as Soviet leaders were then free to address the unprofitably of the system. Many camps were closed and many prisoners were released, though many of those were later re-arrested.

But the suppression continued. Innocents were still jailed for speaking out for freedom and still forced to endure hard labor in horrific conditions.

This is the story of oppression on a massive scale. But it's also a collection of gritty and inspiring stories of survival by those lucky enough to live through the experience. Unfortunately, millions did not.

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