What benighted bureaucrat, I wonder, sitting up all night in Moscow’s OGPU1 headquarters, came up (around 1930) with the innocuous name Chief Administration of Corrective Labor Camps to describe his new department? And what harried official arranged the first letters of the Russian words Glavnoye upravleniye ispravitel’no-trydovykh lagerei to form the acronym Gulag? Little could either have suspected how far from home this sterile formulation would travel, or that it would come to stand beside the word “Holocaust” as the name of one of the two great aberrations of twentieth-century civilization.
It was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who transformed that gray abbreviation into a symbol of twentieth-century barbarism, rhyming gulag with archipelago (a full rhyme in Russian: Arkhipelag Gulag) to endow it with the sinister ring that has reverberated around the world ever since. I had always thought this combination sprang fully formed from Solzhenitsyn’s imagination, but I recently learned that it was inspired by the boast of a sadistic boss called Degtyarev, who helped run Solovki, the first big Gulag camp situated on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea, not far south of the Arctic Circle.
Degtyarev’s specialty was selecting prisoners for execution and shooting them personally, for which he was nicknamed “camp surgeon.” He had a more boastful name for himself: “Commander of the Forces of the Solovetsky Archipelago.” When Solzhenitsyn heard this from the distinguished St. Petersburg philologist, Academician Dmitry Likhachev, a former prisoner in Solovki, he seized on it as the perfect metaphor for his subject and a memorable rhyme for his title.2
The word “gulag” acquired considerable resonance virtually overnight, but for many years after Solzheni- tsyn’s publication it referred exclusively to the labor camps, especially those established by Stalin after 1929. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary of 1993 spells it with a capital “g” and defines it in those terms. But by 2003, when Anne Applebaum wrote her own magisterial Gulag: A History, its meaning had expanded to cover the full range of criminal acts perpetrated by the Soviet regime. “The word ‘Gulag,'” wrote Applebaum,
has also come to signify not only the administration of the concentration camps but also the system of Soviet slave labor itself, in all its forms and varieties: labor camps, punishment camps, criminal and political camps, women’s camps, children’s camps, transit camps. Even more broadly, “Gulag” has come to mean the Soviet repressive system itself, the set of procedures that prisoners once called the “meat grinder”: the arrests, the interrogations, the transport in unheated cattle cars, the forced labor, the destruction of families, the years spent in exile, the early and unnecessary deaths.3
Since then “gulag” has lost its capital letter and entered the language as an independent noun, used…
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