Circles of Hell

Voices from the Gulag

edited by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and translated from the Russian by Kenneth Lantz
Northwestern University Press, 414 pp., $29.95 (paper)

Gulag Boss: A Soviet Memoir

by Fyodor Vasilevich Mochulsky, translated from the Russian and edited by Deborah Kaple
Oxford University Press, 229 pp., $29.95
scammell_1-042811.jpg
State Museum of the History of the Gulag, Moscow
A depiction by the artist Igor Obrosov of ‘interrogations’ in Stalinist prisons, based on the memories of his brother; from Stephen Cohen’s The Victims Return

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 in the plural sometimes, like “holocaust …

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Letters

Gulag Memories June 23, 2011

  1. 1

    Acronym for Ob’edinennoe Gosudarstvennoe Politicheskoe Upravlenie, Unified State Political Administration, a euphemism for the Soviet secret police. The OGPU was later merged into the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), which later became the Committee for State Security (KGB). 

  2. 2

    Dmitry S. Likhachev, quoted in Chelovek-epokha: dve vstrechi s D.S. Likhachevym (A Man and His Times: Two Interviews with D.S. Likhachev) by Nikolai Kavin, Zvezda, No. 11 (2006), pp. 29–38. I am grateful to Alexis Klimoff for first drawing my attention to this statement, and to Likhachev’s granddaughter, Vera Tolz, for tracing its source. According to Professor Tolz, the dissident writer Vladimir Gershuni, who assisted Solzhenitsyn with some of his research for The Gulag Archipelago, also claimed to have suggested the title to Solzhenitsyn. On the available evidence (admittedly scanty), I am inclined to believe it was Likhachev. 

  3. 3

    Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History (Doubleday, 2003), pp. xxv–xxvi.