Reconstructing Hell


It is almost thirty years since the publication of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.1 The appearance of the first volume, in Paris in December 1973, was met by a venomous campaign of vilification in the Soviet press that led to Solzhenitsyn’s deportation from the Soviet Union. His exposure of the Soviet labor camps had a major impact on the dissidents and their campaign for human rights. Read in samizdat, or in copies smuggled from abroad, the book became an inspiration to the democratic movements of the next decade, when it played a major part in the challenge against Soviet authority. The policies of glasnost introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev released a flood of new material about the camps—including the first published extracts of The Gulag Archipelago in Russian in 1989 (the first complete edition in Russian was published the next year).

Since the collapse of the Soviet regime, a central aim of the democratic movement in Russia has been to open up the history of the Gulag. Today there are public groups like Memorial (established in 1988) that represent the families of the repressed, and collect and publish documents about the history of the camps. Gulag memoirs appear all the time. According to Memorial, there are now more than seven hundred memoirs published in Russian.2 The archives too are gradually divulging their secrets, although the archives of the former KGB remain closed to researchers (families of the repressed may apply to see their documents, and some get to see them). A number of important collections of archival documents about the camps have appeared in Russia in recent years. The latest is a huge, depressing volume, Children of the Gulag, which tells the story of the untold millions who grew up in the camps and orphanages in the Stalin period.3 It forms part of a series edited by Alexander Yakovlev, the former Soviet propaganda chief and champion of glasnost.

In the West there has been relatively little interest in the history of the Gulag in recent years. Far more people were affected by the Stalinist repressions than by the Nazi Holocaust—an estimated 18 million people were sent to the Soviet labor camps, one quarter of whom died. Yet the Western literature about the camps is insignificant in comparison with the literature about the Holocaust.

Gulag: A History is the first comprehensive study of the camps to be written in the West. In her introduction Anne Applebaum, a distinguished journalist, attempts to explain the common Western “reaction of boredom or indifference to Stalinist terror.” Like Martin Amis in his recent book Koba the Dread,4 she puts it down to the double standards of the “literary Left,” to whom “the crimes of Stalin do not inspire the same visceral reaction as do the crimes of Hitler.” With the exception of such writers as Robert Conquest, Martin Malia, and Leonard Schapiro, this may be broadly true of former Sovietologists, once the main authority on Soviet affairs in…

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