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 Western universities. Inclined politically toward the left, many of them tended to dismiss as “cold war propaganda” the “hearsay” evidence of Solzhenitsyn and the dissidents about the worst excesses of the Soviet labor camps. Consequently, they tended to detach (and sometimes to omit) the history of the Gulags from their “social histories” of the Stalinist regime.

But this, it seems to me, is not an explanation of the Western public’s general indifference toward the Stalinist terror. That must surely be explained by simple Western prejudice: whereas Hitler’s victims were European Jews (read: urbane and educated people like ourselves), Stalin’s, in the main, were laborers, peasants, and Communist officials from the provincial backwaters of Eurasia. Films and literature are also relevant. Stalin’s victims have not found their Steven Spielberg. And while Solzhenitsyn’s short novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) was very widely read, no Gulag memoir has the standing in the West of Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man—though Lev Razgon’s True Stories and Eugenia Ginzburg’s Journey into the Whirlwind certainly deserve to be better known.5

Applebaum has brought together much of the new material from Russia. Her book is mainly based on published memoirs (250 are listed in the bibliography), but Applebaum has also done some interviews, traveled to the former Gulag settlements, labored through archives, and read a huge amount of secondary literature. She has written an excellent account of the rise and fall of the Soviet labor camps between 1917 and 1986. And yet, for all its scholarship, it does not tell us much that was not said in The Gulag Archipelago.

Applebaum’s, of course, is a different sort of book. It is not as angry or argumentative, not as subjective or polemical, and not as sprawling as Solzhenitsyn’s tour de force. Solzhenitsyn combined oral history with ideological analysis and his own personal memoirs of the camps. Applebaum is more historical, drawing as she does on three extra decades of research. Consider the statistics for the people killed in the construction of the Belomor (White Sea) Canal, the first great building project using Gulag labor, between 1931 and 1933. Solzhenitsyn was ready to believe the popular rumor that 100,000 died in the first winter alone (“And why not believe it? More likely it is an understatement…”).6 But Applebaum defers to the sober (if no less shocking) calculation by Nick Baron which puts the total number of deaths at around 25,000. Not that statistical sobriety is any obstacle to impassioned prose where that is appropriate. Take this passage, where Applebaum recounts a visit to the local history museum at Medvezhegorsk, the faded “capital” of the White Sea– Baltic Corrective-Labor Camp, and describes the tools that the prisoners were handed to dig out the Belomor Canal from the frozen, rocky soil:


The pickaxes on display there are actually slices of barely sharpened metal, tied to wooden staves with leather or string. The saws consist of flat metal sheets, with teeth crudely cut into them. Instead of dynamite, prisoners broke up large rocks using “hammers”—hunks of metal screwed on to wooden handles—to pound iron bars into the stone.

In conception and construction Applebaum’s Gulag bears a number of similarities to Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. First, Applebaum portrays the Terror as a series of repressive waves, stretching from the 1920s until Stalin’s death in 1953. This is a welcome antidote to most histories, not to mention films and literary treatments, of the Stalin Terror, which tend to be fixated on the mass arrests by the NKVD under Nikolai Yezhov (the “Yezhovshchina”) in 1937–1938. But the Great Terror of those two years was only one of many waves (1929– 1931, 1944–1948, 1951–1952), each one sweeping millions of victims into the labor camps. The Gulag population peaked not in 1938 but in 1952.

Secondly, Applebaum represents the Gulag as a mirror image of society. She employs the conception of the “big” and “little” zones—prison slang for the spheres of freedom and the prison camp respectively—as first used by Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago. This too is a valuable departure from the tendency (among both fiction writers and historians) to view the camps as some black hole where people disappeared after their arrest. There were labor camps throughout the Soviet Union—one (Khovrino) even on the outskirts of Moscow. Social change was reflected in the camps, and the camps themselves transformed society—its language, its customs and morals, its criminality. The impact of the Gulag on the world of criminals is still palpable. One cannot understand the “mafia” gangs in Russia today—their ruthlessness, their readiness to kill, their fearlessness before the law—unless one appreciates that they were first formed in the camps.

The structure of Gulag is also similar to that of Solzhenitsyn’s work. In Part One (roughly equivalent to Volume 1 of The Gulag Archipelago) Applebaum explores the development of the Soviet labor camps. Although there were penal labor camps in tsarist Russia, Applebaum has no doubt that the basic nature of the Gulag system was shaped by the Bolshevik regime.

The Solovetsky Camp of Special Significance (SLON), established by the GPU in a former monastery on a White Sea island in 1923, was its prototype. In tsarist times the monastery was used to incarcerate political dissidents. In the 1920s it was used as a prison for “politicals” (mainly socialists), intellectuals (among them the cultural historian Dmitry Likhachev), former White Army officers, “speculators,” and criminals. The camp became notorious for its random executions and sadistic punishments. The worst took place at the Church of the Beheading on Sekirnaya Hill: prisoners were forced to sit on top of a narrow pole; if they fell they were tied lengthwise to a beam and rolled down the steep wooden steps from the top of the hill. There were 365 steps, and no landings.

One of the prisoners at Solovetsky was Naftaly Frenkel, a Jewish businessman from Palestine, it seems, who became involved in smuggling to Soviet Russia sometime after 1917 and was arrested by the authorities in 1923. Shocked by the camp’s inefficiency, Frenkel wrote a letter setting out his ideas on how to run the camp, and put it in the prisoners’ “complaints box.” Somehow the letter got to Genrikh Yagoda, the fast-rising star (and future leader) of the NKVD. Frenkel was whisked off to Moscow, where he explained his plans for the use of prison labor to Stalin. Frenkel was released in 1927 and placed in charge of turning SLON into a profit-making enterprise. The prison’s population expanded rapidly, from 10,000 in 1927 to 71,000 in 1931, as SLON won contracts to fell timber and build roads, and took over factories in Karelia, on the Finnish border. Prisoners were organized according to their physical abilities, and given rations according to how much work they did. The strong survived and the weak died.


This in effect was the Gulag’s origin as an economic system of slave labor. SLON became the kernel for the organization that built the White Sea Canal, at which point it was dissolved. Frenkel’s simple principles were then applied in all the most notorious labor camps (at Kolyma, Magadan, and Karaganda) in the 1930s and 1940s.

Solzhenitsyn saw an “economic rationale” for the Terror and expansion of the camps: the mass arrests were a quick way to provide a limitless supply of cheap labor for Stalin’s “supersupersuperindustrialization.”

In other words, putting it simply, it was proposed that more camps be prepared in anticipation of the abundant arrests planned.

It is hard to say to what extent the mass arrests were driven by the demand for slave labor. On their face, the documents all point to Stalin’s need to punish his perceived and potential “enemies.” The evidence for an economic motive, as Applebaum points out, is completely circumstantial. Consider a letter of 1934 from Yagoda in Moscow to his NKVD underlings in the Ukraine calling for the immediate dispatch of 15,000–20,000 prisoners, all “fit to work” and urgently required on the Moscow–Volga Canal. Are we to believe that 15,000 people were arrested mainly to meet Yagoda’s requirements? Applebaum has doubts. It seems to her that, as a labor system, the Gulag was too inefficient and irrational. “Instead of limiting arrests to the healthy young men who would have made the best laborers in the far north, they also imprisoned women, children, and old people in large numbers.” But no one should expect the Soviet system to be logical. As Solzhenitsyn wrote of the White Sea Canal:

We were in such a rush that trainloads of zeks [prisoners] kept on arriving and arriving at the canal site before there were any barracks there, or supplies, or tools, or a precise plan…. Women came in silk dresses and were handed a wheelbarrow on the spot!


In Part Two of her book, Applebaum explores the themes of life and work inside the camps. This, the biggest section, is similar in content to the second volume of The Gulag Archipelago. From personal accounts, Applebaum describes the experience of arrest, imprisonment, and transportation to the camps. She sets out the basic rules of the camps and describes their living conditions, the work regime, rewards and punishments. There are also fascinating chapters on the guards and higher officials; on women and children in the Gulag; on the camp doctors, diseases, and rates of death; on the forms of entertainment and the spiritual life that enabled people to survive; and on convict protests and escapes.

Applebaum has used some archival sources, but most of what she includes in these chapters has been drawn from camp memoirs published in the decades after Khrushchev’s “Thaw.” The use of memoirs has obvious benefits. From them one can put together a vivid, ostensibly authentic, mosaic picture of daily life inside the camps.

Writing in the 1970s, for example, Al- exander Dolgun, a US consul clerk arrested for “espionage” in 1948, recalled logging in the bitter frost of the labor camp at Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan:

Cold, numbed fingers could not hold onto handles and levers and timbers and crates, and there were many accidents, often fatal. One man was crushed when we were rolling logs off a flat car, using two logs as a ramp. He was buried when twenty or more logs let loose at once and he was not fast enough. The guards shoved his body out of the way on the platform and the blood-stiffened mass was waiting for us to carry it home when night came.7

In his memoirs A World Apart (1951), the Polish writer Gustav Herling told the story of a “black-haired singer of the Moscow opera” who was desired by Vanya, “the short urka [professional criminal] in charge of her brigade.” Vanya wore her down by putting her to work “clearing felled fir trees of bark with a huge axe she could hardly lift.” The singer became ill and developed a high temperature “but the medical orderly was a friend of Vanya’s and would not free her from work.” Eventually, she gave in, first to Vanya, and then finally to “some camp chief” who “dragged her out by the hair from the rubbish heap and placed her behind a table in the camp accountant’s office.”

The memoirs of Eugenia Ginzburg also figure prominently in Gulag. Ginzburg worked in a camp nursery at Kolyma. In this scene, cited by Applebaum, Ginzburg compares the children to her own son, who “at four could reel off vast chunks of Marshak and Chukovsky [writers of popular children’s books], could tell one make of car from another, could draw superb battleships and the Kremlin bell tower with its stars.” But the camp children were different:

Only certain of the four-year-olds could produce a few odd, unconnected words. Inarticulate howls, mimicry and blows were the main means of communication. “How can they be expected to speak? Who was there to teach them?” explained Anya dispassionately. “In the infants’ group they spend their whole time just lying on their cots. Nobody will pick them up, even if they cry their lungs out.

There are problems with the use of such memoirs. Applebaum is aware of some of these. In the introduction she defends her methodology:

In the past, some scholars of the Soviet Union have been reluctant to rely upon Gulag memoir material, arguing that Soviet memoir writers had political reasons for twisting their stories, that most did their writing many years after their release, and that many borrowed stories from one another when their own memories failed them. Nevertheless, after reading several hundred camp memoirs, and interviewing some two dozen survivors, I felt that it was possible to filter out those which seemed implausible or plagiarized or politicized.

One problem is that all the best-known memoirists were trusties—prisoners rewarded with an extra ration or a comfortable job in return for their collaboration with the camp authorities. Solzhenitsyn even claimed that nine tenths of survivors had been trusties. Ginzburg, Razgon, Shalamov, and Solzhenitsyn were all trusties, and everything they wrote must thus be judged with this in mind—that they survived and did so perhaps at the cost of other people’s lives. Primo Levi wrote about the Nazi camps, “We, the survivors, are not the true witnesses.” The “true witnesses”—those in full possession of the unspeakable truth—are the sommersi: the drowned, the dead, the disappeared.

Secondly, as Applebaum points out, most memoirists did their writing in the last years of their lives, when their memories began to fade. Dolgun talked about the lapses of his memory:

Most of my story is what I actually remember, but some is what must have been. There are episodes and faces and words and sensations burned so deeply into my memory that no amount of time will wear them away. There are other times when I was so exhausted because they never let me sleep or so starved or beaten or burning with fever or drugged with cold that everything was blurred, and now I can only put together what must have happened by setting out to build a connection across these periods….

Although he claimed to have an “extremely good memory,” Dolgun had “absolutely no recall” of a two-week period between leaving Moscow on a convict train and starting working in a stone quarry in the camp at Dzhezkazgan.

To fill these gaps memoirists borrowed from each other’s works. The sort of scenes described by Dolgun, Herling, and Ginzburg may be found in many other camp memoirs. We cannot be entirely certain that they represent a direct memory—as opposed to what the writer knows took place, or imagines “must have been,” because others, in a similar position, wrote about such scenes. Indeed it may well be that literary motifs, like the accidental death or the breaking down of a woman’s resistance to a sexual advance by camp officials, come to stand for many other memories and emotions—perhaps about death or loss of dignity—in the writer’s consciousness.

The literary construction of the camp memoir poses another problem.8 As far as I am aware, there are no Gulag memoirs in continuous time (as-it-happened “diaries”). All camp memoirs are reconstructed narratives. Since they are written by survivors, the story which they tell is usually one of purgatory and redemption—a journey through the “hell” of the Gulag, and back again to “normal life.” What goes into these memoirs is by and large determined by the ethical dimensions of the narrative. Take the scene from Ginzburg’s memoirs where, caring for the children in the nursery, she recalls her son. The scene is supposed to be understood as part of a narrative whose unifying theme is regeneration through love. Transferred from the nursery to a hospital, Ginzburg falls in love with a fellow prisoner serving as a camp doctor. Despite the anguish of repeated separations, they both survive and somehow keep in touch until Stalin’s death, and then freed but still in exile from the major Russian cities, they get married and adopt a child.

Fact and fiction—the two can easily become confused in memoirs of the camps. Ginzburg tells us that many of the chapters in her memoirs had first been told as stories to family and friends. Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales are based on fact, and Applebaum is fully justified in citing them as documentary evidence; perhaps the events which they recount are so intense in human pain and anguish that, if told at all, they need to be told as fiction.

In these post-traumatic situations memory can play awful tricks. From 1939 to 1944 Mikhail Yuzipenko was the vice-director of the concentration camp known by the acronym ALZhIR (the Akomolinsk Camp for Wives of Traitors of the Motherland). A simple peasant lad who had joined the Komsomol, Yuzipenko had a weakness for women. In later interviews he liked to boast that he had power over several thousand beautiful women, wives of fallen Party leaders, at ALZhIR. In 1988 an article appeared in the newspaper Leninskaia Smena charging Yuzipenko with mass rape. Documentary evidence reveals that four hundred women in the camp gave birth to children between 1939 and 1944 (a special nursery was opened) and several survivors gave interviews to confirm the charge against Yuzipenko. But other women, including some, it seems, who had been raped, wrote in support of Yuzipenko, saying what a kind man he had been. Yuzipenko’s archive (a copy of which I have before me as I write) contains more than twenty letters of this sort.

In the epigraph to Volume 2 of The Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn quotes a letter from a girl, a former zek: “Only those can understand us who ate from the same bowl with us.” There is an important sense in which that is surely right, and I have heard it said by many former zeks. For how can one begin to understand the reality of the Gulag unless one has known it first? There are some things that cannot be described.

Solzhenitsyn comes back to this theme at several points. “The imagination of writers is poverty-stricken in regard to the native life and customs of the Archipelago,” he writes. How could a Western writer, in particular,

describe the perturbation of a human soul placed in a cell filled to twenty times its capacity and with no latrine bucket, where prisoners are taken out to the toilet only once a day! Of course, much of the texture of this life is bound to be unknown to Western writers; they wouldn’t realize that in this situation one solution was to urinate in your canvas hood, nor would they at all understand one prisoner’s advice to another to urinate in his boot!

It takes a writer such as Shalamov to convey something, a tiny human fragment, of the reality of Kolyma. It takes Primo Levi to describe Auschwitz.

In the third and final part of Gulag Applebaum investigates the slow decline of the camp-industrial complex from 1940, when the camp regime was at its harshest, to the aftermath of Stalin’s death, when the victims of his terror were gradually released and rehabilitated into society. A prisoner’s path to rehabilitation was long and difficult. Soviet officials, old colleagues and neighbors, sometimes even friends and relatives, found it hard to overcome their prejudice and fear when confronted by a former “enemy.” Many returnees had difficulty finding jobs or a place to live.9 Some could not readjust and applied to return to the camps. Others chose to live in the settlements that grew up around the camps—a subject Applebaum might have explored.

Today these settlements are the last real physical remains of the Gulag. The camps themselves are gone—their factories and mines largely privatized, though in many cases they employ the old camp buildings for the workers’ dormitories. Other labor camps have been transformed into regular prisons.

But the unseen presence of the Gulag is still felt today. It exists in people’s memories. It affects the way they live and relate to the world. Above all, the presence of the Gulag is still felt in families—in millions of them—where relatives were lost, and are still missed.

Applebaum gives the final word of her splendid book to the writer Lev Razgon. A Communist believer, Razgon was arrested in 1938 and spent the next eighteen years in labor camps and exile. In 1990 he was allowed to see his own archival file in the Lubyanka building of the KGB—“a thin collection of documents describing his arrest and the arrests of his first wife, Oksana, as well as several members of her family.” Razgon read the file and later wrote a moving essay about it, the fate of his wife’s mother, and the “strange absence of repentance on the part of those who had destroyed all of them.” But his final thoughts, it seems to Applebaum, are more ambivalent:

I have long since stopped turning the pages of the file and they have lain next to me for more than an hour or two, growing cold with their own thoughts. My guardian [the KGB archivist] is already beginning to cough suggestively and look at his watch. It’s time to go. I have nothing more to do here…. I go downstairs, along the empty corridors, past the sentries who do not even ask to see my papers, and step out into Lubyanka Square.

It’s only 5 p.m., but it’s already almost dark and a fine, quiet rain falls uninterruptedly. The building remains beside me and I stand on the pavement outside, wondering what to do next. How terrible that I do not believe in God and cannot go into some quiet little church, stand in the warmth of the candles, gaze into the eyes of Christ on the Cross and say and do those things that make life easier to bear for the believer….

I take off my fur hat, and drops of rain or tears trickle down my face. I am eighty-two and here I stand, living through it all again… I hear the voices of Oksana and her mother…I can remember and recall them, each one. And if I [have] remained alive, then it is my duty to do so….

This Issue

June 12, 2003