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,” to signify other extreme forms of repression.

I was reminded of the progress this word has made by the arrival of four new books, all with the word “Gulag” in their title or subtitle, attesting to the combination of fascination and horror that the Gulag continues to exert on readers and offering further evidence of the crimes of that era. Two of them are selections from memoirs about the Gulag edited by its two foremost historians, Solzhenitsyn and Applebaum. A third, by the well-known Soviet specialist Stephen Cohen, is a brief memoir about Gulag survivors, while the fourth, also a memoir, comes from a most unexpected source, a former labor camp foreman who worked in the Gulag during World War II.

As is well known, Solzhenitsyn was inspired to write The Gulag Archipelago in part because of the large number of letters and memoirs he received after the unexpected publication in 1962 in the Soviet Union of his labor camp novella, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. He drew on over two hundred of those accounts for the later work and interviewed as many of their authors as he could, which was when Likhachev told him about the archipelago image. Solzhenitsyn was unable to name most of his sources at the time for security reasons, and it was only after the fall of the Soviet regime that he was able to make amends and identify them. Later, in 2001, he published the testimony of seven of them in a volume called Pozhivshi v GULAGe (roughly, “Survivors of the Gulag”), which has now been translated into English and published as Voices from the Gulag.

Unfortunately Solzhenitsyn is barely present in this book, apart from being listed as editor, and there is no word about his reasons for selecting these seven voices, or explanation of the book’s shape or purpose. The translator, Kenneth Lantz, in an otherwise excellent introduction, does nothing to dispel the mystery, so the reader is left to guess at the editor’s intention. As it turns out, the memoir excerpts all follow a definable pattern, suggesting that Solzhenitsyn (or someone else) must have urged his authors to set down their experiences in a certain order. Each begins with a brief account of the author’s family history, profession, and normal life, followed by his sudden arrest, brutal interrogation, conviction (usually without a trial), consignment to the labor camps, and the devastating hardships and dangers of his peregrinations from camp to camp before final release and rehabilitation—though not necessarily permission to return home. Judging by the chapter numbers and brevity of some of the contributions, the originals must be much longer (and are presumably housed in the Memorial Library that Solzhenitsyn started in exile).


With the partial exception of the longest excerpt in the book, “My Life as a Gift” by V.V. Gorshkov, these stories are generally artless, and make less impact in this form than when they were subsumed into Solzhenitsyn’s larger narrative in The Gulag Archipelago. Yet their very rawness gives them an authenticity that is also persuasive. The innocence of their authors at the outset, and their anguished astonishment over each new horror they are forced to endure, compel faith in their veracity, while the almost ritual repetition of the tortures inflicted on each new victim sends a powerful message about the everyday ordinariness of arrest and incarceration in the Soviet Union. One prisoner is an auto mechanic, another an engineer, a third a circus performer, two are newly returned veterans from World War II, and two are still students when arrested.

All are thrust into solitary confinement or a crowded, filthy jail cell, undergo brutal interrogations as well as persecution by criminal prisoners, are sent on forced marches or transported by truck, train, or steamer to remote locations in the far north or in Siberia, and are compelled to toil on starvation rations at backbreaking labor in subzero temperatures. As weaker souls around them sicken and die, these prisoners cease being ordinary and become extraordinary, capable of unsuspected feats of courage and endurance, like men in battle, except that their sacrifices are meaningless and their ordeals the result of cruelty and cynicism.

Anne Applebaum’s Gulag Voices is similarly a byproduct of her larger history, containing excerpts from the memoirs she consulted in writing her book. Her selection does have a shape, being designed “to follow, roughly, the track of a prisoner’s experience, from arrest to release, and to illustrate various facets of camp life” (which in fact mimics the organization of her history). There are approximately double the number of voices represented in Solzhenitsyn’s collection, all having been published already, most of them in English translation. A major advantage of this arrangement is that, despite some unfortunate clashes of tone and terminology between the English and American translations, they are on the whole more professional and easier (in the lexical sense) to read.

The volume opens with a dry account by Dmitry Likhachev of his arrest in 1928 and closes with K. Petrus’s equally slight account of his release in the early 1950s, while Anatoly Marchenko’s description of life in a punishment cell (translated by myself) carries the story up to the mid-1960s. In between, Applebaum covers the same stages of the prisoner’s progress that are recounted in the Solzhenitsyn volume. She also restores the gender balance by including four narratives (one of them by a man) about the particular sufferings of women in the camps, ranging from the implacable pressures on young women to save themselves by prostitution or becoming a powerful boss’s mistress, to the horrors of mass rape and the ordeal of giving birth and watching one’s infant die of brutal neglect and malnutrition. Elena Glinka on the rapes and Hava Volovich on bearing and losing a child are as harrowing as anything I have read on the subject of the Gulag, and Isaak Filshtinsky’s compressed account of a young woman’s rise from fearful sex victim to hardened and cynical wife of a sadistic camp commandant is as richly allusive as a story by Chekhov.

The literary excellence of these and other excerpts (from Gustav Herling’s beautifully written memoir, A World Apart, Alexander Dolgun’s eloquent Alexander Dolgun’s Story, and such accomplished writers as Lev Kopelev and Lev Razgon) makes one regret Applebaum’s decision to omit the work of other powerful writers like Evgenia Ginzburg, Varlaam Shalamov, and Solzhenitsyn himself, on the grounds that their writings are “readily available.” A few of her selections strike me as relatively weak, and detract from the impact of the book as a whole. This is because Applebaum’s goals are primarily documentary rather than literary (though she obviously appreciates literary excellence as well); but as with Solzhenitsyn, I found that she puts much of the testimony of these authors to more effective use in her history than in her anthology. I would like to have seen a collection of the most powerful work possible on the Gulag with the more documentary material made available online.


Stephen Cohen’s short book, The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin, addresses a subject that has received less attention than the lives of the prisoners in the labor camps, namely, what happened to the survivors when they returned to civil society. Not surprisingly, most of the ex-prisoners Cohen met on his visits to the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia were faring badly, and Cohen, who came to know several of them in his research for his book on Nikolai Bukharin, reports sympathetically on their broken marriages, broken careers, and broken lives. He is rather more interested, however, in a small group he calls “Khrushchev’s zeks,” one-time Communist officials who regained many of their former privileges when they returned to Moscow after the death of Stalin in 1953.

Khrushchev, he writes, “clearly trusted those recently exonerated ‘enemies of the people’ more than [he] did the Stalinist officials who still dominated the party and state apparatuses.” Not only did they persuade Khrushchev to order the immediate release of victims of the Gulag, Cohen writes, but they helped convince him to deliver his famous 1956 “Secret Speech” denouncing Stalin’s “personality” and “mass repressions.”


Natalya Reshetovskaya

At left, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn on his release from the Gulag, 1953; at right, Solzhenitsyn teaching in a Russian village school, 1957

Cohen’s book is not so much about the victims’ everyday lives as it is about their little-known role in Soviet politics. His analysis of the changing motives behind Khrushchev’s ongoing anti-Stalinist campaign and the maneuvering of Party leaders before, during, and after the campaign is fascinating, and fills in many parts of the historical picture. So does his account of how the government’s attitudes toward former prisoners changed under Brezhnev, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin. Still, I’m not persuaded by Cohen’s thesis that leaders like Khrushchev—and more especially Gorbachev, whom Cohen counts as a personal friend—might, in other circumstances, have “saved” the Soviet Union from extinction.

The main problem with his book, in addition to its brevity, is the episodic, anecdotal character of the narrative, with new names and new ideas turning up in almost every paragraph. Some of the victims themselves fade into the background, and one comes away from it wishing that Cohen had chosen to write a more full-bodied memoir, with direct accounts of the leaders and prominent former prisoners he was able to meet. (One explanation for Cohen’s brevity is that he gave much of his material on returnees to Nanci Adler, who drew on it for The Gulag Survivor, her excellent book on this subject.4)

The most original and surprising book here is Fyodor Mochulsky’s Gulag Boss, the first memoir, to my knowledge, ever published by someone from the other side of the watchtowers and the barbed wire. Although he served only six years in the Gulag, from 1940 to 1946, as a very young man, and was a civilian employee of the NKVD rather than an armed officer, Mochulsky is not an ordinary witness. A deeply loyal Party member both before and after his Gulag experiences, he became a career diplomat after World War II, worked at the United Nations and in the Chinese embassy of the Soviet Union for a long period, and later rose to be head of the China Section of the Central Committee before spending the last twenty years of his career (from 1967 to 1988) in the Intelligence Service of the KGB under Yuri Andropov. He remained a staunch supporter of the Soviet system to the end, while grudgingly acknowledging the excesses of Stalin and his supporters.

Mochulsky’s memoir is based on a diary he kept while working in the Gulag and portrays a familiar world of forced marches, barbed wire and watchtowers, freezing living conditions, starvation rations, backbreaking labor, and frequent deaths from malnutrition or a shot in the head. It is a world that is instantly recognizable from the accounts of former prisoners. Here are the colossal inefficiencies and callous neglect of the Soviet authorities, the privileged conditions and freakish excesses of the criminal prisoners, and again the horrifying plight of women, including more stories of rape and lesbianism, and of a beautiful young girl who makes several unsuccessful attempts to seduce Mochulsky (though he is sorely tempted), and turns out to have specialized in seducing, murdering, and robbing army officers before her incarceration at the tender age of seventeen.

What makes these stories astonishing, however, is the looking-glass world in which they take place. Mochulsky views this world through the eyes of a callow young man who totally believes his NKVD recruiter’s statement that “in capitalist countries…prisoners just rot in jail,” whereas in the Soviet Union

our laws are humane. The Soviet government sets itself the goal of giving each convicted person the opportunity to atone for his guilt to society by letting him do some honest labor for the common good.

This sounds cynically hollow to us now, but it made a deep impression on the patriotic young engineering graduate, and he continued to believe in it when the evidence of his eyes and ears sent a very different message. There is something intensely moving about his account of facing down a revolt by criminal prisoners in his care, of arranging to get proper living quarters built for prisoners exposed to subarctic temperatures, and of his sincerity and conscientiousness in carrying out his duties.

Mochulsky occasionally steps back and condemns the system’s excesses, but his memoir is written from the point of view of a true believer, presenting us with the conundrum of a good man serving an evil system. He also brings out some startling parallels between guards and prisoners, and their linkage. During a forty-five-day journey to the Pechorlag camp just south of the Arctic circle, he endures a series of crushing hardships only a little less harsh that those of some prisoners, and his first “home” in the Gulag is a primitive dugout that is barely habitable. This makes him all the more sensitive to the pitiable conditions of his charges (whom he risks punishment to help), while not in the least shaking his faith in the system. Indeed both guards and prisoners seem to accept their fate with stoic resignation.

What are we to make of all this? Black and white still define the differences between tyranny and democracy, but the complex gray area in the middle, where most people’s lives are lived, is harder to describe. All four of these books illustrate the gray areas as well as the horrors, and underline the colossal inefficiencies and uncertainties of the Soviet system. There was room in this system for altruism, generosity, nobility even, but the capricious arbitrariness of the regime left even more room for cruelty and corruption. Worst of all was the terrifying fear and insecurity felt viscerally at all levels of society. Whether an illiterate peasant, cultivated artist or scientist, high Party official, or general, you sensed an invisible trapdoor beneath your feet that might yawn open at any moment and drop you into an inferno from which there was usually no escape.5

This, it occurs to me, illustrates one crucial difference between the Gulag and the Holocaust. If you were a Jew in Poland under Nazi occupation, for example, or a Gypsy, you would be murdered for who you were, the corollary being that if you weren’t a Jew or a Gypsy you had much better chances of survival—unless killed in the war.6 The situation was the obverse in the Soviet Union. No matter who you were, with the single exception of Stalin, you could be arbitrarily arrested, beaten, shot or starved to death, or condemned to a life of slavery, and no one could escape the risk.

Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History served as a strong and useful reminder of these issues, and its success highlighted the painful truth that the world has not yet measured the full meaning of the Gulag in the way it has the Holocaust. This is largely because Russia, the successor state to the Soviet Union, has not itself come to terms with what the Gulag represented in the way the Germans have acknowledged the evils of the Holocaust and taken responsibility for it. Two admirably active voluntary organizations, Memorial and Vozvrashchenie (Return), have worked since 1988 to photograph the sites of former camps, record testimonies, collect information, publish studies and memoirs, and document what they can of the repressions carried out during the Soviet Union’s seventy-year existence.

Meanwhile, as the result of citizens’ initiatives, there are approximately three hundred small museums and a thousand statues and other tokens of remembrance scattered over the territory of the former Soviet Union, but they are almost invisible in daily life, and there are no such museums and few reminders in the larger cities, especially not in the capital. The promise of the Khrushchev government to allow a prominent memorial to be erected in Moscow (though not by the government itself) has never been realized. The closest officials have come is to allow the placing of the “Solovetsky Stone,” an unsculpted boulder from the main island of Solovki, on Lubyanka Square, in memory of the notorious Lubyanka Prison and the secret police headquarters that dominated the square in Soviet times. That stone was installed in 1990, before even Yeltsin came to power, and long before Putin appeared on the scene.

The present Russian government has sent conflicting signals about its attitude toward the Gulag. On the one hand there was Putin’s public courtship of Solzhenitsyn, followed by his recent decision to authorize a special edition of The Gulag Archipelago for use in Russia’s schools; on the other, a recently published teachers’ manual explains that Stalin acted rationally in his campaign of terror to ensure the country’s modernization, and Stalin was recently ranked third in a TV contest to find history’s greatest Russian.

Putin and Medvedev have allowed Memorial and Vozvrashchenie to continue some of their operations, but not without harassment from local and central authorities. As long ago as the mid-1990s, according to Memorial’s website, permissions began to be withdrawn for the investigation of mass burial grounds, some of which remain under the control of the KGB’s successor organization, the FSB, while the compilation of Memorial’s “books of memory,” in which the names of former victims are recorded, has been frustrated by the refusal of the authorities to cooperate.7

The most recent instance of official harassment was a daylight raid by masked men on the St. Petersburg offices of Memorial in December 2008. Police confiscated twelve computer hard drives containing twenty years’ work documenting Gulag victims, along with research on the still secret graves of an estimated 2.7 million Leningraders, all of which were intended for an important new project designed to circumvent the obstacles to a physical museum, namely, a “Virtual Museum of the Gulag.”8

The Prosecutor’s Office claimed that it was investigating links between Memorial and an article in an obscure anti-Semitic newspaper that had been shut down a year before. On March 20, 2009, a court decided that the search and confiscation were carried out with “procedural violations,” and in May the hard drives were returned. The message sent by the authorities seemed clear enough: we are watching you and will do everything we can to hamper your activities. Thanks to the persistence of Memorial’s dedicated staff, however, the Virtual Museum went fully online in January 2010.9

The question of why the present Russian government is so adamantly opposed to a full reexamination of the evils of the Gulag is hard to answer, but Leona Toker, in her excellent Return from the Gulag Archipelago: Narratives of Gulag Survivors (2000), offers one explanation. Most of those who lived through and remember the era of the Gulag, she writes, are “more ready to condemn the identifiable agents of terror…than to recognize the radical flaws in their own past attitudes.”10 Citing Shalamov, she suggests that “one of the reasons why Nuremberg trials were impossible in Russia is that in the Larger Zone few were innocent.” As a result, the “blanket accusation” of guilt has led to a “blanket amnesty.”11 The “larger zone” she refers to was, of course, the Soviet Union, the smaller zone being the labor camp (or camps). Toker suggests that a way out of this dilemma would be for Russian society to admit “the traitors and the informers within the pale of the shared humanity as the unhappy exponents of impulses known to all and mastered by most,” and writes that the best labor camp narratives “show us ways of turning our awareness into sympathetic imagination.”

Alas, there seems little likelihood that the KGB’s successors will develop a “sympathetic imagination” or allow Gulag research and Gulag studies to develop and flourish at home. But there is no reason why the history and literature of the Gulag shouldn’t be studied more systematically and widely and commemorated in the West. The United States has its Holocaust Memorial Museum, and a website lists over sixty centers worldwide, including twenty-four in the US alone (in addition to Washington) and one in Russia. Why not a Gulag Museum here too, and a program of studies at a prominent university, say, Yale, which has published a huge amount of material relevant to this subject?12 Anne Applebaum recently suggested that the West’s reluctance to tackle the subject of the Gulag thus far may be linked to residual guilt over embracing “a genocidal dictator…who committed crimes against humanity” as our ally during World War II.13

But surely it’s time to overcome such hesitations. There is already a large and growing literature on the subject by Westerners as well as natives of Russia, Central Europe, and other former Soviet republics. The superb histories of the Gulag by Solzhenitsyn and Applebaum, together with Toker’s discriminating volume on the literature of the Gulag, are more than enough to define a program, and if Peter Weir’s new film about the Gulag, The Way Back, starring Colin Farrell, is as good as early reports suggest, this may be a sign that the subject is at last about to enter the mainstream.14

This Issue

April 28, 2011