Gulag. A history of the Soviet Camps - Anne Applebaum

Anne Applebaum is a columnist and member of the editorial board of The Washington Post. She began working as a journalist in 1988, when she moved to Poland to become the Warsaw correspondent for The Economist. She covered the collapse of communism across Central and Eastern Europe, writing for a wide range of newspapers and magazines. Her book, Gulag: A History, narrates the history of the Soviet concentration camp system and describes daily life in the camps. She is determined to make sure the victims of the Soviet concentration camps are remembered and their oppressors exposed. Her book is tragic testimony to how evil ideologically inspired dictatorships can be. It makes extensive use of recently-opened Russian archives. Dirk Verhofstadt had a exclusive interview with Anne Applebaum.

Where does the name Gulag comes from?

Anne Applebaum: Gulag is an acronym - it means Main Camp Administration, in Russian, Glavnoe upravlenie lagerei. It was the bureaucratic name for the camp system, used by the Soviet government. Solzhenitsyn popularized it in his book, Gulag Archipelago.

Who installed these camps? Did they already exist under tsaar Nicolas II or were they the result of the communist system?

Anne Applebaum: The Czars did have small forced labor colonies, and a larger exile population. In some ways, the USSR built on that tradition: Stalin very much admired Peter the Great’s use of forced labor in the construction of Sint Petersburg, for example. But the Gulag was a very different phenomenon: it was not only far larger - millions of people, instead of thousands - it was a major part of the Soviet economy, and central to the ideology of the system.

In the 1920’s the Soviet Union launched a programme of industrialisation. The initators decided that forced labourers could usefully be made to open up remote and forbidden areas of the country. Can we state that the camps became part of the economy plan?

Anne Applebaum: Yes - as I say, Stalin considered them very important. He used Gulag prisoners in some of the Soviet Union’s most prestigious industrial projects, and kept close track of the Gulag’s economic achievements.

You wrote that Lenin, not Stalin, founded the camps and that they were integral to the Soviet system. What was the role of Lenin and Stalin?

Anne Applebaum: Lenin’s role was significant because it was he who intitally set up a dual judicial system: an ‘ordinary’ system for criminal prisoners, and a ‘special’ system of special camps for political prisoners, run by the secret police. Later, under Stalin, the secret police came to run the entire system. This was significant because they were not controlled through rule of law, but were rather under the direct control of Stalin. According several reports a massive number of people were arrested and imprisoned during the Great Terror in 1937-1939. Stalin initiated the Great Terror, directed the Great Terror, and personally signed the orders to arrest and kill people during the Great Terror. He played an absolutely central role.

What did they use the camps for? Labourcamps or extermination camps?

Anne Applebaum: Soviet camps were not officially intended to be extermination camps. They were built, according to secret police ordres, in order to make use of forced labor to help the Soviet Union industrialize faster. In practice, certain camps, at certain times, were extremely deadly. In the camps of the far north, particularly during the war years, it seems that the vast majority of prisoners died. The Gulag death rate for the year 1942-43 is about 25%.

You wrote that the camps themselves were not destined for torture and killing but rather for profit. Didn’t they torture or kill? What did they understand under ‘profit’?

Anne Applebaum: Yes, they did torture and kill. But those who founded and then ran the camps always discussed them as an economic project. If this sounds paradoxical, perhaps it helps to understand that the camp administrators and guards thought of the prisoners not as human beings, but as ‘enemies of the people’ who could be treated as if they were catttle, or lumps of steel. They were simply part of a production process: no one was trying to kill them, but if they died, no one minded either .

Is it true that the Gulag penal system built infrastructure like airports, railroads, dams, etc. and that this was inherited by the 15 former Soviet republics?

Anne Applebaum: Yes. An enormous amount of infrastructure, including many of the Siberian roads and railroads, gold mines, coal mines, power plants, canals, oil fields, and entire cities were built by prisoners. Examples are the construction of the White Sea Canal, the railway line from Baikal to Amur and the oil field of Ukhtpechlag.

For which reason did they imprison people?

Anne Applebaum: In Stalin’s Soviet Union, it was possible to be arrested for almost anything. During waves of mass terror, the regime arrested anyone whom anyone felt was suspicious for any reason: anyone who had told a political joke, anyone who had foreign origins, anyone who had travelled abroad. Generally speaking, the majority of those arrested were workers and peasants, proportionally of the same national orgins as everyone else in the USSR, which means mostly Russian. Certain national categories were, however, over-represented, particularly those with close connections with countries on the immediate border of the USSR such as Poles, Balts, Finns, Koreans, and others. Sometimes, particular institutions, such as the army or the foreign service or even the Party, were attacked. Sometimes, arrests seem to have been totally random. Not all arrests were for so-called ‘political’ crimes. There were also millions of criminal prisoners, although their ‘crimes’ would not be called so in most societies. During the war, you could be sent to a camp for being late to work, for changing jobs wihtout permission. During the era of collectivzation you could be arrested as a thief for picking up leftover grain from fields.

How many people were imprisoned in the Gulag camps and what was their origin?

Anne Applebaum: In the appendix to my book, estimate that between 1929, when they first became a mass phenomenon, and 1953, the year of Stalin’s death, some 18 million passed through the camps. In addition, a further 6 or 7 million people were deported, not to camps but to exile villages. In total, that means the number of people with some experience of imprisonment, in Stalin’s Soviet Union, could have run as high as 25 million, about 15 percent of the population.

What about the Jews? Were they also arrested and persecuted because of the fact they were Jews?

Anne Applebaum: There were many Jews in Stalin’s camps. It is difficult to count them, because their nationality would not always have been recorded as Jewish. Jews were mainly arrested for the same reasons that others were arrested, but in the early 1950s, there was a political attack on Jews, particularly those in the medical professions. Large numbers of Jews were arrested at that time.

Is it true that the Germans took the Russian camps as an example ? Did they ever visit them?

Anne Applebaum: While it is certainly true that the Germans knew about the Soviet camps - there are even aeriel photographs taken of them, during the war - there were no official Nazi visits to the Soviet camps, at least none that we know about. I don’t believe the Germans needed the Soviet example: in my view, both the Nazi and the Bolshevik camps had their origins in the broader European traditions of exile, imprisonment, political arrest and eugenics. At base, though, both regimes legitimated themselves, in part, by establishing categories of ‘enemies’ or ‘sub-humans’ whom they persecuted and destroyed on a mass scale.

Can we compare those camps with the German concentration camps? What’s the difference between Kolyma and Auschwitz?

Anne Applebaum: As any reader with any general knowledge of the Holocaust will discover in the course of reading my book, life within the Soviet camp system differed in many ways, both subtle and obvious, from life within the Nazi camp system. There were differences in the organization of daily life and of work, different sorts of guards and punishments, different kinds of propaganda. The Gulag lasted far longer, and went through cycles of relative cruelty and relative humanity. The history of the Nazi camps is shorter, and contains less variation: they simply became crueler and crueler, until the retreating Germans liquidated them or the invading Allies liberated them. The Gulag also contained a wide variety of camps, from the lethal gold mines of the Kolyma region to the ‘luxurious’ secret institutes outside Moscow, where prisoner scientists designed weapons for the Red Army. Although there were different kinds of camps in the Nazi system, the range was far narrower.

Above all, however, two differences between the systems strike me as fundamental. First, the definition of ‘enemy’ in the Soviet Union was always far more slippery than the definition of ‘Jew’ in Nazi Germany. With an extremely small number of unusual exceptions, no Jew in Nazi Germany could change his status, no Jew inside a camp could reasonably expect to escape death, and all Jews carried this knowledge with them at all times. While millions of Soviet prisoners feared they might die - and millions did - there was no single category of prisoner whose death was absolutely guaranteed. At times, certain prisoners could improve their lot by working in relatively comfortable jobs, as engineers or geologists. Within each camp there was a prisoner hierarchy, which some were able to climb at the expense of others, or with the help of others. At other times - when the Gulag found itself overburdened with women, children, and old people, or when soldiers were needed to fight at the front - prisoners were released in mass amnesties. It sometimes happened that whole categories of ‘enemies’ suddenly benefited from a change in status. Stalin arrested hundreds of thousands of Poles, for example, at the start of the Second World War in 1939 - and then abruptly released them from the Gulag in 1941 when Poland and the USSR became temporary allies. The opposite was also true: in the Soviet Union, perpetrators could become victims themselves. Gulag guards, administrators, even senior officers of the secret police, could also be arrested and find themselves sentenced to camps. Not every ‘poisonous weed’ remained poisonous, in other words - and there was no single group of Soviet prisoners who lived with the constant expectation of death.

Second - the primary purpose of the Gulag, according to both the private language and the public propaganda of those who founded it, was economic. This did not mean that it was humane. Within the system, prisoners were treated as cattle, or rather as lumps of iron ore. Guards shuttled them around at will, loading and unloading them into cattle cars, weighing and measuring them, feeding them if it seemed they might be useful, starving them if they were not. They were, to use Marxist language, exploited, reified, and commodified. Unless they were productive, their lives were worthless to their masters.

Nevertheless, their experience was quite different from that of the Jewish and other prisoners whom the Nazis sent to a special group of camps called not Konzentrationslager but Vernichtungslager-camps that were not really ‘labor camps’ at all, but rather death factories. There were four of them: Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor, and Treblinka. Majdanek and Auschwitz contained both labor camps and death camps. Upon entering these camps, prisoners were ‘selected’. A tiny number were sent to do a few weeks of forced labor. The rest were sent directly into gas chambers where they were murdered and then immediately cremated. As far as I have been able to ascertain, this particular form of murder, practiced at the height of the Holocaust, had no Soviet equivalent. True, the Soviet Union found other ways to mass-murder hundreds of thousands of its citizens. Usually, they were driven to a forest at night, lined up, shot in the skull, and buried in mass graves before they ever got near a concentration camp - a form of murder no less ‘industrialized’ and anonymous than that used by the Nazis. For that matter, there are stories of Soviet secret police using exhaust fumes - a primitive form of gas - to kill prisoners, just as the Nazis did in their early years. Within the Gulag, Soviet prisoners also died, usually not thanks to the captors' efficiency but due to gross inefficiency and neglect. In certain Soviet camps, at certain times, death was virtually guaranteed for those selected to cut trees in the winter forest or to work in the worst of the Kolyma gold mines. Prisoners were also locked in punishment cells until they died of cold and starvation, left untreated in unheated hospitals, or simply shot at will for ‘attempted escape’. Nevertheless, the Soviet camp system as a whole was not deliberately organized to mass-produce corpses - even if, at times, it did.

These are fine distinctions, but they matter. Although the Gulag and Auschwitz do belong to the same intellectual and historical tradition, they are nevertheless separate and distinct, both from one another and from camp systems set up by other regimes. The idea of the concentration camp may be general enough to be used in many different cultures and situations, but even a superficial study of the concentration camp’s cross-cultural history reveals that the specific details - how life in the camps was organized, how the camps developed over time, how rigid or disorganized they became, how cruel or liberal they remained - depended on the particular country, on the culture, and on the regime. To those who were trapped behind barbed wire, these details were critical to their life, health, and survival.

Is there evidence or proof that prisoners went through medical experiments?

Anne Applebaum: No.

A lot of books have been published about the Nazi Concentration camps. The Gulag entered into the world's historical consciousness only in 1972 with the publication of Solzhenitsyn's epic oral history of the Soviet camps, The Gulag Archipelago. Why aren’t there more books about the camps in de Sovjet Union? And was the Western world aware of these camps before 1972?

Anne Applebaum: If you don’t mind, I’m afraid these question have several answers, and I will answer them jointly. Put bluntly, the crimes of Stalin still not inspire the same visceral reaction, in the West, as do the crimes of Hitler. The passage of time is part of it: communist regimes really did grow less reprehensible as the years went by. Nobody was very frightened of General Jaruzelski, or even of Brezhnev, although both were responsible for a great deal of destruction. Besides, archives were closed. Access to campsites was forbidden. No television cameras ever filmed the Soviet camps or their victims, as they had done in Germany at the end of the Second World War. No images, in turn, meant that the subject, in our image-driven culture, didn’t really exist either.

But ideology twisted the ways in which we understood Soviet and East European history as well. In fact, in the 1920s, a great deal was known in the West about the bloodiness of Lenin’s revolution. Western socialists, many of whose brethren had been jailed by the Bolsheviks, protested loudly and strongly against the crime of the Russian revolution. In the 1930s, however, as Westerners became more interested in learning how socialism could be applied here, the tone changed. Writers and journalists went off to the USSR, trying to learn lessons they could use at home. The New York Times employed a correspondent, Walter Duranty, who lauded the five-year plan and argued, against all evidence, that it was a massive success – and won a Pulitzer Prize for doing so. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, a part of the Western Left struggled to explain and sometimes to excuse the camps, and the terror, which created them, precisely because they wanted to try some aspects of the Soviet experiment at home. In 1936, after millions of Soviet peasants had died of famine, and millions more were in camps or in exile, the British socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb published a vast survey of the Soviet Union, which explained, among other things, how the “downtrodden Russian peasant is gradually acquiring a sense of political freedom.”

These sentiments reached their peak during the Second World War, when Stalin was our ally and we had other reasons to ignore the truth about his repressive regime. In 1944, the American vice-president, Henry Wallace, actually went to Kolyma, one of the most notorious camps, during a trip across the USSR. Imagining he was visiting some kind of industrial complex, he told his hosts that ‘Soviet Asia’, as he called it, reminded him of the Wild West: “The vast expanses of your country, her virgin forests, wide rivers and large lakes, all kinds of climate - from tropical to polar – her inexhaustible wealth, remind me of my homeland.” According to a report that the boss of Kolyma later wrote for Beria, then the head of the security services, Wallace did ask to see prisoners, but was kept away. He was not alone in refusing to see the truth about Stalin’s system: Roosevelt and Churchill had their photographs taken with Stalin too.

All of that contributed to our firm conviction that the Second World War was a wholly just war, and even today few want that conviction shaken. We remember D-Day, the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, the children welcoming American GI s with cheers on the streets. We do not remember that the camps of Stalin, our ally, expanded just as the camps of Hitler, our enemy, were liberated. No one wants to think that we defeated one mass murderer with the help of another.

During the Cold War, it is true, our awareness of Soviet atrocities went up - but in the 1960s, they receded again. Even in the 1980s, there were still American academics that went on describing the advantages of East German health care or Polish peace initiatives. In the academic world, Soviet historians who wrote about the camps generally divided up into two groups: those who wrote about the camps as criminal, and those who downplayed them, if not because they were actually pro-Soviet, then because they were opposed to America’s role in the Cold War, or maybe Ronald Reagan. Right up to the very end, our views of the Soviet Union, and its repressive system, always had more to do with Western politics and ideological struggles than they did with the Soviet Union itself.

A lot of leftist-intellectuals supported the Sovjet-system in the 50’s and 60’s. When Jean Paul Sartre returned from a trip to Russia in 1954 he declared that there existed a total freedom to criticize in the SU. Is it possible they knew nothing?

Anne Applebaum: No. By 1954 there was an enormous amount of information available about the camps. I would have to assume that he was lying, or that he deliberately did not want others to know. Sartre once told Camus that “like you, I find these camps intolerable, but I find equally intolerable the use made of them every day in the bourgeois press.”

In 1986 Gorbatsjov amnestied all political prisoners? Why?

Anne Applebaum: Gorbachev’s political amnesty actually came rather late, in the development of glasnost, and seems to have been called for only reluctantly. It was a part of his campaign to modernize the Soviet Union and improve relations with the West - but also the result of a report that Victor Cherbrikov, then the head of the KGB, sent to the Central Committee, which described the dissidents as so weak that they could not do much harm any more. It actually took several more years before all political prisoners were actually freed.

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1989. Have you since noticed confessions of guilt, indictments or legal actions taken by victims or their relatives? Did (or do) the Russian autorities commemorate this tragedy and did they build memorials to the dead? Were the commissioners and executors prosecuted?

Anne Applebaum: I do discuss this issue at length in the epilogue to my book. But the short answer is that although there are some small memorials scattered around the country, there has still been no major official effort to build a monument to the camps, to commemorate the dead, or to conduct any investigation to the past. There have been no courts, no trials, and nothing like the truth and reconciliation commissions that have been used so well in South Africa.

What is the position of the actual Russian goverment and president Putin with regard to this part of the Russian history?

Anne Applebaum: The current Russian government are not interested in preserving the memory of the camps or of Stalin's crimes at all. On the contrary, they have used many opportunities to revive the image of the old Soviet Union - by bringing back the Soviet national anthem, for example. President Putin, an old KGB officer, speaks of himself as ‘Chekist’, using the old-fashioned word for Lenin's political police - a word that older Russians associate with the era of repression.

Are there nowadays similar camps in Russia? Are there still prisoners in these camps?

Anne Applebaum: No - or not really. The Gulag system - as a mass system of forced labor - was dismantled after Stalin's death. Soviet political prisons, on a smaller scale remained intact until Gorbachev freed the majority of political prisoners in the late 1980s. The worst that can be said of Russia's criminal prison system now is that it is dirty and deteriorating, and that the legal system remains corrupt and unfair. I visited a Russian prison in the late 1990s and was shocked by how similar it seemed to the descriptions of Stalin's prisons I had read in Gulag memoirs. Many of these prisons are still physically much the same as they were. But no, there is no mass system of forced labor in modern Russia.

Interview by Dirk Verhofstadt