Review: Gulag by Anne Applebaum

Robert Service reads Gulag by Anne Applebaum, a study of Stalin's forced labour camps that examines the logistics of the gulag system as well as its horror

Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps
Anne Applebaum
610pp, Allen Lane, £25

At the end of 1941 Time magazine made Joseph Stalin its Man of the Year. The US had entered the war a few weeks earlier and the USSR had become its main ally in Europe. Stalin's popularity in New York was not a new phenomenon. He had won the same award two years previously, when the citation had praised his statesmanship in signing a treaty with Adolf Hitler; this had been a period when Soviet armed forces were carrying out a brutal repression in eastern Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia - and the Soviet-Finnish war was in spate. Time magazine was calibrating its editorial line to the perceived American interests of the moment. And its double award to the Soviet dictator gives the lie to the assumption that only the political left had a soft spot for Stalinism.

Unfortunately Anne Applebaum begins her book on the gulag with this very assumption. Crediting Senator Joe McCarthy with having the right ideas about Stalin, she suggests that his message failed to get across to the public because his style of behaviour brought him into disrepute. This is a garbled version of what happened before and after Stalin's death. There was never a secret about the forced-labour system in the USSR, and when the cold war erupted after the second world war, plenty of politicians and writers castigated the Soviet order. Not only Harry Truman and Winston Churchill but also George Orwell and Arthur Koestler indicted the terrorist dictatorship in the USSR. Fellow travellers certainly existed. But the situation was complex and ever-changing and it is a pity that Applebaum has repeated a solecism that has become widespread since the fall of communism in Europe.

Yet once she has cleared her throat, she tells a gripping and convincing story about the Soviet camp system. Alexander Solzhenitsyn preceded her, in much more difficult circumstances, with his Gulag Archipelago . He drew on the experiences of himself and his fellow convicts, and read widely in published records and secondary historical accounts. But he wrote before Gorbachev's perestroika. In recent years the pile of evidence has become mountainous as countless memoirs and documentary collections have appeared. A few scholars were even allowed into the archives of the police. Although this book contains little which has not yet appeared in the Russian press, she has interviewed several survivors of the gulag and has thoroughly examined recent publications. The result is an admirable summary of the present state of our knowledge.

Forced labour had been used by the tsars; but although the communists were not slow to arrest political enemies and conduct terror, it was not until Stalin introduced his first five-year plan at the end of the 1920s that a consolidated system of labour camps was fully established in the USSR. The author highlights the importance of economic motives in the politburo's policy. The first camps were established in the inhospitable regions of the Russian north, eastern Siberia and elsewhere where natural resources awaited exploitation and where free labourers were reluctant to settle. It was a massive operation requiring a huge structure of personnel and institutions. Over it all stood the OGPU (forerunner of the KGB), soon to be incorporated in the NKVD. Successive police chiefs Yagoda, Yezhov and Beria refined the procedures so that the Main Administration of Camps (the Gulag, in its Russian acronym) might function normally as an integral organ of the Soviet institutional network.

Subordinate to these police chiefs were the territorial leaders of the OGPU-NKVD, each of whom had to fulfil the arrest quotas assigned to their republic or province. They ran their own mini-economies. In their employment were guards, interrogators, journalists, lorry-drivers, railwaymen and informers. With Stalin's mania for signed confessions, indeed, the demand for shorthand secretaries rose exponentially as the number of arrests soared to a peak in 1937-1938.

While Applebaum is correct in emphasising economics, she might have given more weight to politics. Stalin's propaganda left no doubt about who dominated Soviet politics. The corollary was that the vast strata of society which had been hurt by state policies knew exactly whom to blame. His campaign of repression, therefore, had a rational basis. Certainly the arrests were arbitrary in the sense that the police picked up millions of people who bore no grudge against him or his regime. But this happened mainly because the Soviet state, including its police, was worse informed and equipped than Hitler's security agencies in Germany; and the NKVD had to meet the quotas set in the Kremlin regardless of individual guilt or innocence. Nevertheless, Stalin really did have millions of enemies: former Bolshevik oppositionists, priests, ex-Mensheviks, nationalists, kulaks and traders. Deporting all of them to Turkey, as was done with Trotsky in 1929, was impractical. Nor was it safe to dump them unguarded in remote towns of the USSR. Since even Stalin did not see the point of universal extermination, the gulag was his alternative.

Yet what did he intend for the camp inmates? A strength of the book is the author's insistence that conditions in the camp were meant to be severe but bearable. Only in the second world war, when malnutrition afflicted most people in the USSR, were the rations lowered below those levels. The problem was that the NKVD was corrupt and the food supplies and medicines assigned to the gulag were siphoned off at each stage of delivery to the camps. The consequent need arose for serial replenishment of convicts.

Not that the authorities in Moscow were oblivious to these technical difficulties. (They did not give a toss for the human tragedy or for conventional morality.) Exposures of corruption and maladministration occasionally took place. Indeed confidential reports were produced which proved that the Gulag cost more than it produced for the state. Slave labour was diseconomic. It is one of the merits of Applebaum's survey that she shows not only the horror but also the stupidity of Vorkuta, Kolyma and Norilsk. Thus it becomes readily explicable why the camps started to be emptied in 1953 almost before Stalin's corpse had cooled. If anything, the accountancy of forced labour was still worse than the book allows. Soviet uranium, gold, nickel and timber were obtained by the wretches who were tipped like human debris into the remotest and coldest regions. Many hundreds of thousands belonged to groups in Soviet society with expertise and managerial skills. Unfit for hard labour, they were a massive loss to the "free economy".

In fact, Stalin had a penchant for re-sentencing convicts once their term of forced labour had ended. The question arises how any remained alive when the camps started to be emptied after 1953. The answer is that most survivors had obtained jobs that gave them extra rations or lighter work. Solzhenitsyn was an example. He served his time in a camp dedicated to scientific research where the discipline was tough but the food was sufficient and the climate tolerable. In the worse camps of northern Russia and Siberia a convict needed to get transferred to medical work or to the kitchen in order to get by. The result was that their conditions improved, but this happened at the expense of the rest of the inmates who remained on less than adequate rations.

Bread became the object of obsessive desire. Theft of it was one of the few forms of behaviour which drew universal hostility from prisoners whether they were politicals or ordinary criminals. Few inmates thought murder too strong a reaction for thieving a person's bread ration.

Although the labour camps were not closed in 1953, the number of inmates was reduced and the degree of state terror was attenuated. Arrests of law-abiding citizens continued to take place under Khrushchev and Brezhnev. Persecution of religious believers was common in the 1960s and the political dissenters of later decades could expect to be thrown in a camp, a psychiatric hospital or else deported. Yet judicial rehabilitation of victims was patchy. Systematic investigations of wrongful arrest and imprisonment were begun by Gorbachev when most victims were already dead. The process continues to this day. Historians have exposed the nature of Stalin's regime, but trials of known persecutors have been few. It would be difficult to put every guilty official on trial, but Anne Applebaum is right that more could have been done and could still be done.

· Robert Service's Russia: Experiment With a People, From 1991 to the Present is published by Macmillan.

Robert Service

The GuardianTramp

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