Book Review: Gulag: A History

Gulag:  A History, by Anne Applebaum

Sometimes a book can miss the forest for the trees, and that is the case here.  This is not a bad book, unless you consider a book bad because it talks about horrifying subjects from a point of view that nearly entirely misses the point of what it is talking about.  Of course, the author is a writer for the Washington Post, so missing the point is something that likely happens often to her when she is writing drivel about contemporary politics or making false historical comparisons to contemporary political leaders as she is wont to do.  Rarely is a book so detailed in its discussion while being so weak in terms of drawing the appropriate conclusions from the material that is being dealt with.  This is a book that contains more information than you will likely ever want to know about the Gulag [1] without drawing parallels between gulags as a method of social control and socialist states in general, which means that this is a book that lacks the sort of punch that it should have, since the Soviet gulag system is treated as something minor, and it focuses on the period before World War II and not on the period in which American liberal thinkers (like those of the Post) were complicit in showing hostility to those who viewed the Soviet Union (rightly) as an evil empire.

This book, which is a hefty tome at about 600 pages of core reading material, is divided into three parts.  In the first part, the author tackles the origins of the gulag between 1917 and 1939 with chapters on the beginnings during the Bolshevik revolution (1), the first camp of the gulag (2), the rise of imprisonment during 1929 (3), the effort to build the White Sea canal (4), the expansion of the camps in the 1930’s (5), and the Great Terror and its aftermath (6).  The author then turns to the issue of life and work in the camp, which takes up the plurality of the book’s content with chapters on arrest (7), prison (8), transport, arrival, and selection (9), life (10) and work (11) in the camps, punishment and reward (12), guards (13), prisoners (14), women and children (15), the dying (16), strategies of survival (17), and efforts at rebellion and escape (18).  The third and final part of the book discusses the rise and fall of the so-called camp-industrial complex between 1940 and 1986 with chapters on the beginning of World War II (19), the strangers who were brought into camp (20), amnesty and its aftermath (21), the peak of the prison system in the period after World War II (22), the death of Stalin (23), the Zek’s revolution (24), the thaw (25), the era of the dissidents (26), and the end of the gulag in the 1980’s (27), after which the author writes an epilogue about the problem of memorializing the gulag and the hostility this provokes among many in Russia even now.

Ultimately, though, this book is likely only to please those whose hostility to the Soviet Union is tinged as well with a sense of regret and loss, who want to read about the Gulag without tying it to similar systems in Germany and China (to name but two of them) or to recognize the broad similarities across regimes in terms of seeking to use criminals and religious and political opponents of socialism/Communism in ways that benefit the regime.  Moreover, the author doesn’t appear to be brave enough in her tying the lack of interest Russians have in dwelling on the past of the gulag to the contemporary issues faced in Putin’s Russia regarding acknowledging and dealing with historical wrongs.  The author seems, for example, to want to criticize many soviet dissidents but also has to use their sources as they are among the most important information we have about life in the gulag system, as much as the author wants to distance herself from the Cold Warriors that escaped Russia and managed to write about what they saw and experienced.  Nevertheless, a reader who is able and willing to make the appropriate connections between this book’s material and the larger political and philosophical issues that the book does not satisfactorily address will find a great deal of worth in here.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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