The collapse of the Soviet Union spawned an entire genre of literature: the Gulag memoir, produced by victims of the USSR’s concentration camps. A few masterpieces were published in the West, or in samizdat, before the 1980s, for example Evgenia Ginzburg’s renowned Into the Whirlwind and the works of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.But as Soviet-style communism fell apart, the long-suffering voices were allowed to speak, and in Russia an enormous number of first-person books and articles began appearing.
In her brilliant 2004 Gulag, Anne Applebaum wrote the best history of the Soviet camps to appear outside of what was once referred to as the Eastern bloc. That was a monumental achievement. But it may be the last such work, since in the present age of forgetting, inspired by Vladimir Putin’s neo-nationalism, Russian archives have become extremely difficult to enter, and a vast store of material about crimes of the Soviet era may be lost forever.
Here Applebaum has performed another invaluable service. She has put together a marvellous collection of memoirs, stories and reminiscences written by surviving Gulag inmates ranging from the 1920s, when Lenin opened camps in the first days after the Revolution, to the late 1970s, a time when most Westerners, as well as Russians, presumed that such places no longer existed.
Most of these short pieces are by less well known figures than they deserve to be, and have been translated into English for the first time. They show the enduring value of personal testimony: of memoir as an essential tool in understanding the past.
Historians with the skill of Applebaum can vividly tell the story of how the Gulag spread, famously, into an ‘archipelago’ of remote areas in Siberia and further north; how at the height of Stalin’s purge of the late 1930s there were 480 camps. Perhaps 25 million people went through these over the years for ‘political offences’. By a conservative estimate two-and-a-half million men and women never came out alive.
This book eschews facts and figures. Memoirs can get such things wrong. But as Applebaum suggests in her introduction, the insights about character and motivation revealed by direct testimony, and the power of personal storytelling, can arrive at a greater truth, or a different one. She has imaginatively chosen essays that describe aspects of experience in the camps that few others have written about, which go beyond the near-starvation rations, the brutality of the guards and the all- pervasive fear.
Among the most powerful is the beautifully written, infinitely harrowing story, ‘My Child’, by Hava Volovich. Hundreds of thousands of women gave birth in the camps, though it is a subject hardly mentioned in any of the Gulag literature. Among them was the Ukrainian news- paperwoman Volovich, who was arrested in 1937 and spent 16 years as a slave labourer.
‘Our need for love, tenderness, caresses was so desperate that it reached the point of insanity,’ she writes. ‘And we wanted a child — the dearest of all people, someone for whom we could give up our own life.’ While she was put to back-breaking work felling trees in the tundra, her baby daughter was kept in a nursery, starved of food, human contact and love. Hava was allowed to see her child twice a day for short periods only. One evening
when I came back … her cot was empty. I found her lying in the morgue among the corpses of adult prisoners …. I don’t know where her grave is. They wouldn’t let me leave the camp compound to bury her.
Equally haunting is Gustav Herling’s ‘House of Meetings’. Strangely, some prisoners, even in the worst of times, were allowed conjugal visits from their wives. The couples spent a few days together in a barrack room. Herling, a Pole, who after two years in the Gulag and through a circuitous route managed to escape to Italy, gives a painfully honest account of how these meetings were seldom happy occasions, ‘usually leaving fresh emptiness. The prisoners had nothing to wait for.’
Elena Glinka, a young engineer arrested during Stalin’s final purge in the 1940s, writes on a subject considered taboo even when censorship was relaxed in the late 1980s: the gang rapes endured by thousands of women by their fellow inmates. Her account is a restrained, dispassionate, chilling piece of writing. This is an extraordinary selection of stories, full of surprises, which illuminate aspects of life in the Gulag that have long been neglected.
The same can be said of Gulag Boss. While a vast library has been produced by the victims of the Gulag, almost nothing has appeared from the jailers. Fyodor Mochulsky’s memoir provides a unique insight from the other side.
Mochulsky was a 24-year-old railway engineer, and a fervent communist, when in 1940 he was conscripted into the NKVD (later KGB) as a junior guard at a camp in the far north of Russia, beyond the Arctic Circle. His job was to build a railway line to transport coal and materiel vital to the Soviet war effort, using convict labour. He was part-engineer, part-prison warder. It is a fascinating account, and he writes a crisp narrative, though he pulls too many punches for it to be entirely convincing.
His story is full of details about the freezing temperatures, the miserable diet and the insanitary conditions suffered by the prisoners. But he never mentions the victims whom he worked to death. Occasionally he says he could see that the Gulag system was wrong, that the communists were to blame for repressing so many millions. Yet he himself rose through the system, ending as the USSR’s most senior diplomat in China, and remaining a Party member until 1988. At no point does he accept any individual responsibility.
On the other hand, he is intelligent about the crazy economics of the Gulag. The Soviets ran a slave labour system as incompetently as they ran everything else. For 20 years the NKVD was the largest construction organisation in the USSR, but its camps were never as important to the country’s infrastructure as has often been assumed. With a few significant exceptions — the Volga-Moscow Canal for one — most of the projects that the Gulag labourers died working on were never completed.
Gulag Boss is a morality-free zone. But it is important for revealing the mentality of the people who ran the camps. These books are well worth reading together, almost as companion volumes; both say new things about life at the extremes, in one of the darkest places of the 20th century.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 19, 2011Tags: Book reviews, Gulag, History, Non-fiction, Soviet Union, Ussr, War on terror