Victor Sebestyen

The missing millions

Victor Sebestyen is haunted by some newly translated eye-witness accounts, written by both captor and captives, detailing the horrors of the Gulag

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.

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