The Magazine

Why We Must Remember the Gulag

Anne Applebaum reminds us how tyranny works.

May 19, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 35 • By MELANA ZYLA VICKERS
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Gulag

A History

by Anne Applebaum

Doubleday, 677 pp., $35

TO THE FAMOUS QUESTION raised by Robert Conquest in his "Reflections on a Ravaged Century"--Are the crimes of the Nazis worse than the crimes of the Stalinists?--I have always been compelled, by filial emotion and family history, to answer that they were about equal. My great uncle, a Ukrainian nationalist, was shot in the head execution-style by Chekists. His wife, my great aunt, spent twelve years in Stalinist concentration camps and another decade in internal exile. My paternal grandmother was imprisoned by the Nazis and tattooed because she "looked like a Jew," and escaped a fate in concentration camps only through the bribing of local officials. My maternal grandfather was taken prisoner by the Gestapo.

Now Anne Applebaum, in the first and last chapters of her powerful "Gulag: A History," takes up the same question. My more elaborated answer, informed by her book, must be: If the Nazi record is worse because its perpetrators more deliberately and successfully murdered their targeted groups, then the Soviet record is worse because its perpetrators have managed to escape the kind of universal denunciation we level against the Nazis.

There's reason to expect they will continue to escape, according to Applebaum. She begins "Gulag" by wondering why, in the Hollywood imagination, in the writings of American scholars and journalists, and in the observations of regular travelers to the former Soviet Union, "the crimes of Stalin do not inspire the same visceral reaction as do the crimes of Hitler."

She blames the blind leftism of a majority of the intellectuals of our era, which has made them loath to condemn a system whose ideological principles they continue to hold dear.

She blames the fact that our society doesn't have a mental picture of Soviet atrocities, because "no television cameras ever filmed the Soviet camps or their victims, as they had done in Germany" at the end of World War II.

And she notes that people in the West generally hold "a firm conviction that the Second World War was a wholly just war" and that to admit "that by consigning millions of people to Soviet rule at Yalta, the Western allies might have helped others commit crimes against humanity would undermine the moral clarity of our memories of that era."

One might also add that the sheer longevity of the Soviet regime eroded outrage against it, and the implosion--as opposed to defeat--of its center of gravity meant there was never any Nuremberg-style victor's justice imposed on Moscow.

Within the former Soviet Union, there are other reasons why the seventy-two-year Communist regime remains unaccountable for its evils. First and foremost is the republic of Russia's refusal to shoulder the guilt. As Applebaum says, "Russia, the country that has inherited the Soviet Union's diplomatic and foreign policies, its embassies, its debts and its seat at the United Nations, continues to act as if it has not inherited the Soviet Union's history. Russia does not have a national museum dedicated to the history of repression. Nor does Russia have a national place of mourning, a monument which officially recognizes the suffering of victims and their families." What's more, across the former Soviet Union, those complicit in the decades of repression remain in power: Thirteen of fifteen former Soviet republics are ruled by ex-Communists. Similarly complicit lower-ranking officials permeate the corridors of political power, business, and academia. Self-protection motivates them to repress efforts to educate the citizenry, present anti-Communist dissidents as national heroes in school textbooks, bring evildoers to judgment, build museums about Soviet atrocities, etc.

The educating is left to Applebaum and the dissidents on whose discouragingly rare memoirs she draws. Her account of the concentration camps, in which eighteen million people spent some period of time between 1929 and 1953 (and millions from 1953 to the fall of Soviet Communism in 1991), is nauseatingly vivid. She recounts the political prisoners' terror and isolation, the brutality of the secret police, the rearrests following the end of a sentence, and the millions of deaths through illness, hunger, cold--or brutally quick execution. I was, as other readers will be, so sickened by the content of the book's inner chapters that I was driven to tears many times. A warning: Get "Gulag" for the first and last chapters, and read the others only when there's time to wallow in sadness for a long time after putting it down.

In a particularly disconcerting section, Applebaum explains how millions of children were either imprisoned with their mothers, or were born in the Gulag. Babies were taken from their mothers to be watched in batches of dozens by rough-mannered nurses. The nurses "took off their nightclothes and washed them in ice-cold water. The babies didn't even dare cry. They made little sniffing noises like old men and let out low hoots. This awful hooting noise would come from the cots for days at a time," wrote political dissident Hava Volovich. Of her own baby, Volovich wrote: "Little Eleanora, who was now fifteen months old, soon realized that her pleas for 'home' were in vain. She stopped reaching out for me when I visited her; she would turn away in silence. On the last day of her life, when I picked her up (they allowed me to breast-feed her) she stared wide-eyed somewhere off into the distance, then started to beat her weak little fists on my face. . . . Then she pointed down at her bed. In the evening, when I came back with my bundle of firewood, . . . I found her lying naked in the morgue among the corpses of the adult prisoners."

Applebaum doesn't chronicle just the deaths of Gulag prisoners, but also the brave and honor-filled survival of those anti-Soviet writers--Ukrainian, Baltic, and Georgian nationalists, Helsinki Watch Group members, Jews, Tatars, Christian clergy--and others who were imprisoned, in that quintessentially totalitarian way, for "who they were" rather than "what they did." She tells of their small, humane acts: their system of leaving books for subsequent populations of prisoners, their knock-based communications between cells. And she writes of their truly unbelievable political activism: their hunger strikes, campaigns of disobedience, and other methods of gaining attention from supporters in the West including, significantly, President Ronald Reagan.

Ultimately, though, Applebaum's message is that in today's climate where the sins of the Soviet Union go unaccounted for, these dissidents are disappearing into the Gulag's snowdrifts rather than rising from them. Toward the end of the book she retells Natan Sharansky's account of how, in 1982, Estonian dissident Harold Kivilio was released after twenty-five years' imprisonment into the care of his only surviving relative, his sister. She warned him not to talk politics and said her family knew nothing of his experience. Kivilio ordered her to stop the car and said, "You don't know me and I don't know you. Goodbye."

If we in America and Western Europe--particularly our educators and our media--don't help those in the former Soviet Union talk often and openly about these politics and learn about these experiences, then we've as much as pushed Kivilio out of the car ourselves.

Melana Zyla Vickers is a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum and a columnist at TechCentralStation.com.