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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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