Book Review: Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum

I have had this book in my radar for years, and when I saw it on the shelf in the West Valley Community Library in Yakima and perused it I decided to give it a try.  It’s a big, heavy book in hardcover whose text runs almost six hundred pages and is followed by over a hundred pages more of notes, bibliography, index, and so on.

I started reading, and after about one or two hundred pages or so I wondered what the hell I was doing reading it.  It’s so morbid, so damn depressing.  Hell has nothing on the Russian Gulag, and I’m convinced that Stalin must have been possessed by one of Satan’s top minions, if not by the old boy himself.  Seriously, I thought, why put myself through this?  Things are tough enough for me now as it is, without filling my mind with all these images of incarceration and torture and starvation.  However, rather than stop reading, I started thinking deeply.  Why would I read such a thing and why would the author write it?  Coincidentally, when I was in the middle of the book I finally had a chance to see the new Oscar-winning movie “Twelve Years a Slave”.  The same question could be put about that film and the book it is based on.

The answer, of course, is obvious.  The victims do not want us to forget.  Otherwise, why would they write memoirs about their experiences?  It boils down to why we have reading and writing at all.  If it doesn’t assuage the grief and take away the pain, the communication of the experience at least takes away the isolation of it.  Shared pain somehow fundamentally alters the experience, makes of it something significant, something profound.  That’s not to say you want to go through what the prisoners of the Gulag went through just to experience profundity, but it means that if you must experience pain, the sharing of the experience turns it into something else, something that touches on the core of the human condition.

As for the book itself, as I said, it is a tough read.  It is told in three parts.  The first and third sections are historical, while the second is a long interlude going into the various facets that made up life in the camps.

The Gulag was the brainchild of Stalin, the monstrous paranoid dictator who conceived of the idea of jumpstarting the Soviet economy through slave labor.  To get it, he opened up prison camps all over the remote parts of the Soviet Union, from the gold mines in the far northeast to the coal mines in the far northern wastes of Siberia to the stands of timber in the northern forests.  To fill the camps he had the secret police start arresting people:  criminals, political opponents, foreigners, Jews, gypsies, peasants, former prisoners of war, and anyone who criticized him or his regime in the slightest way.  These poor people were spirited away from their homes, or sometimes off the streets, loaded on packed cattle cars and sent on weeks-long train trips into the wilderness during which many of them died.  When they arrived at their destinations, they had only two choices:  submit to grueling, back-breaking hard labor with little food and insufficient clothing or die.  Sometimes the guards tortured and murdered them anyway, for fun.  And sometimes the criminals in the camps did so too. Often denied letters, packages, or any other contact with the outside world, it was as if they ceased to exist.  Many died, many went mad, but many also endured and lived through it in spite of it all.

As I read the book, I wondered if I could have endured such conditions, not only now as I age and feel my strength beginning to fade, but even when I was in my twenties and thirties and in my prime.  The physical hardships would of course have been very difficult, but far worse would have been the psychological torment of realizing that this was to be the condition of my life for as many years as I lasted until death.  Nothing to live for, nothing to look forward to.  Many people received sentences of ten, fifteen, twenty-five years for trivial reasons or no reason at all.  And if somehow they managed to finish their sentences and were released, more often than not, the authorities turned around and arrested them again right away.  Husbands were torn away from their wives; mothers were torn away from their infant children, never to see them again, knowing that they would more than likely die of starvation or disease in a freezing cold, understaffed orphanage where no one gave a damn about them one way or the other.

Could I have lived through it?  Probably.  Many committed suicide, but I am not one prone to choose that route.  For most, suicide was unnecessary, as the balance of life and death was so fragile anyway.  But certainly not many of those arrested went into the experience with confidence.  From the moment of arrest, it was a horrifying struggle for survival.  But I have found in difficult moments of my own life – and yes, there have been some tough times, like when I was flat broke in Tehran and had to beg on the streets for enough money to buy food to survive – I have found, I say, that when one must survive, one does.  You just do it when the time comes; figure out what it takes; make the best of it even when there is really nothing good about it at all.

And I have to admit, in the midst of the horror stories in this book there are few bright spots.  Sometimes prisoners helped each other, but more often they were reduced to such an abject state that they just tried to keep themselves alive.

But as I read on and on, I found myself admiring them nonetheless.  They endured.  They survived.  And most of those that survived kept their humanity as they would hoard the tiny scraps of bread that kept them alive.  Yes, I honor them.  Reading this book and opening my mind to what they went through is a way of honoring them.  They were not super-men or super-women.  They were not heroes, at least not many of them.  But they were humans who went through something that no human should ever have to go through, and this book, written – masterfully I might add – based on the memoirs that they wrote, is a means of communicating and sharing their torment.  I found myself, as I read, wishing that I could mentally travel backward in time and halfway around the world and telepathically link with them, if only to let them know that they were not alone, that they would get through it, that there would be an end to it.

To those who died of starvation, disease, or exhaustion and were buried in mass graves in the frozen wastes:  Requiescat in pace.

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