In Stalin's Soviet Union, the difference between life inside and life outside the barbed wire was not fundamental, but rather a question of degree. Perhaps for that reason, the Gulag has often been described as the quintessential expression of the Soviet system. Even in prison-camp slang, the world outside the barbed wire was not referred to as 'freedom', but as the bolshaya zona, the 'big prison zone', larger and less deadly than the 'small zone' of the camp, but no more human - and certainly no more humane.
It would be difficult to conceive of somewhere less humane. If there is one message that emerges most strongly from Anne Applebaum's harrowing Gulag: A History - beyond the quibbles over numbering the dead, beyond the question of individual guards' complicity, beyond the camps' overt or covert purposes - it is the sheer, unthinking wastefulness of it all, the chokehold inescapability of a self-perpetuating system born of an ideology in which individuals simply do not matter in the slightest. Applebaum approaches the subject through two parallel strands: chronologically-based chapters charting the development of the camps, interspersed with thematic ones dealing with topics like transport to the camps, prisoner health, the position of women, and attempts to escape. It is not an easy read (although I must say I didn't notice the excessive dryness that some reviewers on Amazon complain of), but it is absorbing. And important.
Gulag challenges a number of the myths that have grown up over the years, both positive and negative. Thus Applebaum gives short shrift to those who would rehabilitate Stalin, loving the ideals (social justice, equality) so much that they seek to excuse or deny his 'excesses'. Thus, too, the statistics are considerably deflated, the numbers of victims revised downwards - redressing, notably, the heavily-exaggerated imbalance between the years of the Terror and those surrounding it (in short, the Terror was nothing like the manic aberration it has long been believed to be, claiming fewer victims than supposed, and representing an essential continuity of policy - there was no abrupt swerve into mass murder, but rather a steady drift, present from the very earliest days). In the peak years (late 1930s-early 1950s), between 1.5 and 2.5 million people passed through the camp system in a given year. The death tolls are harder to reckon, since many factors go unrecorded (like the tendency of camp commanders to release dying prisoners so that their deaths wouldn't sully their camp's figures); the highest rate, during the extreme food shortages of WWII, was 1 in 4, but on the whole it seems to have been somewhat lower.
Applebaum evokes life in the camps with a chilling completeness, working with a mixture of memoirs, official records, and interviews with survivors. We learn what it was like to be arrested and interrogated, for crimes ranging from theft or writing dissenting articles, to being married to a foreigner or belonging to the wrong ethnic group; how the secret police, under pressure to meet arrest target set by their superiors (if they didn't, they'd join their prisoners in the camps), hauled random people off the street and dreamed up increasingly ludicrous charges for them (one man remembers being sent to the camps for allegedly plotting to blow up a bridge that didn't even exist), torturing victims into false 'confessions'. Like everything else about the system, logic had no place; it was all about being able to display results and fulfill quotas, however wastefully or falsely these were achieved, however empty the success, and however much long-term damage was done.
Did any of the leaders ever believe what they were doing? The relationship between Soviet reality and Soviet propaganda was always a strange one: the factory is barely functioning, in the shops there is nothing to buy, old ladies cannot afford to heat their apartments, yet in the streets outside, banners proclaim the 'triumph of socialism' and the 'heroic achievements of the Soviet motherland'.
We watch the condemned transported hundreds of miles in squalid conditions (many dying en route), only to arrive, often, to find that planning was so poor their prison barracks were not built yet. We note how, at almost every turn, what kills prisoners is not calculated cruelty (unless one counts the whole system) or violent guards, but arbitrary mismanagement, neglect, and wastefulness - the whims of authority, the vagaries of the weather, malnutrition, disease, and overwork. We see the Gulag's controllers gain increasing economic power despite their utter incompetence at industrial organisation, sucking in capital for little return, money wasted on ill-conceived public works, set in motion for their propaganda value alone. We wonder, frankly, how anyone managed to survive.
Vladimir Bokovsky, the Soviet dissident who was later a prisoner himself, shrugged when I asked him about it. The paradox, he said, was what made the Gulag unique. "In our camps, you were expected not only to be a slave labourer, but to sing and smile while you worked as well. They didn't just want to oppress us: they wanted us to thank them for it."
Where the book really triumphs is in its exploration of the ideology underlying the camp system. Unlike Nazi Germany's concentration camps, the intention behind the Soviet punishment system - which dated right back to Lenin and Trotsky's moves to suppress dissent after immediately after the Revolution, in 1917-8 - was not simply the removal of undesirables, but their forcible re-education and (more importantly) their transformation into economically-useful citizens. Opponents of the regime could not simply be killed; they had to be humiliated, discredited, and everything they stood for utterly eradicated. They also had to work: logging, textiles, munitions, construction. Arbeit wouldn't macht frei in Siberia, either, but it might just help meet the construction and production targets that Stalin liked to trumpet each year as a symbol of his success. (Although it probably wouldn't; targets were legendarily impossible, and rose every year even as prisoner rations decreased).
Camp inmates were economic units, not people; their day-to-day situation or their ultimate fates didn't matter to the camp authorities or to the various branches of government who oversaw them. As outside, so inside; the individual was irrelevant, only the collective had any significance. All that mattered was finishing huge public works on time (although such works were often abandoned - like the White Sea Canal - or became unsafe soon after they were finished; the result was less important than the appearance of achieving it, and of forcing prisoners to labour on it) or meeting production targets that bore no relation to reality. Inmates were worked until they collapsed and died (or, if they were lucky, got taken off work detail to recover); many were held long after their sentences were up, to keep them working.
Well worth the depressing read; I suggest balancing it with Orlando Figes' wonderful cultural history of Russia (before and during the Communist period), Natasha's Dance. :-)