very delighted to be here--for a number of reasons, but mostly
because Heritage was one of the organizations that continued to say
what was wrong with Communism and continued to criticize it even
before everybody else saw the light and agreed that that was the
right thing to do. So thank you very much for having me here.
like to begin by pointing out that I am standing before you today
in 2003, the year that marks the 50th anniversary of Stalin's
death. In commemoration of that event, I'd like to read a very
short excerpt from the memoirs of his daughter, Svetlana, who sat
by his deathbed until the very end. For the last twelve hours, she
The lack of oxygen became acute . . . the
death agony was terrible. He literally choked to death as we
watched. At what seemed to be the very last moment, he opened his
eyes and cast a glance over everyone in the room. It was a terrible
glance, insane, or perhaps angry, and full of the fear of
Within days of Stalin's demise, his
henchman Beria, and then Khrushchev, began dismantling one of the
dictator's proudest achievements, namely his concentration camps.
They did so for many reasons--some had wives and relatives in the
camps; some feared retribution from others who did. Most of all,
though, they did so because the camps were an economic disaster and
had distorted the society they were supposed to help build.
although they knew this, none of Stalin's Soviet successors--not
Nikita Khrushchev and not his reformist successor, Mikhail
Gorbachev--was far-seeing enough, or politically powerful enough,
to finish the job. As a result, both the economic and the moral
legacy of the camps continue to distort Russian and East European
society today. One might say that Stalin is dead, but his last,
terrible gaze still casts its shadow.
Although the legacy of the Gulag will be
the ultimate subject of my talk today, I do want to begin with a
brief account of what we have learned about the camps since the
time of Stalin's death, and in particular what we know now that we
did not know 10 years ago. For I do not want to claim that, in
writing a narrative history of the Gulag, I have discovered a new topic that has
never been touched upon before: Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago,
the history of the camp system that he published in the West in the
1970s, largely got it right. Although he had no access to archives,
and based all of his writing on letters and memoirs of other
prisoners, he did, it now appears, get the general outline of the
history right, proving that prisoners' gossip was not so wrong as
many historians tried to claim.
Mining the Archives
the years I spent researching this book, however, I concluded that
archives can make a difference. I was able to work in archives in
Moscow and Karelia, and had access to many documents already copied
out of archives in St. Petersburg, Perm, Vorkuta, Kolyma, and
Novosibirsk. At one point, I was handed a part of the archive of a
small camp called Kedrovy Shor, in the far north, and politely
asked if I wanted to buy it--which I did, of course.
was available to me was often quite ordinary--the day-to-day
archive of the Gulag administration, for example, with inspectors'
reports, financial accounts, letters from the camp directors to
their supervisors in Moscow. Yet when reading these documents, the
full extent of the system, and its importance to the Soviet
economy, comes into focus.
Thanks to archives, we now know that there
were at least 476 camp systems, each one made up of hundreds, even
thousands of individual camps or lagpunkts, sometimes spread out
over thousands of square miles of otherwise empty tundra. We know
that the vast majority of prisoners in them were peasants and
workers, not the intellectuals who later wrote memoirs and books.
We know that, with a few exceptions, the camps were not constructed
in order to kill people--Stalin preferred to use firing squads to
conduct mass executions.
Nevertheless they were, at times, very
lethal: Nearly one-quarter of the Gulag's prisoners died during the
war years. They were also very fluid: Prisoners left because they
died, because they escaped, because they had short sentences,
because they were being released into the Red Army, or because they
had been promoted from prisoner to guard. There were also frequent
amnesties for the old, the ill, pregnant women, and anyone else no
longer useful to the forced labor system. These releases were
invariably followed by new waves of arrests.
result, between 1929, when they first became a mass phenomenon, and
1953, the year of Stalin's death, some 18 million people passed
through them. In addition, a further 6 or 7 million people were
deported, not to camps but to exile villages. In total, that means
the number of people with some experience of imprisonment in
Stalin's Soviet Union could have run as high as 25 million, about
15 percent of the population.
also know they were everywhere. Although we are all familiar with
the image of the prisoner in the snowstorm digging coal with a
pickaxe, there were also camps in central Moscow, where prisoners
built apartment blocks or designed airplanes; camps in Krasnoyarsk,
where prisoners ran nuclear power plants; fishing camps on the
Pacific coast. The Gulag photo albums in the Russian State Archive
are chock-full of pictures of prisoners with their camels.
Aktyubinsk to Yakutsk, there was not a single major population
center that did not have its own local camp or camps, and not a
single industry that did not employ prisoners. Over the years,
prisoners built roads and railroads, power plants and chemical
factories; manufactured weapons, furniture, even children's toys.
In the Soviet Union of the 1940s, the decade the camps reached
their zenith, it would have been difficult in many places to go
about your daily business and not run into prisoners.
The Five Year Plan
also understand better the chronology of the camps. We've long
known that Lenin built the first ones in 1918, at the time of the
Bolshevik revolution, as an ad hoc, emergency measure to contain
"enemies of the people," prevent counter-revolution, and re-educate
Archives have also helped explain why
Stalin chose to expand them in 1929. In that year, Stalin launched
the Five Year Plan, an extraordinarily costly attempt, in human
lives and natural resources, to force a 20 percent annual increase
in the Soviet Union's industrial output and to collectivize
agriculture. The plan led to millions of arrests as peasants were
forced off their land and imprisoned if they refused to leave. It
also led to an enormous labor shortage. Suddenly, the Soviet Union
found itself in need of coal, gas, and minerals, most of which
could be found only in the far north of the country.
decision was taken: The prisoners should be used to extract the
minerals. To the secret policeman charged with carrying out the
construction of the camps, it all made sense. Here is how Alexei
Loginov, former deputy commander of the Norilsk camps, north of the
Arctic Circle, justified the use of prisoner labor in a 1992
If we had sent civilians, we would first
have had to build houses for them to live in. And how could
civilians live there? With prisoners it is easy--all you need is a
barrack, a stove with a chimney, and they survive.
of which is to say that the camps were not also intended to
terrorize and subjugate the population. Certainly prison and camp
regimes, which were dictated in minute detail by Moscow, were
openly designed to humiliate prisoners. The prisoners' belts,
buttons, garters, and items made of elastic were taken away from
them; they were described as "enemies" and forbidden to use the
word "comrade." Such measures contributed to the dehumanization of
prisoners in the eyes of camp guards and bureaucrats, who therefore
found it that much easier not to treat them as fellow citizens, or
even as human beings.
fact, this was an extremely powerful ideological combination--the
disregarding of the humanity of prisoners, combined with the
overwhelming need to fulfill the Plan. Nowhere is this clearer than
in the camp inspection reports, submitted periodically by local
prosecutors and now kept neatly on file in the Moscow archives.
I first began to read them, I was shocked both by their frankness
and by the peculiar kind of outrage they express. Describing
conditions in Volgolag, a railroad construction camp in Tatarstan,
in July 1942, one inspector complained, for example, that "the
whole population of the camp, including free workers, lives off
flour. The only meal for prisoners is so-called `bread' made from
flour and water, without meats or fats." As a result, the inspector
went on indignantly, there were high rates of illness, particularly
scurvy, and, not surprisingly, the camp was failing to meet its
outrage ceased to seem surprising after I had read several dozen
similar reports, each of which used more or less the same sort of
language and ended with more or less the same ritual conclusion:
Conditions needed to be improved so that prisoners would work
harder, and so that production norms would be met. Yet very little
was actually done.
reports reminded me of the inspectors of Gogol's era: The forms
were observed, the reports were filed, and effects on actual human
beings were ignored. Camp commanders were routinely reprimanded for
failing to improve living conditions, living conditions continued
to fail to improve, and the discussion ended there.
level of detail also, however, clears up any remaining doubt about
who was in control of the camp, the central government or the
regional bosses. Back in Moscow, they knew what the camps were
like, and they knew in great detail.
Distortion of the Economy
Without question, the expansion of the
camps distorted the Soviet economy. With so much cheap labor
available, the Soviet economy took far longer than it should have
to become mechanized. Problems were solved by calling for more
workers. With so many poorly trained people working under coercion,
construction was not of the highest quality either. By one account,
labor productivity among free workers in the forestry industry was
nearly three times that of the prisoners working in the forestry
the camps also distorted the way people in the lands of the former
Soviet Union think about economics, a point I would like to
illustrate by describing a trip I took a couple of years ago to the
city of Vorkuta, on the Arctic Circle.
Vorkuta's history begins in 1931, when a
group of colonists first arrived in the region by boat, up the
northern waterways. Although even the tsars had known about the
region's enormous coal reserves, no one had managed to work out
precisely how to get the coal out of the ground, given the sheer
horror of life in a place where temperatures regularly drop to -30
degrees or -40 degrees in the winter, where the sun does not shine
for six months of the year, and where--as I can testify--in the
summertime flies and mosquitoes travel in great dark clouds.
Stalin found a way by making use of another sort of vast reserve.
Vorkuta's 23 original settlers were, of course, prisoners, and the
leaders of that founding expedition were, of course, secret
policemen. Over the subsequent two and a half decades, a million
more prisoners passed through Vorkuta, one of the two or three most
notorious hubs of the Gulag.
the help of prisoners, the Soviet authorities built a city with
shops and schools and later swimming pools. Yet the cost of heating
shoddy Soviet apartment blocks for 11 months of the year was
astronomical, far more than the value of the coal itself. The
city's infrastructure, built on constantly shifting permafrost,
required huge efforts to maintain. Miners could, instead, have been
flown in and out on two-week shifts, as they are in Canada or
Alaska. Nevertheless, Vorkuta, now a city of 200,000 people, kept
going throughout the 1970s and 1980s and still exists today.
truth, of course, is that Vorkuta was and still is completely
unnecessary. Why build kindergartens and university lecture halls
in the tundra? Why build puppet theatres? Vorkuta has three. Yet in
Vorkuta, you cannot ask such questions, even now.
cannot ask them, for example, of Zhenya, a retired geologist with
whom I spent the better part of a day. Together, we walked around
the city, around the prisoners' cemeteries, around the ruined
geological institute--a once-solid structure, complete with a
columned, Stalinist portico and a red star on the pediment.
Although her Polish parents had been arrested and deported here in
the 1940s, although she knows and willingly recounts the city's
history, Zhenya nevertheless spent a good part of the day railing
against the "thief-democrats" and "greedy bureaucrats" who had,
rather sensibly, decided to shut the institute down. If your whole
life has been associated with a place, it is hard to admit that the
place need never have existed.
Confused Memory of the Past
if Zhenya, herself the daughter of victims, was unable to
understand why her city now needs to be dismantled, then who can?
And this question brings me to the next part of my talk, in which I
would like to ask why the Gulag, about which historians now know so
much, and whose economic impact we now understand so much better,
is so seldom debated and discussed by Russians.
of the things that always strikes contemporary visitors to Russia
is the lack of monuments to the victims of Stalin's execution
squads and concentration camps. There are a few scattered
memorials, but no national monument or place of mourning. Worse, 15
years after glasnost, 10 years after the collapse of the Soviet
Union, there have been no trials, no truth and reconciliation
commissions, no government inquiries into what happened in the
past, and no public debate.
was not always the case. During the 1980s, when glasnost was just
beginning in Russia, Gulag survivors' memoirs sold millions of
copies, and a new revelation about the past could sell out a
newspaper. But more recently, history books containing similar
"revelations" are badly reviewed or ignored. The president of
Russia is a former KGB agent who describes himself as a "Chekist,"
the word for Stalin's political police.
reasons for this are not hard to fathom. Life is genuinely
difficult in Russia today, and most Russians, who spend all of
their time trying to cope, do not want to discuss the past. The
Stalinist era was a long time ago, and a great deal has happened
since it ended. Post-Soviet Russia is not the same as post-Nazi
Germany, where the memories of the worst atrocities were still in
memory of the camps is also confused in Russia by the presence of
so many other atrocities: war, famine, and collectivization. Why
should camp survivors get special treatment? It is further confused
by the link made, in some people's minds, between the discussion of
the past that took place in the 1980s and the total collapse of the
economy in the 1990s. What was the point of talking about all of
that, many people said to me: It didn't get us anywhere.
there is also a question of pride. Like Zhenya, many experienced
the collapse of the Soviet Union as a personal blow. Perhaps the
old system was bad, they now feel, but at least we were powerful.
And now that we are not powerful, we do not want to hear that it
and away, though, the most important explanation for the lack of
debate is not the fears and anxieties of the ordinary Russian, but
the power and prestige of those now ruling the country. In December
2001, on the 10th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet
Union, 13 of the 15 former Soviet republics were run by former
communists, as were many of the satellite states.
put it bluntly, former communists have no interest in discussing
the past. It tarnishes them, undermines them, hurts their image as
"reformers." Sometimes they end discussion subtly; sometimes they
do so bluntly. Just a few weeks ago, Hungary's new post-communist
government cut the funding and fired the board of directors of
Budapest's new museum dedicated to the history of communism and
fascism, which the previous government had erected at great
this matters: The failure to acknowledge or repent affects politics
and society across the region. Would the Russians truly be able to
conduct a war in Chechnya if they remembered what Stalin did to the
Chechens? During the Second World War, Stalin accused the Chechens
of collaboration with the Germans, but instead of punishing
collaborators--if there were any--he punished the whole nation.
Every Chechen man, woman, and child was put on a truck or a cattle
car and sent to the deserts of Central Asia. Thousands wound up in
camps. Half of them died. To invade Chechnya again, at the end of
the 20th century, was the moral equivalent of Germany re-invading
Poland, yet very few Russians saw it that way.
the failure to fully absorb the lessons of the past has
consequences for ordinary Russians too. It can be argued, for
example, that the Russian failure to delve properly into the past
also explains the Russian insensitivity to the slow growth of
censorship, and to the continued, heavy presence of the secret
may also explain the stunning absence of judicial and police
reform. In 1998, I visited a criminal prison in Arkhangelsk and
emerged reeling from what I'd seen. The women's cells, with their
hot, heavy air and powerful smells, made me feel as if I were
walking back into the past. Next door, in the juvenile cell, I met
a sobbing, 15-year-old girl who had been accused of stealing the
ruble equivalent of $10. She had been in jail, without a hearing,
for a week.
Afterwards, I spoke to the prison boss. It
all came down to money, he told me. The prison warders were rude
because they were badly paid. The ventilation was bad because the
building was old and needed repairs. Electricity was expensive, so
the corridors were dark. Trials were delayed because there were not
was not convinced. Money is a problem, but it is not the whole
story. If Russia's prisons look like a scene from a Gulag memoir,
and if Russia's courts and criminal investigations are a sham, that
is partly because the Soviet legacy does not haunt Russia's
criminal police, secret police, judges, jailers, or even
businessmen. But then, very few people in contemporary Russia feel
the past to be a burden or an obligation at all. Like a great,
unopened Pandora's box, the past lies in wait for the next
Lessons for the West
do we, in the West, remember the Soviet past any better? One of the
reasons I wrote this book was because I really encountered this
subject only while living in Eastern Europe, and I started to
Since there are a lot of writers in the
room today, I think I can also confess that I was further inspired
by an irritating New York Times review of my first book, in 1994,
which was about the Western borderlands of the former Soviet Union.
Although largely positive, of course, it contained the following
Here occurred the terror famine of the
1930s, in which Stalin killed more Ukrainians than Hitler murdered
Jews. Yet how many in the West remember it? After all, the killing
was so--so boring, and ostensibly undramatic.
Stalin's murders boring? Many people think so. Put differently, the
crimes of Stalin do not inspire the same visceral reaction as do
the crimes of Hitler.
Livingstone, a former British member of Parliament, now Mayor of
London, once struggled to explain the difference to me. Yes, the
Nazis were "evil," he said. But the Soviet Union was "deformed."
That view echoes the feeling that many people have, even people who
are not old-fashioned members of the British Labor Party: The
Soviet Union simply went wrong somehow, but it was not
fundamentally wrong in the way that Hitler's Germany was wrong.
Until recently, it was possible to explain
this absence of popular feeling about the tragedy of European
communism in the West as the logical result of a particular set of
circumstances. The passage of time is part of it: Communist regimes
really did grow less reprehensible as the years went by. Nobody was
very frightened of General Jaruzelski, or even of Brezhnev,
although both were responsible for a great deal of destruction.
Besides, archives were closed. Access to camp sites was forbidden.
No television cameras ever filmed the Soviet camps or their
victims, as they had done in Germany at the end of the Second World
War. No images, in turn, meant that the subject, in our
image-driven culture, didn't really exist either.
ideology twisted the ways in which we understood Soviet and East
European history as well. In fact, in the 1920s, a great deal was
known in the West about the bloodiness of Lenin's revolution.
Western socialists, many of whose brethren had been jailed by the
Bolsheviks, protested loudly and strongly against the crimes being
the 1930s, however, as Americans became more interested in learning
how socialism could be applied here, the tone changed. Writers and
journalists went off to the USSR, trying to learn lessons they
could use at home. The New York Times employed a correspondent,
Walter Duranty, who lauded the five-year plan and argued, against
all the evidence, that it was a massive success--and won a Pulitzer
Prize for doing so.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, a part of
the Western Left struggled to explain, and sometimes to excuse, the
camps and the terror that created them precisely because they
wanted to try some aspects of the Soviet experiment at home. In
1936, after millions of Soviet peasants had died of famine, the
British socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb published a vast survey
of the Soviet Union, which explained, among other things, how the
"downtrodden Russian peasant is gradually acquiring a sense of
These sentiments reached their peak during
the Second World War, when Stalin was our ally and we had other
reasons to ignore the truth about his repressive regime. In 1944,
the American Vice President, Henry Wallace, actually went to
Kolyma, one of the most notorious camps, during a trip across the
USSR. Imagining he was visiting some kind of industrial complex, he
told his hosts that "Soviet Asia," as he called it, reminded him of
the Wild West:
The vast expanses of your country, her
virgin forests, wide rivers and large lakes, all kinds of
climate--from tropical to polar--her inexhaustible wealth, remind
me of my homeland.
According to a report that the boss of
Kolyma later wrote for Beria, then the head of the security
services, Wallace did ask to see prisoners, but was kept away. He
was not alone in refusing to see the truth about Stalin's system:
Roosevelt and Churchill had very cordial relations with Stalin
of that contributed to our firm conviction that the Second World
War was a wholly just war, and even today few want that conviction
shaken. We remember D-Day, the liberation of the Nazi concentration
camps, the children welcoming American GIs with cheers on the
streets. We do not remember that the camps of Stalin, our ally,
expanded just as the camps of Hitler, our enemy, were liberated. No
one wants to think that we defeated one mass murderer with the help
During the Cold War, it is true, our
awareness of Soviet atrocities went up--but in the 1960s, they
receded again. Even in the 1980s, there were still American
academics that went on describing the advantages of East German
health care or Polish peace initiatives.
the academic world, Soviet historians who wrote about the camps
generally divided up into two groups: those who wrote about the
camps as criminal and those who downplayed them, if not because
they were actually pro-Soviet, then because they were opposed to
America's role in the Cold War, or perhaps to Ronald Reagan. Right
up to the very end, our views of the Soviet Union and its
repressive system always had more to do with American politics and
American ideological struggles than they did with the Soviet Union
Together, all of these explanations once
made a kind of sense. When I first began to think seriously about
this subject, as communism was collapsing in 1989, I even saw the
logic of them myself: It seemed natural, obvious, that I should
know very little about Stalin's Soviet Union, whose secret history
made it all the more intriguing.
than a decade later, I feel very differently. World War II now
belongs to a previous generation. The Cold War is over too, and the
alliances and international fault lines it produced have shifted
for good. The Western Left and the Western Right now compete over
different issues. At the same time, the emergence of new terrorist
threats to Western civilization make the study of the old communist
threats to Western civilization all the more relevant. It is time,
it seems to me, to stop looking at the history of the Soviet Union
through the narrow lens of American politics and start seeing it
for what it really was.
should say, of course, that our failure in the West to understand
the magnitude of what happened in Central Europe does not have the
same profound implications for our way of life as it does in
Russia. But there will be consequences.
one, our understanding of what is happening now in the former
Soviet Union is distorted by our misunderstanding of its history.
Again, if we really felt--if we really, viscerally felt--that what
Stalin did to the Chechens amounted to genocide, it is not only
Vladimir Putin who would be unable to do the same things to them
now, but we who would be unable to sit back with any equanimity and
the end, the foreign policy consequences are not the most
important. For if we forget the Gulag, sooner or later we will
forget our own history too. Why did we fight the Cold War, after
all? Was it because crazed right-wing politicians, in cahoots with
the military-industrial complex and the CIA, invented the whole
thing and forced two generations of Americans to go along with it?
Or was there something more important happening?
Confusion is already rife. In 2002, an
article in the conservative British Spectator magazine opined that
the Cold War was "one of the most unnecessary conflicts of all
time." Gore Vidal has also described the battles of the Cold War as
"forty years of mindless wars which created a debt of $5 trillion."
Already, we are forgetting what it was that mobilized us, what
inspired us, what held the civilization of "the West" together for
this is not only about the politics of the West. For if we do not
study the history of the Gulag, some of what we know about mankind
itself will be distorted. Every one of the 20th century's mass
tragedies was unique: the Gulag, the Holocaust, the Armenian
massacre, the Nanking massacre, the Cultural Revolution, the
Cambodian revolution, the Bosnian wars, the Rwandan massacres.
Every one of these events had different historical and
philosophical origins, and arose in circumstances that will never
be repeated. Only our ability to debase and destroy and dehumanize
our fellow men has been--and will be--repeated again and again.
the more we understand how different societies have transformed
their neighbors and fellow citizens into objects, the more we know
of the specific circumstances which led to each episode of mass
murder, the better we will understand the darker side of our own
human nature. I wrote my book about the Gulag not "so that it will
not happen again," as the cliché has it, but because it
probably will happen again. We need to know why--and each story,
each memoir, each document is a piece of the puzzle. Without them,
we will wake up one day and realize that we do not know who we
Anne Applebaum is a columnist and member of
the editorial board of The Washington Post.