Gulag: A History

Gulag: A History

by Anne Applebaum


$17.96 $19.95 Save 10% Current price is $17.96, Original price is $19.95. You Save 10%.
View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Friday, September 20


In this magisterial and acclaimed history, Anne Applebaum offers the first fully documented portrait of the Gulag, from its origins in the Russian Revolution, through its expansion under Stalin, to its collapse in the era of glasnost.

The Gulag—a vast array of Soviet concentration camps that held millions of political and criminal prisoners—was a system of repression and punishment that terrorized the entire society, embodying the worst tendencies of Soviet communism. Applebaum intimately re-creates what life was like in the camps and links them to the larger history of the Soviet Union. Immediately recognized as a landmark and long-overdue work of scholarship, Gulag is an essential book for anyone who wishes to understand the history of the twentieth century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400034093
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/20/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 736
Sales rank: 127,418
Product dimensions: 5.19(w) x 7.99(h) x 1.44(d)

About the Author

Anne Applebaum is a columnist and member of the editorial board of the Washington Post. A graduate of Yale and a Marshall Scholar, she has worked as the foreign and deputy editor of the Spectator (London), as the Warsaw correspondent for the Economist, and as a columnist for the on-line magazine Slate, as well as for several British newspapers. Her work has also appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, and the Wall Street Journal, among many other publications. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, Radek Sikorski, and two children.



Date of Birth:

July 25, 1964

Place of Birth:

Washington, D.C.


B.A., Yale University, 1986; M.Sc., London School of Economics, 1987; St. Antony¿s College, Oxford

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


But your spine has been smashed,
My beautiful, pitiful era,
And with an inane smile
You look back, cruel and weak,
Like an animal past its prime,
At the prints of your own paws.

—Osip Mandelstam, "Vek"1

One of my goals is to destroy the myth that the cruelest era of repression began in 1936-37. I think that in future, statistics will show that the wave of arrests, sentences and exile had already begun at the beginning of 1918, even before the official declaration, that autumn, of the "Red Terror." From that moment, the wave simply grew larger and larger, until the death of Stalin . . .
—Dmitrii Likhachev, Vospominaniya2

In the year 1917, two waves of revolution rolled across Russia, sweeping Imperial Russian society aside as if it were destroying so many houses of cards. After Czar Nicholas II abdicated in February, events proved extremely difficult for anyone to halt or control. Alexander Kerensky, the leader of the first post-revolutionary Provisional Government, later wrote that, in the void following the collapse of the old regime, "all existing political and tactical programs, however bold and well conceived, appeared hanging aimlessly and uselessly in space."3

But although the Provisional Government was weak, although popular dissatisfaction was widespread, although anger at the carnage caused by the First World War ran high, few expected power to fall into the hands of the Bolsheviks, one of several radical socialist parties agitating for even more rapid change. Abroad, the Bolsheviks were scarcely known. One apocryphal tale illustrates foreign attitudes very well: in 1917, so the story goes, a bureaucrat rushed into the office of the Austrian Foreign Minister, shouting, "Your Excellency, there has been a revolution in Russia!" The minister snorted. "Who could make a revolution in Russia? Surely not harmless Herr Trotsky, down at the Café Central?"

If the nature of the Bolsheviks was mysterious, their leader, Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov—the man the world would come to know by his revolutionary pseudonym, "Lenin"—was even more so. During his many years as an émigré revolutionary, Lenin had been recognized for his brilliance, but also disliked for his intemperance and his factionalism. He picked frequent fights with other socialist leaders, and had a penchant for turning minor disagreements over seemingly irrelevant matters of dogma into major arguments.4

In the first months following the February Revolution, Lenin was very far from holding a position of unchallenged authority, even within his own Party. As late as mid-October 1917, a handful of leading Bolsheviks continued to oppose his plan to carry out a coup d'état against the Provisional Government, arguing that the Party was unprepared to take power, and that it did not yet have popular support. He won the argument, however, and on October 25 the coup took place. Under the influence of Lenin's agitation, a mob sacked the Winter Palace. The Bolsheviks arrested the ministers of the Provisional Government. Within hours, Lenin had become the leader of the country he renamed Soviet Russia.

Yet although Lenin had succeeded in taking power, his Bolshevik critics had not been entirely wrong. The Bolsheviks were indeed wildly unprepared. As a result, most of their early decisions, including the creation of the one-party state, were taken to suit the needs of the moment. Their popular support was indeed weak, and almost immediately they began to wage a bloody civil war, simply in order to stay in power. From 1918, when the White Army of the old regime regrouped to fight the new Red Army—led by Lenin's comrade, "Herr Trotsky" from the "Café Central"—some of the most brutal fighting ever seen in Europe raged across the Russian countryside. Nor did all of the violence take place in battlefields. The Bolsheviks went out of their way to quash intellectual and political opposition in any form it took, attacking not only the representatives of the old regime but also other socialists: Mensheviks, Anarchists, Social Revolutionaries. The new Soviet state would not know relative peace until 1921.5

Against this background of improvisation and violence, the first Soviet labor camps were born. Like so many other Bolshevik institutions, they were created ad hoc, in a hurry, as an emergency measure in the heat of the civil war. This is not to say the idea had no prior appeal. Three weeks before the October Revolution, Lenin himself was already sketching out an admittedly vague plan to organize "obligatory work duty" for wealthy capitalists. By January 1918, angered by the depth of the anti-Bolshevik resistance, he was even more vehement, writing that he welcomed "the arrest of millionaire-saboteurs traveling in first- and second-class train compartments. I suggest sentencing them to half a year's forced labor in a mine."6

Lenin's vision of labor camps as a special form of punishment for a particular sort of bourgeois "enemy" sat well with his other beliefs about crime and criminals. On the one hand, the first Soviet leader felt ambivalent about the jailing and punishment of traditional criminals—thieves, pickpockets, murderers—whom he perceived as potential allies. In his view, the basic cause of "social excess" (meaning crime) was "the exploitation of the masses." The removal of the cause, he believed, "will lead to the withering away of the excess." No special punishments were therefore necessary to deter criminals: in time, the Revolution itself would do away with them. Some of the language in the Bolsheviks' first criminal code would have thus warmed the hearts of the most radical, progressive criminal reformers in the West. Among other things, the code decreed that there was "no such thing as individual guilt," and that punishment "should not be seen as retribution."7

On the other hand, Lenin—like the Bolshevik legal theorists who followed in his wake—also reckoned that the creation of the Soviet state would create a new kind of criminal: the "class enemy." A class enemy opposed the Revolution, and worked openly, or more often secretly, to destroy it. The class enemy was harder to identify than an ordinary criminal, and much harder to reform. Unlike an ordinary criminal, a class enemy could never be trusted to cooperate with the Soviet regime, and required harsher punishment than would an ordinary murderer or thief. Thus in May 1918, the first Bolshevik "decree on bribery" declared that: "If the person guilty of taking or offering bribes belongs to the propertied classes and is using the bribe to preserve or acquire privileges, linked to property rights, then he should be sentenced to the harshest and most unpleasant forced labor and all of his property should be confiscated."8

From the very earliest days of the new Soviet state, in other words, people were to be sentenced not for what they had done, but for who they were.

Unfortunately, nobody ever provided a clear description of what, exactly, a "class enemy" was supposed to look like. As a result, arrests of all sorts increased dramatically in the wake of the Bolshevik coup. From November 1917, revolutionary tribunals, composed of random "supporters" of the Revolution, began convicting random "enemies" of the Revolution. Prison sentences, forced-labor terms, and even capital punishment were arbitrarily meted out to bankers, to merchants' wives, to "speculators"—meaning anyone engaged in independent economic activity—to former Czarist-era prison warders and to anyone else who seemed suspicious.9

The definition of who was and who was not an "enemy" also varied from place to place, sometimes overlapping with the definition of "prisoner of war." Upon occupying a new city, Trotsky's Red Army frequently took bourgeois hostages, who could be shot in case the White Army returned, as it often did along the fluctuating lines of the front. In the interim they could be made to do forced labor, often digging trenches and building barricades.10 The distinction between political prisoners and common criminals was equally arbitrary. The uneducated members of the temporary commissions and revolutionary tribunals might, for example, suddenly decide that a man caught riding a tram without a ticket had offended society, and sentence him for political crimes.11 In the end, many such decisions were left up to the policeman or soldiers doing the arresting. Feliks Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka—Lenin's secret police, the forerunner of the KGB—personally kept a little black notebook in which he scribbled down the names and addresses of random "enemies" he came across while doing his job.

These distinctions would remain vague right up until the collapse of the Soviet Union itself, eighty years later. Nevertheless, the existence of two categories of prisoner—"political" and "criminal"—had a profound effect on the formation of the Soviet penal system. During the first decade of Bolshevik rule, Soviet penitentiaries even split into two categories, one for each type of prisoner. The split arose spontaneously, as a reaction to the chaos of the existing prison system. In the very early days of the Revolution, all prisoners were incarcerated under the jurisdiction of the "traditional" judicial ministries, first the Commissariat of Justice, later the Commissariat of the Interior, and placed in the "ordinary" prison system. That is, they were thrown into the remnants of the Czarist system, usually into the dirty, gloomy stone prisons which occupied a central position in every major town. During the revolutionary years of 1917 to 1920, these institutions were in total disarray. Mobs had stormed the jails, self-appointed commissars had sacked the guards, prisoners had received wide-ranging amnesties or had simply walked away.13

By the time the Bolsheviks took charge, the few prisons that remained in operation were overcrowded and inadequate. Only weeks after the Revolution, Lenin himself demanded "extreme measures for the immediate improvement of food supplies to the Petrograd prisons."14 A few months later, a member of the Moscow Cheka visited the city's Taganskaya prison and reported "terrible cold and filth," as well as typhus and hunger. Most of the prisoners could not carry out their forced-labor sentences because they had no clothes. A newspaper report claimed that Butyrka prison in Moscow, designed to hold 1,000 prisoners, already contained 2,500. Another newspaper complained that the Red Guards "unsystematically arrest hundreds of people every day, and then don't know what to do with them."15

Overcrowding led to "creative" solutions. Lacking anything better, the new authorities incarcerated prisoners in basements, attics, empty palaces, and old churches. One survivor later remembered being placed in the cellar of a deserted house, in a single room with fifty people, no furniture, and little food: those who did not get packages from their families simply starved.16 In December 1917, a Cheka commission discussed the fate of fifty-six assorted prisoners—"thieves, drunks and various 'politicals' "—who were being kept in the basement of the Smolny Institute, Lenin's headquarters in Petrograd.17

Not everyone suffered from the chaotic conditions. Robert Bruce Lockhart, a British diplomat accused of spying (accurately, as it happened), was imprisoned in 1918 in a room in the Kremlin. He occupied himself playing Patience, and reading Thucydides and Carlyle. From time to time, a former imperial servant brought him hot tea and newspapers.18

But even in the remaining traditional jails, prison regimes were erratic, and prison wardens were inexperienced. A prisoner in the northern Russian city of Vyborg discovered that, in the topsy-turvy post-revolutionary world, his former chauffeur had become a prison guard. The man was delighted to help his former master move to a better, drier cell, and eventually to escape. One White Army colonel also recalled that in the Petrograd prison in December 1917 prisoners came and left at will, while homeless people slept in the cells at night. Looking back on this era, one Soviet official remembered that "the only people who didn't escape were those who were too lazy."20

The disarray forced the Cheka to come up with new solutions: the Bolsheviks could hardly allow their "real" enemies to enter the ordinary prison system. Chaotic jails and lazy guards might be suitable for pickpockets and juvenile delinquents, but for the saboteurs, parasites, speculators, White Army officers, priests, bourgeois capitalists, and others who loomed so large in the Bolshevik imagination, more creative solutions were needed.

A solution was found as early as June 4, 1918, Trotsky called for a group of unruly Czech war prisoners to be pacified, disarmed, and placed in a kontslager: a concentration camp. Twelve days later, in a memorandum addressed to the Soviet government Trotsky again spoke of concentration camps, outdoor prisons in which "the city and village bourgeoisie . . . shall be mobilized and organized into rear-service battalions to do menial work (cleaning barracks, camps, streets, digging trenches, etc.). Those refusing will be fined, and held under arrest until the fine is paid."21

In August, Lenin made use of the term as well. In a telegram to the commissars of Penza, site of an anti-Bolshevik uprising, he called for "mass terror against the kulaks [rich peasants], priests and White Guards" and for the "unreliable" to be "locked up in a concentration camp outside town."22 The facilities were already in place. During the summer of 1918—in the wake of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty which ended Russia's participation in the First World War—the regime freed two million war prisoners. The empty camps were immediately turned over to the Cheka.23

At the time, the Cheka must have seemed the ideal body to take over the task of incarcerating "enemies" in "special" camps. A completely new organization, the Cheka was designed to be the "sword and shield" of the Communist Party, and had no allegiance to the official Soviet government or any of its departments. It had no traditions of legality, no obligation to obey the rule of law, no need to consult with the police or the courts or the Commissar of Justice. Its very name spoke of its special status: the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combating Counter-Revolution and Sabotage—or, using the Russian abbreviation for "Extraordinary Commission"—the Ch-K, or Cheka. It was "extraordinary" precisely because it existed outside of "ordinary" legality.

Almost as soon as it was created, the Cheka was given an extraordinary task to carry out. On September 5, 1918, Dzerzhinsky was directed to implement Lenin's policy of Red Terror. Launched in the wake of an assassination attempt on Lenin's life, this wave of terror—arrests, imprisonments, murders—more organized than the random terror of the previous months, was in fact an important component of the civil war, directed against those suspected of working to destroy the Revolution on the "home front." It was bloody, it was merciless, and it was cruel—as its perpetrators wanted it to be. Krasnaya Gazeta, the organ of the Red Army, described it: "Without mercy, without sparing, we will kill our enemies in scores of hundreds. Let them be thousands, let them drown themselves in their own blood. For the blood of Lenin . . . let there be floods of blood of the bourgeoisie—more blood, as much as possible . . ."24

The Red Terror was crucial to Lenin's struggle for power. Concentration camps, the so-called "special camps," were crucial to the Red Terror. They were mentioned in the very first decree on Red Terror, which called not only for the arrest and incarceration of "important representatives of the bourgeoisie, landowners, industrialists, merchants, counter-revolutionary priests, anti-Soviet officers" but also for their "isolation in concentration camps."25 Although there are no reliable figures for numbers of prisoners, by the end of 1919 there were twenty-one registered camps in Russia. At the end of 1920 there were 107, five times as many.26

1. From Stekla vechnosti, pp. 172-73.
2. Likhachev, Vosppminania, p. 118.
3. Pipes, pp. 336-37.
4. See, for example, Service, Lenin.
5. Popies, pp. 439-505; Figes, pp. 474-551.
6. Geller, pp. 23 and 24.
7. Jakobson, pp. 18-26.
8. Dekrety, vol. II, pp. 241-42, and vol. III, p. 80. Also Geller, p. 10; Pipes, pp. 793-800.
9. Jakobson, pp. 18-26; Decree "On Revolutionart Tribunals," in Sbornik, December 19, 1917, pp. 9-10.
10. Hoover, Melgunov Collection, Box 1, Folder 63.
11. Okhotin and Roginsky, p. 13.
12. RGASPI, 76/3/1 and 13.
13. Jakobson, pp. 10-17; Okhotin and Roginsky, pp. 10-24.
14. Dekrety, vol. 1, p. 401
15. Hoover, Melgunov Collection, Box 1, Folder 4.
16. Anonymous, Vo vlasti Gubcheka, pp. 3-11.
17. Hoover, Melgunov Collection, Box 1, Folder.
18. Lockhart, pp. 326-45.
19. S. G. Eliseev, "Tyuremnyi dnevnik," in Uroki, pp. 17-19.
20. Okhotin and Roginsky, p. 11.
21. Geller, p. 43.
22. Ibid., p. 44; Leggett, p. 103.
23. Initially, the Cheka were put in charge of the camps in conjunction with the Central Collegium for War Prisoners and Refugees (Tsentroplenbezh). Okhotin and Roginskii, p. 11.
24. Leggett, p. 108.
25. Decree "On Red Terror," in Sbornik, September 5, 1918, p. 11.
26. Ivanova, Labor Camp Socialism, p. 13.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“An important book. . . . It is fervently to be hoped that people will read Anne Applebaum’s excellent, tautly written, and very damning history.” —The New York Times Book Review

“The most authoritative—and comprehensive—account of this Soviet blight ever published by a Western writer.” —Newsweek

“A titanic achievement: learned and moving and profound. . . . No reader will easily forget Applebaum’s vivid accounts of the horrible human suffering of the Gulag.” —National Review

“A tragic testimony to how evil ideologically inspired dictatorships can be.” –The New York Times

“Lucid, painstakingly detailed, never sensational, it should have a place on every educated reader’s shelves.” –Los Angeles Times

“Magisterial. . . . Certain to remain the definitive account of its subject for years to come. . . . An immense achievement.” —The New Criterion

“An excellent account of the rise and fall of the Soviet labor camps between 1917 and 1986. . . . A splendid book.” —The New York Review of Books

“Should become the standard history of one of the greatest evils of the 20th century.” —The Economist

“Thorough, engrossing . . . A searing attack on the corruption and the viciousness that seemed to rule the system and a testimonial to the resilience of the Russian people. . . . Her research is impeccable.” –San Francisco Chronicle

“An affecting book that enables us at last to see the Gulag whole. . . . A valuable and necessary book.” –The Wall Street Journal

“Ambitious and well-documented . . . Invaluable . . . Applebaum methodically, and unflinchingly, provides a sense of what it was like to enter and inhabit the netherworld of the Gulag.” –The New Yorker

“[Applebaum’s] writing is powerful and incisive, but it achieves this effect through simplicity and restraint rather than stylistic flourish. . . . [An] admirable and courageous book.” –The Washington Monthly

“Monumental . . . Applebaum uses her own formidable reporting skills to construct a gripping narrative.” –Newsday

“Valuable. There is nothing like it in Russian, or in any other language. It deserves to be widely read.” –Financial Times

“A book whose importance is impossible to exaggerate. . . . Magisterial . . . Applebaum’s book, written with such quiet elegance and moral seriousness, is a major contribution to curing the amnesia that curiously seems to have affected broader public perceptions of one of the two or three major enormities of the twentieth century.” –Times Literary Supplement

“A truly impressive achievement . . . We should all be grateful to [Applebaum].” –The Sunday Times (London)

“A chronicle of ghastly human suffering, a history of one of the greatest abuses of power in the story of our species, and a cautionary tale of towering moral significance . . . A magisterial work, written in an unflinching style that moves as much as it shocks, and that glistens with the teeming life and stinking putrefaction of doomed men and rotten ideals.” –The Daily Telegraph (London)

“No Western author until Anne Applebaum attempted to produce a history of the Gulag based on the combination of eyewitness accounts and archival records. The result is an impressively thorough and detailed study; no aspect of this topic escapes her attention. Well written, accessible…enlightening for both the general reader and specialists.” —The New York Sun

“For the raw human experience of the camps, read Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or Irina Ratushinskaya’s Grey is the Color of Hope. For the scope, context, and the terrible extent of the criminality, read this history.” —Chicago Tribune

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

Gulag: A History 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 37 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It is unfortunate that this book will not read as widely as it should. As the author points out, the horrors of Nazi Germany are still remembered today. But the horrors of the Soviet Union are ignored and forgotten. This is true within Russia as well as outside of Russia. The author points out that the world and Russia seem to have forgotten what Stalin did to the Chechens. Otherwise, why would thousands of them would be killed, during the 1990's and no one gets upset. The indignation applied to Nazi Germany is not applied to contemporary Russia today or to Russia's past. Most people seem to have forgotten that Stalin starved millions, in the Ukraine, before Hitler became a serious land grabber. One of the memoirs cited by the author--John Noble's, 'I Was a Slave in Russia,' 1960--I read over 40 years ago. This topic is an interest of mine. I believe it is the result of hearing the June 1941 deportations in Latvia from my parents, other family and the Latvian community. If the topic of the book were not so serious, many of the examples of what happened could be considered 'theatre of the absurd.' There was an 'official' policy. Then there was what really happened. For example, prisoners were supposed to get a certain amount of food and water in transport. But there was no incentive for guards to fetch water for thirsty prisoners. If the guard got water for the prisoners, then later they would want to use the toilet. Both the getting of the water and letting prisoners go to the toilet were serious inconveniences to guards.
Guest More than 1 year ago
There are times when one is reading something that is so disturbing that you can feel physically repulsed by it. I first felt that way when reading the ¿rat in a cage¿ scene in ¿American Psycho¿. I felt it again in numerous parts of this book- the fact that it is a history book makes it all the more sickening. Despite the ample evidence to the contrary, communism/socialism/nazism all have a strong pull over many. This book, a masterfully researched indictment of the end product of socialism, will be largely ignored. Hence all the events portrayed in this book will happen again.
JohnP51 More than 1 year ago
A definite eye-opener to the murderous Stalin regime and his scheme of developing his communist ideal by the use of slave laboe.
Guest More than 1 year ago
With the publication of ¿The Gulag Archipelago¿ in the early 1970s, Alexander Solzhenitsyn shocked and dismayed the Western world by masterfully detailing the existence of a horrific shadow culture within the Soviet Union, a culture comprised of a mass society of slave laborers scratching out their bare-knuckled survival in unbelievable difficulty and squalor, and having been recruited into the Gulag for a variety of economic, social, and political reasons. Given the inherent limitations of this superb albeit shocking fictional work, the West had to wait for the fall of the Soviet bloc for a more definitive and more complete treatise on the nature of the Gulag. This new book by scholar-turned-journalist Anne Applebaum represents such a work. The work is both massive and comprehensive, dealing not only with the ways in which the Gulag came into existence and then thrived under the active sponsorship of Lenin and Stalin, but also with a plethora of aspects of life within the Gulag, ranging from its laws, customs, folklore, and morality on the one hand to its slang, sexual mores, and cuisine on the other. She looks at the prisoners themselves and how they interacted with each other to the relationships between the prisoners and the many sorts of guards and jailers that kept them imprisoned. For what forced the Gulag into becoming a more or less permanent fixture within the Soviet system was its value economically in producing goods and services that were marketable both within the larger Soviet economy as well as in international trade. As it does in China today, forced labor within the Gulag for the Soviets represented a key element in expanding markets for Soviet-made goods ranging from lamps to those prototypically Russian fur hats. The Gulag came into being as a result of the Communist elite¿s burning desire for purges of remaining vestiges of bourgeoisie aspects of Soviet culture, and its consequent need for some deep dark hole to stick unlucky cultural offenders into to remove them semi-permanently from the forefront of the Soviet society. Stalin found it useful to expand the uses of the camp system to enhance industrial growth, and the camps became flooded with millions of Soviets found wanting in terms of their ultimate suitability for everyday life in the workers¿ paradise. Thus, the Gulag flourished throughout the 1920s and 1930s and even through the years of WWII, when slave labor provided an invaluable aid in producing enough war goods to help defeat the Axis powers. By the peak years of Gulag culture in the 1950s, the archipelago stretched into all twelve of the U.S. S. R.¿s time zones, although it was largely concentrated in the northernmost and least livable aspects of the country¿s vast geographical areas. One of the most interesting and certainly more controversial aspects of the book can be found in its consideration of the relative obscurity with which both the existence and horrors associated with the Gulag has been treated to date. Compared to the much more extensively researched and discussed Holocaust of Europe¿s Jewish population perpetrated by the Nazi Third Reich over a twelve year period, almost nothing is known about the nearly seventy reign of the Gulag. Given the fairly recent demise of the Soviet state, and the dawning availability of data revealing the particulars of the existence of the Soviet system of political imprisonment, forced labor camps, and summary executions, one expects this massively documented, exhaustively detailed, and memorably written work will serve as the standard in the field for decades to come. This is a terrific book, and one I can heartily recommend to any serious student
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The Soviet Gulag was intended for profit. That incredible statement strips any brackets surrounding the depth of incredulity that this book describes. Begun in the twenties, the Gulag was a two-headed scheme to rid the Soviet Union of undesirables and utilize them for the enrichment of the state and decidedly not the populace. Stalin would decree, ‘We need a bridge. Tell the NKVD to arrest some engineers.’ Then he might think there was an arctic oil field in need of exploitation so he ordered the arrest of geologists. When he saw vast, empty steppes yielding nothing to the state, he ordered the forced relocation of entire cultures forcing the deportees to productively use the wasteland or die in failing to do so. Perhaps most unbelievably, he proclaimed: ‘We need to go into outer space, arrest some scientists.’ Despite Stalin’s mania for forced labor, he actually set quotas for how many prisoners were to be shot each month and criticized camp commandants for failing to meet them. Anne Applebaum has, in the rarified light of Russian willingness to open at least some archives, spent decades unearthing the magnitude of the Soviet Gulag system’s misuse of capital, resources and humanity. The fact that slave labor never, ever showed a profit did not convince the Soviets, from Stalin through Gorbachev, to quit the concept, despite their own proof that it was a failed theory. Gulag is a chilling history lesson that clarifies the nature of America’s wartime ally. It also defines the wrongness, incompetence and total futility of the Soviet system, and by extension, communism and socialism. The reader will be stunned by the immensity of the Gulag, its incomprehensible cruelty, ineptitude and the capriciousness with which it was run. Finally, Anne Applebaum’s insight into how the Gulag was ultimately responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union is an eye-opening hypothesis. This massive work is highly readable and entertaining as well as informative.
danbarrett on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Gulags are super-intense. I'm pretty sure we can all agree on that. A very interesting look into the whole Soviet concentraion camp machine. Very readable, and very adept at making one realize that absolute barbarism of this era in Russian history (one consistently and strangely glossed over in modern times, as Applebaum points out).
shawnd on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a piece of research non-fiction about the history of Soviet work camps from origin to final. It is completely comprehensive. And long. I was impressed that the author could keep me focused and interested for the entire 700+ pages. It covers the economics of the camps, crime and black markets, security, personality and history of the victims, and evolution of placement, purpose, and most of all the reality of camp life. The book would seem a life's work by the author it is so exhaustively researched. Once read you'll never have to touch this topic again.
labfs39 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I can¿t say enough good things about this book. Anne Applebaum has taken advantage of recent archive openings in Russia and conducted thorough and detailed research of the newly available material. Her findings are changing the way people think about the Soviet Gulag system. In the past, most historians had to rely on survivor memoirs and the classic history, The Gulag Archipelago, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn for their information. I think this caused a bias toward the point of view and experience of dissident writers. Applebaum¿s use of newly opened archives allows her to uncover the government¿s agenda, statistics, and methods; as well as prisoner records, including those of criminals, non-political prisoners, and collaborators who were less likely to share their stories. The result is a new perspective, one that Applebaum thoughtfully and articulately explores.The first and last sections are chronological in structure, but in the middle section, Applebaum chose to break her material into topics, such as punishment and reward, guards, and women and children. These sections are particularly descriptive and evocative of life in the camps. In addition, I found her comparison of Nazi concentration camps and Soviet labor camps concise and convincing. Her explication of the Gulag as a deliberate and organized economic system was eye-opening: the extent to which the Soviets were willing to go to create and maintain such a system, even in the face of obvious losses, was shocking. I also learned how erroneous I was in my preconception that the Gulag was populated primarily by political prisoners. Although I found the introduction to sound a bit like a graduate student¿s paper, the rest of the book was engrossing and highly readable. I only wish there had been more photos, especially of some of the Central Asian camps. In any case, I highly recommend this Pulitzer Prize winning book.
arubabookwoman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
During its more than 60 years of operation, more than 30 million people passed through the Gulag, millions of them never to return. I first became interested in the topic through the writings of Solzhenitsin, and my interest was reignited a few years ago when I read The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia by Orlando Figes (which I highly recommend, by the way, despite the recent revelations of Figes' unethical and possibly illegal actions). Applebaum's book begins with a chronological overview of the system, which existed even in Tsarist times. In its second section, the book explores every aspect of the Gulag experience, from arrest, to interrogation, to trial, to transportation to the camps (during which there was a high mortality rate), to actual life in the camps. Life in the camps is explored from the point of view of the prisoners and the administrators. The prisoners themselves were a diverse group--the politicals and the actual criminals, prisoners of war and other foreigners. The experiences of women prisoners uniquely included sexual abuse, as well as childbirth.Applebaum was the first to utilize the newly released official archives of the Soviet Gulag administration, and so she is able to explore not only the personal experiences of day-to-day life in the camps, but also the how's and why's of the existence of the Gulag itself. For example, she thoroughly analyzes the issue of the underlying purposes of the Gulag. Was it intended to remove undesireable elements from society, whether politicals or true criminals, or was it merely a device to obtain slave labor? The Gulag system was indeed a large portion of the Soviet economic system, and there is ample evidence that the Soviets used the system to colonize remote and hostile regions of the country, as well as to exploit the valuable natural resources of those areas, but there is also evidence of Stalin's paranoia. Applebaum also ponders the controversial issue of why for so many years the crimes against humanity resulting from this system were all but ignored, even as memorials were raised for Holocaust victims.This is an important book, because as compelling as the individual survivor memoirs are, they do not present the whole picture. This book undertakes to give us the universal as well as the personal. It is compellingly readable in addition to being academically documented, and I highly recommend it..
Misoman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I believe Applebaum really tried in her search of the truth about the Gulag, the famous, or rather infamous labor camp infrastructure of communist Russia. I enjoyed this book despite its morbid subject and thought it was a good piece of scholarly work. I do have a bias toward Solgen Nietzschen's 2 volume rendition, seeing as how he is a brilliant writer and was actually a prisoner of the Gulag. Bottom-line: This is a great book and would be a great companion to Solgen Nietzschen's 2 volume Gulag.Miso
kranbollin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A nice complement to the work of Solzhenitsyn, who is arguably the angriest man on the planet. Having spent decades in the Gulag, he writes 'The grass grows green over the grave of my youth.' Both authors should be read to get a comprehensive view of this atrocity. Applebaum supplies many details about the operation of the system that were not available to Solzhenitsyn when he wrote his work, drawing on more recent sources.
chitatel on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
an incredible and detailed account of only one of the many tragedies endured by the soviet people in the 20th century. this book is not merely a description of the system, but a portal to further exploration of the unimaginable horrors. it introduced me to the beautiful and tragic writings of varlam shalamov and evgenia ginzburg.
hmib on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A powerful and important book.
ablueidol on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In depth and harrowing account of the use of prison camps and their essentially political function as both a form of control and of economic development as slave labour. (although how effective this was is open to question as many of the big projects were for political status rather then economic benefit) They also reflect the dehumanising ideals that individuals were redeemed by work. One of the benefits/truths(?)of a religion that demonstrate the true spirit of God is one that respects differences, promotes dignity and can see that of God even in the like of Hitler or Stalin- condemn the sin not the sinner to use Judaic-Christian language.
john257hopper on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have read a fair amount of material on Stalinism and the camps, including all three volumes of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, but this is particularly useful in being one of the very few post-Soviet works on this subject I have read. Of neccessity very harrowing at times, it is also comprehensive in its coverage from a variety of different angles. I find some of the other comments posted here a bit baffling - she doesn't ignore WWII or the Tsarist prison system, though obviously they are not covered fully, as that is not the purpose of this book.
Shrike58 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
While this book is probably as good a general study as you could wish of what the Gulag system represented in Soviet society, and what it was like to be caught in the wheels of the system as both a prisoner and a functionary, Applebaum somewhat undercuts her achievement with a polemical edge that is more appropriate to an editorial essay than a work of history. Are there really that many individuals out there who are in denial of the gulag that need their noses rubbed in it? And as for the question of what it will take for Russian society to really come to grips with what the whole Gulag experience meant, and whether it just demonstrates that Stalinist Russia was simply "stupid, wasteful, and tragic" one might also note the number of people still in denial about what racism has meant to the United States. The hunt for a "useable history" never ends.
pouleroulante on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
closely-typed pages detailing injustices and misery decade after decade.She, and Eddie Izzard, have wondered why Stalin/Soviet memorabilia isnt reviled the way Nazi symbols are. This book is full of horrendous detail of ideology gone mad.5 stars but not an easy read...
Brodk More than 1 year ago
This won the Pulitzer Prize a few years ago. It is a very good book and I recommend it, particularly for those with little knowledge of the Soviet penal/punishment system. Applebaum had access to files that she used to show the origin and evolution of the Gulag, in particular how the actual prisons and camps would disregard the directives from headquarters in ways that were invariably inimical to the inmates and harsher than the directives ordered. She liberally quotes from survivors and these quotes tend to emphasize her points. If I have an issue with the book, it is that it seems to add little to The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Books I-II by Solzhenitsyn. But this is a quibble.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I purchased this book because a book on German concentration camps, mentioned the camps in the Gulag, about which I knew very little. This book is well written. The style reminds me of books by Erik Larson who writes non-fiction like fiction, i.e. Isaac's Storm, etc. It starts with political information in the 20's, then leads into on those arrested, description of the camps, work done, punishment, food, guards. I highly recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
       In the non-fiction novel “Gulag” Anne Applebaum intends the reader to become well informed about what horrific things took place by the hands of the Soviet Union. In this novel Applebaum describes the type of treatment they received from living spaces to their jobs. “Most prisoners in most camps lived in barracks.” (p. 195). These barracks were built by the prisoners when they arrived. Due to poor hygiene “a plague of bedbugs and lice” (p. 202) was developed. Also, the “soup was revolting” (p.206). This revolting soup was made of fish or animal lungs and a few potatoes. But the main thing in these camps was work. “It was the main occupation of prisoners.” (p.217). Prisoners  built airplanes, ran nuclear power plants, fished and farmed. About 2,000,000 million were killed in the Gulags. And about “28.7 million”  (p.581) were forced laborers in these camps.        In this novel I dislike the fact that it was very repetitive. But I did like the fact that the author was able to gather all this information and was able to put it all in chronological order. I also like how he was able to find these very graphic photos of some of the prisoners throughout  the years. I would recommend this to those who have never heard of the Gulags and that are very advanced readers because it is difficult to follow sometimes. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
cinbarb More than 1 year ago
A terrific read, compelling history well written