Published last year to widespread acclaim, Gulag Voices by Pulitzer Prize-winner Anne Applebaum is a unique collection of writings from survivors of the Gulag, the Soviet concentration camps. In this extract from the book’s introduction, Applebaum provides an overview of the poignant, harrowing and inspirational accounts features in her anthology, and gives some essential context to this dark chapter in history.
Extract from Gulag Voices by Anne Applebaum
The writers in Gulag Voices have one thing in common: all of them were arrested for political crimes in the Soviet Union, and all of them spent years— sometimes many years— in the concentration camp system now known as the Gulag. There, however, their similarities end.
Certainly their backgrounds were very different. Some of them, such as the literary historian Dmitry Likhachev and the ethnographer Nina Gagen-Torn, held prominent positions among the Saint Petersburg intelligentsia. Others, among them Lev Razgon, were ambitious young members of the Bolshevik elite. Still others, including Hava Volovich and Elena Glinka, came from ordinary provincial families. Gustav Herling was a professional writer before his arrest, Isaak Filshtinsky a historian and scholar, Anatoly Zhigulin a poet. Kazimierz Zarod, by contrast, was a civil servant whose only book was his camp memoir.
Inside the camps, too, their experiences were very different. They held a variety of camp jobs, working in forests, mines, factories, and administrative positions. One had a baby; another was the victim of a mass rape. One was a “norm-setter,” a person who decided what labor norms other prisoners would have to fulfill. Another spent time in a sharashka, a special prison for scientists with a laboratory attached. They played different roles in the hierarchy and the culture of the camps, had different relationships with the professional criminals and the jailers and guards who watched over them. Some were shored up by their faith in God, others by close friendships. Still others kept sane by writing poetry or singing pop u lar songs.
The wide variety of people and voices found in this book is not accidental, for the Gulag itself was an extraordinarily varied place. The word Gulag is an acronym: literally, it means “Main Camp Administration.” Over time, however, Gulag has also come to mean not just the camp administration but the entire Soviet slave-labor complex: labor camps, punishment camps, criminal and po liti cal camps, women’s camps, children’s camps, transit camps, exile villages, Moscow prisons, rural prisons, railway cars. Each of the authors in this book survived at least one of these penal institutions. Some of them survived several.
Most of these essays were written by people who were imprisoned in the Gulag during Stalin’s reign, for those were the years when the camp population was the largest, the Gulag’s political role the most significant, and its contribution to the Soviet economy the greatest. Indeed, between 1929, when the labor camps 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 were deported to exile villages. In total, the number of people who had some experience of imprisonment in Stalin’s Soviet Union could have run as high as 25 million, about 15 percent of the population.
But there had also been earlier camps, set up by Lenin and Feliks Dzerzhinsky in the 1920s as an ad hoc emergency measure to contain “enemies of the people”: Dmitry Likhachev survived one of these. And there were later camps, in existence from the time of Stalin’s death until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Some of these, such as the one in which Anatoly Marchenko was imprisoned, became notorious for treating political prisoners with even greater cruelty than had the camps of the earlier era.
The camps had an extraordinary geographical distribution as well. The Gulag’s most famous camps were in Siberia and the far North, where prisoners worked in mines and cut timber. But the Gulag also ran camps in central Moscow, where inmates built apartment blocks or designed airplanes; camps in Krasnoyarsk where prisoners ran nuclear power plants; and fishing camps on the Pacific coast. The Gulag photograph albums in the Russian State Archive contain pictures of prisoners with camels, prisoners in the desert, prisoners hoeing vegetables or shucking corn. From Aktyubinsk to Yakutsk, there is hardly a single major population center in the former Soviet Union that did not have its own local camp or camps, or a single industry that did not employ prisoners. Hence the central purpose of this anthology: to provide a sampling of the wide range of life in the Gulag, from transport ships to informers, from pregnancy to forestry.
One word of caution is necessary: some important aspects of the Gulag experience are not reflected in any of these essays. By definition, all the writers featured here survived, and all of them emerged both physically and mentally intact. They were all literate. They were all educated. They all had enough psychological distance from their experience to be able to describe it on paper. Those factors alone make them exceptional. The reader will not find here the testimony of those who died in the camps; those who survived through stealth, murder, or collaboration and could not bear to talk about it afterward; those who were driven mad or physically broken. Although the majority of the Gulag’s prisoners, particularly in the early days, were peasants and uneducated workers, their experiences do not feature here either, for the simple reason that they could not write. Nor are there any memoirs of professional criminals: with one or two exceptions, they could not or did not choose to write either. In that sense, this anthology, like other Gulag anthologies, is necessarily skewed, despite the wide range of experiences it encompasses.
All the writers featured here also had a particular motive for putting their experiences down on paper, and that too makes them in some way exceptional. Many of the essays were written soon after the authors returned home, though not necessarily intended for publication. Some did eventually appear in samizdat, the underground press, or in foreign editions. But for several decades, these essays could not appear legally in their native countries. Until the 1980s, the only authentic piece of Gulag literature ever published by an official Soviet publishing house was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s short novel A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
Published in 1962 at the beginning of Nikita Khrushchev’s post- Stalinist “Thaw,” Ivan Denisovich had an unusual career. Originally hailed as a masterpiece and read avidly by former prisoners, it fell under a shadow in 1964 after Leonid Brezhnev ousted Khrushchev as general secretary of the Communist Party and effectively took charge of the Soviet Union. The book was banned along with all other forms of Gulag literature. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, it was available to Russians only through illegal photocopies, or abroad.
None of Solzhenitsyn’s later works— including his Gulag Archipelago, a vast, sprawling, oral history of the camps— appeared legally in print either until the final months of the Soviet Union. Official attitudes began to change only in the late 1980s, when the new general secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, became convinced that his country’s problems could be solved only through open discussion. Intending to find solutions to the serious economic, ecological, and social crises the Soviet Union faced, he began encouraging journalists, politicians, and ordinary people to talk and write freely, without censorship. But although Gorbachev’s real interest was economic reform, his policy of glasnost, openness, rapidly and perhaps inevitably led to a new discussion of Soviet history. It also led to the publication of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Gulag memoirs. Most of the works in this book were officially published in Russia for the first time during this period.
These, then, were books written both as literature and as testimony: the authors wanted future generations to know what had happened, even if their writings could not be published in their own lifetime. “As an eyewitness to this century,” wrote Likhachev, “it is my human duty to establish the truth about it.” Knowing that there would be no official, public acknowledgement of what had happened in the Gulag, they wanted to set the record straight for their children and grandchildren.
In some cases, memoirists also wanted to transmit their experiences in light of a particular personal narrative. Russian prisoners, for example, often experienced their arrests and camp life as a kind of revelation: the cruelties of arrest and the unfairness of incarceration helped them understand the evil of Soviet communism. Both Solzhenitsyn and Yevgenia Ginzburg’s renowned memoirs echo this theme. By contrast, foreign prisoners often experienced their arrests as a confirmation of the power of Russian imperialism, and their writing may have had a patriotic impulse as well as a purely historical inspiration.
Memoirists were often people with an acute sense of fairness and justice as well. It is no accident that several of these writers were later involved in the Russian human rights movement, nor is it coincidental that several of them knew Solzhenitsyn, who sought out memoirists in the 1970s when he was working on The Gulag Archipelago, at a time when it was dangerous to speak about such things.
The presence of a personal bias does not mean that an author’s memoir is false or exaggerated. All authors need a psychological motivation to write, after all. But it does mean that the reader should be aware that the memoirists sometimes had a moral or didactic intent as well as a purely historical purpose. Indeed, some scholars of the Soviet Union have been reluctant to rely on Gulag memoir material as a source of information about the history of the camps, arguing that Soviet memoir writers had political reasons for twisting their stories, that most did their writing many years after their release, and that many borrowed stories from one another when their own memories failed them. Nevertheless, after reading several hundred camp memoirs, and interviewing some two dozen survivors, I do believe that it is possible to filter out those which seem implausible or plagiarized or politicized and that the accounts in this book are essentially truthful.
I also believe that although memoirs cannot be relied on for names, dates, and statistics, they are an invaluable source of other kinds of information. The subtler aspects of camp life— the relationships that prisoners had with one another, with the Gulag administration, and with people on the outside— can be clearly understood only through such accounts. Insights into the psychology of prisoners and the psychology of their guards can be found in these kinds of works and nowhere else. The strange morality of the Gulag—for, as the reader will see, the Gulag did have moral codes of a kind— can also be illustrated only through memoirs. I am aware of no archival document that expresses the emotions of prisoners as well as Gustav Herling’s essay on the “houses of meetings,” where prisoners were occasionally allowed to spend time with their spouses and families, for example, or Hava Volovich’s description of rearing a child born in a camp.
Indeed, I would argue that, far from fading, the significance of Gulag literature grows stronger with time. Many Soviet archives are accessible now, but they tell only the dry, official version of events. Living memories of the society which created the Gulag are beginning to disappear, along with the generation of people who still remember Stalin’s Soviet Union. But the best Gulag memoirs continue to provide insights into human nature which are as fresh and relevant as on the day they were written. I hope they will enlighten a new generation.
Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction as well as numerous other awards. A columnist for the Washington Post and Slate, she is a regular contributor to many publications, including the New York Review of Books and the New Republic. She lives in Warsaw, Poland.