Compared to the Gulag, McCarthyism is an idiot’s hobby. Indeed, only Nazi camps are more associated with darkness and macabre. Despite the Cold War, the West showed the Gulag little attention compared to that given to Nazi camps and the Holocaust.
Some saw Western bias in this limited concern, as Hitler’s victims were European Jews, while the majority of Stalin’s victims were peasants, workers, communists, and Asians. In addition, the Gulag was not narrated literarily like Primo Levi and others have narrated the Nazi death industry, nor was it portrayed cinematically as Steven Spielberg and other filmmakers have portrayed Nazi atrocities.
Other analysts have argued that the roots of the current behavior of Russian mafias - their cruelty, willingness to kill, and disdain for the law - can be attributed to morality that had been established in the Gulag.
The name given to these camps is an acronym for “Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-Trudovykh Lagerey” (Russian for Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps). It was established by Lenin after the 1917 revolution but expanded and became notorious under Stalin.
As for its inmates, they numbered 18 million, and between two and four million of them died. Most of them perished during one of its three peak stages: between the start of “agricultural collectivization” in 1929 and the 1933 famine, during the Great Purge of the late 1930s, and between the end of World War II and Stalin’s death in 1953. Its victims were kulaks (rich peasants), common criminals, Nazi collaborators, dissident intellectuals, political prisoners, and innocents deemed a threat to the regime.
Siberia, with its icy weather and harsh living conditions, is where most of its camps were established, and they were surrounded by barbed wire and guards, some of whom were positioned in tall towers to supervise the prisoners and prevent them from escaping. In addition to the cold, life there included hunger, disease and violence, and the beds were packed into unheated rooms brimming with lice.
Like the Nazi camps, the Gulag had a sharp economic dimension: prisoners were forced into slave labor: logging, mining, and building industrial projects. The fact is that the origin of the Gulag was an economic system of slave labor, as the immense numbers of “guests” provided an unlimited supply of labor that served Stalin’s brutal industrialization.
As for refusing to work, its most significant punishment (the cause of most deaths) was the deprivation of food, while execution was the penalty in some cases. The Gulag maxim: minimal food and maximal work. In turn, “bad behavior” led to cold and damp solitary confinement and a reduction to one’s already meager food rations.
The rich peasants who owned land and small farms were the first to be detained in the Stalinist Gulag, with the government implementing the so-called “dekulakization” program to liquidate them in order to confiscate their land. However, their fate did not end with the expropriation of their property, as many of them were driven to remote, isolated, and extremely cold swampy regions where they were left to fend for themselves.
Nonetheless, to some of them, their experience of desolation, in both life and death, was considered better than the lives they had led in Soviet society, as dying in those lands liberated them from the restrictions imposed by the regime. There, in desolation, it was “the hopeless fight for life in conditions scarcely easier than in the Stone Age,” as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would later write.
It seems that the cruelty faced by the wealthy peasants and other victims pushed this same writer to take an interest in the nature and sources of evil. Among his conclusions was that none are more prone to committing this evil than those who believe themselves to be infallible and in the right, whereby it is impossible for wrong-doing to be associated with them.
In any case, after Stalin’s death, the Gulag became less brutal, and many prisoners, among them Solzhenitsyn, were released. While the Gulag was made smaller, the same system remained until the Gorbachev era in the 1980s. This was also when all three volumes of Solzhenitsyn’s book, “The Gulag Archipelago,” were published in Russian for the first time - the French translation had been available since 1973, leading to his expulsion from his country.
He was neither an outstanding writer nor a man with enlightened ideas, but he offered us a horrifying document about the Gulag system and the Soviet regime more broadly. Combining oral history with ideological analysis and personal diaries, his work has made separating the Gulag from its writer impossible.
By exposing the Soviet labor camps, his work fortified the human rights campaign in the West, especially since it was reinforced by the reports, memoirs, and letters of 227 witnesses. Solzhenitsyn spent nearly a decade there because he had criticized Stalin in letters he had sent to a friend while fighting in the Soviet army during World War II.
Despite hailing from a conservative religious family, he, like many young Russians, believed in communism early on in life. However, he began to change with the Second World War, as moving across the regions of Russia as a soldier allowed him to see how cruel and poor Russian life was made. While his military service undermined his loyalty to communism and shook him deeply, it was the years he spent in the Gulag that turned him into one of its fiercest critics.
One of the consequences of the sensitivity engendered by his suffering is that he came to draw a sharp distinction between knowing communism by having lived it in Russia and talking about it abroad without having suffered from it. Or, as he put it during a lecture he gave in the 1970s in the United States: for us in Russia, communism is a dead dog, while for many people in the West, it is a living lion.
The “Gulag Archipelago”, which laid the foundations of our knowledge of this collective tragedy, is not a memoir but a history of the entire process through which the police state developed and operated. After the communist regime fell, digging up the history of the Gulag became among the preoccupations of the democratic movement in Russia, and several groups were formed to this end.
Founded in 1988 to represent the families of those who had been subjugated in the Gulag and collect and publish documents (that now number in the thousands) related to the history of the camps, “Memorial” was perhaps the most prominent of these groups.
In 2003, Alexander Yakovlev, the godfather of Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost, oversaw the publication of an encyclopedic book called “Children of the Gulag”, which tells the sad and previously untold stories of the millions who had lived in and died in the Gulag.