The gulag was everywhere in the Soviet Union, not just on remote islands in the White Sea or the permafrost of the Far North. There were camps in the center of Moscow, too. In the early 1950s, for example, some 12,000 men and women a mix of political prisoners and criminals worked in Stroilag in the Lenin Hills, a beauty spot overlooking the capital, building parts of Moscow State University and other academic institutions. Elsewhere in the city, prisoners built ports, airfields, homes and even dachas in the élite villages of Barvikha and Zhukovka, now the preserve of Russia's new rich. Alexander Solzhenitsyn served part of his time in a prison laboratory, a sharashka, in northern Moscow. It is still there, just around the corner from the studios of Russia's main TV networks. No plaques record its history, or the work of other zeks (prisoners) here. Few Muscovites know of their contribution, and even fewer seem to care.
Perhaps the sheer scale of the horror makes ordinary Russians uncomfortable. Anne Applebaum, in her meticulously documented and dispassionately written Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps (Penguin/Allen Lane; 610 pages), estimates that 18 million people passed through the camps between 1929 and 1953. Nobody knows how many died, though she offers, "reluctantly" the almost certainly low official figure of 2.7 million camp deaths. This does not include those who died in the other chapters of Soviet terror man-made famine in Ukraine, collectivization, the executions during the purge years and civil war. A low estimate for the total death toll is around 10 million.
Applebaum, an American journalist, describes the history of the camps, from their origins in the early 1920s, when the majestic Solovetsky Monastery was turned into a political prison, through what Solzhenitsyn called its metastasis into the Gulag system the word is an acronym for Glavnoye Upravlenie Lagerey, or Main Directorate of Camps. She then lays out in sober detail the daily life, work and death of the prisoners, their survival mechanisms and their resistance. She has read just about everything written on the subject. This includes the brilliant memoirs of Lev Razgon, the bleak searing stories and poems of Varlaam Shalamov, the son of an orthodox missionary to Alaska who spent over 20 years in the most horrific of the camps. (He died, largely unrecognized, in misery in Moscow in 1982. There are few happy endings to Gulag stories.) But she makes superb use of the Gulag records and internal reports which, she notes, report the horrors of the camps "in language no less frank than that used by Solzhenitsyn or Shalamov."
[an error occurred while processing this directive]Throughout Gulag, hallucinatory images pop out of the page: the "café" set up in Kengir camp by a Polish count at the height of most famous prison uprising in 1954. The members of a religious sect who, during the same uprising, sat on mattresses in the parade ground, waiting to be taken to heaven. Red Army tanks arrived first and crushed the uprising.
Even more striking, though, is Applebaum's description of the bureaucracy of repression. The Soviet leadership pretended that the camps were economically rational and productive. They were not. Some built useless projects, all needed continual subsidies: the Soviet system could not grasp the simple truth that people work badly if they are terrorized and half starved. Toward the end of the Gulag, Applebaum writes, "It was becoming clear to the Soviet authorities that the camps were wasteful, corrupt, and above all, unprofitable."
Unlike Germany, Russia has not confronted its totalitarian past. It tries to forget it or, in the case of the present political leadership, selectively justify it, as if 10 million deaths can be balanced out by achievements in other fields. It may be for this reason that the legal and prison systems here are still a nightmare, and that prosecutors are still regularly accused of putting pressure on judges to find someone guilty despite evidence to the contrary. Stalin's prosecutors would have immediately understood.