Q&A: A fresh look at the Soviet 'Gulag Archipelago'

Anne Applebaum is the author of "Gulag: A History." A Washington Post columnist, her book is a National Book Awards nominee. After living in Poland and travelling in the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s, what struck her most was the absence of a national memory about the massive internal prison system that pervaded communist Russia for more than seven decades. Her book is as much a testimony to the victims and survivors of the labor camps , as it is a major, compelling human story, preserving the historical record for future generations. She discussed the similarities and key distinctions between Soviet and Nazi labor camps with csmonitor.com's Jim Bencivenga.

It's been a generation since Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn seared western consciousness with his book, "The Gulag Archipelago." It serves as a primary reference not only for the system of prison camps in Russia in the 20th century but as a seminal work for any discussion of the totalitarian systems of the 20th century. How did Solzhenitsyn's work influence the directions you take in your book?

Solzhenitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago" remains the absolutely definitive description of the camp system. The book is itself a historical document, a product of the era it describes. I had it by my desk the entire time I wrote my book, and referred to it frequently. Every time I wrote about a particular theme, I checked to see what Solzhenitsyn said about it before proceeding any further.

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At the same time, it is also true that I deliberately set out to write a different kind of book, one that was much less personal and subjective. I wanted the tone to be pitched at a different level, for the book to be a calm discussion of historical facts rather than polemical exploration of them. I wanted the book to appeal to a generation that knew little of the historical background, which Solzhenitsyn naturally assumed his readers would know. I also wanted to use archives, which would by their nature contain points of view that Solzhenitsyn could not have included, such as the views of the guards and gulag administrators. My book was in no way intended to compete with his: it was, rather, intended to re-tell the story in a different way and for a different audience.

Do you consider yourself a spiritual person? I ask this because I can't imagine any writer not being so, given the task of sifting through the historical record of such enormous brutality and inhumanity. How did you sustain your own sense of decency and humanity to complete the project?

Maybe it sounds odd, but no, I don't consider myself a spiritual person. By nature, I'm more of a skeptic than an idealist, and I have a respectful, but not intimate, relationship with organized religion. I think what kept me going, throughout the project, was simply a sense of obligation to the part of the world that I had more or less adopted, or rather had adopted me. I spent a good part of the late 1980s and early 1990s in Poland and the former Soviet Union, and was living in Poland for a second time while I wrote this book. I knew many people whose lives had been destroyed, one way or another, by Soviet totalitarianism, and it seemed unjust to me that their stories were so badly understood in the West. You might say that I wrote the book on behalf of particular people, not for a cause.

Can you share some of the organizing principles you employed in dealing with the vast amounts of data, the information, the countless records, the interviews with survivors, etc. that you had to consider?

My organizing principles were in fact fairly mundane. I took all of my notes on computer - which meant dragging a laptop around Moscow, and fighting with security guards to get permission to take it in archives - and then copied and pasted and organized the notes thematically. That meant that when I was looking for a story about, say, the 1920s, I could look in the 1920s file and find it. I also collected a huge number of memoirs. Although I had access to memoirs in libraries, I found it was important to keep consulting some of them, and I began buying them on used-book websites.

Can anything remotely similar to a gulag happen again in Putin's Russia?

I don't know if a system of mass slave labor will happen again, or any repression on that scale: there would be no economic or political motive for Russia's leaders to carry something like that. But yes, without a proper discussion of the past, which Russia has not yet had - I explain more below - it is possible that some Soviet traditions will return. Indeed, some people believe they have returned already. The recent increase in press censorship, the lack of prison or judicial reform, the arbitrary arrests, and the powers conceded to the secret police and army are all gulag legacies, in their way.

What comparisons would you make between the Nazi labor and death camps and those of the Soviet Union? What are some of the unique differences?

As any reader with any general knowledge of the Holocaust will discover in the course of reading my book, life within the Soviet camp system differed in many ways, both subtle and obvious, from life within the Nazi camp system. The gulag lasted far longer, and went through cycles of relative cruelty and relative humanity. The history of the Nazi camps is shorter, and contains less variation: they simply became crueler and crueler, until the retreating Germans liquidated them or the invading Allies liberated them. The gulag also contained a wide variety of camps, from the lethal gold mines of the Kolyma region to the "luxurious" secret institutes outside Moscow, where prisoner scientists designed weapons for the Red Army. Although there were different kinds of camps in the Nazi system, the range was far narrower.

Above all, however, two differences between the systems strike me as fundamental. First, the definition of "enemy" in the Soviet Union was always far more slippery than the definition of "Jew" in Nazi Germany. With an extremely small number of unusual exceptions, no Jew in Nazi Germany could change his status, no Jew inside a camp could reasonably expect to escape death, and all Jews carried this knowledge with them at all times. While millions of Soviet prisoners feared they might die-and millions did-there was no single category of prisoner whose death was absolutely guaranteed. At times, certain prisoners could improve their lot by working in relatively comfortable jobs, as engineers or geologists. Within each camp there was a prisoner hierarchy, which some were able to climb at the expense of others, or with the help of others. At other times-when the gulag found itself overburdened with women, children, and old people, or when soldiers were needed to fight at the front-prisoners were released in mass amnesties. It sometimes happened that whole categories of "enemies" suddenly benefited from a change in status. Stalin arrested hundreds of thousands of Poles, for example, at the start of the Second World War in 1939-and then abruptly released them from the gulag in 1941 when Poland and the USSR became temporary allies. The opposite was also true: in the Soviet Union, perpetrators could become victims themselves. Gulag guards, administrators, even senior officers of the secret police, could also be arrested and find themselves sentenced to camps. Not every "poisonous weed" remained poisonous, in other words-and there was no single group of Soviet prisoners who lived with the constant expectation of death.

Second-the primary purpose of the gulag, according to both the private language and the public propaganda of those who founded it, was economic. This did not mean that it was humane. Within the system, prisoners were treated as cattle, or rather as lumps of iron ore. Guards shuttled them around at will, loading and unloading them into cattle cars, weighing and measuring them, feeding them if it seemed they might be useful, starving them if they were not. They were, to use Marxist language, exploited, reified, and commodified. Unless they were productive, their lives were worthless to their masters.

Nevertheless, their experience was quite different from that of the Jewish and other prisoners whom the Nazis sent to a special group of camps called not Konzentrationslager but Vernichtungslager-camps that were not really "labor camps" at all, but rather death factories. There were four of them: Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor, and Treblinka. Majdanek and Auschwitz contained both labor camps and death camps. Upon entering these camps, prisoners were "selected." A tiny number were sent to do a few weeks of forced labor. The rest were sent directly into gas chambers where they were murdered and then immediately cremated.

As far as I have been able to ascertain, this particular form of murder, practiced at the height of the Holocaust, had no Soviet equivalent. True, the Soviet Union found other ways to mass-murder hundreds of thousands of its citizens. Usually, they were driven to a forest at night, lined up, shot in the skull, and buried in mass graves before they ever got near a concentration camp - a form of murder no less "industrialized" and anonymous than that used by the Nazis. For that matter, there are stories of Soviet secret police using exhaust fumes - a primitive form of gas - to kill prisoners, just as the Nazis did in their early years. Within the gulag, Soviet prisoners also died, usually not thanks to the captors' efficiency but due to gross inefficiency and neglect. In certain Soviet camps, at certain times, death was virtually guaranteed for those selected to cut trees in the winter forest or to work in the worst of the Kolyma gold mines. Prisoners were also locked in punishment cells until they died of cold and starvation, left untreated in unheated hospitals, or simply shot at will for "attempted escape." Nevertheless, the Soviet camp system as a whole was not deliberately organized to mass-produce corpses-even if, at times, it did.

These are fine distinctions, but they matter. Although the gulag and Auschwitz do belong to the same intellectual and historical tradition, even a superficial study of the concentration camp's cross-cultural history reveals that the specific details-how life in the camps was organized, how the camps developed over time, how rigid or disorganized they became, how cruel or liberal they remained-depended on the particular country, on the culture, and on the regime.

What is the legacy of the gulag for Russians today? Is it something they are familiar with and something that informs their political decisions?

One 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, fifteen years after glasnost, ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there have been no trials, no truth commissions, no government inquiries into what happened in the past, and no public debate whatsoever. This 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," using the word for Lenin's political police.

The 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 people's minds. The 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 got us nowhere.

But 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 tenth anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, thirteen of the fifteen former Soviet republics were run by former communists, as were many of the satellite states. To put it bluntly, former communists have no interest in discussing the past, it tarnishes them, undermines them, hurts their image as "reformers."

And 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; the rest went to exile villages like camps. Half of them died. To invade Chechnya again, at the end of the twentieth century, was the moral equivalent of Germany re-invading Poland, yet very few Russians saw it that way.

Survivors of the gulag are still alive, their children are still alive. How is the memory, or record treated by them?

One of the odd things about interviewing gulag survivors is how different their reactions were to their experiences. I met some people who were still afraid to talk much at all: Many had signed statements at the time of their release, promising not to reveal anything, and they were afraid they could still be held to them. Others told me they'd been talking about their experiences for decades. Still others had more or less devoted their lives to telling the stories, and collecting the stories of others.

Their attitudes to the past were no less varied. Some found it almost impossible to speak, because the memories were so difficult and tragic. One woman, on the other hand, literally howled with laughter as she told me about the ridiculous clothes she had to wear, as a prisoner, and seemed to really enjoy re-telling the story. Meeting survivors was like a lesson in the many types of human nature: There was really no rule about their reactions at all.

What in your research surprised you the most? What reader response gave you the most satisfaction in the reception to your book? Is this chapter of your writing life over, or will there be more works on the subject? If you would, how did writing this book change your life? How did it change you?

I think what surprised me the most in my research was the frankness of the inspectors' reports in the archives. I suppose I'd been vaguely expecting them to cover up the truth about what life was really like in the camps, but they were in some ways more brutal than memoirs. 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 production norms.

The 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. While it might have been expected that camp living conditions would be poor during the war, as they were all over the Soviet Union, a nationwide inspection of twenty-three large camps in 1948 still concluded, among other things, that 75 percent of the prisoners in Norillag in northern Siberia had no warm boots; that the number of prisoners unfit for hard labor in Karelia had recently tripled; that death rates were still "too high" in half a dozen camps - too high, that is, to allow for efficient production. The 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.

As for reader reaction - by far the most satisfying responses have been from people who were in the camps, who found my descriptions accurate. If they feel it's a good book, then I'm pleased: They are the best judges. And yes, it is a subject I'd like to pursue, although probably in a different way. What really interests me, at the moment, is the opposite problem: Why do people come to believe in totalitarian ideologies in the first place. To put it differently, I'm interested in the perpetrators, at the moment, as much as the victims.

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