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

December 11, 2003

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's Jim Bencivenga.

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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 The book is itself a historical document, a product of the era it describes.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.

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?