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A cemetery for victims of the Gulag in Vorkuta in Russia's Far North
A cemetery for victims of the Gulag in Vorkuta in Russia's Far North

A cemetery for victims of the Gulag in Vorkuta in Russia’s Far North

From rferl.org – Anne Applebaum is a columnist with “The Washington Post” and director of Global Transitions at the Legatum Institute. She is also author of the 2004 book “Gulag: A History” and last year’s “Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956.” RFE/RL’s Robert Coalson spoke with Applebaum about the enduring legacy of the Gulag in Russia.

RFE/RL: I’d like to begin by asking you to read a passage from your book “Gulag,” to give people a sense of how powerfully written it is. This passage is from your appendix in which you discuss the difficulties involved in answering the seemingly simple question of how many people did Stalin kill. Maybe you could say a few words before you read it.

Anne Applebaum: I needed a whole chapter, really, to explain the numbers, because the numbers vary depending on how you look at them. You can look at the numbers of dead in the archives. You can look at numbers of dead that we know from other sources. You can add them up in different kinds of ways. But one of the conclusions I came to was that the numbers were, in the end, inadequate. And I will read a passage from that part of “Gulag” that I think explains it quite well:

“A single round number of dead victims would be extremely satisfying, particularly since it would allow us to compare Stalin directly with Hitler or with Mao. Yet even if we could find one, I’m not sure it would really tell the whole story of suffering either. No official figures, for example, can possibly reflect the mortality of the wives and children and aging parents left behind, since their deaths were not recorded separately. During the war, old people starved to death without ration cards: had their convict son not been digging coal in Vorkuta, they might have lived. Small children succumbed easily to epidemics of typhus and measles in cold, ill-equipped orphanages: had their mothers not been sewing uniforms in Kengir, they might have lived too.“Nor can any figures reflect the cumulative impact of Stalin’s repressions on the life and health of whole families. A man was tried and shot as an “enemy of the people”; his children grew up in orphanages and joined criminal gangs; his mother died of stress and grief; his cousins and aunts and uncles cut off all contact from one another, in order to avoid being tainted as well. Families broke apart, friendships ended, fear weighed heavily on those who remained behind, even when they did not die.”

RFE/RL: Thank you. Your book makes the argument that the Gulag was not tangential to Stalinism but was an integral part of his economic, social, and political system. Could you elaborate on that?

​​Applebaum: It is very hard to separate the history of the Gulag from the history of the Soviet Union. It was, in some ways, the logical consequence of so many other policies. The Gulag had two functions. No. 1, it had a punitive function. It created fear. It was very spread out, it had branches all over the Soviet Union and everybody knew about it. Everybody was aware that it existed. It wasn’t some kind of hidden part of society. It functioned as something that would scare people, but it also had a very important economic function.

The Gulag actually had the task of digging coal mines, of digging uranium mines, gold mines. The Gulag was enormous at its height in the late 1940s, early 1950s, which really was its height. It was an enormous economic empire, controlling factories and whole areas of Russia. Northeast Russia was settled by the Gulag — prisoners and guards. Some of the Far Northern cities were effectively built by the Gulag — Vorkuta, Norilsk, cities like that.

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It also distorted in some ways the way the Soviet Union thought about economics. So, when a large deposit of coal was discovered in the Far North, the Russians didn’t, as one would have done in Alaska, they didn’t send a few teams of workers to work there for a few weeks and then send them back again to recover and then go back up again. Instead, because they had free labor, because they weren’t counting costs, they built enormous cities in the Far North, which basically no one else has done anywhere. So, the city of Vorkuta, the city of Norilsk, Magadan. These were large constructions, big cities built because there was free labor, because there was slave labor. So you can see the distortions that the Gulag created for the Soviet economy. You can still see them today.

RFE/RL: In your book, you write that Russia has not done a very good job of reckoning with Stalin and Stalinism. What is the state of this process in Russia today? Read more…


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