Gulags Were a Horrific Cornerstone of Stalinist Russia

The Soviet labor camps had both punitive and economic functions.

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A cemetery for victims of the Gulag in Vorkuta, in Russia's Far North. (Tom Balmforth/RFE/RL)

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." Robert Coalson spoke with Applebaum about the enduring legacy of the Gulag in Russia.

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. 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."

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.

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.

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?

Now, at this moment, the current Russian government and the current Kremlin doesn't try to repress discussion of Stalin -- as, of course, once would have been the case -- but it tries to deal with it selectively. So there is very little discussion of the Gulag; there is very little discussion of industrialization even or collectivization. And there is quite a lot of emphasis placed on Stalin's victory in the second World War and on what the current Russian leadership thinks of as the most glorious moments in Soviet history. This, of course, is extremely distorting because it leaves out the context of that victory and what it really cost Russia and Russians. And it gives modern Russians a very skewed view of their past.

​​The danger about forgetting Stalin is not so much that it will repeat itself, because history doesn't ever really repeat itself in the exact same way. But it can leave Russians insensitive to some of the flaws that still exist in their society which are left over from that time. In other words, much of what is wrong in Russia now or what seems unfair in Russia now, these are things that are left over from the past. 

There are still institutions that exist from the past. The way the prison system works; the way the judicial system works; the role of the political police, which is in some ways unchanged for the last 30-40 years. Its power goes up and down but it is always there. And the fact that Russians don't feel more sensitive about these institutions, that they don't feel a deeper desire to reform them and change them, I think, is partly because they haven't dwelled on, thought about, or absorbed the lessons of Soviet history.

And one of the reasons they haven't is that the current Russian leadership doesn't want them to. There is an active attempt to suppress discussion or to keep discussion focused only on positive aspects of the past.

Some argue that Stalin was a good manager, that he won the war, that he left the country stronger than he found it. You don't have a lot of patience for such views, do you?

Applebaum: No, I would really contest that. You need to look at counterfactuals -- what might Russia have been if it had been developed in a different way? You wouldn't have had millions of people -- lives wasted, talent wasted, education wasted -- working in slave-labor camps. All those physicists who were sent to dig coal in Magadan might have invented something faster and better. People might have lived better. You might now have a more developed infrastructure. I think to imagine that what Stalin achieved was some kind of triumph is to ignore how Russia could have developed differently.

Even the war -- Stalin started the war. He and Hitler divided Europe between them in 1939 at the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. They jointly invaded Poland and the Baltic states. It was Stalin's decision to do that that allowed Hitler two years in which to invade Western Europe. And the Soviet Union -- the Russian people -- then paid the price. They then suffered when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, for which the Soviet Union was basically unprepared. The many, many millions of people who died all died unnecessarily. Had Stalin not participated, had he not had a union with Hitler at the beginning, then maybe [those people] would be alive today.

It is interesting that even people like Putin who praise Stalin as "an effective manager" don't have anything good to say about Stalinism or advocate a return to Stalinism.

I don't think anyone wants to revive the system that Stalin created. Of course, it still exists in some places in attenuated form. North Korea, as far as I can tell, is potentially a Stalinist system, for example. But no, Stalinism doesn't hold any appeal for Putin. What he is trying to do is to cherry-pick Stalin's record, to focus on elements of the Soviet period that he wants to celebrate because he wants to rally Russians behind him; he wants to create a sense of patriotism because he wants, in some ways, to renovate himself.

He worked for many years in the KGB, which was the secret-police branch of the Soviet Communist Party, and the KGB was responsible for the Gulag and [its predecessor organizations] did create the terror of 1937 and the waves of other terror before and after that. So he is looking for elements of that past to rehabilitate. But nobody has suggested reviving the entire system. It probably, it couldn't be done now because you can't cut off Russia in the way you could before. And it would be suicidal. It is widely acknowledged that it was an economic disaster for the country.

This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Anne Applebaum: