Gulag: A History, by Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum, is a cogent, meticulously researched exposé of the Soviet system of institutionalized terror, repression, and punishment that, over the course of the 20th century, turned the world's largest nation into a vast concentration camp and mass grave. Applebaum investigates the gulag from its origins just after the Russian Revolution through its expansion under Stalin's reign to its collapse during the period of glasnost and the fall of communism. She draws on original research, as well as recently released archival material and memoirs by both "ordinary" survivors and those who would become literary giants, like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and Polish novelist Gustav Herling-Grudzinski, who wrote A World Apart based on his experiences in the camps. She describes the categories of prisoner--an estimated 18 million between 1929 and 1953, the year Stalin died--who from "the very earliest days of the new Soviet state&were to be sentenced not for what they had done, but for who they were": old Bolsheviks, deportees from Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe during World War II, repatriated Soviet POWs, foreign communists, dissidents, the man, woman or child on the street--political prisoners mixed with common criminals. Anyone who could be perceived as a threat or traitor or simply a needed body was arrested, tortured, and used as slave labor to extract natural resources from remote corners of Siberia, work on absurdly ambitious transportation and energy projects, and build the Soviet economy. The reasons for incarceration; the journeys to the outposts; the strategies for survival of prisoners subjected to cold, starvation, rape; the types of heavy labor; the conditions for women and children; the political structure within the camp--these are just some of the broad themes that Applebaum tackles.
Deftly melding generality with specificity, Applebaum allows the individual to speak for the many and, in the process, paints a horrifying portrait of a nation forged from paranoia and the terror invoked by the arbitrary exercise of power that tore apart families and enslaved, brutalized, and murdered millions. By giving voice to the millions who disappeared into unmarked graves in an eight-decade-long episode in human history that rivaled the atrocities committed during the Holocaust, Applebaum makes an invaluable contribution to a growing body of re-evaluative literature that will, hopefully, inspire a thoughtful consideration of our collective past, and a more critical awareness our present. --Diana Kuprel [via]