This past week I finished reading the book Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer Prize winning effort. I found this book compelling with its first-hand accounts of the brutal and deadly conditions some 8 million Soviet citizens experienced as they passed through the Gulag system over the decades. And I found no problem with the book except for a couple of points.
First, she equates the concentration camps of Lenin and Trotsky to what the phenomenon later became under Stalin. Camps were in existence during the Russian Revolution, and Lenin did express the thought that maybe kulaks (rich, land owning peasants) and former White Army officers could use a good lesson in hard, manual labor. But those early concentration camps are nothing like the true Gulags under Stalin. Applebaum even relates this fact in the introductory portion of the book. But she should have realized that Stalin is the real monster here, not Lenin and Trotsky.
Second, Applebaum asks why so many memorialize and lionize the old Soviet system with the Gulags as part of its history. She even condemns Russia’s experiment in a radical leftist ideology with the belief that the Gulag was inherent in the Communist system. She further equates the Gulag system with the German death-camps of the Nazi’s. Some far leftists will wear a hammer and sickle t-shirt, but no one would almost never, where a shirt with a swastika on it, she argues.
Now I admit that the two can be equated, and, in my opinion, they both possessed the same level of brutality which I cannot believe ever took place in as late of a period as the 20th century. But the goal of exterminating the Jews and other minority groups in the 30’s and 40’s was a major tenet of the Nazi ideology. The Gulag system was just a deformed system of punishment used by a totalitarian government. The Soviets did not want any group of people to suffer and die in Gulags. It was just the form of punishment Stalin desired as a result of his uncontrollable paranoia and its brutal crackdowns. In the introduction Applebaum even covers the fact that labor camps for criminals were a part of Czarist Russia. It seems that the concentration camp, not the suffering, was Russian, not Soviet. And a strict form of genocide was not a truly cut out goal of the Gulag system.
In conclusion, after reading this book my belief that Stalin was one of history’s greatest monsters is confirmed, and I still refuse to express my belief in a Marxist system with Stalin’s words or image. But on the other hand, I have no problem with the use of Lenin, Marx and Engels, and the hammer and sickle emblem. They are not inherently related to the. Marx never wrote, “There is a specter haunting Europe, and let there be Gulags.”
I still recommend this book.