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Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum

Gulag: A History (2003)

by Anne Applebaum

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I ordered this book at the same time as the author’s Red Famine, a look at Stalin’s largely manufactured famine centered in the Ukraine. I didn’t much enjoy Red Famine and wasn’t holding out much hope for this work. The author’s writing style in Red Famine was not reader friendly and I found it a chore to get through. However, for some reason, I tolerated this work much better. Perhaps it was the subject matter, which seemed to allow for more interesting reading.

As the title suggests, this work deals with the history of the Soviet gulag system of penal camps and relocation centers from the 1920s to their discontinuance in the 1950s. Unlike Red Famine, this book contains numerous personal stories and observations by those that survived the camps. As a result, it was easier to read and far more captivating than Red Famine. I can recommend this work for anyone interested in the subject matter, or Soviet history in general. ( )
  santhony | Jun 15, 2018 |
I started GULAG once, got so depressed that I set it aside, and then picked it up and read it through again. Anne Applebaum’s work is more of a straightforward history that Solzhenitsyn’s personal memoir The GULAG Archipelago; Applebaum, of course, had access to historic records of the XSSR while Solzhenitsyn had to depend on his own and other inmate’s memories.

GULAG is organized in three sections (plus Introduction and Epilogue) – the history of the camp system up to its height, the experiences of the prisoners, and the decline and disappearance of the GULAG. The first camp was set up in the Solovetsky Islands – an actual GULAG archipelago in the White Sea. And, initially, it wasn’t that bad – prisoners could get packages, they had a library, they organized theatrical groups. Things went downhill (this is a recurring theme – things in the GULAG always got worse throughout its history) – Stalin became convinced that the camps could actually be productive – and slave labor began to be used for all sorts of projects; the White Sea Canal; the industrial complexes of Vorkuta, Norilsk, and Ukhta; the “scientist” camps where people like Korolev and Tupolev were put to work as weapons designers; and the most infamous, the gold mines at Kolyma. Stalin apparently actually believed his own propaganda – when the camps didn’t produce at the expected rate, the camp administrators were shot, another round of slaves was arrested and transported, and the new set of administrators were instructed to crack down even harder. (Apparently under the principal that “Beatings will continue until morale improves”). Economic statistics from the XSSR are meaningless – the best bet, though, is that the camps were worse than useless; they cost the XSSR more than they produced. (Applebaum mentions in an aside that although the camps were horribly run and inefficient, everything in the XSSR was horribly run and inefficient; the camp administrators lied about their productivity, but every manager in the XSSR lied about productivity. It’s therefore difficult to tell how bad the camps were compared to the rest of the XSSR economy).

Prisoner’s stories are reminiscent of Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov; the knock on the door in the middle of the night; interrogation; sometimes a kangaroo trial; transport, and the camp. Interrogation, surprisingly, usually wasn’t that physically brutal; some of the memoirists were threatened with beating but few actually were. There was psychological torture in abundance, of course; sleep deprivation was common. Interestingly, people who held out and refused to confess sometimes did benefit in the long run – slight reductions (7 years instead of 10, for example) in sentence were possible if there was no confession in a prisoner’s file.

Transit to the camps was brutal. On one shipment of about 20,000 prisoners to Kolyma, about half of died on the trains before they got there. Political prisoners were introduced to criminals during transport; criminals were always considered socially superior (as members of the downtrodden proletariat) to politicals, and were therefore used to keep the politicals in line and prevent them from annoying the wardens and guards with things like petitions, letters, and illness claims. The criminals stole the “politicals” clothes and food, and generally intimidated them with threats of violence. Juvenile criminals were apparently the worst.

There were ships from Vladivostok to Magadan, the port for the Kolyma gold fields; these were especially bad for women, since while separate trains were used for male and female prisoners they were only separated by a wire mesh on the ships. Criminal prisoners could make holes through the mesh over the course of the voyage; the result was called “riding the tram” and is one of the most horrifying images Applebaum depicts.

Once in the camps it was survival of the fittest. A few prisoners managed to retain some semblance of humanity, but it was mostly dog-eat-dog. “Norms” for work – so many tons of coal cut, so many cubic meters of earth moved – were conscientiously violated as prisoners did everything they could to keep alive. Rations were supposedly set according to work produced, but there were all sorts of ways around that once you knew the ropes, usually by bribing another prisoner with food to show them how. Women and young boys had certain advantages – if you could call it that.

Applebaum repeats a theme of Solzhenitsyn – many of the prisoners remained “good Communists” and imagined that some sort of horrible mistake had been made and as soon as it was brought to the attention of Comrade Stalin it would be corrected. Some punishment schemes in the camps were particularly intended to work against this – prisoners were forbidden to call each other “Comrade”, were forbidden to be called “Stakhanovites” or “shock workers” if they exceeded their work norms, and were forbidden to possess a picture of Stalin. A common Western meme is that these were “reeducation” camps where prisoners would be subject to political lectures with the intent of turning them into good Soviet citizens; although some of that did go on in the very early camps it was quickly abandoned. “Labor” was supposed to reeducate you all by itself, with the occasional sloganeering wall poster.

Applebaum notes that while most of the camp memoirs are by “intellectuals” – people who had some higher education – these never made up more than a few percent of camp populations. Most of the inmates were peasants, particularly the “kulaks” enslaved during the agricultural collectivization of the middle 1930s. There was typically no love lost between these and the “politicals” (although, technically, a peasant prisoner was usually a “political” as well, having made an unfortunate joke about Stalin or having one more cow than average). Appelbaum cites a case of a group of female “intellectual” prisoners, unable to even remotely approach their work norm (they only made 3%) and this put on starvation rations, who approached the norm setter and begged for easier work. They might have got it if they hadn’t mentioned that they were good Soviets and party members. “Party members?” replied the norm setter. “The party dragged me out of my hut and left my six children to starve. If you were prostitutes, I’d give you a job as window washers and you could make your norm. But as party members, go out and dig your nine cubic meters of good Soviet dirt.”

Applebaum does stress that these were not Auschwitz-style death camps. Soviet authorities were not actually trying to kill prisoners – it just worked out that way. There were, in fact, frequent inspections by authorities from Moscow who often angrily reported that camp administrators were incompetent, that production statistics were meaningless, that prisoners’ food was stolen, that prisoners’ work was inferior and had to be repaired or redone. All the reports went into the files; now and then some minor administrator got fired (and often went to the camps himself) but overall nothing was done. The camps were just a microcosm – or maybe a minicosm – of Soviet society; just as inefficient and incompetent and futile. The guards and camp administrators that let prisoners die weren’t “evil” in the Nazi sense; just indifferent.

The GULAG records list about 25,000 “escapes”. Some escapes, usually to Finland, were successful during the very early days when most of the camps were located in the Komi or Karelia areas and food was more abundant. After that it was mostly criminals who escaped; if they could reach a town there would be a criminal underworld to support them. A common criminal escape tactic was to go in groups of three; two criminal friends and a naïve third who ended up as travel rations. Noncriminal prisoners who escaped would find themselves in Siberia with no food and kilometers from the nearest town; some of the more remote camps didn’t even bother with barbed wire. And, finally, what was the point? If you got out of the camp, you were still in the Soviet Union – sometimes called “the big prison” in camp jargon. Applebaum notes that one of the most famous escape stories, The Long Walk, is almost certainly spurious.

Post WII, the general character of the inmates changed – more “nationals” (Ukrainians, Poles, Balts, and Chechens); more ex-Red Army (anybody who had been a German POW automatically went to the camps; anyone who had actually entered a foreign country – Poland, Germany, etc. – with the Red Army was suspect, having been “corrupted”); fewer other “politicals”. The nationals and the Red Army men showed more solidarity than previous inmates, and by and large put an end to the domination of the camps by criminals; in one case a criminal boss who attempted the usual terror tactics against other prisoners made the mistake of trying this on a group of ex-Red Army prisoners in a logging camp. He “accidently” fell into a log chipper; when the Red Army men returned to camp they informed the criminals that things had changed. The criminal second-in-command attempted to continue criminal authority; the rest of the criminals presented his head to the Red Army men as a peace offering and there was no further trouble. Eventually, the authorities actually had to abandon the criminals-as-enforcers technique and criminals were moved to separate camps for their own protection. Applebaum comments several GULAG survivors she interviewed warned her that just because somebody was is a camp didn’t necessarily mean they were an innocent victim of Stalinist oppression.

The GULAG system continued to grow until the death of Stalin. His initial successor, Beria (who probably had the best data on how counterproductive the camps actually were), immediately dismantled many of the grandiose projects – railways and highway to nowhere, and a tunnel to Sakhalin Island. Beria was, of course, quickly replaced by Khrushchev and oppression in the camps relaxed somewhat. As is often the case, this actually sometimes made things worse for the authorities; it’s easier to revolt and protest when you’re not sick and starving. There were disturbances at various camps, including an outright revolt in Kazakhstan that had to be suppressed with tanks. However, the number of new inmates coming in dropped – criminals went to more conventional prisons, “politicals” were much more likely to be punished by loss of status than imprisonment, and there were gradual amnesty programs.

The Introduction and Epilogue are, in some ways, the most moving parts of the book. The introduction includes a cri de coeur (also voiced by Martin Amis in Koba the Dread) – why is anyone ex-Nazi treated with revulsion and contempt, but ex-Communists (for that matter, still-Communists) get a free pass? There’s no really good answer; the best she can come up with is a quote by a puzzled western Leftist: “Hitler was evil, but the Soviet Union was … deformed” – as if it were an attempt to breed some new animal variety that didn’t work out. (The subtle, and dreadful, undertone being that maybe if we try it a few more times we’ll get it right). Similarly, the Epilogue notes how quickly both Russia and the West have forgotten the camps. There’s an organization (“Memorial”) in Moscow that tries to document them; now and then another mass grave turns up somewhere, but mostly it’s ancient history. Applebaum sadly comments that many in the West think the Cold War was a “mistake” and that the principal villain of the time was Joe McCarthy, not the other Joe; and that “GULAG deniers” have much more visibility in Western culture than Holocaust deniers.

The last section is a numerical appendix; of course everybody is interested in “how many”. As already noted, XSSR statistics are highly suspect; deaths in interrogation and in transit usually weren’t recorded; many camps released inmates just before they died of starvation so the deaths wouldn’t go on the records; and some prisoners were just plain lost. The best estimate is at their height (the early 1950s) there were about 2,500,000 prisoners in the GULAG; the total number of people that went through the system was around 18,000,000; about 2,700,000 died. The worst years for the camps reflected the XSSR as a whole; during the famine of 1933, about 15% of camp inmates died and the figure for 1942 was an astonishing 25%. These death rates, coupled with the fact that the overall camp population never decreased by more than a percent or so, give some idea of the throughput.

It’s just as enlightening to reflect on what Applebaum doesn’t include (she mentions these, but says each would take a whole book on its own): mass starvation during the collectivization famines; the WWII and post-WWII POW camps; and the general dismal purgatory of the Soviet Union. The book should be required reading for every naïve socialist. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 9, 2017 |
A fantastic history of the Gulag. Insightful, emotional, well researched, interesting, morbid... Everything you could hope for from a history of such an insane atrocity.
For some reason, close to half way, I lost motivation to read this. Thus it sat unread and ignored for months. But suddenly, picking it up again, the flame to finish the book was reignited. I'm very thankful to Applebaum for writing such a fantastic history. After I finish Vollmann's Rising Up and Rising Down, I hope to oneday start The Gulag Archipelago... One day... ( )
  weberam2 | Nov 24, 2017 |
Very well-written and gripping account of the USSR's infamous prison system. Lacks excuses and ideological attacks, unlike too many histories of the Soviet Union.
  lharris4 | Jul 8, 2017 |
Incredibly intense and dense in details, this book is undoubtedly one of the best scholarships on the Russian gulags. I am in awe of the author's ability to capture the immense scope of all that the gulags were and represented, while also presenting the various anecdotal accounts from first-hand memoirs, distilling all the information to their very essence without losing any of the pathos.

Throughout the book, it is a constant reminder that the terrifying histories that we do have records of mostly come from survivor accounts. They had suffered through all these extreme inhumane conditions, which begs the horrifying question, what about the ones we never hear about? It is therefore all the more important for these stories to be recorded and passed down to later generations so that the survivors who described what happened - and those who never got the chance - will never be forgotten.

Recommended for history buffs and/or even readers of Russian (Soviet or pre-Soviet or even post-Soviet) literature: it is impossible to fully appreciate Russian literature without understanding this very important part of Russian history as even though the gulags as we nowadays understand them only really existed in the Soviet era, they had been a part of the Russian life since the seventeenth century in the form of forced-labour brigades. ( )
  kitzyl | Jun 25, 2017 |
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Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History is the first volume that attempts to give a detailed and fairly comprehensive narrative of the origin, purpose, workings, and reality of the system based both on the memoirs of those who lived through and survived the camps and on the now-available archive documents in Russia.
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This is a history of the Gulag: a history of the vast network of labour camps that were once scattered across the length and breadth of the Soviet Union, from the islands of the White Sea to the shores of the Black Sea, from the Arctic Circle to the plains of central Asia, from Murmansk to Vorkuta to Kazakhstan, from central Moscow to the Leningrad suburbs.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140283102, Paperback)

This landmark book uncovers for the first time in detail one of the greatest horrors of the twentieth century: the vast system of Soviet camps that were responsible for the deaths of countless millions. "Gulag" is the only major history in any language to draw together the mass of memoirs and writings on the Soviet camps that have been published in Russia and the West. Using these, as well as her own original research in NKVD archives and interviews with survivors, Anne Applebaum has written a fully documented history of the camp system: from its origins under the tsars, to its colossal expansion under Stalin's reign of terror, its zenith in the late 1940s and eventual collapse in the era of glasnost. It is a gigantic feat of investigation, synthesis and moral reckoning.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:44 -0400)

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A fully documented history of the Soviet camp system, from its origins in the Russian Revolution to its collapse in the era of glasnost. Anne Applebaum first lays out the chronological history of the camps and the logic behind their creation, enlargement, and maintenance. Applebaum also examines how life was lived within this shadow country: how prisoners worked, how they ate, where they lived, how they died, how they survived. She examines their guards and their jailers, the horrors of transportation in empty cattle cars, the strange nature of Soviet arrests and trials, the impact of World War II, the relations between different national and religious groups, and the escapes, as well as the extraordinary rebellions, that took place in the 1950s. She concludes by examining the disturbing question why the Gulag has remained relatively obscure, in the historical memory of both the former Soviet Union and the West.… (more)

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