Reviews of Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum;
Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, by Martin Amis;
and A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation, by Eric D. Weitz


Martin Amis fears that "the Russian dead sleep on"—forgotten—even after the fall of the regime that killed them. In an effort to awaken concern for them, Amis skillfully choreographs an enormous array of facts and voices into a very effective and angry essay. He is most eloquent about Stalin's personal tyranny and the scale and diversity of human suffering he ordered and supervised. The journalist Anne Applebaum has produced for general readers a more conventional—but no less devastating—history of one major strand of Soviet repression, the regime's concentration camps. Both authors regret that these events do not figure larger in the moral imagination of Westerners, particularly intellectuals. Their books may stir consciences; Eric Weitz's volume is itself a hopeful sign of progress.

Amis places Soviet crimes in the larger context of the Bolsheviks' battle to seize, hold, and wield power, all ruthlessly. The main obstacles were people, of all kinds: old regime supporters, party-political rivals, peasants reluctant to surrender land, suspect ethnic groups, and so on. Amis emphasizes that from the start, the Communist dictatorship monopolized power by killing or caging these possible resisters, including through mass executions, a budding camp system, and famine used as a political weapon. Stalin "merely" put this machinery of repression in overdrive. Nicknamed Koba as a child, Stalin here becomes successor to the tsar Ivan the Dread, but far more vicious. As ruler, Stalin had the triple objectives of destroying remaining sources of autonomy from the party-state, expanding that state's power through industrialization, and establishing his personal power within the state. Stalin repressed in every direction. Millions were denied basic services, which under state socialism meant reduction to an uncertain, hand-to-mouth existence. Millions more were "exiled" to remote regions to what amounted to forced labor. Millions yet again were penned in prisons and the gulag camps. Finally, millions were killed, both outside and then within the party, through on-the-spot executions, and in prisons, and during collectivization, and through the terror-famine in the Ukraine, and in the camps. The toll of political murders approaches 20 million. Some people were victimized almost randomly, to strike fear in the rest.

The most intensive and extensive Soviet repression took place in the "archipelago" of forced labor camps. Nazi camps existed primarily either to cage (but generally keep alive) party-political opponents or to kill designated categories of people. In contrast, the gulag blurred the lines between caging, killing, and extracting labor. Applebaum's well-researched overview is temperate, but she pulls very few descriptive punches, since grim terms are indispensable to understanding both the camps and the regime that built them.

The gulag was brutal by design. The violation of basic human dignities was designed to dehumanize and demoralize. Official brutality was constant. Basic nutrition and medical care were denied even when the Soviet economy had more to spare. Nearly all inmates were forced to do backbreaking labor deemed valuable to economic development and state power. Food deprivation was an organizing principle. Always-meager rations were cut for prisoners who did not fulfill crushing work quotas. This "sorted prisoners very quickly into those who would survive, and those who would not."

The glide path toward starvation on which many prisoners found themselves was only accelerated by the physical context. Many of the camps were set up to exploit resources in barely habitable regions of Russia's far north, where inmates labored outdoors even at 30 or more degrees below zero. Much work was physically dangerous, and assignment to certain tasks in certain camps was a de facto death sentence. Death rates were thus prodigious, as weakened workers succumbed to malnutrition or epidemics. Throughout Gulag, gaunt figures appear, chased by Death so remorselessly that they are finally too exhausted to run any longer. Amis observes poignantly, "Your chair is never softer, your study never warmer, your prospect of the evening meal never more secure than when you read about the gulag."

Applebaum takes particular pains to highlight the gulag's role in the Soviet economy. Stalin believed industrialization relied crucially on giant industrial and infrastructural projects. Inmates dug canals with pathetic tools, at huge cost in lives, and harvested gold and timber, the currency earnings from which enabled the regime to import needed machinery. At least in some cases, Applebaum considers it an unlikely coincidence that technical specialists were arrested and sent to camps when and where new gulag projects demanded their skills. In sum, the inmates were slaves in every meaningful sense of the word. Of course, the gulag failed to add value to the economy.

But repression was hardly a failure for the regime. It abolished any social basis for resistance by denying citizens all material autonomy and organizational capability. Applebaum shows that material conditions inside the gulag and outside, in wider Soviet society, differed only in degree, not kind. What the "punishment cells" represented to camp inmates, the camps represented to Soviet citizens in general: a threatening motive to comply. From this captive populace, the leadership leveraged material privilege, national power, and international status. Their privileged lives and the brutal nature of their rule strongly suggest that, at least by some relatively early date, the USSR was governed either by cynical predators or by "idealists" so able to rationalize away evil as to make the distinction irrelevant.

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The scale and nature of Soviet crimes invite these authors to risk comparisons to the Holocaust. In numbers, Stalinism certainly killed more people than the Shoah. Then again, Amis reminds us, Stalin had advantages over Hitler: "the burning cold of the Arctic…darkness…space… And, most crucially…time." In terms of the nature or character of the two episodes, there are obvious parallels, from open-air massacres to cattle cars to camp life. Most pointedly, those who ran camps in both systems deliberately used food and overwork to "manage" life spans, and to schedule many to die. Thus, in both, the "saved" had to live amidst the "drowned": healthier inmates were in the harrowing presence of those starving to death.

Applebaum also insists on a crucial contrast with the Holocaust. The USSR identified its enemies along class and political lines much more mutable than the Nazi's rigid racial ones. This meant that there was no category of people "whose death was absolutely guaranteed," which made possible outcomes that were inconceivable for Jews under Nazism, such as release at the end of one's sentence. It also meant the system contained no extermination camps—although several sites came close when execution quotas were imposed in 1937-38. Robert Conquest does not flinch from describing the famine-terrorized Ukraine as "one vast Belsen."

Two responses are in order. First, while the gulag may not have been designed to mass-produce corpses, nonetheless it produced them prodigiously. Given systematic deprivation, we might even say the system was partly—just not solely—designed to produce corpses. Second, the USSR's more mutable categories for designating "others" had a profoundly dark side. Nazism's rigid boundaries guaranteed death to targeted people, but virtually guaranteed immunity from severe repression to others, most obviously tens of millions of apolitical "Aryans." The USSR had no equivalent rubric for those guaranteed death, but also no equivalent for those guaranteed life. For long stretches under Stalin, as under the Khmer Rouge, virtually no one could live without substantial fear of being declared an enemy of the people. As Amis puts it, "Everyone was terrorized, all the way up: everyone except Stalin," who, like Saddam, ruled even his cabinet through fear.

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If it's difficult to decide which mass murder was worse, we should probably place them in a single roomy category. Amis and Applebaum do something like this. But both observe with a certain anger that Leninism/Stalinism does not come close to matching the Holocaust as a conventional image of political crime. This is partly the result of simple ignorance—Amis says that was long the obstacle for him. But the bad news is that education is unlikely to remedy a disparity that is onlypartly the result of mere ignorance. There is, so to speak, a "sociology of knowledge" aspect to who has, and especially who has not, integrated Stalinism into their moral imagination. Many who downplay Stalinism do so willfully.

Consider one forum. In the past five years, the Weekly StandardNational Review, and The Nation, have each run a similar number of book reviews relating to the Holocaust—it is everyone's genocide. But the left-liberal Nation reviewed noticeably more books than the other two on the crimes of, say, Latin American militaries, while the two center-right magazines each ran roughly three times as many reviews as The Nation of books touching on Communist repression. 

Arguably, it is worse when The Nation does review such books. When The Black Book of Communism and Francois Furet's Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century appeared, The Nation's review angrily dismissed them as polemics deployed by capitalist elites to "exploit a tragedy" and discredit reformism of any kind. You might not think it possible to review a book about "everyday Stalinism" without once using the words arrest, prison, shot, forced labor, gulag, or camp, and referring to famine only in the passive construction. But somehow, The Nation in another review found a way. Their treatment of Applebaum's book does not deny the suffering, but criticizes her for "exploit[ing] the gulag" for political reasons, emphasizing that it "is no easy matter…to separate the innocent from the guilty" (not even Stalin?) and insisting that the gulag cannot be connected to any larger political or moral narrative. Not even the fact that all Communist regimes created gulags and killed far more people than the regimes which came before or after them.

This isn't ignorance; it's an agenda.

Nonetheless, might it be considered as part of a legitimate ideological division of labor, in which "progressives" focus on the crimes of "right-wing" regimes and conservatives focus on left-wing ones? The implication of symmetry is grotesque. The problem is not that we should take lightly the 3,000 Chileans commonly said to have been killed by the Pinochet regime (we shouldn't). The problem is that the Soviet regime killed that many people, inside the camps alone, in 1942 alone, on average every three days. Devoting equal time to Pinochet and Stalin is to take Russian lives very lightly indeed. Even the 100,000 killed in Guatemala would be a footnote to historians of Stalin or Mao; 3,000 is a rounding error. Simply put, one of the two sides in this division of labor is focusing on the greatest mass murders in history, while the other is consistently looking away.

* * *

A less insidious version of this bias is even more widespread. Applebaum points to the toleration—never extended in matters Nazi—of the occasional "Gulag denier." I think a still more telling line can be drawn. Polite society ostracizes both denial and trivialization of the Holocaust. Imagine our response to an otherwise educated person who, without denying the Holocaust, nonetheless failed to know basic details about it; never cited it when referring to evil; failed to treat it as profane; agreed to discuss it only on condition of mentioning mitigating circumstances or paying comparable attention to far lesser crimes; or even had tenuous associations with Holocaust deniers or apologists, so long as the connection was qualified enough.

By these standards, we are surrounded by what we might call gulag trivializers. As Amis notes, many people who would never deny Stalinism's horrors nonetheless cannot name a single camp, don't know the least detail of the terror-famine, and have no idea what the overall numbers look like. McCarthyism and apartheid come vividly to their minds; the gulag does not. They don't think Communism-themed cafes odd. And so long as they explain themselves carefully, they are willing to attend demonstrations against the Iraq war organized—as many of the main ones in the U.S. were—by A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), a group whose guiding figures defend North Korea's Stalinist regime.

* * *

There is some good news, though. Political science features a growing comparative study of genocides. The sheer number of victims means that Stalinism is difficult to omit from the short list of cases. As a result, more and more scholars are routinely mentioning the USSR and Nazism in the same breath, and analyzing them jointly. Eric Weitz's book is a thoughtful example of this trend. It is an attempt to identify common elements in the mass murders in Nazi Europe, the USSR, Cambodia, and Bosnia. Weitz, a professor of history at the University of Minnesota, argues that revolutionary regimes acted on nationalistic and racialist ideas by seeking to purify entire populations through "purges," of which the ultimate version was large-scale murder.

But these ideas are necessary but not sufficient conditions of genocide, which appears to require in addition a gross disparity in power between state and civil society. Even in the Nazi case: Within Germany's relatively robust civil society the Nazis treaded carefully, e.g., regarding the murder of the German handicapped. But in conquered territories, they slaughtered openly. This suggests one reason Communism proved so consistently deadly. Not only did Communist movements come to power where civil society was weak, but they made it a primary goal to smash to pieces the existing social structure.

Weitz does not address this or other such issues directly. In that sense, his book, like most books, is hardly definitive. But it is a respectable, relatively early contribution to the debate, and it is the existence of the debate itself that is heartening for those who dread seeing "the Russian dead sleep on" forever.