Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum

This book has its strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, because the history of the GULag system is a subject covered in other monographs, I would rather readers avoided Applebaum's work. The one benefit of those who decide to read this text will encounter, is that this book gives both a general history of the GULag system and intermixes said history with personal accounts that bring the experiences to life. With that said, my problem with 'Gulag: A History' is that the author is either a sloppy researcher or is twisting information to suit her own needs.

To begin, the information presented is inherently interesting for those who know anything about the Soviet Union or the GULag. Presented is a history of the GULag system, how it developed, who was behind some of the major activities that involved forced labor, orders, camp commandants, etc. Applebaum also presents information on life in the camps, including small chapters on arrests, interrogations, transport to camps, etc. All information is mainly derived from memoirs and recollections that have been published in English and Russian either by themselves or as part of an anthology. All of this is relevant and interesting research, which gives the reader a multifaceted view of the GULag.

Applebaum's problem is that instead of taking an objective view of the GULag system, she has a need to compare it to the Nazi system. Making comparisons here and there that instead of helping the reading only muddle the issue(s) being discussed. Time and again she goes out of her way in the narrative to show how these camps differed from Nazi concentration camps, taking away from the overall reading experience. Also interesting to note is the fact that what happened to the majority of people, throughout the entire process, was based less so on state policy than on various variables one would encounter along the way; simply put, do you confess to your crimes? Have others confessed to you doing what you're accused of? Is there enough evidence against you? During what year were you arrested? Which camp were you sent to? How were you sent (via railroad, car, etc)? Who was the camp commandant at that time? Who were the guards? Was there a large criminal element? Were there many political prisoners? Were you in a solitary cell or a holding cell with dozens of people? And so on and so forth.  Any and all had the power to make your experiences in the camps that much better or worse.

Finally, my biggest problem with the book is the fact that before I began reading it I read an anthology about women who went through GULag camps. The anthology included various extracts from their memoirs.  In this book I ran across, first, a question on behalf of one of these authors that was actually a statement in the original anthology I read, and eventually found an incorrect paraphrasing which was used in the wrong context (also from the same anthology). To go over every endnote would take too much time. So I am simply pointing out that something here isn't right. These changes are not simple and alter the entire meaning of what was said, which is why I feel a need to mention it. Since this book was fresh in my mind I easily recalled these instances and went back to check them only to find that indeed something was wrong when Applebaum incorporated them into her own work. Another mistake I found was when talking about General Vlasov she comments that his army was made up of Red Army deserters who supported Hitler.  This is far from true.  These men were not deserters but rather POWs who choose to join Vlasov for a variety of reasons. Some did in fact hate Communism and the Soviet system, while many others simply wanted to be fed and survive for as long as possible. So, once more, caution should be used when reading this book.

As I previously stated, I think there are better works out there about the GULag, but this wouldn't be a horrible starting point.

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