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RAY SUAREZ: The book is “Gulag: A History,” the author is Anne Applebaum, a columnist and member of the editorial board of the Washington Post. And I guess the best thing to do is to start off with a definition. It’s probably a word that people — many people still aren’t familiar with. What is, what was “the gulag”?
ANNE APPLEBAUM: “Gulag” is actually an acronym, and what it means is main camp administration, which is a very boring bureaucratic- sounding term. And that was actually the name of the institution that ran many, many thousands of camps. And it was, in fact, a very boring bureaucratic institution. But it kept many archives, and it kept track of things, and it attained a kind of Kafkaesque status among prisoners in the camps. And I think it was Solzhenitsyn who first used the term “gulag” in his writings to describe the system.
RAY SUAREZ: So, this isn’t a term that the ordinary Russian on the street would have used to, in conversation, describe the camps?
ANNE APPLEBAUM: Later on it would have been. They were just called camps or the system, or something. And it was Solzhenitsyn who christened them the gulag, and made that term popular.
RAY SUAREZ: Did they start out to become almost a country within a country, as they ended up?
ANNE APPLEBAUM: They — not in the very beginning. They started as something much more like ordinary prisons, and they were slowly taken over by the secret police when Stalin — first Lenin, and then Stalin — decided that the Soviet Union needed a special system for its special political prisoners.
Then in the late ’20s, they grew because Stalin decided he needed slave labor in the Soviet Union. And they grew and grew and grew, and he conceived of more and more projects that they could be useful in, and he decided to use them to populate the far north of the country. They eventually became a major part of the economic system and a very, very important part of the country’s politics.
RAY SUAREZ: At the very outset of the book, you almost remind people, remind them why this is an important subject in the first place, and compare it to the attention that the Nazi camps got during the period 12 years or so that Hitler was in power, and you compare the attention that the two have gotten and found that the gulag had sort of disappeared. Why do you think that happened?
ANNE APPLEBAUM: There were a lot of reasons for it, I mean, some quite understandable. You know, we conquered Germany at the end of the war. After the Second World War, we had access to German archives, we had film of the camps, we had millions — not millions, excuse me — hundreds of survivors. The Soviet Union… the Soviet camps ended in a much different way. Stalin’s camps, the mass system of camps ended while the Soviet Union still existed. There were no archives, there were no pictures, there were no images. And in our media-centric, media-driven culture there was nothing to look at.
Of course, we also had a lot of — we have a certain amount of nostalgia in our culture — and we did for quite a long time — for Stalin because he was our ally during the war. Even now, it remains hard for some people to say, “no, we defeated Hitler with Stalin’s help,” or “we liberated Hitler’s camps while allowing Stalin’s camps to spread; we defeated one mass murderer with the help of another.” There’s an enormous amount of fond memories of the war and an understanding of the history of the 20th century that people don’t want to see undermined.
There was also — there were some not exactly left-wing bias, but there was a lack of interest in the camps on the left — less in this country than in Europe, but still it was noticeable. You know, people didn’t want to bring it out, didn’t want to talk about it. You know, it sort of undermined or embarrassed people who — even people who didn’t necessarily love the Soviet Union, but who maybe opposed America’s role in the Cold War. There was a lot of ideological baggage attached to this argument, most of which I think is now gone.
RAY SUAREZ: Yet to catalogue the suffering, the horrors, the destroyed lives, you really need a book as big as the one you’ve written. It almost gets to be too much after a while. You almost think, “I just can’t read another 50 pages about all these terrible, terrible crushed people.”
ANNE APPLEBAUM: Yes, it’s — one of my ideas when writing the book was to try and calmly accumulate the detail. And of course my greatest problem was knowing what to leave out, because for every page that was included, there was another five books and 85 quotations I could have included. I mean, one of the striking things about the gulag is how much material there is now. In the last ten years, there’s — archives have been opened up, Russian scholars have been working there.
There are literally hundreds and hundreds of memoirs, including many unpublished ones. And very few people have yet used the opportunity, made it possible to make use of these things and start reading them.
RAY SUAREZ: The pointlessness of a lot of it was very moving in its odd way. People were sent to reeducation camps and not reeducated, sent to do work that had no economic purpose, sent to create public works that really made no sense, and yet hundreds of thousands of people were dying doing it all.
ANNE APPLEBAUM: Yes, it’s one of the things that people find hardest to accept now about the past. You know, there’s an issue in Russia now about how much you discuss the past. You know, should we apologize for the gulag? Should we think about it? Should we find the people responsible? And there’s really been very, almost no interest in exploring the past at all, particularly in the last ten years. And part of it is because — again, many reasons for this — but part of it is because it’s very difficult for people to say now, you know, this system was entirely pointless. You know, I lived my life, if I’m a 70- year-old man or woman, in a system that had no purpose. And I was motivated by an ideology that was false, and I created a country that’s not so much underdeveloped as mis-developed.
You know, factories are at the wrong places, big cities are built in the far north where there’s no reason for them to be there. And it’s difficult for people to say this now, and reevaluate the last 100 years of Russian history. And I think it’s part of Russia’s problem today.
RAY SUAREZ: Are there things that we still don’t know, or perhaps will never know, about this almost haphazard system that grew up during the 20th century?
ANNE APPLEBAUM: There are many things we still don’t know about the Soviet Union. The internal politics of Stalin’s politburo is still fairly mysterious. There are many, many details still to learn. But, as I say, it is surprising how much information is now available, and how much work is being done. I mean, the surprise, I suppose, is that there hasn’t yet been more interest from the West, and there aren’t more Western scholars working on this subject, although I’m sure there will be.
RAY SUAREZ: So, what do we want to know next? What surprises are there waiting in some drawer or file somewhere in Moscow today? Are there things that you went looking for in preparing this book that you just had to leave because you knew that another ten hours or another twenty hours just wouldn’t close the sale for you?
ANNE APPLEBAUM: There were a couple of stories I didn’t find the end of. I heard a rumor when I was far out and I was in Siberia in the region called Komi, where there were a lot of camps in the ’30s and ’40, and I heard a story about something called “the English Camp,” which was allegedly full of English prisoners, or had been at one point. And I spent a lot of time trying to track down whether this had in fact been true.
The story was that they were spies who had been in a Nazi camp, who had been parachuted into Germany, were then taken back to Russia. I mean, it was a very fantastic story. And I was never able to prove it. But it was one of many stories like that. You know, you would pick up rumors. You would hear stories of Nazi spies who had parachuted into the Soviet Union during the war. You would hear about Americans pitching up in odd places. There… I’m sure the archives still have a great deal more to tell us.
RAY SUAREZ: Anne Applebaum, thanks a lot.