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The Soviet Gulag

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(Pfizer) At Pfizer, weíre spending over five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have 12,000 scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer, life is our lifeís work.

Additional funding is provided by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. More than a decade after its collapse, the Soviet Union is for some, just a distant memory. And to both Russians and some in the West, the history of the Cold War is one of mixed messages. But today we are reminded of the harrowing reality of Soviet terror and repression. Think Tank is joined by Anne Applebaum, a columnist with the Washington Post and author of The Gulag: A History.

The Topic Before the House: Exposing the Gulag, What We Know and Why it Matters.
This week on Think Tank.

Ben: Anne Applebaum, welcome to íThink Tank.í

Anne: Thank you very much for having me.

Ben: And congratulations. Your...your book has been, uh, widely reviewed and described almost invariably as magisterial. So that is, uh, high cotton. And, uh, I...I wondered if we could begin can you give us, uh, just a little brief biography?

Anne: I was born in Washington, DC. I went to University in the United States. I went to Yale. I then went overseas and studied in London and at Oxford, uh, and effectively never came back. I was...I worked in...in Britain and in Eastern Europe for a variety of magazines and newspapers mostly British: The Economist and then The Spectator. I then became a columnist in Britain. I returned back to the United States six months ago in, uh, in the fall of Two Thousand and Two and began working at The Washington Post. So in a sense Iíve come full circle, and Iím home now.

Ben...Uh, you tell a poignant story in the book about, uh, a bridge in Prague that sort of symbolizes something very important. I wonder if you could a...

Anne: Yes. Itís...it was a...it was an account of something that happened to me about Nineteen Ninety right after the collapse of communism. Um, I was in Prague. I was walking across the Charles Bridge, which is beautiful tourist attraction, and there were many people selling things to tourists along the bridge. There were postcards and key chains and there was another table where people were selling memorabilia from the old Soviet Union. There were little buttons with Lenin and Stalin on them. There were Soviet army caps and soviet army belts, um, each with the...the hammer and sickle on them. Um, and the...the...there were Western tourists flocked around very excited to be buying these things. And I thought to myself if there were a table full of people selling memorabilia with swastikas on it, would people be buying that? And of course the answer is no. Nobody would buy that... the...the gulag definitely belongs in a context. And the context is the Twentieth Century, which was the first century when technology made mass killing possible. Um, it belongs in the context most obviously of the Holocaust, which, uh, killed six million Jews plus many millions of other people plus the enormous destruction of the Second World War. Um, it belongs in the context of the Chinese and Cambodian revolutions and the Chinese, um, the...the famine in China and the, uh, culture revolution in China which...which killed-the...the Chin-the...the Chinese, the experience of Chinese communism is probably in the...itís in the many, many tens of millions. Um, the gulag itself, uh, I think my estimate is that some eighteen million people passed through the camps, um, of which two to three million probably died. But Stalin also killed people in many other ways. He...he committed mass murders in forests usually using machine guns. That was responsible for millions of others. Um, he was responsible for a famine, a...a...a mass partly artificial famine in the Ukraine.

Ben: ...for political reasons.

Anne: For political reasons.

Ben: ...to...to go after rich presidents.

Anne: ...to sub-to subdue the...to subdue the kulaks or the rich presidents because he wanted to collectivize the farms. That was responsible for six million deaths. The...the...the...the count of deaths because of the Bolshevik Revolution is very difficult to do because you have to add these many different factors in. But it gets very, very quickly into the many millions.

Ben...One of the things that your book uniquely brings to the experience of the gulag was and is, uh, access to new archival data, what percentage, um, of the...of the Soviet people went through the gulag experience?

Anne: The best estimates we have are that some eighteen million people passed through the camps; meaning they were there for some period of time. Um, in addition another six to seven million people were deported which means they were arrested put in cattle cars and sent to Siberia but they were not actually put into camps; they were put into exile villages.

Ben: And many of whom never returned.

Anne: Many of whom never returned. In some ways exile was a worse experience because you didnít have the daily bread ration. You had to fend for yourself. And exile was also worse because women and children were involved in exile.

Ben: Give...give me a sense of what would a reason be that someone would have found himself or herself in the gulag.

Anne: People were arrested for an enormous, enormously wide range of reasons. There...there were essentially two categories of prisoner: political or criminal. But neither would be to...to...to our sensibility would be political or criminal. Politicals could be your next-door neighbor whose apartment you wanted who...who you denounced for having made a joke about Stalin. A political prisoner could be the son of a former Estonian politician. A political prisoner was not necessarily dissident. Although in later years there were many dissidents arrested. But it...it could-they were...it was actually a very random category of people. Uh, equally, criminal prisoners - people were arrested for, during the war, for being late to work several times. Uh, people were arrested for stealing a few grains of wheat during a famine. You could be arrested for all kinds of violations of the work code that...that would not be considered criminal in most societies. Um, Iím therefore almost uncomfortable with the distinction between politicals and criminals because in fact during the Stalinist Era between Nineteen Twenty-nine and Nineteen Fifty-three the arrests were...were...were mass and there were...there were categories of people who were more likely to be arrested: certain nationalities, um, people in certain kinds of jobs.

Ben: Um, when did the details of the gulag begin to emerge?

Anne: Funny enough, the de-some of the details of the gulag have been known since the Nineteen Twenties. Um, thereís been information about the camps has been available in the West all along. Um, in the Nineteen Twenties the-many of the European socialist parties were very interested in this subject because one of the first groups that was suppressed in the Soviet Union were non-Bolshevik socialists. So there was a great ferment on the...on the far left in Europe about the...the suppressions of the Bolsheviks. And they had information about the camps from their comrades who were in the camps and they published it. Um, one of the things that changed in the Nineteen Thirties, I believe, is that the West became interested in socialism for its own sake. We became interested in the Soviet Unionís five-year plan because we thought maybe we needed something like that here. This was the time of the Depression in this country and there was an attempt to look for a socialist answers to our...our economic problems

Ben: And...and then s-Solzhenistsyn in Aleksandr Solzhenistsyn writes the novel One Day in the Life of Ivan...

Anne: Denisovich.

Ben: Denisovich. Uh, that precedes the Gulag Archipielago...

Anne: Yes.

Ben: ...book.

Anne: Thatís his first book in the Nineteen Sixties.

Ben: Right. And briefly what is that sort of details in fictionalized form what happened factually in those camps.

Anne: Yes. No, yes. Well the...thatís what Ivan Denisovich was a...was a novel that describes a day in a camp. And uniqueness of Denisovich was that it was actually published in the Soviet Union. Um, this was in the, during the Crew-after Stalin died Khrushchev began to allow some materials to be published. However there was a limit to what Khrushchev would allow and Solzhenitsynís Gulag Archipielago which is a...a...a lull, um, sort of oral history of the camps based on memoirs was released in the Seventies and it was only...could only be published in the West. And it was really only once again in the...in the Nineteen Eighties after there was a long period of whatís called stagnation and they stopped talking about camps and reform in the Nineteen Eighties when Gorbachev came to power that this subject became live again in the Soviet Union. And there began to be real information released and real archives available.

Ben: Um, tell us about the city of Vorkuta. Am I pronouncing it right? You...you...

Anne: Yes.

Ben: ...you get into that.

Anne: Yes.

Ben: Give us a sense of what was going...what...what went on in this camp. Where was it and what...what happened there?

Anne: Vorkutaís a city north of the Arctic Circle where it is dark for six months of the year and where it is cold for eleven months of the year and where during the one month when itís warm, which just happens to be when I was there, there are mosquitoes that move in enormous black clouds. Uh, Vorkuta is also a place where there is an enormous coal deposit. And for many years this coal deposit had been known about but nobody quite knew how to mine in a...in a area which was so harsh, with such harsh living conditions. What Stalin did in the...in the Early Nineteen Thirties, he sent the first expedition to Vorkuta. And the expedition was in fact run by secret police chief, a secret police...secret policemen, um, and the...the members of the expedition were prisoners. And the coal was mined for the next, most of the next twenty years by prisoners. It became one of the biggest camps of this system. Um, there was...there was a coal mine there. There was trained-rail...railroad tracks had to be built, uh, power plants were built. Um, in fact in...in the-by the end an enormous city was built with a university and with kindergartens and with swimming pools and, um... the point of the city is that of course it never had to be built. That the way you...you mine for coal in harsh artic conditions anywhere else in the world is you bring in a team of miners for two weeks and you send them back again for two weeks and you run on shifts because itís so awful to live there. Thereís no reason to build a city there. Not to mention the fact that the pipes break every summer or because of the permafrost and the buildings fall down and itís...itís very, very difficult to maintain. Um, Vorkutaís in a way for me is a symbol of the economic stupidity of the gulag. Because if it werenít for slave labor, nobody would ever have wanted to build a city in that part of the world if it werenítí for the fact that it was see apparently free to build it, it wouldnít have been done. Um, and it persists to this day. Itís an economic problem for Russia; how to move the people out of there, how to run the coal mines without and...and so-and yet dismantle the city at the same time. And itís very hard for contemporary Russians to understand why it has to be dismantled. Uh, the...the...the-so part of the legacy of the gulag is not only that things were misbuilt and peopleís lives were wasted but the pee-uh, understanding of what, the understanding of economics was distorted. I mean people assume this was-itís there, it was built, we...we must need it.

Ben: What was the food like in the camps?

Anne: The food system was very interesting and very important because it was...it was the...the...the system of feeding people was both how they were persuaded to work and it was also how people died. People were fed according to how much labor they produced during the day. And the system meant that if you were old or ill and you arrived in the camp with no experience in physical labor you were not able to fulfill the work norms, you were fed less and less, you eventually died. Uh, it did also mean that people who were healthy or who were able to do the jobs, people from peasant backgrounds with experience with physical labor, they arrived in the camps, they got into the brigades that were given more work, they received more food, they survived. Food was also a...a currency in the camps. People stole food. People did favors for one another in exchange for food. Food was really the...the...the...the if you had a clever way of getting hold of food then you were more likely to survive.

Ben: Um, wh...where did the, uh, the guards come from? That was a whole separate culture, wasnít it?

Anne: The guards were-there are different...there were different kinds of guards. And the...the guards who were the armed guards who literally stood on the periphery of the camps with guns came from a very wide range of backgrounds. Not all of them had really wanted to be there. Many that were from peasant villages where there was simply no other work and this was a...a big social advance for them. Um...

Ben: You mean it was three squares at least and...

Anne: Exactly. They got...they got fed something which they wouldnít have done at home. Um, some people were actually ordered to go to the camps. During the war there was a labor shortage, people would be ordered to be camp guards whether they wanted to be or not. The...the guards, itís an interesting question in the gulag. Because they came from this variety of backgrounds, because some wanted to be there some didnít, thereís been a question of you know did they have to do what they did. Did they have to be cruel to the prisoners as many of them were? And if you look at the archives, one of the interesting things you learn is no they didnít have to. Um, in fact all...

Ben: They did not have to be cruel.

Anne: No. On the contrary there were rules about prisoners were not supposed to die. Prisoners were not supposed to get ill. Prisoners were not supposed to be beaten. Um, there were cas-occasionally guards were punished for breaking this rule. Um, but the...these rules existed simultaneously with a very powerful ideology of these people being worthless. These are...these are enemies of the people. These are...

Ben: They were ob...objects.

Anne: ...these are objects. These are not human beings. You can treat them any way you want. And the guards more often than not, although there were instances of...of kindness from guards, more often than not they...they treated prisoners as if they were cattle or units of labor.

Ben...Are there no film images? There were no photography of what happened in the gulag?

Anne: There were...there was no film made during the gulag. There are some photographs. Most of the photographs are take-were taken by the secret police. And they were often taken either for propaganda purposes or for their own internal records. So they arenít the kind of photographs you got when Auschwitz was liberated and they were photographs of...of dying people. They donít tend to look like that. The people in the photographs tend to be healthy. Thereíre very, very few exceptions, uh, pictures that were taken right after there was an enormous group of Poles who were released during the war after...after the...after Stalin and Poland made a pact, um, and Polish prisoners were released. And those Polish-there are photographs of those Polish prisoners that...that begin to look like some of the pictures weíve seen from Nazi Germany. But there was very little available. There was very little archival material available until recently. Um, it was really a blank. And that got me thinking about why do we feel so differently about these two great tragedies. I-itís...I...I donít mean to make a moral judgment about it. I know that thereíre, you know thereíre...thereíre...thereíre good reasons why we feel differently about them. We...we fought with Stalin in the war. Stalin was our ally. And it is very difficult for us to say now that we defeated one genocidal criminal with the help of another genocidal criminal. Thatís difficult thing for Westerners to feel. I-itís true as youíve pointed out that there is very little archival evidence. There are no photographs. There are no images of the camps and in of the soviet camps. And in our image driven society thatís very important. Um, itís true that the subject was of less interest to the historical profession partly because archives werenít available. Um, and itís true that we have different feelings about communism than we do about fascism; um, partly understandably. Communismís ideals are ones that appeal to descendants of the American and French revolutions, um, that talks about equality. Um, and there was of course a very powerful appeal to the Western left which did not like, um, hearing any criticism of the Soviet Union because it implied that...that their project had something wrong with it as well. And there was...there was a great complex of reasons why we feel differently about these two crimes. And it was really that thought that got me started on this subject. I began to wonder why we feel differently. I began to think well what exactly happened. Do I really know?

Ben....You...you...you had a...a change of heart about this whole thing. Is...is that right?

Anne: In...in what sense?

Ben: Well, in...in...in the sense you were just talking about it. Is...is...is that, uh, uh, the...the...that one side was sort of getting...getting a free pass so to say?

Anne: Yeah, I...I begin-when I began to learn more about the soviet system I learned more about the gulag I became outraged at how much about it weíd forgotten. And this has implications not only for you know for the historical profession. But it has implications for the West. We...that we donít remember this particular part of European history makes it hard for us now to understand why we fought the Cold War. I mean if we donít remember who Stalin is and what we did, then our history in the Twentieth Century looks very strange too. What did we need all those armaments for and why...what was this argument with the Soviet Union if the Soviet Union was just another sort of vaguely nasty power? I mean the fact is that the Soviet Union was a-at the time it was a...a unique and terrible evil and it was right that we fought against the Soviet Union. And itís important to remember that. And that is...that is not the only reason I wrote my book but that is part of it.

Ben: And...and...and it was, uh, expansionist. I mean it conquered...

Anne: It was expansionist. It intended to...it intended to spread its system around Europe and around the world. Um, and even as...

Ben: But I mean it actually conquered countries...

Anne: It actually conquered other countries...

Ben: ...took o-took over countries...

Anne: ...thatís right, Ben. And in...

Ben: ...satellite countries.

Anne: And...and one of the points in my book, one of the things I point out, is that it also tried to spread its camp system. There was a direct project to export the soviet camp system to other countries. The...the most famous and best-documented case of this is the export of it to China. In the Early Nineteen Fifties Soviet advisors went to China and they said look this is how we run our labor camps and they helped the Chinese set up their first Chinese labor camps. And of course those labor camps still exist today.

Ben...Why are there so few, uh, letís call them truth commissions in, uh, both the soviet union and in the former Eastern European satellite countries of the order that you had in South Africa? Uh, um, who did it? What did they do? Who are the guilty ones?

Anne: Thereíre a number of answers to that question which is a really interesting and important question. You know people often go to Russia expecting that they will find a memorial or they will find a museum of the victims of Stalin. And while there are a few scattered, uh, such things around the country, there really is no big central memorial. Thereís no place you can go to...to...to think about the subject or to learn about this subject Um, but I think the most important reason is that most of the people running Russia, most of the soviet republics, and most of Eastern Europe today are themselves former communists. And it is simply not in their interest to talk about this subject. They donít want to have an official truth commission where in the parliament where pe-this gets talked about. They donít want to have trials. Not necessarily because they themselves were involved in the crimes of the past but because it tarnishes their image. It makes them look bad. It makes them look as if they were affiliated with something evil. And they simply donít want to do it. And time and time again youíve seen this happen across the former block that theyíve blocked these kinds of projects and theyíve blocked these suggestions. Uh, in Hungary thereís a famous example of a museum that was built to the history of totalitarianism which one government that was...that contained former anti-communists built and then when a...when a former communist government took over again they cut the museums budget, tried to change its board, tried to make it a lower profile project simply because they didnít want so much attention paid to the subject. And that I think has been true in almost every country. Thereíre a couple of exceptions.

Ben: How...how...how do you think the, uh, situation in Russia is going today? I mean President Bush met with President Putin and said youíre a man I can trust or something like that. What...whatís going on there? Are...are they making, um, headway or is there not much, uh, not much progress?

Anne: I think Russiaís making proja-progress in...in many ways. But itís...itís interesting in this context. You know the fact that in Russia the past is not really remembered, that people donít discuss it, that people donít actively try to overcome elements of their system that were put in by the soviet union has an impact. So for example the Russian legal system is still a mess. Um, the prisons are still decrepit. Uh, the court system is still very corrupt. And people arenít especially bothered by this in the way they might be if they somehow connected this to the past. You know this is a legacy of the past regime, we must overcome it. Um, the same you can say for thereís been a...thereís been a slow crackdown on the media in Russia, a increasing censorship over the last decade. And people may not be as bothered by it, as they should be because theyíre used to this and this was what the old system was like and the old system hasnít really been denounced. In fact from the current perspective many think the old system looks pretty good. You know at least we had a guaranteed job and we had a guaranteed wage and, um, there werenít all these things to buy in the shops that we canít afford.

Ben...Youíre writing about, uh, the episodes of mass torture and mass murder and you say this book, Gulag: A History by Anne...Anne Applebaum, this book was not written quotes so that it will not happen again, end quotes as the cliché would have. The book was written because it almost certainly will happen again. Totalitarian philosophies have had and will continue to have a profound appeal to many millions of people. Itís pretty grim stuff about the species, isnít it? I mean our...our species, the human species.

Anne: I...I think itís a sad fact that people, uh, this kind of regime has been created more than once. Um, thereíre many such regimes now. Um, Iraq as we are learning every day was precisely such a regime. It was controlled by secret police; it was controlled by terror. Um, they didnít have concentration camps in the soviet sense but they certainly had mass murder. Um, there are other totalitarian regimes still in existence, um, in the Middle East, in Asia, and elsewhere. Um, and there is, you know each of these regimes is different. I donít want to say that thereís a formula or theyíre all the same or thereís no difference between them and each has its own national origins and its own explanations. But there are things we can learn from comparing them. There are things we can learn about how the soviet union was created, how it ultimately dissolved which may better help us understand these other regimes that still exist, um, and hopefully to fight against them.

Ben: Thank you very much, uh, Anne Applebaum. Thatís a...thatís a tough future to look...look forward to but, uh, I...

Anne: The Soviet Union did come to an end. It...it...totalitarianism is not forever. It does come apart. It can be defeated. Um, but it...itís, um, it isnít easy; lasted for seventy years.

Ben: The more we learn about it, the better in theory our chances are to control it.

Anne: Thatís what I think. Yes.

Ben: Thank you very much for joining us.

Anne: Thank you. Thank you.

Ben: And thank you. Please remember to send us your e-mail. Itís what makes this show better. For íThink Tank,í Iím Ben Wattenberg.

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Funding for this program is provided by...
(Pfizer) At Pfizer, weíre spending over five billion dollars looking for the cures of the future. We have 12,000 scientists and health experts who firmly believe the only thing incurable is our passion. Pfizer, life is our lifeís work.

Additional funding is provided by the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Foundation, and the Smith Richardson Foundation.

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