Friday, August 26, 2016


Interview: 'Gulag' Author Applebaum On Enduring 'Distortions' Of Stalinism

A cemetery for victims of the Gulag in Vorkuta in Russia's Far North
A cemetery for victims of the Gulag in Vorkuta in Russia's Far North

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Anne Applebaum is a columnist with "The Washington Post" and director of Global Transitions at the Legatum Institute. She is also author of the 2004 book "Gulag: A History" and last year's "Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956." RFE/RL's Robert Coalson spoke with Applebaum about the enduring legacy of the Gulag in Russia.

RFE/RL: Your book makes the argument that the Gulag was not tangential to Stalinism but was an integral part of his economic, social, and political system. Could you elaborate on that?

Anne ApplebaumAnne Applebaum
Anne Applebaum
Anne Applebaum
Applebaum: It is very hard to separate the history of the Gulag from the history of the Soviet Union. It was, in some ways, the logical consequence of so many other policies. The Gulag had two functions. No. 1, it had a punitive function. It created fear. It was very spread out, it had branches all over the Soviet Union and everybody knew about it. Everybody was aware that it existed. It wasn't some kind of hidden part of society. It functioned as something that would scare people, but it also had a very important economic function.

The Gulag actually had the task of digging coal mines, of digging uranium mines, gold mines. The Gulag was enormous at its height in the late 1940s, early 1950s, which really was its height. It was an enormous economic empire, controlling factories and whole areas of Russia. Northeast Russia was settled by the Gulag -- prisoners and guards. Some of the Far Northern cities were effectively built by the Gulag -- Vorkuta, Norilsk, cities like that.

SPECIAL REPORT: 60 Years After Stalin

It also distorted in some ways the way the Soviet Union thought about economics. So, when a large deposit of coal was discovered in the Far North, the Russians didn't, as one would have done in Alaska, they didn't send a few teams of workers to work there for a few weeks and then send them back again to recover and then go back up again. Instead, because they had free labor, because they weren't counting costs, they built enormous cities in the Far North, which basically no one else has done anywhere. So, the city of Vorkuta, the city of Norilsk, Magadan. These were large constructions, big cities built because there was free labor, because there was slave labor. So you can see the distortions that the Gulag created for the Soviet economy. You can still see them today.

RFE/RL: In your book, you write that Russia has not done a very good job of reckoning with Stalin and Stalinism. What is the state of this process in Russia today?

Now, at this moment, the current Russian government and the current Kremlin doesn't try to repress discussion of Stalin -- as, of course, once would have been the case -- but it tries to deal with it selectively. So there is very little discussion of the Gulag; there is very little discussion of industrialization even or collectivization. And there is quite a lot of emphasis placed on Stalin's victory in the second World War and on what the current Russian leadership thinks of as the most glorious moments in Soviet history. This, of course, is extremely distorting because it leaves out the context of that victory and what it really cost Russia and Russians. And it gives modern Russians a very skewed view of their past.

The danger about forgetting Stalin is not so much that it will repeat itself, because history doesn't ever really repeat itself in the exact same way. But it can leave Russians insensitive to some of the flaws that still exist in their society which are left over from that time. In other words, much of what is wrong in Russia now or what seems unfair in Russia now, these are things that are left over from the past.

There are still institutions that exist from the past. The way the prison system works; the way the judicial system works; the role of the political police, which is in some ways unchanged for the last 30-40 years. Its power goes up and down but it is always there. And the fact that Russians don't feel more sensitive about these institutions, that they don't feel a deeper desire to reform them and change them, I think, is partly because they haven’t dwelled on, thought about, or absorbed the lessons of Soviet history.

And one of the reasons they haven't is that the current Russian leadership doesn't want them to. There is an active attempt to suppress discussion or to keep discussion focused only on positive aspects of the past.

RFE/RL: Some argue that Stalin was a good manager, that he won the war, that he left the country stronger than he found it. You don’t have a lot of patience for such views, do you?

No, I would really contest that. You need to look at counterfactuals -- what might Russia have been if it had been developed in a different way? You wouldn't have had millions of people -- lives wasted, talent wasted, education wasted -- working in slave-labor camps. All those physicists who were sent to dig coal in Magadan might have invented something faster and better. People might have lived better. You might now have a more developed infrastructure. I think to imagine that what Stalin achieved was some kind of triumph is to ignore how Russia could have developed differently.

Even the war -- Stalin started the war. He and Hitler divided Europe between them in 1939 at the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. They jointly invaded Poland and the Baltic states. It was Stalin's decision to do that that allowed Hitler two years in which to invade Western Europe. And the Soviet Union -- the Russian people -- then paid the price. They then suffered when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, for which the Soviet Union was basically unprepared. The many, many millions of people who died all died unnecessarily. Had Stalin not participated, had he not had a union with Hitler at the beginning, then maybe [those people] would be alive today.

RFE/RL: It is interesting that even people like Putin who praise Stalin as “an effective manager” don’t have anything good to say about Stalinism or advocate a return to Stalinism.

I don't think anyone wants to revive the system that Stalin created. Of course, it still exists in some places in attenuated form. North Korea, as far as I can tell, is potentially a Stalinist system, for example. But no, Stalinism doesn't hold any appeal for Putin. What he is trying to do is to cherry-pick Stalin's record, to focus on elements of the Soviet period that he wants to celebrate because he wants to rally Russians behind him; he wants to create a sense of patriotism because he wants, in some ways, to renovate himself.

He worked for many years in the KGB, which was the secret-police branch of the Soviet Communist Party, and the KGB was responsible for the Gulag and [its predecessor organizations] did create the terror of 1937 and the waves of other terror before and after that. So he is looking for elements of that past to rehabilitate. But nobody has suggested reviving the entire system. It probably, it couldn't be done now because you can't cut off Russia in the way you could before. And it would be suicidal. It is widely acknowledged that it was an economic disaster for the country.
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Comment Sorting
by: Ludwik Kowalski from: Fort Lee, NJ, USA
March 04, 2013 15:15
That you for a good article, RFE/RL. I did read Applebaum's book and I strongly recommend it. It is a good reminder what "proletarian dictatorship" was in practice. I lived in it; my father died in Magadan, at the age 36. The more people know about proletarian dictatorship the less likely will we experience it. The Soviet Union was the first laboratory in which utopian ideas of Karl Marx were implemented.

Ludwik Kowalski
In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
March 06, 2013 04:49
Another lying article by secret pact of 1954-56 -
As Russians kidnapped son of Bechtel, offering
To British Royals and her Germanic race fast fix,
Restore colonial empires - starting demolishing
Results of WW2 and restoration USSR into CIS.

At first they murdered, in 1955, 150,000 people,
Mostly Georgians and their friends in the USSR
That might find access to foreigners and outlets
Of freedom of speech, silenced with Brits's help
Being abroad, burned books for Queen and Czar.

As a "platcdarm" for Russian "woshkas" emerged,
Russia started blaim centuries of Russia's crimes
On Peter the First, Georgian King's nephiew, bads,
Than assassined Beria, blaimed him - it didn't help,
Than imperio-resurrectors smeared Stalin, go bank.

Everybody laughed, France blocked Russian trades,
West and East knew that Stalin did not have any rule
Over USSR, specially Russia, even WW2 President,
Position given to Stalin, was advisory among the guls,
Ethnic Russia - they needed Stalin during total threat.

Opposite was true, Applebaum, standing to Russians,
Despots and pogromers of Varag-Prussia animallism,
Stalin was in prisons and exiles. In 1917 closed roads
Blocked him in Russia - he stood against Bolshevism,
Storming of winter Palace and destroying Parliament.

Lenin vetoed him, starting "Red Terror" and Civil War,
Was confused as starved Russia was saved by USA
And Europe, by Georgian government in exile request.
In 1920-th he demnanded shot Stalin for Georgia help,
But confessed in paranoya muss murders, going mad.

Bolshes asked Stalin, being only brilliant and educated,
To advise. Stalin offered free elections and democracy,
Recognition of independence, for non-Russian nations,
CIS with less advanced, end blood-hunger inhumanity,
Abolish death penalty, cut prison maximum to 25 years.

However, desarmed by Lenin republics, honest labours
And Parliament of Nations, lead just symbolicly by Stalin,
Were no match for ethnic Russia's hate with all controlls
On territory, government, army and affairs on the ground,
Plotting with Brits and Germany, carrying secret pogroms.

by: Nadir Devlet from: Turkey
March 05, 2013 16:10
Appelbaum's book was also translated into TUrkish. I thank her again for her excellent work. My parents Rukiye and Ibrahim Devlet Kildi were arrested in Mukden (Shenyang-China) on 1945. They were sentenced for ten years of Gulag and six years of deportation in Siberia.
In Response

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
March 05, 2013 20:48
Questions to Nadir Devlet:
(a) If your parents are from Turkey, what were they doing in Mukden in 1945?
(b) If they were sentenced for ten years in Gulag, how and when did they get back to Turkey?
In Response

by: Nadir Devlet from: Istanbul
March 06, 2013 08:38
My parents were Tatars from Russia. My father belonged to a noble family and escaped from the revolution. My mother was teacher. The didn't get to Turkey, they resettled into my fathers home city Petropavlovsk (Kazakhstan) . They were not Turkish or Turkish citizens. I was separated from them and brought up from another Tatar family. We then immigrated to Turkey after Mao.

by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
March 05, 2013 17:56

Nice interview. The current Kremlin leadership certainly bears some responsibility for the country’s unwillingness to honestly face the past. They certainly derive political support by allowing madmen like A. Prokhanov to pollute the information space with his Stalinist praises. I’m not a psychologist, but I can’t help but feel that many Russians (particularly the older generation) have adopted an ambivalent view toward Stalin because of three reasons: (a) they were complicit in some of the crimes; (b) they have fallen victim to the Kremlin’s propaganda that the ‘end justifies the means,’ and without the cruelty of Stalin, the Nazis would have defeated the USSR; (c) some form of PTSD. After great trauma, there is an unwillingness to confront the scene of the crime. The mind looks for a rational answer and the horrors of Stalinism are just too difficult to accept/comprehend.

For a recent lecture by Ms. Applebaum (Putinism: the Ideology), see link below:

In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
March 06, 2013 05:08
Putin's Russia just practical lying pogromers and aggressors,
As Russia always was, shortly improved by two Georgians,
Peter and Joseph, but still slandering them for assessors,
Imperial resurrectors, saduced by Russia-Prussia Ivans.

They wouldn't mind, in part, Peter and Joseph straitness
Be used to justify Russia's evil nature as their "manness"
And as lying "neskladuha" blaim a democratizer-liberator,
For Russia crimes - use his name as conqueror-annexer.
It's why West didn't trust Russians, but Joseph and Peter.

by: Jeremiah from: Moscow
March 06, 2013 08:19
Gulag was the reverse side of the unprecedented populism.
Most people loved Stalin along with other leaders of his time for their populist style. Those who feared, they feared not Stalin, but NKVD. "Stalin didn't know."
The paradigm here is "populism-dictatorship-Gulag (Auschwitz, and thousands other unnamed places all over the world)." Neither the economic nor the political system has a minimum weight in this process: you are tired - you follow a leader - you get what you are worth.
In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
March 06, 2013 20:38
He didn't know, as other non-Russians, about Russian crimes,
In advance, only as victims of Russians. From 1932 through
1937 ethnic Russians killed non-Russians and their kind,
Like farmers, Pols and Jews, Georgians and others too.

After 1937 secret pogrom against Georgia, he advised
Try the guilty, but Russia refused - threatening allience
With nazis against non-Russian nations, as after 1936,
However Russia secretly killed some KGB pogromers,
As "tolkative" partners in crimes, or just relocated them.

later Khrutchev tried pin it on Stalin, as his last failing lie...

by: Eugenio from: Vienna
March 06, 2013 08:37
VIDEO: The President of Venezuela Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías dies:
In Response

by: Ilya
March 08, 2013 03:11
You've chosen a very appropriate place to post about another communist autocrat's death.

by: Jack from: US
March 07, 2013 18:47
if Russians were to follow NATO minions's understanding of freedom of free speech, then Russians will be jailing anyone who claims Gulag never existed. In many NATO minions a person will be imprisoned just for saying some historical event did not happen

by: saucymugwump from: USA
March 08, 2013 01:34
"All those physicists who were sent to dig coal in Magadan might have invented something faster and better."

This is an excellent point. A large number of very intelligent people were killed on orders of an unintelligent leader.

"Stalin started the war. He and Hitler divided Europe between them in 1939 at the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. They jointly invaded Poland and the Baltic states."

Russians do not want to hear this. They believe that they saved the Baltic States from the Nazis, even though Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were invaded first by the Soviets, then by the Nazis, and then by the Soviets again. And the Soviets stayed as occupiers until the mid-1990s (1994 for Hungary).

And even then Stalin was an imbecile. His chief of the air force warned him that leaving airplanes on the ground so close to the front in summer 1941 would result in all of them being destroyed on the ground. He asked for permisssion to move them back, but Stalin and the psychopathic child molester Beria had him shot. Given competent leadership, the Soviets would have crushed the Nazis well before they reached mother Russia.

"people like Putin who praise Stalin as 'an effective manager'"

It is amusing to hear ignorant Russians wail over the 20+ million Soviets killed during the war and then claim that Stalin was a great leader.

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