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Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum

June 22, 2013


This is the first comprehensive history of the Soviet Gulag, the prison camp system that was built largely under Stalin and existed throughout the Soviet Union for over 60 years. Applebaum draws from extensive interviews, diaries, and newly available Soviet documents to piece together the history of the often secret camp system and what day-to-day life was like for the prisoners. Importantly, and in my opinion more interestingly, she also questions why the Soviet prison camp system is essentially neglected in western history whereas the Holocaust is widely studied. Likewise, even within Russia, there is a strangely ambivalent attitude toward the Gulag as if, even there, nobody is sure exactly how to think of this dark part of their history.

While Applebaum’s account of the bleakness of life within the system is necessary and often horrifying, what I found more interesting are the topics surrounding the Gulag itself—the two mentioned above as well as the economic structure of the system, the attitude toward returning prisoners released from the Gulag, and particularly the artist-led resistance toward the end of the Gulag’s existence.

I listened to Gulag as an audiobook. Even then, at 27 hours it is a bit of a slog. It’s often difficult to follow some of the characters (mostly because they have long Russian names). And because the story for much of the half decade is one of constantly increasing oppression, brutality and expansion, some of it feels repetitive. But this book was written to be a history, not for entertainment value. In that it’s both successful and important.

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