Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Slave Labor

The gulag lies at the heart of the Soviet experience. There are dozens or perhaps hundreds of excellent gulag memoirs but of course Alexander Solzhenitsyn's memoir remains the masterpiece against which all other treatments of the subject will forever be measured. Although Solzhenitsyn's brilliantly bitter indictment of the system will remain the world's best passport into Russian Communism's greatest moral disaster, Anne Applebaum's acclaimed book, Gulag: a History, is an objective and comprehensive account of the institution. Applebaum's book is nuanced and relies on almost every important historical source related to Soviet internment over the entire span of the Soviet Union's long life. Like Solzhenitsyn, Applebaum takes readers though every phase of the prisoner experience, including arbitrary arrest, painful and perfunctory trial, inhumane transportation, brutal acclimation, deadly slave labor, hospitalization, and eventual death or release.

Applebaum's book also covers the changes that occurred in the Soviet penal system over time, documenting the essential viciousness of Lenin's early policy of exile and punishment, but also acknowledging that the gulag changed over time, becoming better or worse, on the whole, according to circumstances related to political schism, collectivization, the Great Purge, industrialization, war, ethnic cleansing policies, demobilization, and peace.

Moreover, Applebaum's achievement lies in her ability to explain the diversity of experience within the camps. Not all camps were the same; and many if not most prisoners moved between them, if they did not die immediately of disease, exposure, starvation, abuse from guards and prisoners, and overwork. Additionally, the survivors' circumstances often changed dramatically, with little warning, only to change again a short while longer. Thus a prisoner could be exposed to the deadliest form of mine labor at one moment, and just a short while later put to life-saving work in the camp kitchen, before being sent to cut trees in the bitter cold without adequate clothing.

Applebaum's overall thesis seems to be that the camps were not all that far removed from the Nazi camps in terms of the suffering and death they inflicted. Even so, Applebaum acknowledges that the Soviet system was qualitatively different from the Nazi one insofar as the Soviets were often motivated by the desire to exploit slave labor as opposed to killing off enemies as an end in itself.

To be clear, the total number of gulag deaths is astronomical. However, Applebaum finds ample evidence to show that, notwithstanding an ideology that frequently dehumanized and vilified perceived class enemies, racial groups (ethnic Germans for example), or political opponents, Soviet officials not infrequently condemned overtly murderous policies, if only to improve economic results. In the end, Applebaum makes the case that the gulag was grotesquely inefficient, even as a method of achieving rapid industrialization. She also suggests--though the evidence seems somewhat more speculative--that the system functioned as it did because Stalin was personally committed to it. Involved in many details of camp policy, Stalin was a true believer in the value of the gulag economy. At first, Communists paid lip service to the notion that the labor system could transform class enemies into loyal communists and dedicated proletarians. Later, that pretense was dropped: class enemies were traitors to the state and deserved the very worst forms of punishment.

Stalin, of course, had no sympathy for class enemies, and thrived on the almost Hegelian notion that the thesis of communism depended on the antithesis of treacherous class opposition. Yet it's hard to say if his primary interest in the gulag archipelago was based on his belief that they represented a pure form of class and party justice, or whether his unrelenting support for slave labor was predicated on his rational if completely erroneous belief that slave labor represented the single most effective economic response to the problem of modernization and industrialization.

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