The Frozen Limits of a Brutal System

By Binyon, T. J. | Daily Mail (London), June 13, 2003 | Go to article overview

The Frozen Limits of a Brutal System


Binyon, T. J., Daily Mail (London)


Byline: T.J. BINYON

GULAG: A HISTORY OF THE SOVIET CAMPS by Anne Applebaum (Allen Lane, [pounds sterling]25)

THIS extraordinary book is a scholarly history of the Soviet prison camp system from its creation, on Lenin's orders, after the 1917 revolution, to its demise 70 years later under Gorbachev.

It is also a heartrending, painful account, told in a cunningly crafted mosaic of survivors' recollections, of the progress of millions through the successive, almost unendurable stages of the system.

Arrest, for some trivial offence such as making a joke about Stalin, was followed by interrogation and a spell in prison, before transportation, in unheated cattle trucks, to the camps. There the prisoners, starving and clad in ill-fitting rags, struggled to remain alive, while working - sometimes up to 16 hours a day on impossible tasks - with primitive tools, under intolerable conditions.

Common to all stages was a desperate hunger. Under the 'you-eatasyou-work' system, the best workers received a ration which, though wholly inadequate, was twice that of the weakest; they soon became dokhodyagi - goners - bizarre and inhuman in appearance, slow-moving, stinking and often demented.

For centuries under the tsars political prisoners and criminals had been sent as convicts to northern Russia and Siberia. The Bolsheviks eagerly followed suit, though rejecting nearly everything else of the old regime.

During the lifetime of the Gulag nearly 480 camp complexes were set up, through which passed, between 1929 and 1953, some 18 million prisoners. …

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