Gulag: A History

By Anne Applebaum

Doubleday, 2003, hardcover ed., 677 pages / softcover ed. 2004

Review by Hans Sherrer (March 20, 2005)

For Justice:Denied magazine

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was a decorated Soviet Army Captain when he was arrested in 1945 for allegedly making unflattering comments in several letters about Josef Stalin – the Soviet empires political leader. Those allegations resulted in his imprisonment for 8 years in a succession of labor camps. In 1962 Solzhenitsyn’s novel – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich - earned him world-wide notoriety. The book provided an unfiltered depiction of a single day in the life of a labor camp prisoner. Six years later - after their publication was blocked in the Soviet Union - two of his novels portraying aspects of life in the prison camps were published in the West. Those manuscripts had to be smuggled out of the country because the entire Soviet Empire was operated as a vast prison – similar to Cuba today. In 1969 Solzhenitsyn’s writing led to his expulsion from the Soviet Writers Union and he was monitored 24-hours a day by the KGB (Soviet secret police).

Although his countrymen could only read underground copies of his writing, Solzhenitsyn was honored with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970.

After also being smuggled out of the country, his magnum opus – The Gulag Archipelago (vol. 1) – was published in 1973. That non-fiction book detailed the vast network of forced labor camps that spanned the length and breadth of the Soviet empire during Stalin’s reign. It also documented the almost unspeakably horrific treatment of the tens of millions of innocent people who had been snatched from Soviet society to serve as a slave laborer in that system. The book’s publication led to Solzhenitsyn’s arrest, and after being charged with treason he was stripped of his citizenship and forcibly deported from the Soviet Union in 1973. The Gulag Archipelago was published as a trilogy, and the other two volumes appeared in 1974 (Vol. 2) and 1976 (Vol. 3). As a historical note, the Oxford English Dictionary credits Solzhenitsyn with introducing the word “Gulag” into the common vernacular of the English language. 1

        Although many books have been published in the past three decades about the Soviet’s elaborate system of prison labor camps, Solzhenitsyn’s body of work has been the most comprehensive source of information. However the Soviet Union’s break-up in 1989 made it inevitable that with access to heretofore unavailable information, an authoritative book would be written building upon the foundation laid by Solzhenitsyn’s scholarship.

Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum is that book. The importance of Applebaum’s book was immediately recognized by historians and it won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for non-Fiction. The book’s examination of the Soviet Gulag is divided into three parts:

        Although prisoners of the Soviet regime were confined in ad hoc labor camps as early as 1918, what is today known as the Gulag officially began in 1930 when Stalin authorized establishment of a system of forced “labor camps” that were intended to be financially “self-sufficient.” 2 Stalin’s decision to put the labor camps under the control of the secret police (OGPU) meant that from their beginning they were an extra-legal bureaucratic apparatus that operated outside of any meaningful judicial scrutiny. A person was administratively sentenced to the Gulag, in contrast with the judicial sentencing of a person to a term of imprisonment. That distinction clarifies that although the Gulag existed parallel with the regular Soviet prison system – they were distinctly different government operations.

Applebaum’s book thus contributes to understanding that although the United States has a (state and federal) prison system just as the Soviet Union did, it does not in any form have a Gulag style slave labor camp system. She helps to make that distinction clear by noting that North Korea has a thriving Gulag labor camp system modeled after Stalin’s that has consumed at least 400,000 lives. 3 A person is administratively sentenced to a North Korean labor camp for doing things such as “reading a foreign newspaper, listening to a foreign radio station, speaking to a foreigner, or in any way “insulting the authority” of North Korea’s leadership.” 4 Communist China also has a Gulag style camp system in which an estimated 250,000 people are forced to labor without a trial. 5 In contrast, in the U.S. an unconvicted federal detainee cannot be forced to work, and everyone who works after their conviction is paid.

        The living conditions of Gulag laborers was poor, their food inadequate, their clothing insufficient, their treatment barbaric, and concern for their medical needs non-existent. 6 Why? It was cheaper to bring in new bodies than to keep the existing ones healthy. In some camps - such as Siberian gold mines - the conditions were so bad that the laborer death rate was upwards of 100%. During the 20 months it took to construct the White Sea Canal in the early 1930s, 25,000 laborers died – a rate of over 40 per day. 7 The murderousness of those deaths is emphasized by the fact that there was no shipping demand for the White Sea Canal to be built, so it was a gigantic blunder by Stalin that contributed nothing to boosting the Soviet economy. It is also estimated that over 200,000 laborers died from 1949 to 1953 working on the even more blunderous Danube-Black Sea Canal. 8 The uncompleted project was abandoned after Stalin’s death in 1953, so all of those people died from exposure, disease, unsafe equipment, malnutrition, accidents, consumption, over-work, and a myriad of other ways digging what amounted to a big ditch. In contrast, 11 workers (10 in one 1936 accident) died during the five years (1933 to 1937) it took to build the Golden Gate Bridge – then the world’s longest suspension bridge, and five workers died during the 16 months (January 1930 to April 1931) it took to construct the Empire State Building – then the world’s tallest building.

        By the late 1930s, the Gulag had evolved into what Applebaum describes as a “full-fledged camp-industrial complex.” The system’s laborers were involved in numerous public works projects (such as building railroads, bridges, structures), logging and mining operations, and manufacturing everything from toys to airplanes. However in keeping with Stalin’s intention for the Gulag to be a profit making enterprise, “like cogs in a machine” the laborers were slotted to work where they were best suited. 9 Although they died in vast numbers, in Soviet nomenclature human beings didn’t die - “units of labor” were no longer available for allocation. 10

        From 1934 to 1957 – when its was officially “dissolved” - the Gulag’s laborers numbered up to ten million at any given time. 11 Solzhenitsyn estimated that a total of upwards of 50 million people labored in the Gulag. 12 Applebaum more conservatively estimated the number of laborers as being at least 33 million people, and that at least three million of them died. 13 That is a death rate of approximately 10%. As large as those numbers are, they inadequately convey the full impact of the Gulag’s impact on Soviet society. Applebaum writes that no “figures reflect the cumulative impact of Stalin’s repressions on the life and health of whole families.” 14

        Yet even though a basic reason for the Gulag’s existence was to make money for the Soviet government – and Stalin believed it was profitable – from its inception to its end it cost much more to operate than it produced. Even Beria, the head of the Soviet secret police, was afraid to challenge Stalin’s unfounded belief in the Gulag’s profitability. He didn’t, e.g., dare show Stalin a 1950 report that documented the Gulag’s massive financial losses. 15 The simple fact of the matter was that the Gulag’s slave labor didn’t produce as much as non-Gulag Soviet citizens who were paid, however meagerly, for their labor. However the Gulag’s establishment and continued operation for over a quarter of a century based on Stalin’s delusion that “free” labor made production cheaper and hence contributed to profitability, doesn’t assuage the enormous price in human lives it cost. Stalin was so ignorant of basic economic principles that at the time of his death, 18% of the Soviet’s capital investment was allocated to the Gulag, and he was planning the system’s expansion.

        There are numerous gruesome details about the Gulag in Applebaum’s nearly 700-page book that could be recounted – such as the gang rape of female laborers by both staff members and male laborers that were so brutal that some of them not only died, but Applebaum described the attacks as something out of “Dante’s Hell.” 16 Another is that in the summertime, a recalcitrant laborer in Siberia subjected to capital punishment would be strapped naked to a tree so the person’s exposed flesh would be an inviting meal for millions of vampire like mosquitoes the size of horse flies. Applebaum’s retelling of those horrors proves over and over that man’s inhumanity to man knows no bounds and that even a modest amount of unchecked power is corrupting. However there is one important aspect of the Gulag that Applebaum didn’t address: infusion of the ‘presumption of guilt’ as a bedrock principle into the Soviet legal system was critical to the Gulag’s existence.

        Because the Gulag was intended as a profit-making enterprise, its supply of slave labor was dependent on literally snatching vast numbers of people from the street, their work, or their home. Those people were typically arrested on the pretext of engaging in some form of “anti-Soviet agitation” under the catch-all provisions of Soviet Criminal Code Article 58. Thanks to the Soviet’s adoption in the 1920s of the “presumption of guilt” as a fundamental legal principle, the government was relieved from proving the truthfulness of any alleged “agitation.” Andrei Vyshinsky, known as Stalin’s prosecutor, played a key role when the legal principles were formulated in the 1920s that enabled the Soviet government to have lawful access to the Empire’s entire population as a labor pool for the Gulag. 17 (See the review of Stalin’s Prosecutor: the Life of Andrei Vyshinsky in this issue of Justice:Denied at page ____ )

        Consequently, the overwhelming majority of the Gulag’s tens of millions of laborers were innocent of committing a recognizable crime. A person could be sent to the Gulag on a bogus accusation of “agitation” by someone who wanted their apartment, or a vengeful co-worker or a jilted lover, and a typical sentence was ten years. Solzhenitsyn recounts a Soviet era black humor joke in The Gulag Archipelago that illustrates the widespread knowledge about who was sent into the labor camp system: ‘A guard asks a man who has arrived at a labor camp what his sentence is. The man says 25 years, but proclaims he is innocent! The guard retorts that he must have done something because the innocent are only given 10 years.’

        People selected for the Gulag were typically arrested without warning when they would least expect it, and there was no way for them or anyone else to challenge their disappearance into the secret police’s bureaucracy. Although it served no practical purpose, many of those people were physically and/or psychologically tortured into confessing to imaginary “anti-Soviet agitation.” Applebaum notes Stalin may have desired that “because he himself had been an agent of the Czarist secret police before the revolution, so he had a particular need to see people confess to having been traitors.” 18

        After Stalin’s death many innocent people who survived their Gulag term applied to have their records cleared and to be compensated for their labor. Many of those people were provided with a certificate that their case was “closed for lack of evidence.” 19 In our terminology, that approximated a pardon. In a typical case, a woman released in 1954 after laboring for 18 years in the Gulag, and whose husband died in a camp, was given a certificate (pardon) and awarded compensation equivalent to two months of pay for her and her husband’s decades of labor. 20

        Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago trilogy is one of the 20th century’s great works of non-fiction literature. One of his achievements was to unrelentingly sear the suffering of the Gulag’s tens of millions of innocent victims into the book’s almost 2,000 pages. Applebaum’s methodical recounting of the Soviet Gulag’s history is much different in character – but no less significant. The genuine importance of her book may be that her explanation of what happened in the Soviet Union can be viewed as a warning that such a system can be established in other societies – such as North Korea and Communist China have done. That is why Applebaum was slightly off with her statement - “This book was written because it almost certainly will happen again.” 21 - because it is happening in at least two countries.

        Although the United States does not have a Gulag style slave labor system, adoption of the “presumption of guilt” - the legal foundation of a Gulag system - is not limited to any particular country or form of government. That could be ominous because people in positions of considerable governmental influence in the U.S. accept the validity of the “presumption of guilt” as a legal concept. Alberto Gonzales, confirmed as the Attorney General of the United States in February 2005, is one of those people. Gonzales has clearly demonstrated with his endorsement of activities that are tantamount to torture that he is an enthusiastic devotee of the “presumption of guilt” - since torture is based on a belief in the torturees guilt prior to the possession of any tangible proof supporting that belief. 22 So with people of a like-mind in key legislative, executive and judicial positions, it is not inconceivable that a Gulag type system could be established in this country or one or more of its protectorates. So while Solzhenitsyn’s trilogy published three decades ago and Applebaum’s book are ostensibly about the Soviet Gulag, they have a relevant message for American’s to keep in the forefront of their thoughts for as long as people are in control of the U.S. government who have the power and inclination to institute such a system – in which innocence of committing a crime is not just disregarded, but of no more importance than guilt.


1 Gulag, n., def. 1.b. and 2., Oxford English Dictionary website, (last visited March 6, 2005).

2 Gulag: A History, Anne Applebaum, Doubleday, New York, 2003, at 30-31.

3 Id. at 458-459.

4 Id. at 458.

5 China criticizes U.S. over human rights, cites Abu Ghraib, The Seattle Times, March 4, 2005, p. A11; see also, Laogai - the Chinese Gulag, Hongda Harry Wu, translated by Ted Slingerland, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 1992.

6 Gulag, supra at 377.

7 Id. at 63-72.

8 Id. at 456.

9 Id. at 114, 185.

10 Id. at 102.

11 See, The Gulag Archipelago Two, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Harper & Row, 1975 (pb.), p. 642. In contrast, Applebaum estimated that the Gulag’s laborers numbered up to three million at any one time. See, at 579-582. Solzhenitsyn’s estimate is likely much closer to the truth, because Appelbaum’s estimate is too low for the total number of people to have served in the Gulag that are known to have been sent there.

12 Id. at 642. That estimate is through 1953.

13 Gulag, supra at 579-582, Applebaum figures through 1953 are extrapolated to include 1954-1957.

14 Id. at 585.

15 Id. at 474.

16 Id. at 171-2.

17 Stalin’s Prosecutor: the Life of Andrei Vyshinsky, by Vaksberg Arkadii, translated from Russian by Jan Butler, Grove Weidenfeld, NY, 1991, 374 pages (hc).

18 Gulag, supra at 139.

19 Id. at 514.

20 Id. at 514.

21 Id. at 577.

22 Andrei Vyshinsky was a firm believer in the prosecutorial value of torture – and many of the defendants he prosecuted in the Moscow Show trials falsely confessed after either being tortured, or threatened with torture of themselves or family members. Considering Gonzales’ approval of the “presumption of guilt,” it can confidently be stated that if a time travel psychic teleportation method existed, Gonzales could mentally swap places with Vyshinsky and the history of the Soviet Union would likely have been unchanged, and the future of this country would be no different with Vyshinsky as Attorney General than it presently will be with Gonzales as AG.