A World Behind Barbed Wire

The most remarkable thing about “The Way Back,” the 2010 film by Peter Weir, was neither its protagonists (escapees from the Soviet gulag system who trekked thousands of miles to their freedom) nor the curious tale of the almost certainly fictional 1956 “memoir” that inspired it (Slawomir Rawicz’s “The Long Walk”). No, what distinguished “The Way Back” was its depiction of life in Stalin’s camps. There have been a handful of films on this topic, but, as observed Anne Applebaum, author of a fine 2004 history of the gulag, this was the first time it had been given the full Hollywood treatment. Hitler’s concentration camps are a Tinseltown staple, but Stalin’s merit barely a mention.

Publishers have been more even-handed. There are many books on Soviet terror, and some have won huge readerships. Yet, as Hollywood’s cynics understand, the swastika will almost always outsell the red star. That’s due partly to the perverse aesthetics of the Third Reich but also to a disconcerting ambivalence—even now—about what was going on a little further to the east. The slaughter of millions by Moscow’s communist regime remains shrouded in benevolent shadow. The Soviet experiment is given a benefit of a doubt that owes nothing to history and far too much to a lingering sympathy for a supposedly noble dream supposedly gone astray.

A flurry of recent books on Soviet oppression—surely encouraged by the interest generated by Ms. Applebaum’s “Gulag”—is thus to be welcomed. One of the best is edited by Ms. Applebaum herself. “Gulag Voices” (Yale, 195 pages, $25) is a deftly chosen anthology of writings by victims of Soviet rule. Some are published for the first time in English, most are by writers little known in the West and each is given a succinct, informative introduction. Above all, they help illustrate the duration, variety and range of Soviet despotism.

The Third Reich lasted for scarcely more than a decade. Most of those who died at its hands were slaughtered within the space of five years or so. The Soviet killing spree dragged on, however, from the revolutionary frenzy of 1917, through the terrible bloodbaths of the Stalin era, to the last violent spasms in 1991. The ultimate death toll may have been higher than that orchestrated by Hitler, but absolute annihilations like those envisaged by the Nazis were never on the agenda. Instead the nature of Soviet repression shifted back and forth over the years: sometimes more lethal, sometimes less, sometimes carefully targeted, sometimes arbitrary. The gulag itself was, as Ms. Applebaum notes, “an extraordinarily varied place.” As the title of Solzhenitsyn’s “The First Circle” reminds us, Stalin’s hell, like Dante’s, was layered. And how it endured: The most recent account in “Gulag Voices” is an excerpt from Anatoly Marchenko’s “My Testimony,” a memoir from 1969 that highlighted the way that Stalinist cruelty had successfully survived the dead, officially disgraced, dictator.

“Gulag Voices” begins in 1928. Dmitry Likhachev, an old-style St. Petersburg intellectual, was arrested when his literary discussion group was deemed to be a hotbed of counterrevolutionary plotting. He served four years in the Solovetsky Islands, the beautiful northern archipelago that from 1923 hosted the first organized camps, the tumor that metastasized into the hideous “archipelago” of Solzhenitsyn’s great metaphor.

Mr. Likhachev’s contribution is followed by a sampling of what could be found within that wider archipelago. Misery, gang rape and murder co-exist with Potemkin parodies of “normal life”—an excerpt from Gustav Herling’s “A World Apart” (1951) describes the arrangements for conjugal visits. Occasionally, the prisoners might even carry on approximations of a career within the camp as an engineer, doctor or, as Tamara Petkevich recounts in “Memoir of a Gulag Actress” (Northern Illinois, 481 pages, $35), a performer for audiences of fellow convicts.

Such recollections come, as Ms. Applebaum acknowledges, with their own bias. With the exception of Mr. Marchenko, who died in the course of a later sentence, the authors all survived. Millions were not so fortunate. And some of those lives had hardly begun. In the devastating “Children of the Gulag” (Yale, 450 pages, $35), Cathy A. Frierson and Semyon S. Vilensky chronicle the awful fate of those literally countless children whose parents had fallen foul of the rage of the Soviet state. Here, a gulag convict nurse recalls handing over a batch of prisoners’ children for transfer to a “special home”: “The worst happened: We’d given, according to the receipt, eleven healthy beautiful children, and not one of them was ever returned. Not a single one!” This was a story repeated again and again and again. And as for those who did survive, many were forced to accept a suspect, fragile existence in which, for decades, the knock on the door was never so far away.

That tension would have been familiar to many prisoners eventually freed from the gulag. “Gulag Voices” includes one account by the pseudonymous K. Petrus, describing his 1939 release into what Ms. Applebaum describes as “the strange ambiguity” of a life that was closer to limbo. The big cities were denied to most former inmates. Their families were broken. Many chose to remain near the camps that had once held them.

The fate of those who emerged is also a central concern of Stephen F. Cohen’s “The Victims Return: Survivors of the Gulag After Stalin” (Publishing Works, 224 pages, $22.95), a perceptive study of Khrushchev-era attempts to secure justice for Stalin’s victims, the backsliding that followed and, finally, in the Glasnost years, the mass, too often posthumous “rehabilitations” of former prisoners—rehabilitations unaccompanied, however, by any realistic prospect that their tormentors would be brought to justice. Mr. Cohen was a frequent visitor to Moscow in the 1970s and 1980s and came to know some of those who had survived. His account is powerful and, often, very moving, marred only by traces of a belief in the impossible dream of a kinder, gentler Soviet Union, the will-o’-the-wisp that beguiled and destroyed Mikhail Gorbachev.

A very different (and highly unusual) perspective can be found in “Gulag Boss” (Oxford, 229 pages, $29.95) by Fyodor Mochulsky, the reminiscences of an engineer recruited by the NKVD (the Stalin-era secret police) to supervise forced labor in a Siberian camp. It was written during and after the U.S.S.R.’s implosion and ends with Mochulsky appearing to reject the methods, although not necessarily the ideology, of the system he served for so long. But he does so in the strained, awkward prose of a man unwilling to face up to what he had done. Mr. Mochulsky talks of disease, lack of food and other hardships, but the scale of the death toll that he must have witnessed is, at best, only there by implication. His overall tone is one of pained technocratic disappointment that the camp was so poorly run: He was a Speer, so to speak, not a Himmler. Yet Albert Speer served 20 years in jail. Mr. Mochulsky went on to enjoy a successful diplomatic and intelligence career and, in retirement, the luxury of modest regret.

And in those twilight years, he is unlikely to have been troubled by fears of prosecution. There has been no Bolshevik Nuremberg. Total defeat left Nazi horror open for all to see, but many Soviet archives remain closed, their tales of atrocity unpublished. The new books on the gulag cannot begin to redress the crimes they describe, but they can at least help history locate the facts with which it can pass the judgment that the victims and their jailers deserve.

—Mr. Stuttaford, who writes frequently about culture and politics, works in the international financial markets.

Tales of the Gulag

The Gulag Archipelago
By Alexander Solzhenitsyn

That “The Gulag Archipelago” had to be written says the worst about humanity. That it was written says the best. Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) created an unanswerable indictment of the totalitarian regime under which he was still living and, no less critically, established that it had been poison from the start. As carefully researched as the difficult circumstances of its production would allow, “The Gulag Archipelago” is no dry roster of the dead but a work of passion and fury, underpinned by bleak humor and the hope (vain, it seems) that someday justice would be done.

Kolyma Tales
By Varlam Shalamov

Far less well-known than they should be, these short stories by Varlam Shalamov (1907-82) are terse, lightly fictionalized, partly autobiographical glimpses into the gulag’s abyss. “Kolyma Tales” derives its name from the region in Russia’s far northeast that played host to a vast forced labor complex, in which hundreds of thousands (at least) perished. Written in a style of ironic, hard-edged detachment and so spare and so crystalline that they sometimes tip over into poetry, the tales rest at the summit of Russian literary achievement.

Journey into the Whirlwind
By Eugenia Ginzburg

Rightly or wrongly, the Great Terror of 1937, an immense wave of violence that took down many who had either supported or benefited from the rise of the Soviet state, has come to be seen as the epitome of Stalinist despotism. Eugenia Ginzburg (1904-77) was among those expelled from a heaven under construction to a fully finished hell. “Journey Into the Whirlwind” remains a profoundly humane, wonderfully written first-hand account of arrest, imprisonment and exile into the gulag.

My Testimony
By Anatoly Marchenko

Eugenia Ginzburg was a member of the Soviet elite; Anatoly Marchenko (1938-86) was the opposite, the son of illiterate railway workers. “My Testimony,” his description of life in the 1960s gulag, is matter-of-fact, something that only makes its horrors seem worse. Marchenko’s gulag experience transformed him from everyman into dissident. The last of his many re-arrests was in 1980. Still imprisoned, he died from the effects of a hunger strike in 1986. Perestroika had just begun: too late, far too late.

Faithful Ruslan

By Georgi Vladimov

Moments of extraordinary beauty mark this haunting fable by Georgi Vladimov (1931-2003), told through the eyes of Ruslan, the most loyal of guard dogs. Abandoned by Master after their camp is closed down following Stalin’s death, Ruslan patiently patrols the neighboring town waiting for the old order to return. It does, but only as a hallucination as Ruslan drifts into death after one final bloodletting. When Vladimov offered this novella for publication, though, it was rejected. Khrushchev had fallen and new masters were in charge. For real.

—Andrew Stuttaford