Let’s not allow the symbolic meaning of “gulag” to be hijacked for current political purposes!

By Margers Pinnis

I invite all individuals and non-governmental organizations who respect historical truth, to protest the recent use of the phrase “the gulag of our times” by Amnesty International to refer to the US military detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. There is simply no excuse for exploiting the suffering and death of tens of millions of people in the real Soviet GULAG for narrow political aims. I don’t think I need to explain how inappropriate it is to imply equivalence between Guantanamo Bay and the Soviet gulag. Commentators in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and others whose articles may be found on the internet have already done so.

For those of us who are of Central and East European ancestry, and especially for those of us whose relatives died in Siberian prison camps, this is most certainly not a partisan political fight. Indeed it pains me that Amnesty International, an organization that over the years did so much to help people being persecuted behind the Iron Curtain, could become so misguided as to tread upon the memory of people who died under Communist tyranny. As I wrote in a letter to Amnesty’s secretariat in London, they, of all people, should have known better.

The gulag, symbolically and in reality, was the most lethal and brutal creation of Soviet Communism, just as the Holocaust was of German Nazism. It is not acceptable, no matter how noble one may think the motives, to trivialize or demean the horror of the Soviet gulag by inappropriate comparisons or hyperbole.

I understand that some people might be reluctant to criticize Amnesty International because doing so would weaken Amnesty’s campaign to publicize alleged human rights violations at Guantanamo Bay. I for one, have no objection to Amnesty’s efforts to investigate allegations of prisoner abuse and other human rights violations in prisons run by the US military or anywhere else. One may debate whether or not Amnesty has aligned itself too closely with the opponents of the current Republican administration. But in drawing the comparison to the Soviet gulag, Amnesty has stepped beyond the pale of truth and decency. The sooner Amnesty acknowledges its mistake and apologizes for it, the sooner the debate can return to the current issues Amnesty is trying to raise. I invite all people, be they supporters or critics of the policies of US President George W Bush, to join this effort.

Write to Amnesty International’s secretariat in London. Their fax number (if sending from the US) is 011 44 20 79561157. Other contact information is available at www.amnesty.org

Write to Amnesty’s USA affiliate in New York. Fax (212) 627-1451, web sitewww.amnestyusa.org .

If you live outside the USA write to the Amnesty affiliate in your country. Contact information may be found at www.amnesty.org under “Contact Us”

If Amnesty has an office in your ancestral homeland, try to enlist their support. I doubt very much that Amnesty’s leadership in London and New York, who decided to use the “gulag” phrase, consulted any of their affiliated organizations in countries that suffered under Soviet oppression. Among the countries in which Amnesty has offices are: Belarus, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Moldova, the Russian Federation, the Slovak Republic and Ukraine.


Write letters to the editor of local and national newspapers that reported on this story. Adhere strictly to any guidelines the newspaper has for letters intended for publication. For The New York Times, letters must not exceed 150 words and must refer to an item that appeared in the paper in the last seven days. As of this writing, the most recent items about this issue that appeared in The New York Times were on Saturday June 4 (news article, “Rights Group Defends Chastising of U.S.”, and a letter, “Rights Group Answers Bush) and on Sunday, June 5 (editorial, “Un-American by Any Name”). If you want to write a letter to the editor about these items you must send it in by June 11 or 12.


Please see my letter to The New York Times, which was published May 31, below.

The Baltic Association to the United Nations (BATUN)
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Letter to the Editor published in The New York Times, May 31, 2005
The Real Gulag


To the Editor:

By referring to the United States detention facility at Guantánamo Bay as the “the gulag of our times” (“U.S. ‘Thumbs Its Nose’ at Rights, Amnesty Says,” news article, May 26), Amnesty International demeans and trivializes the suffering and deaths of millions of people in Soviet prisons, labor camps and death camps from the 1920’s through 1991.

This inappropriate hyperbole hinders efforts to have Russia acknowledge and atone for Soviet crimes. It also sets back efforts to promote democracy and respect for human rights in the Russian Federation today.

This is surprising in light of Amnesty’s work, over many decades, in support of prisoners unjustly confined in the real Soviet gulag. Amnesty’s secretary general, Irene Khan, owes an apology to the peoples of all nations who suffered under the inhuman conditions of the Soviet Union’s notorious prison system.

Margers Pinnis
Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., May 26, 2005
The writer is president, Baltic Association to the United Nations.