A Must-Read


EDITOR’S NOTE: Anne Applebaum has won a 2004 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, for her book, Gulag: A History. David Frum wrote about Gulag in his “What’s Right” column in National Review in the May 5, 2003, issue. Frum’s piece is reprinted below.

If you’re going to write books for a living, you have to make up your mind not to pay any attention to reviews of your work. But I doubt that I will ever manage to feel indifferent to reviews of my friends’ books–especially not to one as peevishly ungenerous as The New Yorker’s review (dated April 14) of Anne Applebaum’s new book, Gulag: A History.

I read Gulag in galleys a few weeks ago. It is, simply, a titanic achievement: learned and moving and profound. Gulag is the first book in English to compile the whole mass of knowledge about the Soviet prison-camp system. That system was created within weeks of the inauguration of the Soviet state, in 1917, and it lasted as long as the Soviet Union itself. In all, perhaps as many as 18 million people passed through its camps. And yet, even now, the Gulag is not well understood in the West.

The New Yorker review goes to some lengths to deny this lack of understanding. It is written by David Remnick, the magazine’s editor and himself the author of a fine book about modern Russia, Lenin’s Tomb. Remnick insists that we already knew all we needed to know about the Gulag. And it’s true that since the 1970s, if not before, the principal facts about the Gulag have been available to those who wished to avail themselves of them. But how few of us did wish to! I’d guess that the proportion was even tinier amongst the sort of people who read and write for magazines like The New Yorker.

The Gulag was the Soviet Union. We may imagine inmates chopping trees, like Ivan Denisovich, or digging for gold in Kolyma. They were equally likely to be found constructing apartment blocks in Moscow or making toys or canning fish. The Nazi camps were death camps, intended to murder; any industrial contribution they might make to the German war effort was incidental at best. The Soviets, by contrast, built their economy on a foundation of slave labor–the first modern society to try such a thing since the Confederacy, with the difference that any Soviet citizen could be reduced to slavery at any moment.

No reader will easily forget Applebaum’s vivid accounts of the horrible human suffering of the Gulag: the hunger and frostbite, the lonely, disregarded deaths, the sadism and exploitation, the mothers snatched on the street without so much as a final goodbye to their families, the orphaned children dying of cold and starvation and neglect, the fear and mistrust felt between those who were randomly spared and those who were almost as randomly seized.

But Applebaum is ultimately interested less in the Gulag’s horror than its creators’ motives. We today may look back on the camp era and see only waste: Stalin’s “preposterous public-works projects,” as Remnick calls them. But that’s not how it seemed to many at the time. At the time, many Westerners paid tribute to the Soviet Union’s achievements–its mighty dams and railways, its cities in the Arctic circle and vast farms of irrigated grain. Even anti-Communists like Richard Crossman, editor of The God That Failed, paid tribute to the “terrifying efficiency” of the Soviet economy: Liberated from petty concerns like profit and loss and cost-accounting, the Soviets could do things that no capitalist society would ever dare attempt. Andrei Amalrik, in his Notes of a Revolutionary, recalls Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s visit to the Siberian city of Norilsk. Trudeau lamented that Canada had never succeeded in building so large a city so far north–unaware, or unconcerned, that Norilsk had been built by prisoners.

Any decent person can recognize the inhumanity and cruelty of the Gulag (though as a matter of record, a remarkable number of people who considered themselves decent managed to avoid recognizing it when it counted). But what Applebaum emphasizes, as nobody before her has done, is the Gulag’s sheer stupid pointlessness.

Who would set prisoners to work digging an unnecessary canal from the White Sea to the Baltic using only hand tools? How could anybody imagine that starving slaves could outproduce American factories? Were the Soviets crazy?

Applebaum does not answer this question directly–but she provides the evidence for the reader to find the answer for himself. The Soviets were not crazy. They believed that society’s wealth consisted in something called the “surplus value” of the worker’s labor. In a capitalist society, the capitalist stole that surplus value. In the Communist fairyland of tomorrow, the worker would keep the surplus for his own benefit. In the meantime, Marxian theory suggested, the emerging socialist state could develop by appropriating for itself the surplus value that had previously enriched the capitalist. And if the worker could be forced to eat less, to live in a barracks instead of a house, to wear rags rather than clothes–why then the surplus would be even bigger, and the state would advance even faster, and the Communist fairyland would arrive even sooner.

It all made a terrible sense–that is, if you accepted the crackpot economics on which the plan rested. In other words, just as Solzhenitsyn traced the responsibility for the creation of the Gulag back from Stalin to Lenin, so Applebaum follows the path all the way back to Das Kapital. She shows us that the Gulag is not just an incident in the history of Russia. It is the culmination of the history of socialism.

This searing insight is naturally disturbing to those for whom socialism remains a sentimental attachment. For them, Applebaum’s great book will indeed be a disturbing experience–and you can see why The New Yorker might wish to protect them from it by allowing it no greater value than as a kind of reminder notice to read something else. “[I]f Applebaum’s Gulag leads more readers to Solzhenitsyn then her book will have served an important function.” True enough. But it’s also true that Solzhenitsyn should lead readers to Applebaum–a writer whose courage and originality live up to the standards set by the master himself.


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