The Gray Zone

The Gray Zone

On a hot, dusty summer day in 1998, I drove with friends from Smolensk to the village of Zagor’e to meet Ivan Tvardovsky, a survivor of Stalin’s forced-labor camps and the brother of the renown


On a hot, dusty summer day in 1998, I drove with friends from Smolensk to the village of Zagor’e to meet Ivan Tvardovsky, a survivor of Stalin’s forced-labor camps and the brother of the renowned Soviet poet Alexander Tvardovsky. Ivan and his wife, Maria, both 85, were waiting for us behind the wooden gate to their home.

We sat with the Tvardovskys at their kitchen table for the entire afternoon, listening to their stories. Both were children of families that had been designated “kulak” households and subjected to expropriation and deportation to the frozen hinterlands of the Soviet Union in the early 1930s, during the violent campaign to collectivize agriculture. Along with more than 2 million other peasants classified as kulaks, their families constituted the first echelons of forced labor in Stalin’s Soviet Union, the first inhabitants of what would soon become the gulag. They were put to work in remote areas to fell trees, mine the country’s mineral wealth and open up the vast and empty land tracts of the far north and east. The conditions they faced were merciless and death rates high. Maria’s parents died of starvation in 1932, leaving her and an older sister to fend for themselves. Ivan’s family survived a typhus epidemic and then, in 1932, fled their place of exile.

Ivan ended up in Nizhnyi Tagil in the Urals, where he met and married Maria. Just as a new chapter in their lives was beginning, Ivan was conscripted into the army. He fought in the Russo-Finnish War (1939-40), was captured and landed in a POW camp. He escaped from the camp and spent the years of World War II in Finland and Sweden. At the end of 1946, Ivan decided to return home. He was arrested in Vyborg the moment he stepped on Soviet soil. Following four months at the infamous Lubyanka prison in Moscow, he left for the gulag, remaining in the camps until his release on May 27, 1952.

Ivan’s life history was vastly different from that of his older brother, Alexander Tvardovsky (1910-71). A member of the Komsomol (Communist Youth League) from the age of 15, Alexander left his family home in Zagor’e when he was 18 for the city of Smolensk. His rise to fame as a poet began in the 1930s, and by 1936 he had published his epic poem “The Land of Muravia.” This poem won him the first of three Stalin prizes and would be followed by his vastly popular wartime epic “Vasily Tyorkin,” which made him a household name in the Soviet Union.

When Alexander was 21, he learned that his family had been forcibly deported as kulaks. The family sought contact with Alexander, pleading with him for help from their distant place of exile in the Urals. Alexander replied, “Dear Family! I am neither a barbarian nor a brute. I ask you to stay strong, be patient, and work. The liquidation of the kulak as a class is not the liquidation of people, still less of children.” He asked his family not to write to him again. He renounced his family as “enemies of the people,” and had no more contact with them until 1936. He would remain permanently estranged from Ivan, all the more so once Ivan landed in the gulag after the war.

It was only after Khrushchev’s 1956 “secret speech” to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party condemning Stalin’s crimes that Alexander Tvardovsky became an opponent of Stalinism. Today, he is best known in the West for publishing the work of dissident writers, notably Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1962 novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, in Novyi Mir (New World), which under his editorship became the flagship progressive journal of the Khrushchev thaw. In 1968 Alexander Tvardovsky wrote his own exposé, “By Right of Memory,” an autobiographical poem in which he confessed his guilt before his father’s memory. The Soviet censors prevented him from publishing the poem and he was soon forced out of his position as editor of Novyi Mir. Tvardovsky died in 1971, officially out of favor. His name, however, had become synonymous with civic courage and human dignity.

The tale of these two brothers is anything but a clear and simple morality tale. Nor is it a tale of redemption and belated sacrifice on Alexander’s part. It is instead emblematic of the moral and ethical ambiguities of life under Stalin, of the difficulties of pronouncing judgment in history or of proclaiming villains and heroes in any attempt to construct a “usable past” for post-Communist Russia.

The story of the gulag–Stalin’s network of forced- labor camps, prisons, colonies, exile villages–is a key part of this complex history. Although the existence of concentration camps predated Stalin, they expanded enormously under his rule. The gulag represented a shadow world where “enemies of the people” could be isolated in order to purify “healthy” Soviet society on its forced march to Communism. The gulag housed criminals, people with unacceptable pasts, regime critics and, in general, anyone who may have fallen into the web of Stalin’s suspicion. Its inmates worked as forced laborers in forestry, mining and construction under, quite literally, killing conditions. Russian scholars estimate that at its height the gulag encompassed as many as 476 separate camp complexes, containing within themselves multiple smaller units. The gulag population reached its maximum size in the early 1950s, with roughly 2.5 million inmates; some scholars estimate that as many as 18 million people overall passed through its gates in the years from 1929 to 1953, not including those who were sentenced to exile or special labor colonies.

It was Solzhenitsyn who first brought the gulag to the attention of a broad audience in the West. Following his literary success in Novyi Mir, Solzhenitsyn found himself out of favor with the regime and unable to publish. In the early 1970s his magisterial work The Gulag Archipelago was published in the West. Solzhenitsyn’s epic account became an instant classic, exposing the horrors of the gulag with a passion and literary genius that remain unmatched. Locating the origins of the gulag in the early postrevolutionary period under Lenin, Solzhenitsyn implicitly challenged the revisionist interpretation inaugurated by Khrushchev in his 1956 secret speech, when the Soviet leader placed the blame for the crimes of past decades on Stalin, arguing that Stalin had usurped the role of the Communist Party and replaced it with his own “cult of personality.” In Khrushchev’s interpretation, it was Stalin rather than the Communist system that was responsible for the widespread repression and mass atrocities of the gulag (particularly those whose victims had been party members). Khrushchev’s “revelation” and interpretation were as much a political ploy against his rivals in the party as an attempt to restore legitimacy to the Soviet system.

Most Western scholars followed Solzhenitsyn’s lead in their interpretations of Soviet history. Although a few distinguished historians (Stephen Cohen, Moshe Lewin and Robert Tucker, among others) pursued alternative analyses, emphasizing the key role that Stalin played in altering the course of the 1917 revolution and creating a regime of mass repression, in the process revising our understandings of the first decade of Soviet history, it was Solzhenitsyn’s interpretation that prevailed in mainstream circles.

With the partial opening of Soviet archives in the early 1990s, a handful of Russian and foreign scholars began the difficult process of excavating the gulag from the cellars of Soviet history, not to mention the intellectual wastelands of the cold war. To date, this effort has resulted in the publication of a series of major archival document collections, a few dissertations and monographs devoted to specific “islands” of the gulag, and a host of valuable new firsthand accounts of life in the gulag. Russia’s foremost historian of the Soviet era, Oleg Khlevniuk, is currently compiling a documentary history of the gulag for the prestigious Yale University Press “Annals of Communism” series. Yet, since the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, no one had published a general history of the gulag.

Anne Applebaum, a columnist for the Washington Post, has filled this gap in Gulag: A History. Her work, though written with a popular audience in mind, is based on the classic sources of gulag history as well as a formidable array of new secondary sources, published archival documents, memoirs, interviews and a sampling of unpublished archival documents. Applebaum argues that until recently the history of Soviet concentration camps was “not at all well known” and that “to many people, the crimes of Stalin do not inspire the same visceral reaction as do the crimes of Hitler.” Her goal is to restore the history of the gulag to its rightful place in history lest we forget the legacy of this tragic chapter of the twentieth century.

The book is divided into a chronological history of the gulag and a separate section on individual aspects of everyday life in it. Applebaum begins her narrative by situating the gulag within a wider historical context, exploring such issues as the prerevolutionary Russian heritage of exile and forced labor, colonialism, totalitarianism and the Nazi death camps. Her examination of these important issues is suggestive, though cursory. Although she flirts with comparative history, she ultimately sees the gulag as a uniquely Soviet product, thus falling back on a more traditional interpretation.

In fact, Applebaum largely follows Solzhenitsyn’s interpretive lead in Part I of her book, locating the origins of the gulag in the immediate postrevolutionary period and depicting the rise of the gulag in tandem with that of the Soviet state. Like Solzhenitsyn, she places major emphasis on some of the early experiments in forced labor that took place on the Solovetsky Islands–the site of a fifteenth-century monastery transformed into a concentration camp from 1923 to 1939–and in the construction of the White Sea Canal. She argues that these were formative experiences in the emergence of the gulag, convincing the Soviet leadership of the efficacy of self-supporting penal institutions, their potential profitability and the supposed redemptive powers of forced labor. Although Applebaum is unable to locate a “master plan” for what would be a vast economic experiment in repression–and, indeed, argues that there probably was no such plan–she concludes that an economic raison d’état constituted the primary rationale and purpose of the gulag. In the course of the 1930s, it would evolve from a chaotic entity into a vast and ordered bureaucracy, through which the secret police would administer an economic empire that constituted a virtual state within the state.

In Part II, Applebaum alters her focus in order to explore individual facets of life in the camps–arrest, prison, transport, labor, everyday life, guards, women, children and so on. Much of this terrain is familiar from The Gulag Archipelago; indeed, the very organization of Part II bears a strong resemblance to that of Solzhenitsyn’s history. Nonetheless, this part of the book incorporates much new firsthand material, enriching our understanding of the everyday textures of the gulag. Her analysis of how inmates survived and organized resistance, as well as her discussion of escape attempts, illuminates new subjects for further exploration.

In Part III, Applebaum returns to a chronological narrative, documenting the gulag’s history during World War II and after. The chapters on the war present a good summary of available information. The coverage of the postwar gulag is largely uncharted territory. In these years, the population reached its height–some 2.5 million prisoners. As former Soviet POWs, returning expatriates and nationalists from Ukraine and elsewhere were thrown into the gulag, a more restive mood appeared in the camps, as Solzhenitsyn and others have shown. Major rebellions erupted in a series of camps soon after the death of Stalin in 1953. At the same time, there was a growing awareness, especially in secret-police circles, that the gulag was becoming a costly drain on the economy–inefficient, corrupt and unwieldy. Applebaum successfully demonstrates how the combination of this awareness and the increased fears of social instability in the camps prompted Lavrenty Beria, the head of the secret police, to initiate reforms in the camps in the wake of Stalin’s death, reforms that would eventually lead to the partial dismantling of the gulag after 1953. The final chapters of the book survey what remained of it from the Khrushchev to the Gorbachev eras.

Applebaum’s Gulag deserves to be read by a broad audience. She writes well, and her reliance on and respect for the voices of gulag victims make for a compelling and compassionate story. Yet this book should not be read uncritically. Applebaum’s interpretive framework carries with it echoes of the American cold war narrative of Soviet history, detracting from what is otherwise a notable contribution.

In her epilogue, Applebaum departs from her historical narrative in order to draw out the lessons of the gulag for both Russian and Western readers. She rightly laments the relative dearth of memorials to the victims of Soviet repression as well as the rapid decline in Russian public awareness about the gulag after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. She also bemoans the failure of the post-Soviet Russian government to conduct some sort of truth-telling commission (on the order of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission) or trial, attributing this failure to the persistence in government of “former communists [who] have a clear interest in concealing the past.” The failure “to tell the truth,” she suggests, has deprived the Russian nation of its heroes. “If scoundrels of the old regime go unpunished,” she writes, “good will in no way have been seen to triumph over evil.”

Leaving aside the role that many former Communists–including onetime Soviet Politburo member Alexander Yakovlev, chairman of the current Russian rehabilitation commission, whom Applebaum quotes favorably–have played in the critical re-examination of the past, it strikes me as naïve, if not ahistorical, to politicize and simplify the complex issue of public awareness in this way. Public awareness of the gulag declined in part because popular culture emerged to push out, if not suffocate, an interest in the past, in part because many right-thinking people simply became exhausted to the point of despair by the revelations of the horrors of the past that flooded the country during the Gorbachev era of glasnost. Applebaum is right in saying that it will take at least another generation for public awareness of the gulag to return, but this delay is not only or even primarily because of obstruction by former Communists.

Nor are truth-telling commissions or trials an easy fix for a complex, tragic history. All too often, as we have seen in Eastern Europe, the “rediscovery” of the past and the search for culprits can open up a Pandora’s box, revealing much more than the human heart can absorb, as husbands, wives and friends are “unmasked” as former government agents or informers. Moreover, as the story of Alexander Tvardovsky illustrates, it is not so simple to determine who is a villain and who is a hero, to separate the tangled threads of the lives of individuals caught up in history.

Equally problematic are the lessons that Applebaum draws for her Western readers. She writes, “Already, we are forgetting what it was that mobilized us, what inspired us, what held the civilization of ‘the West’ together for so long: we are forgetting what it was that we were fighting against.” Apart from the possibility that it is far more likely that “we” have forgotten what we were fighting for (as opposed to against), the notion that the cold war was waged over human rights and Western civilization rather than over competing global politics, ideologies and economic systems seems to me a dubious proposition. Perhaps one can make this claim if, like Applebaum, one’s list of modern tragedies includes the gulag, the Holocaust, the Armenian massacre, the Nanking massacre, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Cambodian war and the Bosnian wars, but does not extend to encompass the Atlantic slave trade and US race relations, Dresden, Hiroshima and the Vietnam War, to say nothing of the postcolonial tragedies unfolding in Africa. It seems at best naïve, at worst hubristic, to exploit the gulag in an effort to rewrite the cold war and create a usable past for the supposed victory of the West–not to mention the rather awkward timing for an American to be heralding the triumph of the West. Nevertheless, this is precisely what Applebaum does, with a parting shot at the supposed “Gulag denier[s]” in “our universities” who seek to “destroy the moral fabric of our society” but who, in reality, are no more than figments of a cold war imagination.

History, however, is not a morality tale, a fable to be remade by the victors on behalf of the vanquished. The history and legacy of the gulag is neither so simple nor so straightforward as Applebaum would have us imagine. As the tale of the Tvardovsky brothers reminds us, it is no easy matter to sit in the court of history, to separate the innocent from the guilty, to pass judgment on Alexander Tvardovsky for renouncing his family. It is perhaps best left to the family, to the nation, to come to a reckoning with their own past, in their own way.

In 1986 Ivan Tvardovsky returned home to Zagor’e to oversee the reconstruction of the family’s farm. In 1988 the farm was opened to the public as a museum dedicated to the memory of local hero Alexander Tvardovsky. Ivan became the caretaker of the museum and of Alexander’s local legacy. The irony of this situation was not lost on Ivan. He remains forever embittered over Alexander’s transgressions, but watches over his brother’s museum all the same.

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