August 3, 2008


Remembering the Gulag: a review of Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum (Hilton Kramer, New Criterion)
What has to be understood, of course, is that the horrors of the Soviet system had never penetrated the public imagination in this country on anything like the scale that made the Nazis a familiar symbol of evil and criminality. Even as kids Americans of my generation recognized the swastika as an emblem of the “bad guys,” if only from the movies we saw and the comic books we read. No Soviet symbol ever acquired a comparable status in the public mind. Nor did Hollywood make any movies about heroic anti-Soviet resistance movements. As Anne Applebaum writes in the introduction to her magisterial study of the Soviet camps—Gulag: A History, a book that is certain to remain the definitive account of its subject for many years to come—

The Cold War produced James Bond and thrillers, and cartoon Russians of the sort who appear in Rambo films, but nothing as ambitious as Schindler’s List or Sophie’s Choice. Steven Spielberg, probably Hollywood’s leading director (like it or not) has chosen to make films about Japanese concentration camps (Empire of the Sun) and Nazi concentration camps, but not about Stalinist concentration camps. The latter haven’t caught Hollywood’s imagination in the same way.

Besides, Russia (as most people still called the Soviet Union) had been an ally in the war against Hitler, and was thus identified in the public mind as somehow belonging to “our” side. In the mainstream media and entertainment industries, the Soviet Union remained exempt from critical scrutiny, and the Gulag did not exist. Yet, as Ms. Applebaum also writes:

[N]ot all of our attitudes to the Soviet past are linked to political ideology… . Many, in fact, are rather a fading by-product of our memories of the Second World War. We have, at present, a firm conviction that the Second World War was a wholly just war, and few want that conviction shaken. We remember D-Day, the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, the children welcoming American GIs with cheers on the streets. No one wants to be told that there was another, darker side to the Allied victory, or that the camps of Stalin, our ally, expanded just as the camps of Hitler, our enemy, were liberated. To admit that by sending thousands of Russians to their deaths by forcibly repatriating them after the war, or by consigning millions of people to Soviet rule at Yalta, the Western Allies might have helped others commit crimes against humanity would undermine the moral clarity of our memories of that era. No one wants to think that we defeated one mass murderer with the help of another. No one wants to remember how well that mass murderer got on with Western statesmen. “I have a real liking for Stalin,” the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, told a friend, “he has never broken his word.” There are many, many photographs of Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt all together, all smiling.

This is why The Gulag Archipelago and Solzhenitsyn himself met with such resistance and hostility in this country after his expulsion from the Soviet Union. “Soviet propaganda was not without its effect,” writes Ms. Applebaum. “Soviet attempts to cast doubt upon Solzhenitsyn’s writing, for example, to paint him as a madman or an anti-Semite or a drunk, had some impact.” Let us never forget the infamous passage in George Steiner’s New Yorker review of The Gulag Archipelago in 1974: “To infer that the Soviet terror is as hideous as Hitlerism is not only a brutal simplification but a moral indecency.” Nor was Steiner alone in his hostile response to Solzhenitsyn’s revelations. The late Irving Howe, who had found so much to admire in Leon Trotsky, took to the pages of The New Republic to offer Solzhenitsyn moral instruction on the correct way to think about socialism.

Has anything really changed in our public comprehension—or incomprehension—of the Gulag since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the final dismantling of the Soviet camps?

There must surely be others, but the only three excellent fictional portrayals of the Gulag I can recall are: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1963); Forever Flowing (1970) by Vassily Grossman; and Archangel by Gerald Seymour. And the degree to which we've had to lie to ourselves about how complicit we were in the Soviet Union's crimes is amply displayed when folks protest that there was no way we could have done anything otherwise than leave the regime in place at the end of WWII, thereby making a necessity of what was in truth an expediency. [originally posted: 2003-05-14] Posted by Orrin Judd at August 3, 2008 3:53 PM
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