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Voices from the Gulag

Posted by Josh Rothman  February 14, 2011 11:06 AM

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Anne Applebaum is an American journalist based in Warsaw who won a Pulitzer Prize for her 2003 book Gulag: A History. Now she's edited an incredible anthology of testimonies, many of which have never been translated into English: Gulag Voices.

The anthology, at just under 200 pages, is quite slim and very readable - in fact, it's riveting. The book presents excerpts from the memoirs of thirteen gulag survivors, all of high literary quality. Some accounts were written fifty years ago, others in the 1990s. The big surprise is the sheer diversity of experiences recounted: according to Applebaum, as many as 25 million people, or 15% of the population of Stalin's Soviet Union, may have passed through the camps. All sorts of people were in the gulag: political dissidents, literary critics, immigrants, and even just ordinary people with bad luck. (One writer is an American man whose father moved from Depression-era America to Moscow to become an auto worker - a mistake with tragic consequences.)

People often speak of 'the gulag,' and the definite article suggests that there was one big gulag somewhere. In fact, the gulag was a system; its name is an acronym, meaning "Main Camp Administration." Applebaum, in her introduction, explains that the gulag system was characterized by "an extraordinary geographical breadth":

The Gulag’s most famous camps were in Siberia and the far North, where prisoners worked in mines and cut timber. But the Gulag also ran camps in central Moscow, where prisoners built apartment blocks or designed airplanes; camps in Krasnoyarsk where prisoners ran nuclear power plants; fishing camps on the Pacific coast. The Gulag photo albums in the Russian State Archive contain pictures of prisoners with their camels, prisoners in the desert, prisoners hoeing vegetables or shucking corn. From Aktyubinsk to Yakutsk, there is hardly a single major population center in the former Soviet Union that did not have its own local camp or camps, and nor a single industry that did not employ prisoners. Hence the central purpose of this anthology: To provide the interested reader with a sampling of the wide range of experiences possible in the gulag, from transport ships to informers, from pregnancy to forestry....

Some of the stories here are harrowing, others heroic or prosaic. (One of the best excerpts, for instance, is on the place of religious faith in the camps: Prisoners from around Eastern Europe used a single birch grove as their communal church, marveling at each other's weird religious practices.) Fascinating reading, and a great way to learn about a world that is still, decades later, just coming to light.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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