Saturday, April 23, 2011

A World Behind Barbed Wire

by Andrew Stuttaford

Wall Street Journal

April 23, 2011

The most remarkable thing about The Way Back, the 2010 film by Peter Weir, was neither its protagonists (escapees from the Soviet gulag system who trekked thousands of miles to their freedom) nor the curious tale of the almost certainly fictional 1956 "memoir" that inspired it (Slawomir Rawicz's The Long Walk). No, what distinguished The Way Back was its depiction of life in Stalin's camps. There have been a handful of films on this topic, but, as observed Anne Applebaum, author of a fine 2004 history of the gulag, this was the first time it had been given the full Hollywood treatment. Hitler's concentration camps are a Tinseltown staple, but Stalin's merit barely a mention.

Publishers have been more even-handed. There are many books on Soviet terror, and some have won huge readerships. Yet, as Hollywood's cynics understand, the swastika will almost always outsell the red star. That's due partly to the perverse aesthetics of the Third Reich but also to a disconcerting ambivalence—even now—about what was going on a little further to the east. The slaughter of millions by Moscow's communist regime remains shrouded in benevolent shadow. The Soviet experiment is given a benefit of a doubt that owes nothing to history and far too much to a lingering sympathy for a supposedly noble dream supposedly gone astray.

A flurry of recent books on Soviet oppression—surely encouraged by the interest generated by Ms. Applebaum's Gulag—is thus to be welcomed. One of the best is edited by Ms. Applebaum herself. Gulag Voices (Yale, 195 pages, $25) is a deftly chosen anthology of writings by victims of Soviet rule. Some are published for the first time in English, most are by writers little known in the West and each is given a succinct, informative introduction. Above all, they help illustrate the duration, variety and range of Soviet despotism.

The Third Reich lasted for scarcely more than a decade. Most of those who died at its hands were slaughtered within the space of five years or so. The Soviet killing spree dragged on, however, from the revolutionary frenzy of 1917, through the terrible bloodbaths of the Stalin era, to the last violent spasms in 1991. The ultimate death toll may have been higher than that orchestrated by Hitler, but absolute annihilations like those envisaged by the Nazis were never on the agenda. Instead the nature of Soviet repression shifted back and forth over the years: sometimes more lethal, sometimes less, sometimes carefully targeted, sometimes arbitrary. The gulag itself was, as Ms. Applebaum notes, "an extraordinarily varied place." As the title of Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle reminds us, Stalin's hell, like Dante's, was layered. And how it endured: The most recent account in Gulag Voices is an excerpt from Anatoly Marchenko's My Testimony, a memoir from 1969 that highlighted the way that Stalinist cruelty had successfully survived the dead, officially disgraced, dictator.