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Review of Anne Applebaum’s “Gulag: A History”

Date: September-November 2003

One would not have anticipated that Solzhenitsyn’s monumental expose of the system of Soviet prisons and concentration camps, published over two decades ago, could ever be outdone.Yet Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History, astonishingly enough, succeeds.  Admittedly, Solzhenitsyn’s sheer courage in compiling the information under incredibly difficult circumstances, and his uniquely passionate style, are impossible to emulate.His was also the first document of the system’s gargantuan size, and sought to dissect the human soul to arrive at some explanation of how pure evil is possible.His considerable (though still insufficient) impact on world opinion at that time is unquestionable. But Applebaum’s subdued, objective, analytic style conveys no less starkly both the reality of the Gulag and the importance of understanding it, the responsibility we all bear, as human beings, to honor the innocents who succumbed in its catacombs.    She emphasizes that unless we learn some lessons from this tragedy we not only fail to understand today’s Russia but our own place in the world, and our own history.Why did we fight the Cold War?How do people become transformed into non-humans for the purpose of terrorism and annihilation?This is the larger question that she asks, and with penetrating lucidity offers unforgettable insights, that will long haunt the reader, as they well should.   The devastating facts and figures, the carefully selected details and personal examples, implausibly grotesque examples of sadism on an unprecedented scale, are revealed entirely unadorned, allowed to explode with the force of an earthquake with no need of additional symphonic embellishment.Its impact should be equally tectonic.This book is a breathtaking monument to the greatest monstrosity of the twentieth century that rivaled the Holocaust in barbarity and exceeded it in sheer numbers.Applebaum achieves this seemingly impossible task with deceptive simplicity, since nothing else would do.