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Book Review September 4, 2004
 
Anne Applebaum, Professional Mourner
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
 
"Gulag: A History" - By Anne Appelbaum

"Gulag: A History" - By Anne Appelbaum

We must remember the millions who died in the Soviet camps. Why? That nasty, nagging "why?" kept dogging me as I made my way through Anne Applebaum's long (600 pp.) and well-researched history of the GULAG. If I hadn't lived in Moscow from 2002 to 2004, I probably wouldn't have had the nerve to challenge Applebaum's mission, commemorating the victims of Stalinism. But one thing you learn in Russia, whether you want to or not, is that the Russians are not interested in this subject at all. And their lack of interest is strangely contagious, infecting even formerly avid fans of Zek literature like myself.

Before living in Russia, I used to wonder why none of the sons or grandsons of GULAG prisoners hunted down the thugs who tortured and killed their relatives. It happened in China, where descendants of those persecuted by the Red Guard tracked down and beat or even killed ex-Guards. And there's an army of well-funded pursuers tracking down the few living ex-Nazis. Why didn't Russians go after Stalin's surviving executioners?

The simple, disturbing answer is that they're not interested. And that bothers us. It's not that the West cares very much about the Russians -- either the millions who died, or the 140 million struggling to live in contemporary Russia. We've made our indifference to them pretty clear, over the past fifteen years.

Rather we need to believe that everyone shares our alleged dedication to the Christian-derived notion that we have to love everyone. And that means mourning, or at least going through the motions of mourning, every mass death.

So we wait for the Russians to start moaning and gnashing their teeth over the GULAG, as we would wait for a bereaved family to start keening over their loss. We've been standing nervously outside the Russians' hut for over a decade now, waiting for those banshee wails to trigger our public tears.

And there's been this silence -- at first puzzling, then offensive. And at last, realizing that these shameless Russians aren't going to start their own rites, we decided to do the job ourselves.

Thus Applebaum's book was born. And it has the feeling of a belated, awkward funeral oration by one who didn't know the deceased very well, but is driven by a deep sense of moral righteousness to perform the proper rites. To her credit, Applebaum knows and admits that the Russians themselves aren't interested in commemorating the victims of the camps. She mentions that the only monument they have in Moscow is a single stone from the Solovetsky Islands. We lived a block from that stone, and for two years we walked past it nearly every day. I don't recall seeing anyone take notice of it, even once. It sat there, splattered with birdshit, facing Lubyanka -- completely forgotten. By contrast, the statue of Dzerzhinsky, though exiled to the Statue Garden by the river, is covered with curses and homage, just biding its time.

In her final chapter, "Memory," Applebaum attempts to account for the Russians' indifference. She's quite intelligent for a conservative, and surprisingly fair-minded for someone associated with a Tory rag like the Spectator. She even acknowledges that anti-Soviet rhetoric is soiled, in the minds of most contemporary Russians, by its association with the Gaidar kleptocracy, and offers a cogent summary of other possible factors:

"There are some good, or at least forgivable, explanations for this public silence. Most Russians... spend all of their time coping with the complete transformation of their economy and society. The Stalinist era was a long time ago, and a great deal has happened since it ended. Post-Communist Russia is not postwar Germany, where the memories of the worst atrocities were still fresh in people's minds."


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dolan@exile.ru
 
 
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