By Jeph Paul
The first time I came across ‘gulag’ was when I chanced upon it in my seventh grade. I was impatiently prancing up and down in my school’s library trying to find a book that interested me. Not finding any, I decided on a volume of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Turning the pages, this funny sounding word ‘gulag’ caught my attention. I decided to stop and read the blurb that followed it. It said that gulag was a prison system in Soviet Russia. The write up ended with an uprising in one of the penal colonies in the system. It went something like ‘They tore down the wall that separated the men’s quarters from that of the women and for a time led a life of freedom. The inmates got married to each other & led a life of dignity for a while till the tanks sent by the Kremlin crushed them. The penal colonies were wound up shortly after the uprising ’.
As a twelve year old I didn’t understand how an armed revolt could happen in a penal colony. I had never heard of anything similar in India then. What were they revolting for? Why didn’t they just run away to freedom? There weren’t books on Soviet history in the library and I did not have access to the internet at that time. I gave my curiosity a quick slip that evening and moved on to woo one of my classmates. Questions like who the prisoners were and why they revolted kept coming back to me over the years. With no means to find the answer I’d move on to other things. Besides I was still trying to woo the same person. I would go on to finish school & then my undergrad. Russia too had moved on from its bankruptcy in 1997. After years of ineffective governance and being run by Yeltsin & his coterie dubbed ‘The family’ that robbed the nation, Russia was in the hands of a young and ambitious ex KGB officer called Putin.
After spending 11 months at my first workplace, I decided to move to a new job in a different city. I was staying with my friends from college and one of them was applying to grad school. While helping him out with his Statement of Purpose & his other essays, my old curiosity once again raised its head. But this time I decided to read up on gulag and to get to the bottom of it,besides the girl had moved on which put an end to the other sub plot. Wikipedia did give me a little information, but I wanted more & so I searched around for a good book to read. The recommendations would always start with Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. But after downloading an e-book of the same I realised I would never be able to finish it. It had three large volumes. It’s sheer size put me off ,besides I wasn’t looking for a literary treatment. I was looking for a blow by blow account of what it was & why was it run and finally why was it shut down? I finally decided on Gulag A history by Anne Applebaum. It was a modern text written in English and not a translated work from Russian. I downloaded a copy, pirated of course. But it turned out to be disappointing. Random words and letters were missing throughout the book. I just couldn’t parse it. Out of desperation, I decided to purchase a copy online. That would set me back by Rs. 840 & I would also have to wait for a week and a half since it was an imported copy. I decided to extract my pound of flesh & got my friend to buy me the book in return for my help with his essays. The book was on its way.
The book has 27 chapters divided into three part. At 515 pages and a font size that strains even the healthiest of eyes, it is a formidable read. It goes into the depths of the atrocities committed in the name re-education. It talks about quotas being prepared, listing out the percentage of prisoners to be liquidated. I read about prisoners being made to work on vanity projects like the White Sea canal which served no real maritime purpose and prisoners being given impossible work targets to be achieved in the labour camps.
‘He who has not been there will get his turn. He who has been there will never forget it’
--Soviet proverb about prisons.
The gulag was really a giant prison system run by the Soviet special police which later came to be called the KGB. It was set up soon after the October revolution. It expanded greatly in the 1930’s under Stalin’s rule and began to shrink in the 1950’s after his death. It was never really wound up and continued in one form or the other till the fall of the Soviet Union. It was meant to be a system of re-education camps where people from all walks of life were thrown in. No one was spared - ethnic minorities, POW’s, dissidents or people who had the misfortune of falling out with their colleagues at work were all rounded up and sent to the camps. The reasons were arbitrary & and after a sham trial the person would end up in a camp. Sometimes entire populations were uprooted. At the height of the gulag in the 1930’s, there wasn’t a semblance of a reason, you could be charged for plotting a conspiracy to blowup a bridge that never did exist. People were literally picked up from the street and the next second they were on their way to a camp. During Stalin’s time, the official policy was to use the inmates as bonded labourers & to make the prison system self sustaining through the inmate's labour. You could also get arrested if the camps were running short of labour or if the camps needed specialized skills like engineers. The camp system was present across the breadth of the Soviet Union spanning 12 time zones.
The conditions in the camps were generally inhumane and unbearable. There was never enough food. Food was rationed and many of the inmates starved to death. There were never enough beds or clothes. Theft was rampant, rape and abuse were common. Entire cities were built solely with slave labour. The White Sea Canal was the most celebrated example of this system of labour. Like the Pyramids of Giza, it stands as a testament to human savagery & vanity. Millions of people passed through the system and at least one million of them perished.
I started the book expecting a epic revolt that brought the system down but what I found was a saddening tale of the destruction of the lives of millions of people for no real fault of theirs. There were many revolts, strikes and uprisings in the camps , especially in the coal fields of Kolyma. What came closest to my romanticised revolt was the celebrated uprising in the Ust-Usa camp in Vorkuta during the second world war in 1942. It was led by a free prisoner called Mark Retyunin. Before they were finally put down by the soviet army, they defended themselves for days.
The deaths in the camps are comparable or may even be of greater magnitude than the horror unleashed by the Nazis against the Jews. It is startling to note that, after all the evidence that points to Stalin’s bloody hands, people still look up to him as a strong leader who led the Soviet Union during troubled times. There is a wave in Russia today to glorify him and his acts. The general perception too isn’t different either, Nazis top the chart of absolute evil, but the facts as they are puts the Soviet regime under Stalin in close contention for the top spot too.
This model of labour camps was later replicated in China during Mao’s time and was called laojiao. The Chinese Parliament passed a resolution in December 2013 to wind up these camps after over 60 years of their existence.
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
By Jeph Paul