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(en) Britain, SolFed*, DA #30 - Reviews: Gulag - a History of the Soviet Camps Anne Applebaum, BCA, 2003 + Ice Road Gillian Slovo, Little Brown, 2004

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Tue, 30 Nov 2004 08:38:21 +0100 (CET)

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Occasionally, books come along in pairs. I was just finishing
Anne Applebaum's Gulag: a History of the Soviet Camps,
(BCA, 2003), when the library disgorged Gillian Slovo's Ice
Road, (Little Brown, 2004). Slovo's novel is a lighter read.
Dealing with bureaucratised Stalinist victimisation and the siege of
Leningrad, it is 'magnificent', according to the blurb.
Not for me: The characters are unconvincing and the plot flails
about all over the place. Let's put that to one side.

There isn't much lightness in the realities of Gulag. The
terror of arrest, incarceration and transport to the camps,
frequently in a similar manner to the transportation of minorities
by the Nazis, is depicted unrelentingly; little water, little food, the
dying, the filth, the executions, prisoners building the rough
barracks they would occupy; the interrogations by the fascist
goons of the NKVD; the death and despair... In an awful way, it is
familiar territory, I travelled there with Solzhenitsyn's The
Gulag Archipelago, and before that, with Maksimov's The
Guillotine At Work. States have a propensity to oppress
dissidents, and 'socialist states', in creating
'socialism', have never been any different to their
capitalist counterparts. The paranoid Stalin and his Communist
Party were building on earlier Leninist paranoia, where it was felt
dissent might lead to loss of control and must be suppressed.

The prisoners did not hit back often. Like the Nazis'
prisoners, they were starving and weak, and concerned with
making it safely through the long day's labour. Fear of the
consequences of opposition, of the criminal prisoner elite (who
often didn't work) and of the ever-present informer, was
endemic. However, there were hunger strikes, work stoppages
and noisy protests. Prisoners on the trains to the camps would
sometimes rush from one side to the other and eventually tip the
wagon, causing derailment of the train. In October 1936, in a
Vorkuta camp, 'hundreds of Trotskyites, Anarchists and
other politicals' started a hunger strike that was to last 132
days. Their demands included an eight hour day, proper food, that
they be separated from the criminal prisoners, and annulment of
their sentences. Criminal prisoners also joined another 115-day
strike in another Vorkuta camp. In March 1937, some of the
strikers' demands were met but, by the end of 1938, most
had been executed.

In 1942, there was a mass breakout at Ust\u2013Usa in the
Vorkuta complex, initiated by a 'free worker', former
prisoner Mark Retyunin. Apparently, he was deeply shocked by
the news that politicals, even those who had served their
sentences, were not to be allowed to leave the camps. Imprisoning
some guards by a ruse and disarming others, they gathered twelve
machine guns and four pistols. They broke into the camp stores
and distributed food and clothing and, by 5pm, some 100 men
were marching to the town of Ust-Usa.

In 1954, at the special camp at Steplag, Kengir, in Kazakhstan,
the politicised prisoners kept breaking the rules. The
administration brought in a group of criminal prisoners and
instructed them to provoke fights with the politicals. Instead, the
two groups united (possibly because the politicals were by then an
organised body and could not be intimidated), and the
administration 'totally lost control'. What followed
was 'The Forty Days of Kengir' (Solzhenitsyn), where
prisoners took control of the camp warehouses, kitchen and
bakery. They began to produce knives and clubs in the
workshops, and smashed into the punishment block to release the
prisoners. They produced leaflets, set up their own crude
generator and radio station, and contacted nearby camps and
villages. 5 T-34 tanks, 1700 troops in full battle gear and 98 dogs
were eventually sent to quell the uprising.

NKVD oppression intensified. Any stoppages affected the
economic goals of the camp. The camps were, of course,
uneconomic, yet Stalin appeared to believe until his death that the
opposite was the case, and forced through projects like the idiotic
White Sea Canal, which he demanded be built by prison labour.
The zeks had few tools and worked by hand, often with self-made
implements, the end result being a shallow (literally, 12 foot)
monument to tyranny.

It took a long time after Stalin's death and
Khrushchev's denunciation of aspects of 'the cult of
personality' for the last 'lagpunkt' to disappear;
the political camps at Perm closed in February 1992. This
comprehensive history is not a depressing book. It will make you
angry, but by the time you've read the last sentence, you
will feel you have travelled in the company of some venal, some
brutal and, above all, some inspiring people. You might, like me,
be deeply moved.

Direct Action is published by Solidarity Federation, the British
section of the International Workers' Association

* Solidarity Federation is of the anarcho-syndicalist spectrum

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