Gulag: a history of the Soviet camps – Anne Applebaum

Someone at work was laughing at me reading this book one lunchtime! “Another of your happy books” he said. I don’t actually see these types of books as unhappy but as satisfying and fuelling my thirst for knowledge about the way other people and regimes treat their fellow human beings.

I’ve had this book on my shelf for a long time, waiting to read it. So long in fact that I’d forgotten I had it and bought another copy! I really must have a sort out.

Anyway, to the book.

I chose to read this because I found Applebaum’s previous book interesting and a very digestible read. When I looked back I found the book I thought she’d written was actually written by someone else. Which explains, perhaps, why I found this book a bit…chewy

The book covers the Soviet gulags from the 1920s, through the Great Terror of the 1930s and up to the camps for dissidents from the 1960s to the end of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. It looks at the origins of the camps, life and work in them and finally the fall of the camp industrial complex.

The research behind the book comes from a variety of sources including official OGPU/ NKVD/ KGB archives and memories and memoirs from those who were there. The memoirs and memories come from workers and guards as well as from prisoners, which gives an interesting perspective on some of the descriptions.

The different perspectives was the main thing I enjoyed about the book. It wasn’t just a misery memoir it was also an attempt, as far as possible with the resources available, to understand the whys and wherefores of the camps. It gave me a broader understanding of the gulag outside of the history of the Great Terror, Solzhenitsyn and the biographies of Anna Larina and Nadezhda Mandelstam.

The downside of having the different perspectives was that it is a very factual book. there are some stories and anecdotes but not that many. Which is why I’d categorise it as a chewy book. I like a bit of personal perspective to leven the facts.

I’m glad I read it. It has definitely widened my knowledge. If I was starting to read it again I might read a memoir or two at the same time to give it some balance.

Memoirs I’d recommend are:

Hope against Hope – Nadezhda Mandelstam

Click here to find out more about Nadezhda Mandelstam

This I cannot forget – Anna Larina

Click here to find out more about Anna Larina

One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich – Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Click here to find out more about Solzhenitsyn

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