Reading notes: ‘Gulag: a History’ by Anne Applebaum

I’m a child of the Cold War. I was twenty-one when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. I well remember the Soviet Union as a topic on the evening news. I grew up with a dark fascination with the USSR. I am always interested in acquiring new books and other materials about it.

I was therefore eager to listen to Anne Applebaum’s book: Gulag: A History. Although she’s recently taken to opining about current events on Twitter, Applebaum is the author of a handful of books on Soviet history.

Gulag, as the title suggests, is focused on the Soviet work/concentration camp system, which often housed political prisoners.

Gulag is a thoroughly researched book. Applebaum draws not only on Soviet-era documents, but also on extensive interviews she conducted with camp survivors.

The book has no ideological ax to grind. Applebaum doesn’t soft-pedal the human cost of the Soviet gulag system. Nor does she endlessly bludgeon the reader with authorial intrusions of shock and disapproval. Applebaum assumes that the reader can make her own moral judgments.

While there are passages about the leadership of the USSR and Kremin-level politics, the emphasis of the book is on the prisoners’ experience. Gulag gives the reader a sense of what it was like to have been an inmate in a Soviet prison camp, as much as any book could.

The only downside to this approach is that the many, many firsthand stories sometimes overload the reader with repetitive details.

I’m listening to the audio version of this book, but the printed version is 736 pages. My guess is that 436 pages could have accomplished the same ends in a more succinct manner.

But no book, either fiction or nonfiction, is perfect. Gulag: A History is a worthwhile read for anyone with a serious interest in Soviet history.


**View GULAG: A HISTORY on Amazon**