"Gulag" - Anne Applebaum - Letter to Author

Your book Gulag is a remarkable achievement.  It is a new and very large lens through which to view 20th century history.  I am embarrassed for the U.S. education system that Soviet history was so neglected in our curriculum.  I was led to believe that the U.S. military practically defeated Hitler’s army single-handedly.  We were not taught that Hitler’s army had been eviscerated by the Soviets at the expense of six million Red Army soldiers during four years of brutal, widespread fighting on the Eastern Front prior to D-Day. Your book tells a remarkable story of that devastation and the price paid by the Soviet people for Stalin’s towering battles with Hitler’s forces.  The timber, oil, gold, silver, bauxite and coal that fueled the Soviet war machine, all extracted by the slave labor of millions of Soviet citizens.  I assume that the machinery itself: tanks, aircraft, artillery pieces, ammunition and the machine tools required to make it all also had a sizeable component of slave labor.  The dams, roads, canals, tunnels, highways and railroads, the whole shebang - GULAG!  What an astounding revelation - who knew?  Your marvelous book should be required reading in every high school in America.

The Soviet people made a colossal and awful sacrifice without which, our “Greatest Generation” would have been chewed up by Hitler.  I have a few questions, perhaps you have some insight.  1.  To what extent did Churchill and Roosevelt know of the great sacrifices in the Gulag and the Red Army?  2.  Was it their intention to allow these two nations destroy each other?  In retrospect, it appears that our lend-lease provisions bought the lives of allied soldiers at the expense not only of the Soviet army but of the workers in the Gulag system.  3.  Was Stalin an evil man or was he caught up in a great natural culling of an overgrown population?  4.  How might Stalin have otherwise procured his nation’s most inaccessible natural resources,  material that he needed in a hurry, if not by slave labor?  5.  How many victims of the Gulag would have died of starvation in their homes during the years of great famine?  6.  Do you think that if it were not for Stalin’s brutal policies regarding his own citizens that the Soviet Union would have been devoured by its neighbors during the 20th century along all of its borders?

In summary, the United States rode to victory on the sacrifices of tens of millions of suffering Soviets,  who received NO credit from Americans.  The Soviets, from my earliest memory, were seen as “the enemy” bad guys, huddle under your desk.  In a larger sense, might it be that the population of the now former Soviet Union is composed of people destined to submit to totalitarianism and once they have submitted, to treat one another very poorly on a scale so massive that it must be blamed on national genetic traits rather than a few bad policy makers?  According to your book, whenever a Soviet individual had a chance to make life a little nicer or a little more miserable for each other, they chose the latter on a grand scale.  I don’t imagine that it is easy to be nice when the temperature is fifty below zero and there is little to eat.  I am reminded of the words of late, great comedian Sam Kinnison screaming about the starving Ethiopians:  “WHY DON’T THEY JUST MOVE!!”

Miscellaneous ramblings:  Kleb Boky, the chubby Chekist who watched his enemies twist in the wind.  Couldn’t the bedbugs and lice been added to the soup for some protein?  I was disappointed to read your questioning of the validity of Racwicz’s story told in his marvelous book  The Long Walk, which I read in high school.  Is phony spelled with an e before the y - you have it both ways throughout your text.  Aluminum is not mined.  The mined mineral component of aluminum is bauxite which,  after an energy-intense industrial process,  is transformed into aluminum.  The great dams on the Columbia River in Washington state generated the electricity for the aluminum used in our World War II aircraft. I  Loved your great book - thank you.  I am enclosing a drawing inspired by your text.  I apologize for its vulgarity but, of course, it is a subject rife with vulgarity.  I am left with one over-arching question:  What is it about Russians and suffering?  I am currently working on an essay titled “The Tragedy of the Chosen Child: Frank Lloyd Wright, Joseph Stalin, Douglas MacArthur.”  Your book was intensely illuminating regarding the scale of Stalin’s influence on the Soviet people -this story has a certain peculiarly feminine, smothering vastness.  Your book is a great blessing.  Warm Regards,  JB