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By John Dolan


This review was first published in The eXile on September 4, 2004

We must remember the millions who died in the Soviet camps. Why? That nasty, nagging “why?” kept dogging me as I made my way through Anne Applebaum’s long (600 pp.) and well-researched history of the GULAG. If I hadn’t lived in Moscow from 2002 to 2004, I probably wouldn’t have had the nerve to challenge Applebaum’s mission, commemorating the victims of Stalinism. But one thing you learn in Russia, whether you want to or not, is that the Russians are not interested in this subject at all. And their lack of interest is strangely contagious, infecting even formerly avid fans of Zek literature like myself.

Before living in Russia, I used to wonder why none of the sons or grandsons of GULAG prisoners hunted down the thugs who tortured and killed their relatives. It happened in China, where descendants of those persecuted by the Red Guard tracked down and beat or even killed ex-Guards. And there’s an army of well-funded pursuers tracking down the few living ex-Nazis. Why didn’t Russians go after Stalin’s surviving executioners?

The simple, disturbing answer is that they’re not interested. And that bothers us. It’s not that the West cares very much about the Russians — either the millions who died, or the 140 million struggling to live in contemporary Russia. We’ve made our indifference to them pretty clear, over the past fifteen years.

Rather we need to believe that everyone shares our alleged dedication to the Christian-derived notion that we have to love everyone. And that means mourning, or at least going through the motions of mourning, every mass death.

So we wait for the Russians to start moaning and gnashing their teeth over the GULAG, as we would wait for a bereaved family to start keening over their loss. We’ve been standing nervously outside the Russians’ hut for over a decade now, waiting for those banshee wails to trigger our public tears.

And there’s been this silence — at first puzzling, then offensive. And at last, realizing that these shameless Russians aren’t going to start their own rites, we decided to do the job ourselves.

Thus Applebaum’s book was born. And it has the feeling of a belated, awkward funeral oration by one who didn’t know the deceased very well, but is driven by a deep sense of moral righteousness to perform the proper rites. To her credit, Applebaum knows and admits that the Russians themselves aren’t interested in commemorating the victims of the camps. She mentions that the only monument they have in Moscow is a single stone from the Solovetsky Islands. We lived a block from that stone, and for two years we walked past it nearly every day. I don’t recall seeing anyone take notice of it, even once. It sat there, splattered with birdshit, facing Lubyanka — completely forgotten. By contrast, the statue of Dzerzhinsky, though exiled to the Statue Garden by the river, is covered with curses and homage, just biding its time.


Anne Applebaum bears the sufferings of Stalin’s GULAG victims

In her final chapter, “Memory,” Applebaum attempts to account for the Russians’ indifference. She’s quite intelligent for a conservative, and surprisingly fair-minded for someone associated with a Tory rag like the Spectator. She even acknowledges that anti-Soviet rhetoric is soiled, in the minds of most contemporary Russians, by its association with the Gaidar kleptocracy, and offers a cogent summary of other possible factors:

“There are some good, or at least forgivable, explanations for this public silence. Most Russians… spend all of their time coping with the complete transformation of their economy and society. The Stalinist era was a long time ago, and a great deal has happened since it ended. Post-Communist Russia is not postwar Germany, where the memories of the worst atrocities were still fresh in people’s minds.”

The comparison to post-1945 Germany is the crucial one, the one by which contemporary Russia keeps disappointing and annoying righteous Westerners like Applebaum. This is yet another case of the “Hitler Standard,” by which the Nazis are the gold standard of evil, and the painful rehabilitation of Germany after 1945 the gold standard of recovery.

And of course this version of what happened in Germany in 1945 requires a suppression of memory at least as great as that involved in Russia’s apathy towards Stalin’s crimes. In the first place, it’s not the case that Germany’s crimes, in general, made much of an impression on “people’s minds.” Germany’s crimes against Russians, in particular, were little noticed nor long remembered in the West — despite the fact that the majority of the Wehrmacht’s victims were Slavs.

Most massacre victims are the sort of people not likely to be remembered. This is one of those almost-tautologies that’s still worth saying, like the old evolutionary biologists’ joke that most of us are descended from people who didn’t die before puberty.

And as another cynical French wit put it, we are all very good at bearing the sufferings of others.

Only when a massacre is unusually dramatic and interesting, and/or involves people to whom we feel particularly close, do most of us feel anything. In other words, the Christian-derived premise that there is some Enlightenment moral sense in each of us, which reacts with instinctive horror at any mass suffering, is simply nonsense. There is no such sense — and a quick look at the archives of a Tory magazine like the Spectator, for which Applebaum proudly toiled, would reveal that fact a million times over. Ever hear of the “Black Hole of Calcutta”? Of course you did. That terrible overheated room in which some English prisoners were kept during the Indian Mutiny, so stifling that some of them actually died! Now, let’s do the math: what is the ratio of Indians killed during the British occupation to British prisoners stifled in the Black Hole? Few of you will have any idea, because those millions of dead never registered with us.

british raj famine 1877

Applebaum would not have been capable of accepting a position with a vile publication like the Spectator unless her own consciousness contained at least one huge, highly adaptive amnesiac blob where all the crimes of the Empire should have been filed. So vast and horrific were these crimes, so long did they continue, that you could pretty much spin a globe, jab a finger at it blindfolded, and land on a spot where some Imperial force committed some sort of atrocity. (Unless, of course, you landed on ocean — though the Royal Navy would do its best to provide you with material even there.)

The crimes of history are optional. We mix, match and discard according to taste and convenience. It’s useful for Applebaum’s Tory backers to remember Stalin’s crimes because they can still use them to bash anyone who might want to beef up the National Health system with higher taxes. “Today an extra 1% VAT on my Jag convertible, tomorrow Kolyma!” is a very familiar war cry from these crusaders for human rights. Other massacres are dim stats, to be dredged up when necessary. Take, for example, all the tens of millions of dead in the Japanese occupation of China. They are rarely invoked in the West, because we don’t need them. The Japanese are thoroughly spent, neither a threat nor a bad example of anything we worry about at the moment. The Chinese are more of a worry, making the invocation of their dead a dangerous concession. And in the Tory mind, those dead are connected with ignominy: the surrender of Singapore without a fight, the sinking of the Repulse and Prince of Wales…and so it goes, with a huge number of tangential mental associations determining which of the billions of corpses clogging the earth will be dug up and flung at one’s opponents at any particular moment.

In this context, the Russians’ lack of interest in Stalin’s victims seems quite natural and healthy. It’s Applebaum’s arduous disinterment of them that ends up seeming forced, disingenuous and surprisingly dull.

John Dolan is co-host of the Radio War Nerd podcast. Subscribe here.

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Add your own

  • 1. Eddie  |  December 19th, 2013 at 11:54 pm

    Her stance on the Occupy movement is even more confusing. First she admits that the sources of the economic crisis and the solutions to it lie outside the control of national politics. Then in the very next sentence she lambasts the Occupy protesters for not using the political process to begin with.

    Bitch, you just told me that it does not matter who I vote for and now you are telling me to go ahead and vote?

    To be fair a moderate amount of selective amnesia is understandable. We all have the right to evolve our opinions and perspectives change with age and information. But when this evolution takes place over the course of two consecutive sentences things can get really confusing.

  • 2. kaisuteknon  |  December 25th, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    These days it’s a bit of a stretch to call Applebaum’s works well-researched. Soviet historiography has fortunately managed to rid itself from the low historical standards of Applebaum, Roberts and others.

  • 3. Galtic Warrior  |  December 31st, 2013 at 3:07 am

    MArk Ames, The Illuminati has killed AND PLANS To kills BILLIONS.

    Yet, do we hear about any of this? No, instead we have you attacking the only defense against the Illuminati: the glisaning FREE MARKET.

    You jealousy for scrappy entrepreneurs like David and Charles Koch, or benevolent souls like Peter Thiel, REALLY show your true colors!!!

  • 4. Majestic Half-dozen  |  January 7th, 2014 at 7:18 am

    Confirming that the Illuminati is alive and well in the exiled comment section.

  • 5. Jimmythehyena  |  January 9th, 2014 at 9:18 am

    I’d like to know which article it was that Dolan outlined the differences between American fascism and others. I don’t remember the exact phrasing but it was about how weak an simpering the American form was.

  • 6. amanatsu  |  February 7th, 2014 at 7:56 pm

    @kaisuteknon can you recommend an alternative to Applebaum et al.? not bitter, just curious to know. I’ve had some issues with Applebaum’s work aswell.

  • 7. Paul Joseph L'Heuruex  |  February 9th, 2014 at 12:14 pm

    iSmell a Controlled Opposition among the self titled Chazar exiles……..go ahead punks, call me an AntiGomer’sPiles if you can first explain the Biblical reference and how it ties into the first 2/3 of Ezekiel 38.
    ynetnews. com/articles/0,7340,L-3342999,00.html

  • 8. The Gubbler  |  February 12th, 2014 at 11:15 am

    You may have a right to be proud of this Dolan, but still… I’m not sure I like your tone or especially that of the bold weenus commenters. Who are these people you attract?

    We’ll wait and see. I might not win, but I’ll take you all down with me if necessary.

    I am The Gubbler after all.

  • 9. Dimitri Ratz  |  February 13th, 2014 at 8:46 pm

    Growing up I never understood why Soviets put down protesters in Czechoslovakia. Seeing rioters in Ukraine take roads apart to throw these stones & kerosine bottles at police who are just standing ground around few administrative buildings. Awful murders of police shot to death in Kiev, only rioters dead include one that fell from a pool where he slipped while trying to set police on fire with kerosine bottles that he was throwing, another Jewish fellow from Belarus that rioters hid “for fear he would be arrested” until he bleed out. Not convincing with rioters wearing T-shirt with “smeart jedam” which means “death to Jews”. And just another civilian shot with arms that were recovered from “peaceful pro-EU” protesters. Clit-chko can’t run for president, because his not even a fucking resident, his resident of Germany yet he can’t wait for election few months. Thirty-four year judge shot dead by his home for his “draconian” treatment of Nazi rioters who the harshest sentence he handed down for ‘violence on police’ was a two month stay at home sentence. Soviets were right to do to the “protesters” in Czechslovakia what they did. President Yanukovich please do the right thing. Let the police defend themselves against violent attackers who set 200 police on fire that got hospitalized, & let them shot the kerosine throwing scum.

  • 10. nampa1  |  March 9th, 2014 at 4:46 pm

    The long history of the Western Left must pick up the mantle of its ideas–collective action, agitation, education. This article does not do so.

    Applebaum’s works are trite, propaganda sheets. If the sources are manufactured innuendo, who cares if it is cited properly.

    Perhaps Russians don’t care much for that past because they do not recognize the Applebaum narrative. The camps were meticulously documented. With the opening of the archives in 1991, we now know how many people died and for what charges. (It has no recognition to the Conquest/Applebaum narrative.)

  • 11. cynthia  |  May 26th, 2014 at 6:20 pm

    So, am I the type who’d focus on whether Applebaum is Jewish? That would be a good place to start with my psychiatric problems

  • 12. DrunktankDan  |  May 29th, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    So in case nobody knows wtf is going on with the eXile boys, they are all over at Pando now. I have no idea why they don’t put it in huge fucking letters on this site. Anyways, WN even has a few new articles up!

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