I have been reading some memoirs about the Soviet Gulags, and I discovered that I didn't have enough knowledge of Russian history to process what I was reading about individual experiences. Consequently, I picked up Applebaum's book.
Her book was precisely what I needed. She presents a very systematic explanation of the gulags in three sections: 1) the historical precedents prior to Stalin's regime and the rise of their power under Stalin; 2) Day-to-day life in the gulags; and 3) the dismantling of the Gulag's after Stalin's death and their diminishing presence through several other Soviet leaders and into 21st century Russia politics and judicial / penal system.
At times the amount of detail was close to overwhelming, but Applebaum places all the facts into strong frameworks without losing the debates and ambiguity present in the field because of incomplete and missing information. She blends data, history, politics, personal history, and even a few exerpts from literary works to create her history.
I expected to see cruelty depicted, but what shocked me the most was the arbitrary manner in which arrests, labor, torture and even releases were conducted. It would be maddening to live under a regime that weilded so much power in ways that were incomprehensible to its people. Anyone could be arrested and placed in labor / death camps: criminals, dissidents, and even members of the Communist party.
Were the gulags so heavily populated because Stalin wanted cheap labor as a way to industrialize the Soviet Union? They never were cost effective. Was he trying to brow beat people into submission? They created strife between people and government. Was he trying to reform criminals and political dissidents? Few if none of the gulag prisoners became better people because of their time in the camps -- if they lived through it. The accounts made me wonder how human beings could descend into such irrational mistreatment of one another and made me wonder if such nonesense still persists in other countries - even in small ways (even in our own).
Before this summer, I could fit everything I knew about the gulags on a postage stamp. Applebaum gave me a wealth of knowledge and much to ponder. I'm glad that I found this book -- even if her book was the antithesis of a "summer read."