Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History

Reading Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History has me thinking about a few of the lessons in political economy I’ve picked up in the last two years.

1. One of the frequent ideas put forth in comparisons between Soviet totalitarianism and Nazi totalitarianism is that the Nazi regime was inherently evil and cruel, and could not have been run more humanely, while the Soviet regime was not inherently (as) evil and went awry without necessarily implicating the ideology behind it. The first part of the statement is pretty much true. To the extent that National Socialism means what Adolf Hitler wanted it to mean—i.e. not what modern-day Russian Hitler devotees want it to mean—the Slavic populations of Eastern Europe were going to be enslaved and killed off eventually even if all of the Jews in the affected areas had somehow managed to escape.

The second part of the statement is more difficult. Granted, communism does not explicitly require people to be imprisoned, tortured, and murdered for features they cannot change about themselves, but the fact that this happened in all regimes claiming to advocate communism should make us wonder why. Totalitarianism of any variety requires extreme measures to make people behave how the regime wants them to behave, and credible commitments to enforce these measures. Moreover, rule of as many aspects of individual life as are possible by a single party creates conditions in which it’s virtually guaranteed that the leaders will be paranoid, scheming, and bloodthirsty. It’s true that Stalin could have decided not to treat millions of his own people as he did, but it’s rather like putting bread and water in front of a starving man; it would be surprising if he didn’t seize the opportunity when it appeared. The irrationality of a centrally-planned economy is logically necessary, and leads to the economy being run according to political concerns rather than according to consumer demand. Combining the kinds of people who are likely to rise to the top, the kinds of projects they will be interested in seeing accomplished, the lack of rational economic calculation, and conditions that foster ordinary human indifference or cruelty, mass arrests, executions, and prison camps are what should be expected to result. The fact that it was not part of the official communist doctrine hardly matters when all of these things are the inevitable result of attempting to put it into practice.

The purpose of most of the camps was mainly economic. With the camps, the regime hoped to make up for deficiencies in its non-prison economy. There were a large number of officials involved in drafting guidelines for humane treatment of prisoners and inspectors constantly filing angry reports about the poor treatment. Little was ever done about them, but the idea was that sick and starving prisoners could not produce. The goals of this class of officials and of the leadership may well have been different, but the fact is that at least some people in the camp administration system were not trying to kill off all the prisoners. While this may make the Soviet camp system less immoral than the Nazi camp system, this is the lowest bar imaginable.

2. The ideas of the public being subjected to this treatment matter as well. According to everything I’ve read, classical liberalism was hardly known in the areas making up the Soviet Union and certainly not on a mass scale. The same laws and traditions transplanted into the United Kingdom or the United States would have produced results far less bad than they produced in the Soviet Union. Citizens do not get all that they want, but their preferences have some effect on systems, even if it is not 1:1.* Secret police terror can, of course, limit peoples’ ability and willingness to resist unjust policies, but in some sense the regime’s bounds are what the (beleaguered and terrorized) people will put up with. Secrecy helps totalitarian regimes as well, though the Soviet terror was on such a scale that it would be a rare Siberian peasant who didn’t know about it.

3. But incentives matter too, and this system transplanted to the UK or US would still have produced dire results. I find it hard to believe that hundreds of thousands or millions of prison guards, transport guards, informers, etc. wanted millions of arrestees, most of them obviously innocent of any serious crime, to be neglected or worked to death when they weren’t executed outright. That this was the result depended in large measure on incentivizing them to act in ways that would cause it to happen. Even today there are many people from civilized Western countries torturing or facilitating the torture of people they can reliably assume to be innocent of serious crimes.

That these incentive structures naturally flow from the nature of totalitarian systems—of whatever flavor—is not commonly known, although with democide being the leading cause of non-natural death in the 20th century it seems like this should be an educational priority.

4. One brief ray of light in the kinds of tales that Applebaum relates is how humans still manage to order themselves spontaneously even in these conditions. Gulag prisoners came up with their own customs, their own rules of behavior, their own ways of communicating, even their own slang. Trade spontaneously arose almost everywhere, with prisoners exchanging money, clothes, or other possessions for food, privileges, writing materials, or other things they wanted and needed but couldn’t get in sufficient quantity.

Additionally, the aforementioned officials who sought to improve camp conditions surprised me. There appear to have been a lot of people who earnestly cared if the prisoners lived or died. As I mentioned already the leadership was mostly indifferent to their suffering, but within the scope allowed for by the regime some officials did care about prisoners. Granted, most of this was in order to meet quotas, but the book abounds with anecdotes about officials going one step further than this.

All in all, I recommend the book. It’s a part of 20th century history that most people know very little about, and which ought to be taught far and wide.

*It might be close in democratic systems, although I am not yet sure how to merge Caplan’s work with the rest of what I know about political economy.