starlady: (the wizard's oath)
Applebaum, Anne. Gulag: A History. New York: Doubleday, 2003.
This is one of those books (and before I forget, it's by Anne Applebaum) that absolutely everyone ought to read. Seriously, if you think that human rights are worth a damn at all, or hope that the mass butchery of the 20th century will not be repeated, you owe it to yourself and to humanity to read this book. Applebaum explores in exhausting, illuminating detail the birth of the Gulag system in Russia from its tsarist roots to its final, still ongoing manifestations in China and in North Korea, exploring every aspect of camp life and making excellent use of the memoirs of those who survived, as well as of declassified Soviet records themselves. The stories here are harrowing. They are also so grim and horrible that the only way I could deal with them was to laugh, though it wasn't funny laughter, and at times I wished I was the sort of person who cried at this stuff instead, as that is a vastly more appropriate response. How many lives did the Soviet system (of which the Gulag was merely the worst part) destroy? Impossible to say. Forty million? Fifty? It's probably easier to count, in some way, everyone who lived in that country from the Bolshevik Revolution onwward as a casualty, but that perhaps is a bit too metaphorical for most people's taste. What's certain is that Josef Stalin was the worst mass murderer in history--not that he was really qualitatively different from other totalitarian dictators (Alan Bullock's excellent Hitler & Stalin makes that creepily clear), but the sheer size of Russia gave him a much bigger canvas of people to destroy. No one ought to find anything about the Soviet Union funny. And the Cold War, though there was certainly a lot of mistakes made on our side (the scene with Indy and the FBI agents in Crystal Skull was queasily like a scene that could very well have taken place in a communist state), was necessary. Inglorious, but necessary. In other words, Applebaum does an incredible job.

Jesse Helms died yesterday, the bigot. Here's hoping he was the last of his kind.