Growing Up in the Gulag

childrengulag060710.jpgWriting in the New Republic, Anne Applebaum reviews the book Children of the Gulag.

When the propagandists said that Soviet citizens were becoming ever richer and better fed, many people were inclined to think that this could be true, even though they themselves lived poorly and badly. When the propagandists said that factories were booming and the harvest was successful, some people accepted this too, even though industrial products were unavailable and bread was rationed. And when the propagandists said that all Soviet citizens should thank Comrade Stalin for their happy Soviet childhood, many could not refuse this either. Even if they knew from personal experience that not all Soviet childhoods were happy, they could imagine that some really had been.

This strange relationship between real life and official fiction is one of the central subjects of Children of the Gulag, a significant and sickening book, which contains several different kinds of documentary evidence, as well as commentary. Much of the archival material here was published in Russian, in a volume (Deti Gulaga 1918-1956: Dokumenty) edited by Semyon Vilensky, one of this book’s co-authors. For that volume and this one, Vilensky also supplied some memoir material from the private archive of Vozvrashchenie (“Return”), an organization which he founded, and which is dedicated to the preservation of the memory of Stalin’s victims. Cathy Frierson, the other coauthor, has added some new material–notably interviews with survivors and with the children of survivors. This combination of sources allows Vilensky and Frierson to show the stark contrasts between official policies toward Soviet children and their actual experiences.