Visitors to Russia are happy to snap up Soviet memorabilia featuring hammer-and-sickle emblems, but visitors to Germany would recoil at the idea of buying swastika trinkets. Despite earlier works by former prisoners, the Soviet concentration-camp system has never haunted the popular imagination the way the Nazi version has. Anne Applebaum's 677-page "Gulag: A History," the most authoritative--and comprehensive--account of this Soviet blight ever published by a Western writer, puts the Gulag in its rightful, horrifying place.
In theory, the Gulag was a system of forced labor rather than a death machine. But of the 18 million people sent there between 1929 and 1953, Applebaum points to a death count of almost 3 million, which is far from a complete tabulation. Drawing on a flood of new memoirs and documents from archives, Applebaum paints a mesmerizing picture of starvation, torture, sadism and, sometimes, incredible resistance and heroism. When Nikita Khrushchev acknowledged "grave abuse" in 1956, one Politburo member argued against rehabilitating the prisoners too quickly. Otherwise, he warned, "it would be clear that the country was not being run by a legal government but by a group of gangsters." Which is exactly the case Applebaum makes with elegant restraint, allowing the brutal record to speak for itself.