Thursday, May 26, 2005

Book review

My first shot at blog book reviewing was going to be Nelson: A Dream of Glory, but it got mixed up in the back-to-the-library books and went, strangely, back to the library. Good thing too, because the sucker is huge (943 pages). Need to do some weight training for that.

So now I've decided to review Oleg V. Khlevniuk's The History of the Gulag: From Collectivization to the Great Terror (2004), even though I'm only halfway through it. (I'm gonna be great at this.)

Oh, first here's an interesting factoid (actually the only one I remember) from Nelson: Yada-yada: British ships would occasionally fire on each other for what might strike sane people as microscopic breaches of naval protocol. Nelson himself shot a hunk off a sloop or shallop or jollyboat or maybe even a corvette because it didn't salute him correctly, the touchy soon-to-be-one-eyed little bastard.

Back to the Gulag

Khlevniuk's History of the Gulag is a perfect complement to Washington Post reporter Anne Applebaum's Gulag: A History (2003). Her too-brief overview of the system focused on how camp inmates lived. Khlevniuk, senior researcher at the State Archive of the Russian Federation, looks at it from the other side, reproducing documents from a wide variety of official sources as the Gulag became both an instrument of repression and a half-assed capitalist enterprise.

One of these documents is a memo from a provincial Gulag bureaucrat to his NKVD superior in Moscow, rather forlornly asking how he should respond to the complaints of relatives of those who were "shot for no reason whatsoever" in his province during the Great Terror. (As one official admitted, many such "excess excesses" had occurred.)

Relatives were never told that their loved one (or two) had undergone the "ultimate punishment," the official was informed, but that he was serving "a prison term in remote camps." When complaints continued, however, a circular to Gulag officials ordered them to simply "discontinue, until further notice, the review and examination of cases of those sentenced to the ultimate punishment . . ." In short, to ignore such cases and the nosy relatives who brought them. Bureaucracy made easy.

Well, not that easy

One of the best things in this fascinating book is a section of brief biographies of NKVD, Party, and camp officials. There are just over a hundred of these, and nearly two-thirds of them end heartwarmingly with "arrested in [month, year], shot in [month, year]."

Update: Heard Dennis Prager (or "Denis Praeger" as the New Criterion spelled it the other day and which was half-corrected and is still spelled wrong) conduct a slightly tetchy interview with Anne Applebaum about the Wapo's editorial today reprimanding Amnesty International for calling Gitmo "the gulag for our times." Fine, fine.

Update II: Dissing Nelson on the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar (via the Judd Bros.).

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