Beyond the Book: Background information when reading House of Meetings

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House of Meetings

by Martin Amis

House of Meetings by Martin Amis
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2007, 256 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2008, 256 pages

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A Short History of the Gulag

The Soviet system of forced labor camps known as the Gulag spanned nearly four decades of Soviet history and affected millions of individuals. GULAG is an acronym of Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagereian which, depending on the source, translates as "The Main Directorate for Corrective Labor Camps" or "Main Camp Administration". The earliest camps were established in 1919, by 1939 about 1.6 million were incarcerated. Over time, the word "Gulag" has come to signify not only the administration of the concentration camps but also the system of Soviet slave labor itself, in all its forms including labor camps, punishment camps, criminal and political camps, women's camps, children's camps and transit camps.

Prisoners included murderers, thieves and other common criminals, plus many political and religious dissenters. During World War II Gulag numbers declined significantly with the mass conscription of prisoners - penal battalions were sent directly to the front line and thrown into the most dangerous battles. After WWII the number of prisoners rose sharply reaching about 2.4 million. These included large numbers of civilians from Russian territories which came under foreign occupation during the war, and territories annexed by the Soviet Union after the war. In addition, it was not uncommon for survivors of the Nazi camps to be transported directly to the Soviet labor camps.

The Gulag camps, located mainly in remote regions of Siberia and the Far North, made significant contributions to the Soviet economy. Gulag prisoners constructed the White Sea-Baltic Canal, the Moscow-Volga Canal, the Baikal-Amur main railroad line, numerous hydroelectric stations, and strategic roads and industrial enterprises in remote regions. Gulag prisoners also supplied much of the manpower for the Soviet Union's lumber and mining industries.

Conditions in the camps were extremely harsh, clothing and food were inadequate making it extremely difficult to endure the extreme Northern temperatures and long working hours. In addition, prisoner abuse by both guards and other prisoners was rife. As a result, the death rate from exhaustion and disease in the camps was high. According to declassified archives, there were about 1.6 million recorded deaths in "corrective labor camps" and "corrective labor colonies" between 1930 - 1956.

Even on their release many former prisoners were not truly free - many were restricted from settling in larger cities and, having served long terms, had often lost their job skills and social contacts. Thus, on release, many volunteered to become "free settlers" close to the camps.

Stalin (General Secretary from 1922 - 1953) died in 1953. Following Nikita Khurshchev's 1954 denouncement of Stalinism, the Gulag population was reduced significantly as the release of political prisoners became widespread. Forced labor camps continued to exist on a small scale into the Gorbachev period (1985 -1991) but advances in democratization drastically reduced the numbers of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience.


Interesting Links:

The website of Anne Appelbaum, author of Gulag: A History, winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for non-Fiction.

An article at the NY Times (requires free login) about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's massive 1,800 page non-fiction work, The Gulag Archipelago (he likened the scattered camps to a chain of islands), that covers the gulag period from 1918 to 1956. He wrote it between 1958-68 but it was not published in the West until 1974.

A number of other authors including Alexander Dolgun, Varlam Shalamov and Yevgenia Ginzburg, have also written about their personal experiences in the gulag.

This article was originally published in February 2007, and has been updated for the January 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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