Gulag Voices

Gulag Voices: An Anthology, edited by Anne Applebaum, Yale University Press, $25.00.

A strange feeling of fascination arises from reading Gulag Voices: An Anthology, a well-chosen collection of excerpts from Gulag prisoners’ memoirs, selected and introduced by Pulitzer Prize winner and communist era specialist Anne Applebaum. In the thirteen accounts that reveal the subtler aspects of camp life, the authors invite the reader to safely penetrate an “alternate universe,” a “different world,” “a place you’ll probably never see.” The world described is, as we expect, a world of cynicism and vice, cruelty and evil, where “forgotten men” exposed to constant hunger, humiliation, backbreaking work, and the “disease of despair” are transformed into “wretched human tatters” before disappearing altogether. But the journey we are taken on proves to be more complex than merely diving into a “pool of filth, degradation and cynicism.” It’s a journey into an incredibly rich and sharp recollection of feelings and emotions, places and faces, mundane memories and spiritual thoughts, with room, restricted though it is, for encounters with morality, friendship, humor, joy, sex and even love. What’s really fascinating, therefore, is the firsthand exploration of human reactions to life in an inhuman place, and the reflection about the permeability between freedom and slavery, between good and evil. The memoirs of these authors, all political prisoners with very different personal experiences, constitute primary sources that take the reader far beyond the duty of memory towards the dead, into the depths of the human heart where, as Solzhenitsyn disclosed when he wrote The Gulag Archipelago, “the line separating good and evil passes.”