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Reviewed by:
  • Enemies of the State: Personal Stories from the Gulag
  • Paul Hollander
Donald T. Critchlow and Agnieska Critchlow , eds., Enemies of the State: Personal Stories from the Gulag. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2002. 276 pp. $26.00.

Thirteen years after the collapse of Soviet Communism much remains to be learned in the West about the human costs of what was once called "the Soviet experiment" and other similar undertakings. Western academic specialists have shown rather limited interest in a better understanding of the vast scale of political violence committed by Communist states—outrages that generally attracted much less attention than the mass murders of the Nazis. Except for the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, witnesses to these atrocities have often been treated with indifference or skepticism, and at times outright hostility. To this day we still find Western intellectuals who had high hopes about "existing socialist systems" and who are irritated by the first-hand reports of the crimes and malfunctioning of those systems.

McCarthyism and the Vietnam War gave rise to "anti-anti-Communism" among many liberal intellectuals, the disposition to consider anti-Communist attitudes somewhat disreputable and in poor taste. This view rests on the idea that Communism was not a real threat and its inequities were dwarfed by those of capitalism and the United States.

Anti-Communist views have remained, in such circles, associated with McCarthyism and the politics of extreme right-wing elements. The Vietnam War, seen by many as a particularly destructive manifestation of anti-Communist beliefs, further eroded the moral standing of the critics of Communism. Interest in the repressive policies of Communist systems largely vanished in academia. Concurrently, academic "revisionists" held the United States responsible for the Cold War and worked hard to revise downward the estimate of the number of victims of Soviet Communism.

The Vietnam War was followed by the rise of the belief in the moral (or amoral) equivalence of the two superpowers. Even the collapse of Soviet Communism and the resulting access to new information about the unsavory record of Communist states has failed to make anti-Communism more respectable among many Western intellectuals. [End Page 206] Surprisingly few academic specialists have used the new opportunities to study the repression peculiar to Communist systems.

Under these conditions the volume under review is a welcome reminder of some of the darkest chapters of twentieth-century history. It contains ten well-chosen, authentic excerpts from books by authors who experienced the repressive policies and institutions of six different Communist states. Three of the selections pertain to the Soviet Union, three to China, and one each to Cuba, Hungary, Romania, and Vietnam. Most of the books were originally published in the 1950s and 1960s, one in 1971, and two in 1986. The most memorable and better known of the writings reprinted are by Elinor Lipper, Béla Szasz, Robert Loh, and Doan Van Toai.

The editors' decision to exclude writings dating before the 1950s resulted in the omission of the peak decade of Stalinist terror, the 1930s, which was the most destructive and important chapter in the history of Soviet repression. This omission also prevented them from sampling the "classics" of the genre.

The decision to start with the 1950s rests on a baffling objective, namely "to provide the reader with a sense of the history of anti-Communism in the United States" (p.14) by relating the readings to anti-Communist movements and groups that emerged after World War II. The editors write in the introduction:

The history of these revelations and denials [in Nikita Khrushchev's "Secret Speech"] reveals much about the nature of communism.... Of equal interest, however, is the influence of this 'gulag' literature on anti-communists in Europe and the United States. Accounts of life in communist prisons developed a wide audience among anti-communist conservatives.... Often published by conservative publishing houses ... the books were avidly read by anti-communists on the grassroots level as confirmations of the nature of communism.... Memoirs of survivors of communist prisons reinforce beliefs that the communists could not be trusted .

(pp.4-5, emphasis added)

The editors fail to explain or substantiate the puzzling claim that the influence of the gulag...