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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 8.1 (2007) 67-103

Out of Solitary Confinement
The History of the Gulag
Reviewed by
Kate Brown
Iu. N. Afanas´ev et al., eds., Istoriia stalinskogo Gulaga: Konets 1920kh–pervaia polovina 1950kh godov. Sobranie dokumentov, 7 vols. [History of the Stalinist Gulag: The End of the 1920s to the First Half of the 1950s. A Collection of Documents]. Moscow: Rosspen, 2004–5. ISBN 5824306044 (set). Individual titles and editors for each volume in notes.
Oleg Khlevniuk, The History of the Gulag: From Collectivization to the Great Terror. Translated by Vadim A. Staklo. 464 pp. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. ISBN 0300092849. $45.00.
Tomas Kizny, Gulag: Life and Death inside Soviet Concentration Camps. 496 pp., illus., maps. Richmond Hill, Ont.: Firefly Books, 2004. ISBN 1552979644. $69.95.

The arrests were admittedly indiscriminate and designed to inspire terror and disorientation. Some were taken off the street. Others were surprised in their beds in late-night roundups. One man was detained simply because he had a long beard, which suggested he might be a radical Muslim cleric. Once in the detention center, the detainees were led into a special room where they were told to face the wall and assume stress positions. Guards took turns watching to make sure no one slept or lay down, for days on end if need be, [End Page 67] until the detainees were willing to testify. The most resistant detainees were beaten while handcuffed or tied. At times, officers beat them to the point of "fanatical cruelty." One guard, particularly enjoying himself, humiliated the detainees by forcing them to dance, "cheering" up those who danced poorly with jabs from a sharply pointed stick. Another investigator smeared the detainees' heads with glue, and in winter forced them to "bathe" in a cold shower. When beatings induced death, prison-appointed medical doctors wrote up fictive medical reports. Since the detainees had not been officially charged, family members seeking information about their loved ones lined up outside the prison where the muffled cries of the beaten detainees slipped from the walls. Since most of the guards and interrogators did not know the native languages of the detained Muslims, confessions were often creatively constructed; in other words, investigators made them up. Subsequent investigations found that over one-third of the sentenced were innocent of any crime at all. Of course, this activity was not sanctioned by law. Investigators later looking into the abuses at the prison cited the articles of the Constitution that guaranteed "personal inviolability" and habeas corpus.1

Lest the reader mistake this account for a description of abuses in American prisons in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Cuba, I hasten to correct that impression. This account of prison abuse derives from a Soviet investigation of People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) and Gulag officials in Turkmenistan in 1939. I came across the records reading for this review essay in the seven-volume document collection Istoriia stalinskogo Gulaga and Oleg Khlevniuk's History of the Gulag. Since, as Senator Dick Durbin knows well (and paid for with his tears) there can be no comparison in current American culture of the monstrous and singular cruelties of the Gulag with American practices against civilians identified as "enemy combatants," I rush to make this qualification.2 The Gulag stands alone as signifier of senseless state repression, lawlessness, and cruelty.

Durbin cribbed the phrase "a Gulag of our time" from Amnesty International's 2005 report. He also quoted from Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) accounts of prisoners held in chambers of extreme heat or cold, chained naked to the floor without food and water, defecating on themselves, beaten, and forced to dance, lick their shoes and body parts, crawl and bark like dogs.3 Well after the abuses were made public, Vice President [End Page 68] Dick Cheney denied any mistreatment of detainees at Guantánamo. He said the detainees "have been well treated, treated humanely and decently." "Occasionally there are allegations of mistreatment...


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