A Pentagon report released earlier this month concludes that many American servicemen were imprisoned in the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. The “Gulag Study” was compiled by researchers for the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs, who have been investigating reports of Americans held in the vast network of Soviet forced labor camps.
“I personally would be comfortable saying that the number [of Americans in the gulags] was in the hundreds,” Norman Kass, executive secretary of the commission’s U.S. section, said when the report was released.
For more than a decade, researchers have investigated sightings of Americans in Soviet camps. The 90-page report is the fifth in a series of updates. A separate internal Pentagon document concludes that “there is a high probability” that American citizens and U.S. prisoners of war died in the camps.
Russian inaction has made the effort to confirm such information “a distinctly unilateral U.S. pursuit,” according to a written introduction to the report. And it speaks to a more general attitude of willful ignorance of a system which, between 1929 and the death of Soviet Communism, saw millions upon millions pass through its nightmarish bureaucracy.
Josef Stalin, the man responsible for perfecting that nightmare, is said to have remarked, “A single death is a tragedy — a million deaths is a statistic.”
But researchers who do the painstaking and indeed painful work of piecing together the history of the Gulag — by searching out stories of individuals — are bringing back into the light of history those whom Stalin succeeded for so long in making faceless.
Two years ago, Anne Applebaum’s publication of Gulag: A History was a major contribution to that effort. That work, which won a Pulitzer, gave an identity to some of the lives that make up a set of statistics — of arrest, torture, execution and slave labor of people who fed the meat-grinder of Soviet Communism. Applebaum wrote that, until recently, the history of Soviet concentration camps was “not at all well known.” She reminded us that, “to many people, the crimes of Stalin do not inspire the same visceral reaction as do the crimes of Hitler.”
While the Gulag was first established in the immediate postrevolutionary period, it was rapidly expanded during the 1930s in order to meet the targets set by Stalin’s five-year economic plan. The camps only grew from there — quite logically, in a system governed by an ideology that preached the enslavement of the individual for the sake of society. And yet ended with an entire society in chains.
Applebaum noted as one of her reasons for writing Gulag, “Already, we are forgetting what it was that mobilized us, what inspired us, what held the civilization of ‘the West’ together for so long: we are forgetting what it was that we were fighting against.”
For many, it is more expedient to forget, and that forgetfulness is made easier still when tyrants go to great lengths to make their victims faceless. Such tyranny is only defeated when we insist on the value of those individual lives, when we resist the temptation to allow those under its heel to be just a statistic.
Marina Malenic is a writer in Washington, D.C.