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> Columns > Boston Globe > A Long Way from the Gulag

A Long Way from the Gulag

By Cathy Young | June 14, 2005

NO PERSON of conscience, whatever his or her views on the war in Iraq, the war on terror, and US foreign policy in general, should remain untroubled by reports of prisoner abuse by American forces. These reports, including one from the FBI, indicate a systemic problem. It is appalling that in a war conducted in our name, detainees have been beaten, left naked and chained in cold cells, and in some cases killed. It is disturbing that suspects are held without legal recourse. It is sad, to say the least, that some war supporters have shrugged off these abuses.

Unfortunately, a recent Amnesty International broadside against US detention of terror suspects goes so far in the other direction that it can only harm the effort to end prisoner abuse and hold the culprits accountable. Notoriously, the organization's annual report described the Guantanamo Bay detention center as "the gulag of our times."

The gulag was, of course, the Soviet system of forced labor camps (the word is a Russian abbreviation for "chief administration of camps"), which flourished in the Stalin era and was immortalized in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's three-volume history, "The Gulag Archipelago" (1973-75). Unlike the Nazi concentration camps, it was not a deliberately designed extermination machine.

Nonetheless, in her 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Gulag: A History," journalist Anne Applebaum writes that after 1937, "the Soviet camps . . . transformed themselves from indifferently managed prisons in which people died by accident into genuinely deadly camps where prisoners were deliberately worked to death, or actually murdered" in large numbers.

Scattered across the great expanse of Siberia, the Soviet camps were hellholes where emaciated people were sometimes forced to work outdoors in temperatures of minus 58 degrees and workdays of up to 16 hours; where people died routinely of malnutrition, and those too weak to work had their rations docked for not fulfilling their work quota; where starved prisoners ate stray cats and picked food out of refuse heaps; where thousands were summarily shot for various infractions. Reliable statistics are difficult to come by, but at least 18 million people were imprisoned in the gulag from 1929 to 1953, and at least 2 million died there.

Most of these people were not even dissidents; they were thrown into the meat grinder on trumped-up charges of disloyalty or sabotage, or simply as relatives of "enemies of the people." Stalin's terror machine had quotas to fulfill. The victims mentioned by Solzhenitsyn include a man whose neighbor reported him in for turning off the radio during broadcasts of tributes to Stalin; another, a carpenter, was guilty of hanging his jacket on a Lenin bust while working. As a teenager in Russia in the 1970s, I heard such stories from my own family: The father of one of my mother's co-workers went to the gulag for "undermining the war effort" because, after Stalin's radio address following Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, he remarked that Stalin sounded sad. A family friend's aunt, a pianist, was imprisoned for playing a funeral march the day a popular general was arrested on treason charges. The purpose of the gulag was twofold: to keep the populace in fear and to keep the labor-camp industry going.

What about the "American gulag"? It's important to remember that the United States is dealing with the unprecedented situation of de facto enemy combatants who belong not to the army of a hostile state but to a vast, murky terror network a network that proved its deadliness on Sept. 11, 2001, and other occasions. This does not give us carte blanche for indefinite detention without charges, let alone torture of suspects, but it does pose serious issues of balancing civil rights and national security that other democracies, such as France, are grappling with as well. While the mistreatment of prisoners in US detention facilities has been too common to be dismissed as bad acts by a few bad apples, it remains the exception, not the rule.

Prisoner abuse remains a real issue. But Amnesty's comparison, which former Soviet political prisoner Vladimir Bukovsky characterizes as "stupid" and "an insult to the memory of millions who perished" in Soviet camps, does not help matters. Instead, it revives the tired specter of moral equivalency between flawed democracies and totalitarian dictatorships a specter particularly obscene when real gulags still exist in places like North Korea. It also gives the Bush administration an "out" to deflect attention from its own policies to its critics' hyperbole.

The hyperbole is wrong but that's cold comfort to those of us who believe America should hold itself to a higher standard than "we're better than the gulag."

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