I’m still reading Anne Applebaum’s “Gulag”. One thing I like about her writing is the way she tells about marks the gulags left on the landscape. (Historical “marks on the landscape” is what a lot of my Spokesrider blog is about, too.) I don’t know if Putin would allow her to see all those things anymore, but she was able to visit a number of the sites. She tells how one can still see depressions that are left from the semi-dugout zemlyanka structures where prisoners lived in temporary camps at the building sites of roads and railways in Siberia. And she remarks on how all that’s left of a number of the camps are the “punishment isolators,” one of which was being used by an Armenian car mechanic at the time of writing.
Of course, the marks they’ve left on people are the more important thing. What is it like living with those of the older generation who once were prison guards and administrators?
And of course, what about the prisoners?
I actually met one of them, back in 1965. I looked him up just yesterday, and saw from a Wikipedia article that he died just last November. This was John Noble, who had written a couple of books about his experiences. He was born in Detroit, and was living outside Dresden when the Soviet army came. He was a prisoner until sometime after Stalin’s death. I think his books are still in our house somewhere. I saved one of them when my daughter thought she would clean out some of our stuff a few years ago. They had made quite an impression on me at the time. One of them was titled, “I was a slave in Russia.” When Anne Applebaum wrote about the establishing of the prison camps at Vorkuta, I recognized that name as one where John Noble had been. Now, thanks to the maps in her book, I have a better idea where it is.
In 1965 I was at a summer camp for highschoolers that was put on by the Minnesota Farm Bureau. Our principal said the Farm Bureau wanted to pay for two students from our school to attend, and asked if I’d like to be one of them. The Farm Bureau was a conservative, Republican type of organization, and that’s the type of program that was put on. I do remember meeting some of my first proto-campus-radicals there, who would soon be heading off to college, too, and who weren’t buying what was said. I liked it pretty well, though. I had read John Noble’s books long before that, and was glad to get a chance to meet him. I was surprised that he was such a small man. Afterwards I asked him whatever happened to the radio show that he was going to be doing, and he gave some answer that didn’t explain much. As far as I know, the radio program never came off.
But even before I ever heard of John Noble, I had heard about the midnight knock on the door. I am told kids of my generation grew up fearing the nuclear bomb. I certainly heard about atomic weapons when I was in elementary school, and about what they could do, but what I really learned to fear was the midnight knock on the door. I’ve been fascinated by the prison camp genre ever since, but I guess not fascinated enough to have read Anne Applebaum’s book before now.
Much of what she writes about life in the prison camps is familiar to me, from my reading of Noble, Solzhenitsyn, and others, but there is much new information, too, to put their accounts in perspective. More on that some other time.