In recent years, it has become fashionable to point out that, contrary to their postwar protestations, few Germans were ever forced to work in concentration camps or killing squads. One scholar recently claimed that most had done so voluntarily--a view which has caused some controversy. In the case of Russia and the other post-Soviet states, the issue has to be examined differently. Very often, camp employees--like most other Soviet citizens--had few options. A labor committee simply assigned them a place of work, and they had to go there. Lack of choice was built right into the Soviet economic system.SOURCE: Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum (Anchor Books, 2003), pp. 269-270
Nevertheless, it is not quite right to describe the NKVD officers and armed guards as "no better off than the prisoners they commanded," or as victims of the same system, as some have tried to do. For although they might have preferred to work elsewhere, once they were inside the system, the employees of the Gulag did have choices, far more than their Nazi counterparts, whose work was more rigidly defined. They could choose to behave brutally, or they could choose to be kind. They could choose to work their prisoners to death, or they could choose to keep as many alive as possible. They could choose to sympathize with the prisoners whose fate they might have once shared, and might share again, or they could choose to take advantage of their temporary stretch of luck, and lord it over their former and future comrades in suffering.
Nothing in their past history necessarily indicated what path they would take, for both Gulag administrators and ordinary camp guards came from as many different ethnic and social backgrounds as did the prisoners. Indeed, when asked to describe the character of their guards, Gulag survivors almost always reply that they varied enormously. I put that question to Galina Smirnova, who remembered that "they were, like everyone, all different." Anna Andreeva told me that "there were sick sadists, and there were completely normal, good people." Andreeva also recalled the day, soon after Stalin's death, when the chief accountant in her camp suddenly rushed into the accounting office where prisoners were working, cheered, hugged them, and shouted, "Take off your numbers, girls, they're giving you back your own clothes!"
21 April 2005
Posted by Joel at 4/21/2005 09:36:00 AM