Bleak: Soviet inmates at the frozen prison camp in Norilsk, Siberia, in 1945. The camps, often in the middle of nowhere, were surrounded with barbed wire and watchtowers
By Michael Burleigh
The Gulag Archipelago, by the Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, is one of the greatest books of the 20th century.
It begins by describing the notorious Kolyma prison camps in the farthermost north-eastern corner of Siberia.
The camps were the Soviet gulags at their worst, where temperatures dropped below minus 50f — colder than at the North Pole.
The Kolyma region had been chosen because of its gold mines, and the Communist leaders forced skeletal and ill-clad prisoners to produce 80,000 kg of refined gold.
This was the mainstay of Stalin’s economy. Almost every kilogram cost a human life.
The camps, which were built in the late 1940s by the inmates themselves, often in the middle of nowhere, were surrounded with barbed wire and watchtowers.
Provided that prisoners were shot so that their feet faced towards the perimeter fence, guards could claim their deaths were the result of an escape attempt.
These gulags (the Russian acronym for ‘Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps and Colonies’) signified the whole Soviet slave labour system — a regime that reached its deadly peak under Stalin’s despotic rule and saw millions of men and women transported to Siberia and other outposts of the Red empire.
These horrific camps — there were more than 2,000 in total — had a joint economic and punitive purpose, whose prevailing philosophy was: ‘We have to squeeze everything out of a prisoner in the first three months; after that, we don’t need him any more.’
This dark penal empire existed from 1929 to 1960, during which period 14 million people were incarcerated.
They included political prisoners (such as Solzhenitsyn himself, who was jailed for supposed ‘anti-Soviet propaganda’), criminals, delinquents and hooligans who broke the laws of the Soviet police state.
Under Stalin's despotic rule, millions of men and women died
The U.S. historian Anne Applebaum estimates that a minimum of 2,750,000 people died in the gulag system.
The camps were but one aspect of a tyrannical socialist system that, from the beginning of the Russian Revolution in 1917, under Lenin, relied on extreme violence to purge Soviet society of its ‘class’ enemies.
About 14 million people were killed in the civil war that followed the revolution, five million of them in a famine triggered by the insane economic policies of the Bolshevik government.
A deliberate famine, designed to force peasants into collective farms, resulted in a further seven million deaths between 1928 and 1932.
Historians have compared conditions in some camps with those that Allied troops met in Hitler’s Belsen concentration camp, with starving people lying down waiting to die. Many survivors resorted to cannibalism.
Such a system — whose goal was ‘social justice’ — relied on any number of Western apologists to deny what others had witnessed first-hand.
Many of these were British academics, intellectuals and journalists. Among them were the founders of the London School of Economics, Sidney and Beatrice Webb.
They merely said of Stalin’s terror famine: ‘Strong must have been the faith and resolute the will of the men who, in the interest of what seemed to them the public good, could take so momentous a decision.’
When Stalin decided to purge entire swathes of the Communist party in the mid-1930s — resulting in 600,000 or so people being tortured and shot — Western apologists lined up to excuse actions that had been motivated by his envy, paranoia, hatred and spite.
The fact that the vengeance extended to the families and children of the Soviet butcher’s victims, and blighted the lives of others down the generations, was no hindrance to putting a rosy gloss on mass murder.
For Stalin established a few model prisons especially to show visiting Western dupes such as Professor Harold Laski, the mentor of Ralph Miliband at the LSE and chairman of the Labour Party.
Laski, who was seemingly not shocked by prisoners having their teeth smashed out with iron bars, reported back: ‘Basically, I did not observe much of a difference between the general character of a trial in Russia and in this country.’
Professor Harold Laski (above) was seemingly not shocked by prisoners having their teeth smashed out with iron bars. The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm (below) remained a supporter of Stalinism until the day he died
This pattern of exculpation of extreme brutality — provided it was meted out in the name of social justice — extended to justifying the infamous Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939, which led to their joint invasion of Poland, the occupation of the Baltic states by Russia, and the Soviet invasion of Finland.
Among Western socialist sympathisers of the Soviets was Ralph Miliband’s friend, the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, who claimed the real enemy was capitalism, not the two criminals in Berlin and Moscow.
Of course, every revolutionary organisation needs the fig-leaf of well-intentioned academics — and there was no shortage of such apologists. These were the kind of people whom Lenin had earlier called ‘useful idiots’.
The irony is that these Western intellectuals of the Left were the very people who should have been most suspicious of naked power.
But, in fact, they more often than not worshipped Stalin — demonstrating a shocking naivety, or, worse, a frightening amoralism worthy of Stalin himself.
Indeed, Hobsbawm remained a Communist Party member despite Soviet tanks rolling into Hungary in 1956.
He was still lecturing his Marxist creed to students and writing books at a time when Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in 1968, and during the period when thousands of dissidents were imprisoned or shot dead by execution squads.
Others were imprisoned in psychiatric hospitals for political reasons — although they were perfectly sane.
During these years, the people who lived under Communist regimes struggled to find food, while elite party members had exclusive use of luxury stores.
Uniformed Soviet personnel went to the front of any queue — as I witnessed myself in East German banks in the late-1970s.
Everywhere, too, freedom of the Press had been eliminated in favour of state newspapers, radio and TV that sung the praises of the Communist leadership and ‘heroic’ tractor drivers.
Religion was aggressively wiped out, with priests and nuns murdered, to make way for the new socialist creed.
Citizens were so afraid of what the secret police might overhear them saying that they could not trust even close friends in their own apartments.
Meanwhile, among the increasingly calcified minds in genteel Hampstead drawing rooms, tragedies affecting the lives of millions were no more than mere debating points, where they could expend their mock outrage, even as some of them climbed the Ruritanian heights of the British Establishment.
Feted by the bien pensant Left everywhere, men such as Laski, Hobsbawm and Miliband Snr specialised in talking in abstractions about real people, while men in the Siberian camps were forced to undertake heavy labour at gunpoint and try to avoid starving to death. (Although it must be stressed that Ralph Miliband never agreed with Hobsbawm over the latter’s refusal to condemn Stalinism’s 30 million dead, or the Soviet invasion of Hungary.)
For his part, Hobsbawm remained an utterly unapologetic supporter of Stalinism until the day he died.
He maintained that despite the millions of murders to which it led, the Russian Revolution of 1917 was a great cause to which he was right to remain loyal.
In 1994, when asked whether ‘the radiant tomorrow’ had actually been created in the Soviet Union, the deaths of 15 or 20 million people would have been justified, Hobsbawm replied: ‘Yes.’
This was the same man who is still feted in New Labour circles.
Indeed, he was made a Companion of Honour in Tony Blair’s first New Year’s Honours List in 1998.
And when he died last year, Ed Miliband released a statement mourning Hobsbawm as ‘a man passionate about his politics and a great friend of my family’.
While Ed Miliband feels aggrieved about the Mail’s profile of his father, he should surely realise that many people in Britain do not regard what happened to millions of people under Communism as a Hampstead parlour game — and that they feel as strongly about that as they rightly do about the Holocaust which cut a swathe through the Belgian branch of the Miliband family.
Michael Burleigh is author of Ethics And Extermination: Reflections On Nazi Genocide.