One of the most important books published this past summer was Anne Applebaum’s Gulag. In a recent speech, she explained some of the reasons why the horrors of the Soviets aren’t as viscerally remembered today by society as a whole as the Nazis were:
Do we, in the West, remember the Soviet past any better [than Russia does today]? One of the reasons I wrote this book was because I really encountered this subject only while living in Eastern Europe, and I started to wonder why.
Since there are a lot of writers in the room today, I think I can also confess that I was further inspired by an irritating New York Times review of my first book, in 1994, which was about the Western borderlands of the former Soviet Union. Although largely positive, of course, it contained the following line:
Here occurred the terror famine of the 1930s, in which Stalin killed more Ukrainians than Hitler murdered Jews. Yet how many in the West remember it? After all, the killing was so–so boring, and ostensibly undramatic.
Were Stalin’s murders boring? Many people think so. Put differently, the crimes of Stalin do not inspire the same visceral reaction as do the crimes of Hitler.
Ken Livingstone, a former British member of Parliament, now Mayor of London, once struggled to explain the difference to me. Yes, the Nazis were “evil,” he said. But the Soviet Union was “deformed.” That view echoes the feeling that many people have, even people who are not old-fashioned members of the British Labor Party: The Soviet Union simply went wrong somehow, but it was not fundamentally wrong in the way that Hitler’s Germany was wrong.
Until recently, it was possible to explain this absence of popular feeling about the tragedy of European communism in the West as the logical result of a particular set of circumstances. The passage of time is part of it: Communist regimes really did grow less reprehensible as the years went by. Nobody was very frightened of General Jaruzelski, or even of Brezhnev, although both were responsible for a great deal of destruction. Besides, archives were closed. Access to camp sites was forbidden. No television cameras ever filmed the Soviet camps or their victims, as they had done in Germany at the end of the Second World War. No images, in turn, meant that the subject, in our image-driven culture, didn’t really exist either.
I’d like to think that Applebaum’s book will help change that, but given how Saddam Hussein’s record is being ignored by many today, I’m not very hopeful.