The Way Back: The Soviet Gulags
Colin Farrell stars as Valka in "The Way Back," directed by Peter Weir and also starring Jim Sturgess and Ed Harris. The film, which is about the Gulags in Soviet Russia, is being released by Newmarket Films on December 29.
The Gulags were multi-national facilities, holding ‘citizen’ prisoners (collected from across the vast Soviet empire, encompassing numerous time zones and languages) and foreigners alike. Northeast Siberia, where the film’s protagonists are held, was the most notorious. And deadly. Temperatures dipped to –70 degrees.
Operational since the 19th century, the remote Siberian penal system that later became infamously organized as “Gulags” (an acronym for Glavnoye Upravleniye Lagere – the Soviet security apparatus that ran the camps) housed more than a million prisoners by 1910, including Lenin and Stalin. The number of camps was greatly expanded, possibly to thousands, large and small, and the conditions worsened after the Communist takeover led by Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin.
Ironically, the ‘Workers Revolution’ changed the prisons from just incarceration to slave labor camps! Apart from street crime and political offenses, the sins punishable by deportation to a Gulag were many and varied: being too “individualistic,” making a joke about a Communist official, having been abroad, practicing religion, being late for work on more than three occasions…along with a litany of other “crimes” from the inane to the profane. And it wasn’t merely the “guilty” that suffered. Families, friends or neighbors were often punished. Late night arrests, torture, lengthy and wretched incarcerations, forced confessions, and an arduous deportation—by rail and foot—were standard procedure.
As the USSR’s economy became more dependent on slave labor (most of the country’s mining, as well as huge industrial construction enterprises, such as the Moscow-Volga Canal, were carried out by inmates) even more “offenses” became punishable by deportation to Gulags.
The Soviets did not practice meticulous record keeping; exact figures of the number of inmates and subsequent deaths inside the Gulags are difficult to ascertain. Anne Applebaum, in her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag: A History estimates some 18 million prisoners went to the Gulags. She believes close to five million perished, while other sources quote even higher figures.
Stanford’s Hoover Institution, where the filmmakers conducted invaluable research, is currently archiving thousands of KGB files released in 1999. It has stated that the average life expectancy of a Gulag prisoner was one winter, that 12 percent of the country’s 195 million people were incarcerated, and that the Gulag bureaucracy was one of the largest employers in Europe.
Despite such seminal works as Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, Applebaum’s aforementioned book, and more recent tomes such as Martin Amis’ House of Meetings, the horrors of the Soviet Gulags under Stalinist Russia and beyond seem to have escaped contemporary scrutiny, perhaps because the brutality and death rates cannot even be imagined, much less comprehended. Consider: the equivalent of the combined populations of metropolitan New York, London and Paris were sent as slaves to work, suffer, and, for many, die in the Gulags.
Even during the greatest conflict in human history, in which the Soviet Union was fighting for its very existence against German forces, Stalin continued to compound the country’s devastating combat deaths with ten thousand weekly arrests, causing additional innocent fatalities each month in the Gulags.
Millions of Soviets perishing in war, millions dying of starvation or disease, and yet, incomprehensibly, millions more still being allowed to succumb in the Gulags.
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