Once in a while I like to read a book that has nothing to do with my field of expertise. For example, I might read something in the field of archaeology, the sciences, or something completely unrelated to business and entrepreneurship.

This time around, I decided to check out Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum. It took me longer to finish this book, and while it is true that it is a thick book, that is not the reason why it took so long; rather, the reason why it took so long is that it is a difficult read, and it is a book that challenges the reader emotionally.

Even though I started reading the book in September of 2022, it wasn’t until January of 2023 that I finally finished it. It was a heart-wrenching read, one of the most painful work of non-fiction I’ve ever encountered.

You read a line, and it completely blows your mind to the point where you can’t continue reading as if you weren’t surprised a few seconds earlier. This completely stops you in your tracks.

So here is an example:

“The northern mosquitoes were used to punish the prisoners. There was a square cordoned off by the barbed wire—a marshy shoreline and large boulders. On one of those large, table like boulders, they put the prisoners stripped naked with guards all around them. They had to stand there without stirring. The midges and mosquitoes fly in thick clouds there, they covered the prisoners and bit them. I remember the punishment of the “little Christs,” prisoner from a religious sect who considered it a sin to give their name or work for the “Antichrists,” when asked their name, they answered, “God knows.” To break their resistance, they used mosquito punishment. Then the commandant ran up to them and said: “Now, we’ll finish you off, you scoundrels!” When the guards had already loaded up…stop filming…it’s very upsetting to talk about.”

This book is horrifying because it tells the story of the Gulag in the Soviet Union, starting with how it was started by Lenin.

Books like “The Gulag” serve as a grim reminder of the cruelty that certain people are capable of. It is astonishing to see how somebody’s hatred may drive them to act inhumanely toward other individuals.

The Gulag was the government agency in charge of the Soviet network of forced labour camps which were set up by order of Vladimir Lenin, reaching its peak during Joseph Stalin’s rule from the 1930s to the early 1950s.

“Gulag: A History” by Anne Applebaum is a detailed and well-researched examination of the Soviet Union’s system of forced labor camps, known as the Gulag.

The book provides a comprehensive history of the Gulag, from its origins in the early days of the Soviet regime to its eventual demise in the 1950s.

The Gulag system and the system of apartheid in South Africa share some similarities, but they also have some important differences.

Both systems were characterised by the systematic oppression and marginalisation of certain groups of people. In the case of the Gulag, it was primarily political prisoners and “enemies of the state” who were targeted, while in South Africa it was primarily Black people. Both systems also involved forced labor and the use of camps and prisons to detain people.

At times the amount of detail was close to overwhelming. Applebaum puts all the facts into powerful frameworks without losing the arguments and uncertainty caused by partial and missing information. Her history combines data, history, politics, personal history, and literary excerpts.



This book impacted me on so many levels, I was absorbed and utterly fascinated with every word I read. This is a well-researched and scholarly book on a rarely discussed subject.

Applebaum’s writing is clear and engaging, and she effectively uses a variety of primary sources, including personal accounts and government documents, to paint a vivid picture of life in the camps.

Additionally, the author’s research and analysis is thorough, and she does a great job of placing the Gulag within the broader context of Soviet history.

Overall, “Gulag: A History” is an excellent and highly informative book that is essential reading for anyone interested in the Soviet Union and the history of human rights.

The book provides a deep understanding of the history of Soviet Union, the totalitarian regime and the political repression, it also gives insight on the human rights violations that happened in the past. It will be beneficial for students of history, political science and anyone interested in understanding the past and its impact on the present.

Overall, “Gulag: A History” is an excellent and highly informative book that I would definitely recommend to anyone interested in the Soviet Union and the history of human rights.

Favourite quotes:

  • “An enemy of the people is not only one who commits sabotage, but one who doubts the rightness of the Party line.”… women were arrested as “wives of enemies of the people” and the same applied to children.”
  • “it is true that both the Red Army and the secret police traditionally gave vodka to soldiers who were being asked to do dirty work: empty bottles are almost always found inside mass graves.”
  • “In our camps, you were expected not only to be a slave labourer, but to sing and smile while you worked as well. They didn’t just want to oppress us; they wanted us to thank them for it.”
  • “With no warning, the NKVD had plucked these newcomers – Poles, Ukrainians, Belorussians, and Moldavians – out of their bourgeois or peasant worlds after the Soviet invasion of multiethnic eastern Poland, Bessarabia, and the Baltic States, and dumped them in large numbers, into the Gulag and exile villages.”
  • “Those who can walk will walk. Protest or not—all will walk. Those who can’t walk—we will shoot.”
  • “Decades of propaganda, of posters draped across orphanage walls, thanking Stalin “for our happy childhood”, failed to convince the Soviet people that the children of the camps, the children of the streets, and the children of the orphanages had ever become anything but full-fledged members of the Soviet Union’s large and all-embracing criminal class.”
  • “There was no one home and finally I was able to weep freely.
    To weep for my husband, who perished in the cellars of the Lubyanka, when he was thirty-seven years old, at the height of his powers and talent; for my children, who grew up orphans, stigmatized as the children of enemies of the people; for my parents, who died of grief; for Nikolai who was tortured in the camps; and for all of my friends who never lived to be rehabilitated but lie beneath the frozen earth of Kolyma.”
  • “Allegiance to a belief system can have deep, non-rational roots,”
  • “The more we are able to understand how different societies have transformed their neighbors and fellow citizens from people into objects, the more we know of the specific circumstances which led to each episode of mass torture and mass murder, the better we will understand the darker side of our own human nature. This book was not written “so that it will not happen again,” as the cliché would have it. This book was written because it almost certainly will happen again. Totalitarian philosophies have had, and will continue to have, a profound appeal to many millions of people. Destruction of the “objective enemy,” as Hannah Arendt once put it, remains a fundamental object of many dictatorships. We need to know why—and each story, each memoir, each document in the history of the Gulag is a piece of the puzzle, a part of the explanation. Without them, we will wake up one day and realize that we do not know who we are.”
  • “No one wants to be told that there was another, darker side to Allied victory, or that the camps of Stalin, our ally, expanded just as the camps of Hitler, our enemy, were liberated… No one wants to think that we defeated one mass murderer with the help of another.”

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