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The worst of communism

May 11, 2003

As the son of Victor A. Kravchenko, one of the first Soviet defectors to inform the worldwide public about the Stalinist system, including the gulag labor camps, I feel it important to respond to Lesley Chamberlain's important review of "Gulag: A History" by Anne Applebaum ("Dark Side of the Moon," April 27).

First, Alexander Solzhenitsyn did not coin the word "gulag." It is the official Soviet term from the early 1930s, an abbreviation for the Soviet labor-camp system. Its usage appeared in the West in my father's book "I Chose Freedom," published by Scribner's in 1946, more than a quarter of a century before Solzhenitsyn wrote "The Gulag Archipelago," which was first published in Paris in 1973.

In 1989, Solzhenitsyn wrote me saying that he had "great admiration for [my] father and appreciate[d] his heroic deed about which we heard in the prison camps as if it were a myth." Solzhenitsyn was in the gulag when my father was in Paris.

The French Communist weekly "Les Lettres Francaises" claimed in 1947 that my father had not written "I Chose Freedom," which by this time was published in 22 countries, that he was a tool of the American Secret Service and that the book was full of lies. My father sued for libel. Celebrities who attended the 1949 trial included Simone de Beauvoir. Debates went on in the press about the concentration camps. Sartre was opposed to publicizing them, whereas Camus believed the truth should be told. This debate led to a fallout between the two. Chamberlain refers to "the difficulty of the elderly Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir to accept what Solzhenitsyn wrote," when in fact Sartre's difficulty began with the publication of my father's book and most especially, with the trial in 1949.

Chamberlain aptly writes: "The only person who can know is someone who was there." My father was there and told about it. My Ukrainian brother died because of what was done to him there, and a great many of my relatives perished there.

Andrew Kravchenko

Los Angeles

In writing about the historical evolution of the Soviet gulags, Chamberlain and Applebaum remind us of the atrocities perpetrated by the Soviets before, during and after World War II, not only on their own people but also on the hundreds of thousands of innocent inhabitants of Eastern European countries. Each June, the American Lithuanian community marks the anniversary of the tragic deportations and exile to Siberia of the multitudes of Lithuanians in 1941 and their subsequent deaths there. The recollection of such events remind us that Soviet atrocities should stand alongside the Nazi Holocaust whenever World War II is remembered and taught.

Marija S. Newsom

Los Angeles

In her review of Applebaum's "Gulag," Chamberlain cites, among other things, the naivete of Vice President Henry Wallace, who failed to recognize the evils of the Kolyma gulag, which he visited in 1944. Conversely, in his review of Norma Barzman's "The Red and the Blacklist" ("In Exile and Matrimony," April 27), Larry Ceplair apologizes for those of the Hollywood left who became Communists. "[T]heir knowledge of and commitment to communist ideology does not appear deep-dyed," Ceplair writes and adds that they simply joined the party of Stalin to fight for minority rights and day-care centers, and never, of course, did anything to "threaten to undermine the republic."

Ceplair ought to sit down with Chamberlain and discuss the moral equivalency of the actions of the American left in the 1950s with the realities of Stalinist life in the Soviet Union. Chamberlain, I suspect, would lump Ceplair -- and other Hollywood apologists -- together with other naifs like Henry Wallace.

Jim Downs


To say that "[u]nder communism, people slept more easily in their beds and led happier lives," as Chamberlain does, is laughable given that so many Russian families and communities were constantly on heart-stopping alert for that 2 a.m. knock on the door and a grueling, one-way ride to any of the gulag's many bleak outposts. What's more, Chamberlain's estimate of 2 million deaths in the Soviet labor camps is outrageously low and misses the more frightening and pernicious legacy of this era in Russian history.

Respected authors such as Solzhenitsyn and Robert Conquest have put the death toll far higher. Factoring in the number of Russian citizens summarily shot without trial between 1929 and 1953, the death toll from Stalinist paranoia and depravity could have easily topped 20 million. We may never know the true price in human suffering paid by the Soviet people for their catastrophic flirtation with communism.

Charles Davis

Thousand Oaks


Rebel, rebel

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