Snow comes up to your chest. You are a lumberjack. First you yourself stamp [the snow] down next to the tree trunk. You cut down the tree. Then, hardly able to make your way through the snow, you cut off all the branches (and you have to feel them out in the snow and get to them with your ax). Still dragging your way through the same loose snow, you have to carry off all the branches and make piles of them and burn them. (They smoke, they don’t burn.) And now you have to saw up the wood to size and stack it. And the work norm for you and your brother is for the day is six and a half cubic yards each, or thirteen cubic yards for two men working together… By then your arms would not be capable of lifting an ax nor your feet of moving.
The book (really books: he wrote several volumes) are not new, and many better reviewers have covered them. I’m not even going to try covering the whole thing here. The wikipedia page is detailed and interesting.
The author won the Nobel Prize for this work, and it’s easy to say why. The number of “oh my god” moments is high. The writing, by and large, is rich with detail and weaves an amazing story. The scale of destruction, punishment, and pain, is truly astounding. It pains me to just read the book, and of course I can barely imagine the pain of the actual prisoners.
I’ll probably refer to the book in future blog posts. I don’t have time to write a long review right now. But I wanted to put something out. Read this book if you can. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it. Especially the pieces where he talks about how at the Nuremburg Trials we all said “this can never happen again,” but it did, not too far away (in time nor space).
I had previously read a couple of Stalin and Lenin biographies, but this was a great complement of the view from the other side. The ordinary Soviet citizen at the time.
Check out this passage, describing forced labor in the forest. Imagine -20 degrees F and wearing loose cloth things for shoes. No boots, no coats, no hats. Walking 4 miles to work, working 10-12 hours, and then walking 4 miles back to the camp, where you sleep on the floor.