The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements by Lynne Viola - review by Donald Rayfield

Donald Rayfield

The Kulak Tragedy

The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements


Oxford University Press 304pp £17.99

This is the story of a holocaust, one that involves the brutal liquidation not of a race but of a class: the kulaks, the relatively prosperous Russian peasantry of the end of the 1920s. If we compare it with the Holocaust, the numbers of deaths and the amount of human suffering are of the same horrendous order. In many ways, Stalin (and many other Bolsheviks, including Trotsky) loathed the peasantry with the same irrational intensity with which the Nazis hated the Jews. The persecution of the kulaks, like that of the Jews, had a logic: bringing out the worst in human nature, it welded the rest of the population to the state in a vindictive demonisation that concentrated the blame for all the nation’s privations onto one easily identifiable group. Stalin’s logic was perhaps more persuasive than Hitler’s. While the extermination of the Jews wasted and diverted badly needed labour and resources from the German war effort, the oppression of the kulaks was intended to provide a pool of slave labour that would modernise and urbanise the Soviet Union.

Like so much in Russia’s history, the effects of a brutal policy were both tempered and worsened by its shambolic execution. If the Nazis were clear on what a Jew was and how they should be dealt with, the Soviet secret police and their officials had little idea what a

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