Author discusses research on Russian gulags

During the 1990s, Russia was looking to a new, post-communist future while acclaimed journalist and historian Anne Applebaum ’86 was exploring one of the darkest elements of the country’s past: the gulags.

At a Tuesday lecture in Sterling Memorial Library, the Polish American foreign policy expert described her investigations of archives on the topic of Soviet concentration camps, a process she said has involved numerous visits to archival buildings in Russia and Germany, as well as to other countries in the region. Applebaum emphasized the role her interactions with the local populations have played in her research. The Pulitzer prize-winning author noted she hopes the talk, entitled “Hard Chairs, Bad Coffee, Top Secret Documents: Why I Love Post-Communism,” will be the first of a longer series on historical investigative work.

“No one told me that working in archives is not simple; it’s a very dry form of communication between author and scholar,” Applebaum said. She added that it has also often entailed traveling to bizarre places, meeting eccentric strangers and persuading them to help her.

Applebaum interspersed her lecture with anecdotes as she went on to describe her experiences in GARF -— the State Archive of the Russian Federation located in the country’s capital, which she first visited in the winter of 1996. In this vast, gray building, she explained, she enlisted the help of a worker named Sasha who knew the inside workings of the institution. With the help of this man, she was able to access a wealth of records on the Soviet prisons with relative ease, she said, noting that the relatively open political climate at the time allowed her to conduct her research freely.

Applebaum also described an experience that took place not far from the northern Russian city of Archangelsk, where she said the archival workers were so surprised to see a “lone American woman in a provincial farm city” that they spent their entire day helping her, trawling through heaps of documents and files. Many of her encounters, she said, were marked by the generosity and warmth of local officials: Sasha, a worker at GARF, once asked her to sing Beatles songs with him and they maintained a close relationship until his death several years ago.

“My advice to Russianists walking into provincial archives: make friends,” Applebaum said.

In spite of her positive experiences, Applebaum acknowledged that archival work could not reveal the entirety of a historical narrative, and many documents she encoutered were not useful in her research. After sifting through a vast amount of bills and receipts in Potsdam’s Stasi archives, for instance, she discovered that German secret agents enjoyed “luxurious dry-cleaning,” she said. But she maintained that documents and archives allow historians to unveil the thoughts and motives of the bureaucrats and policymakers of the past, adding that authors who support their research with archival materials produce works that are difficult to discredit. Ultimately, the process of exploring historical records reveals a unique human perspective to those endeavoring to study a specific era, she said.

In response to a question from the audience on whether her archival work colors her interpretation of current Russian foreign policy, Applebaum answered that her research has made it impossible for her to avoid historical comparisons. She singled out the current situation in Crimea, which she noted reminds her of the Sovietization of Eastern Europe in 1945. The rhetoric used by Russian politicians makes her “nervous,” she said.

“I really enjoyed how she brought a human dimension to an archivists’ work,” said Luka Kalandarishvili ’14, highlighting the fondness with which the author spoke about the friendships she made while researching the gulags.

Anne Applebaum won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for her book “Gulag: A History.”

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