Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Gulag: A History & My Promised Land

For the past month I’ve been laid up with a herniated disc.  Two weeks of being bed-ridden were followed by a little spine surgery, which has been followed by a couple more weeks of spending a lot of time lying flat on my back.  I haven’t tied my shoes, washed dishes, or worn big-boy pants in a month.  I have, however, done a lot of reading and a modicum of viewing.  In the next couple of days, I’ll be rolling out what I’ve learned.

Gulag: A History by Anne Applebaum
Looking down the barrel of a surgeon’s knife, I decided to tackle a 500 page tome on the Soviet prison camp system.  I figured that a) not being able to move would help/force me to plow through this bitter and brutal history, and b) from a personal perspective, I figured that though I was laid up and facing a surgery with potentially scary side effects, that I would be reminded that things could always be worse.  Reading Gulag: A History, there is no question that things were worse.  Gulag is an exhaustive look at the history, the inner machinations of, and the politics surrounding the gulag.   The gulag was the soviet prison system.  Driven by Stalin’s political paranoia, the system filled up with millions of Soviets.  Though there were some hardened criminals, many of the prisoners were arrested on dubious pretenses.  Indiscriminate sweeps of Ukranians, Poles, Balts and Jews landed many innocents in the gulag.  The system was also filled by political prisoners who were accused of being enemies of the state. The gulag was not only driven by Stalin’s paranoia, but there was the false hope that the gulag could be an economic engine for the foundering Soviet Union.  Prison labor was slave labor that the Soviet Union hoped could mine precious materials from the land, build vast public works projects, like canals, fell timber, and help drive the economy.

Applebaum, who penned the excellent Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956, does a great job discussing the politics that brought on the birth of this prison system, looks at the leaders and administrators who ran the system, and how the system transforms as Soviet Politics transform.  Though the gulag was at its peak between the 1920s and 1950s, Applebaum traces the dissolution of the system through Glasnost and looks at how the prison system transforms through the 80s.  Gulag also traces the life of the prisoner from arrest, transport to the camps, and acclimation to the camps.  It focuses on the types of work, the types of rewards and punishments.  It looks at the life of the guards, and it looks at the possibilities of escape.  Gulag also looks at and differentiates the types of prisoners from political prisoners to hardened criminals to peasants whose arrests were brought on because they bristled at the notion of forced collectivization. Regardless of their point of origin, life in the camps was brutal.  Food was scarce, tools to do the work were rudimentary to non-existent, clothing was threadbare, living conditions were frightening, there was violence amongst the prisoners and between prisoner and guard, and if you were placed in a northern camp above the arctic circle, life was mighty cold. In short, it was a brutal life.

One fascinating element is the number of memoirists who emerged from the gulag.  Each chapter is lead off by a beautiful poem or piece of writing encapsulating the chapter to come.  I found that to be a nice touch.  Gulag is worth the read.  But be forewarned, it is long.  At times it feels like a very detailed master’s thesis. Applebaum is an excellent writer who is at her best when she takes the long view, analyzing and looking at the big picture.  She kills it in the intro and the epilogue.  At times though, the body of the book feels like a long list of atrocities.  It’s a list that people need to hear, but when your done, you will feel release.

My Promised Land by Ari Shavit
While mired deep in the Gulag my dad sent me Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.  I picked it up, read the first chapter and was hooked, and thus began my pas de deux, simultaneously reading two historical books.  I rarely read two books at once, but it was quite enjoyable.  The gulag by day, Israel by night.

My Promised Land is an enthralling look at the history of Israel and the Zionist endeavor.  Given the current state of politics, Israel and the Occupation are hot potato topics.  There is much anger and vitriol, and courtesy of social media like Facebook, a lot of ranting and raving. Everyone has an opinion, but I always wonder how much people really know about the situation.  I certainly know a bit of the history of the Middle East, but I’ll be the first to admit that I have large blind spots, and a perspective informed by being from a family whose grandparents came from Poland and the Ukraine to help settle Palestine in the 20s.  I think everyone, regardless of political stance, could probably stand to know more about the situation, myself included.

I loved My Promised Land, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking to gain some perspective on current day politics and the history that got us to this moment in time.  It is by no means an exhaustive look at the history, but Shavit looks at critical moments and events in Israeli history, explores them deeply and tries to relate them to today’s conflicts.  He does so as someone who believes in the State of Israel, but someone who sees big flaws in the State and its politics.

Shavit is a Haaretz reporter, and a peacenik who squarely comes out against occupation.  That said he is proudly Zionist and believes in the necessity of the state of Israel.  The book starts by looking at the Zionist movement of the early 20th century and how its fueled by the hostility towards European Jews and the coming holocaust that will wipeout 6 million Jews. Against this backdrop the necessity for a Jewish homeland seems paramount.  Shavit spend a lot of time looking at the early Zionists, their fierce determination, their collective spirit, their relationship to the land and to the Arabs in the land.  At the crux of My Promised Land is Shavit’s realization that if one believes in the necessity of the Jewish State, displacement of part of the Arab population is wrapped up in that belief.  Though we spend so much time focused on post-1967 occupation, at the core of the challenge of modern Israel is 1948. Zionism was all about finding a safe haven for Jews in a hostile world, but the ultimate and unfortunate byproduct of that desire was the displacement of an Arab population.  The book continually circles back to this premise and Shavit spends much time trying to understand this dichotomy.

The book is a fascinating history of the development of Israel from its 20s roots to its modern complexities.  My Promised Land looks at the various waves of Jewish immigration and the political movements that have shaped Israeli politics and culture.  Shavit continually looks at all those movements though the lens of where we are at now politically.  He looks at key moments of the early Zionists, he looks at key battles in 1948, he looks at the budding prosperity of the 50s, the nuclear program of the 60s, and the critical wars of 1967 and 1973.  Interestingly he points to the failures of the Yom Kippur war as the turning point in Israeli politics, at how that defeat and the ensuing political malaise gave birth to the settler movement.  He interviews key players in the early settler movement and explores the Occupation. He explores the peace movement and looks at his time as a soldier in Gaza in 1991.  He also spends time trying to understand the ultra-orthodox movement and how shifting demographics and economics are continually affecting modern Israel.

This was a great and eye opening read that delves deep into Israeli history and the Israeli psyche.  No matter what side of the political debate you’re on, I’d highly recommend My Promised Land.

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