Camp culture

Television

BBC2's Gulag was a triumph of serious film-making and of serious scheduling. Showing Angus Macqueen's documentary over three hours on a Saturday night in high summer affronted the viewer into the degree of concentration this difficult film demanded. It was not an easy watch. The story it had to tell could not have been grimmer - as many as 20 million were killed in Stalin's great experiment and we heard from both those who had survived and those who had done the killing. But formally, too, Gulag refused to accommodate. It was delivered without commentary and with subtitles, rather than voiced translations: not only three hours about Russia, but three hours almost entirely in Russian.

Its first images were of a party of friends cycling through sun-dabbed countryside. The three unpacked their spades and started digging. It was characteristic of the programme's method that we had to wait another 30 minutes to discover where they were - at an execution site - and what they were digging for: perhaps 35,000 bodies. As the turf was cut, anonymous old-time faces were superimposed. Almost two hours later a priest escorted us around another of Stalin's killing fields and opened the Butovo Book of the Dead, letting us in on whom the faces had belonged to.

Forcing us to make our own connections was Macqueen's way of telling us that unearthing this secret history was hard work all round. "What sort of question is that?" asked the secret police driver when Macqueen asked what state his passengers were in when he collected them after six hours of interrogation. It was a faux naIf question, like many of Macqueen's, but with apologists around to say that Stalin just followed the honourable tradition of torture pioneered by Peter the Great, Macqueen could hardly risk registering anything less than consistent shock.

In contrast, most of his eyewitnesses told their story with detailed disinterest. It was blessed catharsis when we came upon Jadwiga Malewicz (sentenced to ten years for counter-revolution). She was not afraid to cry for her past. Reliving her 12-hour shifts, for which, if she filled her quota, she would be rewarded with a loaf of bread, she wept: "It was hell, perhaps worse than hell." She had been informed on for warning a girl to stop working, lest she kill herself. She had not, she said, done a good deed since.

Initially, the portrait of Stalin's tyranny that emerged was ludicrously Kafkaesque. Arrests were indiscriminate: academics, opera singers, children, a family who had emigrated from South Africa specifically to join Stalin's great experiment. Confessions were beaten from people with no clue as to what they were supposed to be confessing to. On the equation's other side, punishment was made to fit not the imagined crime but the economy and Stalin's scheme of canal digging, construction, lumber production and mining. Gradually, however, you saw the genius in Stalin's madness. Arresting the innocent was the thermostat on the climate of fear that would prevent a counter-revolution. The system also needed millions upon millions of slaves. When a dam burst on the Volga canal, the hole was plugged by the live, human Polyfilla of those who were building it. Killing most of the survivors - such as the canal's head of construction - after its grand opening looks carelessly OTT but was actually the only effective guarantee of the terrible Soviet secret.

The industrialisation of terror impressed. Police interrogators worked in shifts at the Lubyanka ("the beloved building") in Moscow, perfecting the conveyor-belt method of non-stop questioning. The lorries that took the prisoners to prisons doubled as suffocation machines. And all along the trans-Siberian railway hung the concentration camps, like beads on a necklace. A camp warder said he could not have seen them all if he had visited two a day for 1,000 years. Instead he drew cartoon records of life in one camp, some showing women with dangling appendages between their legs - actually their uteruses, dislodged by the strain of their work. "How else could we have been industrialised?" asked Alexei Loginov, the former deputy commander of the Norilsk region of Siberia, whose 90th birthday celebrations we were forced to witness.

The only humour came from the propaganda films of the period. In a clip from Prisoners (1937), a gruff but kindly camp commandant told the "wreckers": "You are criminals, but we see you as human beings." The surreality of these wooden, black and white fantasies blended with the eidetic quality achieved by Macqueen's slyly associative editing and his camera's palate of dirty pastels.

The epic nightmare - epic in historical and geographical range, as well as in running time - ended with Maria Vitkievich (15 years for anti-Soviet activity) burying her sister in Norilsk: "When you meet our parents tell them I've been trying for years to clear our name. We suffered for nothing." Spade by snowy spade, earth was shovelled on to her body, deepening by a fraction the century's most deeply buried memory. For a brief three hours, Macqueen's superb film exhumed it.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

By Andrew Billen

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in The transport row: who is to blame?

1999-07-19