Saturday, February 12, 2005

Earlier narratives about the Gulag system, which between 1920 and 1956 swallowed up in its insatiable maw millions of Soviet citizens, were based on personal experiences of its victims or what could be mined from speeches or articles in the Soviet media.

This important volume by Oleg V. Khlevniuk, History of the Gulag: From Collectivization to the Great Terror translated by Vadim A. Staklo, (Yale, $39.95, 418 pages) like an earlier one by Anne Applebaum, is based on now available Soviet archives which have been studied by a highly regarded Russian historian. To read the texts of some of these Soviet documents is to plunge into a man-made hell, which flourished under Stalin and his more than willing underlings.

What distinguishes mankind from other animals is that there is within human consciousness attributes called mercy, charity, pity. For some three decades these attributes ceased to exist in the Soviet Union. Reading these pages as explicated by Mr. Khlevniuk and examining the Gulag photographs you realize Stalin’s diabolical genius in making these human horrors possible.

Stalin set up a system which recruited hundreds of thousands of administrators, prison keepers, filing clerks, torturers and engineers to routinize a system by which millions of slave laborers lived and died.

• • •

In the killing fields of Southeast Asia lies Cambodia, an exotic, tropical land. And also a tragic land for the communist Khmer Rouge, like a plague, had between 1975 and 1979 murdered one-sixth, well over one million people, of what had been a population of seven million.

A couple of million people were lucky enough to escape. So from seven million, Cambodia, the land of Angkor Wat, fell to a population of about four million. (After almost three decades of peace, the population is now well above 13 million).

Phillip Short’s long biography of the monster, Pol Pot who was responsible for this genocide, is grippingly told. In Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, (Henry Holt, $30, 544 pages) you read about what seems to be a recluse steeped in Buddhism.

He takes over leadership of Khmer Rouge and decides to purify, as he called it, the Cambodian people no matter what. In the process of “purification” millions of men, women and children were “relocated” as it was called, a euphemism for murder.

• • •

Two highly readable books comprise a real?life detective story. “If they ever try to prove that I took my own life, don’t believe it.” So wrote Walter Krivitsky, one of the earliest defectors from Stalin’s secret police on Feb. 11, 1941. Gary Kern’s A Death in Washington: Walter G. Krivitsky and the Stalin Terror (Enigma, $18, 505 pages) and MI5 Debriefing and Other Documents on Soviet Intelligence, Walter G. Krivitsky with translations by Gary Kern (Xenos, $15, 229 pages) address the mystery. How this onetime chief of Stalin’s intelligence corps died in a locked Washington hotel room, with three suicide notes by his bed, still remains unknown.

Mr. Kern, one of the leading experts on Stalin’s Great Terror, has dealt with one of the unsolved mysteries of the last century. Krivitsky’s death raised three possibilities: fake suicide meaning he was murdered, forced suicide or voluntary suicide. Krivitsky arose out of the first generation of Soviet spies, Mr. Kern writes, “driven by ideological fervor, united by mutual purpose and … unchastened by bloodthirsty purges.”

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Eric M. Jackson’s The PayPal Wars: Battles with eBay, the Media, the Mafia and the Rest of the Planet Earth (World Ahead, $27.95, 344 pages) is an absorbing insider’s story about two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Peter Thiel, a California hedge fund manager, and Max Levchin, a Ukrainian engineer, who six years ago launched an online payment Web site called Pay Pal. Every School of Business ought to put this book on its must reading list because it is “case history” analysis at its best.

Pay Pal, miraculously survived the bust, a bitter battle with eBay, the auction giant, government regulators, trial lawyers, organized crime rings. In the process PayPal became so profitable that its officers, including the author of this hair?raising memoir, became millionaires. This is not exactly a “rags to riches” yarn but it’s pretty close.

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for the Washington Times.

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