The best books on gulags

Many authors have picked their favorite books about gulags and why they recommend each book.

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The Journals Of A White Sea Wolf

By Mariusz Wilk,

Book cover of The Journals Of A White Sea Wolf

In 1991, Mariusz Wilk, a Polish journalist long fascinated by the mysteries of the Russian soul, moved to the Solovki islands, a lonely archipelago amidst the far northern shores of Russia’s White Sea. He lived on one of these islands for seven years, and came to know every single one of its thousand residents. His sparse, heartfelt account of these islands that are dominated by the powerful interwoven forces of religion, politics, and the Arctic, is unconventional, and well worth the challenge. He pierces beneath the skin and the ice of this remote community and slowly begins to unravel the complexities and contradictions of Russia’s history and her landscapes.


Who am I?

Louisa Waugh is a writer, blogger, and the prize-winning author of three non-fiction books: Hearing Birds Fly, Selling Olga, and Meet Me in Gaza. She has lived and worked in the Middle East, Central and West Africa, and is a conflict adviser for an international peace-building organisation. She blogs at The Waugh Zone and currently lives in Brighton, on the southern English coast, where she kayaks and drinks red wine on the beach, usually not at the same time.


I wrote...

Hearing Birds Fly: A Nomadic Year in Mongolia

By Louisa Waugh,

Book cover of Hearing Birds Fly: A Nomadic Year in Mongolia

What is my book about?

I went to live in Mongolia because I had always wanted to see the country, and had time on my hands. I lived in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, for two years, then moved to a remote village in the Western Mountains to live in a village called Tsengel. I wanted to experience the intimate life of Mongolian nomads and their relationship with the heart-stopping seasons that have created the extraordinary landscape in which they live and die. My book is a portrait of a small community amidst the mountains that shape them culturally, religiously, and socially. And I had my own heart-stopping moments of fear, and joy, amongst these tough mountain people.

The Gulag Archipelago

By Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn,

Book cover of The Gulag Archipelago

This is the classic account of the Great Terror and the Gulag. Solzhenitsyn roots Stalinist repression firmly in the Russian Revolution, blaming Marxist ideology for the camps. The literary value of this work is incontestable.


Who am I?

Lynne Viola is a University Professor of Russian history at the University of Toronto. Educated at Barnard and Princeton, she has carried out research in Russian and Ukrainian archives for over 30 years. Among her books, are two dealing with Stalinist repression: Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine and The Unknown Gulag: The Lost World of Stalin’s Special Settlements. Both are based on work in previously classified archives, including the archives of the political police.


I wrote...

Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine

By Lynne Viola,

Book cover of Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial: Scenes from the Great Terror in Soviet Ukraine

What is my book about?

Between the summer of 1937 and November 1938, the Stalinist regime arrested over 1.5 million people for "counterrevolutionary" and "anti-Soviet" activity and either summarily executed or exiled them to the Gulag. While we now know a great deal about the experience of victims of the Great Terror, we know almost nothing about the lower- and middle-level Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del (NKVD), or secret police, cadres who carried out Stalin's murderous policies. Unlike the postwar, public trials of Nazi war criminals, NKVD operatives were tried secretly. And what exactly happened in those courtrooms was unknown until now.

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