There is by now a vast cathedral of literature on the gulag, some of it meant to convey the unimaginable scale and monstrosity of it, more of it to tell of the extraordinary transactions taking place between tormentor and victim, among victims and within a victim. As soon as Gorbachev's liberalization made the idea plausible, Hochschild decided to go to the Soviet Union to do the compellingly natural follow-up. He went to see how people a half-century after the horror now related to it, particularly how its perpetrators and prey now feel.
For six months in 1991 he tracked down survivors, children of those who perished, ex-guards and interrogators, petty members of the elite and even maids to the mighty Stalin. He traveled to the camps, to Karaganda, the Kazakhstan expanse and ultimately Kolyma, the harshest iced corner of the gulag. The surprising impression that slowly, steadily emerges from his encounters is how flat, unphilosophical and unsensationalized the legacy has been rendered. Most of his contacts seemed to deal with it as they had with the original event: some with ongoing denial, some with remarkable stalwartness, even humor, and some with a shrug. The book's leitmotiv becomes a question they all ask: "Why are you interested?" Maybe, however, as Hochschild appears to suspect, the truer legacy is embodied in those he sought to meet but who would not or could not bring themselves to talk. In any event, the journey is brisk, well-told, moving and a little uncomfortable. The author keeps asking himself along the way: Would I have been less deluded, less given to denial, less weak or less different from, in Eugenia Ginzburg's phrase, either the hammer or the anvil?