Anne Appplebaum's book about the Soviet Gulags is making waves, and deservedly so. If Aleksandr Solzehnitsyn's "The Gulag Archipelago" was the pathbreaking work that brought the Gulags into public discourse (and along the way, deeply affected a nascent political movement called neoconservatism), "Gulag: A History" is likely to become their definitive scholarly treatment.
Geitner Simmons found an AEI speech by Applebaum, with lots of material that's worth your time. For me, this is the money paragraph:
"From Aktyubinsk to Yakutsk, there was not a single major population center that did not have its own local camp or camps, and not a single industry that did not employ prisoners. Over the years, prisoners built roads and railroads, power plants and chemical factories, manufactured weapons, furniture, even childrens’ toys. In the Soviet Union of the 1940s, the decade the camps reached their zenith, it would have been difficult, in many places, to go about your daily business and not run into prisoners. It is no longer possible to argue, as some Western historians have done, that the camps were known to only a small proportion of the population."
One day, there must be a reckoning for the deliberate ignorance and excuses beyond the Soviet Union as well. If the Russians cannot credibly claim ignorance, well, neither can we.
One day, too, there must be a reckoning in Russia itself. Not a physical reckoning, so much as a spiritual reckoning. The camp systems remained in operation long past the 1940s, as Andrei Sakharaov and (now Israeli Deputy PM) Natan Sharansky could tell you. Just as the camps of Dachau et. al. were a stain on German history and (to use a German romantic term) the German soul, so the Gulags of Russia are an historical and psychic shadow that lurks there still.
UPDATE: Mike Daley points me to this article by Alexander Rose as an additional source of insight into Applebaum's book and the Gulag itself:
"The Gulag witnessed the birth pangs of the Soviet Empire (let’s call a spade a spade, shall we?) — and its death-throes. Mutually parasitic, neither Gulag nor Empire could survive, let alone thrive, without the other. The duo comprised a curiously Siamese entity: One was but half of two; when one dies, so too must the other. Maintaining the awful majesty of Empire required slave labor; Gulag supplied it. Gulag required slaves; Empire supplied them."