Gulag Boss is clearly a valuable contribution to the growing body of Gulag literature. For decades our understanding of the Gulag was informed almost exclusively by prisoner memoirs. Then in the 1990s and 2000s came the archival revolution, which provided a wealth of information about the internal workings of the Soviet penal system. But although they have taught us much over the past two decades, archival documents will never present the full picture of how the administration of punishment worked in the Soviet Union; they lack, for the most part, the candid voices of the actual administrators explaining how to properly interpret the documents. Which orders were important? Which orders were ignored? How were promotions and disciplinary actions really decided? What personal intrigues stood behind such actions? Were some commands given orally rather than in written form? Were there motivations behind certain decisions that were not printed on paper, or which among the given motivations carried the most weight? What did Gulag commanders and guards really think of their work and of the prisoners? These are questions that are sometimes answered in investigatory reports and petitions, but often the historian is left guessing. And it is precisely these sorts of questions that memoirs or oral histories of Gulag personnel can help answer. They can provide a sort of bridge between the prisoner accounts and the official documents. Unfortunately, historians have at their disposal very few such sources and this is where Gulag Boss is particular valuable. One only wishes it were three times as long and detailed as it is.
So what do we learn from Gulag Boss? Or, what do we already know about the Gulag that is reinforced by this memoir?
1. I was fascinated by Mochulsky’s description of how the leadership and communication in the local Gulag units worked. His description of the “Selektor” in particular is priceless: the endless stream of profanity and threats concerning the economic plan streaming from the camp administration; the daily reports streaming up channel on production, productivity, mortality, sickness, the supply situation, and so forth; and the camp gossip that one could sometimes catch by eavesdropping on other conversations. This is an incredible window into officialdom and into camp operations. The reader feels the acute level of stress produced by daily, oral reporting of a variety of indicators, the most important of which was production.
2. Mochulsky reminds us that the Gulag authorities were anything but unified. Rather, there were multiple fissures in the camp administration, both vertical and horizontal, which proved difficult for Mochulsky to navigate. Sometimes he was in favor with higher camp-level authorities, sometimes not. Sometimes he got along with the political and guard leadership in his camp points, sometimes not. Whenever he did something against regulations, it seems, somehow that information was leaked to higher authorities. So this is a very challenging environment for low-level Gulag personnel, even with the supposedly clear mandate to just fulfill the production plan. On this note, Mochulsky’s memoir speaks somewhat to the order of discipline and promotion with the Gulag ranks. Clearly, as the author points out, much is due to circumstance and good (or bad) fortune. The account of his disciplinary trial for engaging in tufta is fascinating. That bosses of other camp units were able to defend him against their superiors suggests a break-down of authority and a camaraderie among certain low-level bosses. Mochulsky’s rapid rise from foreman at a camp point to being on the Gulag nomenklatura demonstrates the possibility for rapid promotion. And it is quite interesting that the political department wins out over the economic department when they both want Mochulsky in important positions. Economics may have ruled camp operations, but the economic bureaucracy within the Gulag system was not necessarily the most powerful.
3. Gulag Boss provides a nice account of living conditions for Gulag workers, largely confirming what we have found from archival documents. In short, they were often terrible for low-level employees and guards. They seemed to live hardly better than the prisoners, particularly in the new camp units that were being established when Mochulsky first arrived at Pechorlag. Camp administrators and guards were fed poorly, both in terms of quantity and variety, and their sleeping arrangements left much to be desired. To a significant extent the guards and other employees of the Gulag were prisoners as well; they were not free to leave their place of work, they endured privation, malnourishment, and poor medical care; they worked long days; they had few opportunities for culture or sport; they were largely segregated from women; and so forth. On the other hand, high-level camp administrators had significantly better living conditions. Not only did they enjoy comfortable apartments instead of tents or dugouts, they had fresh food brought in daily at incredible expense from Moscow.
4. Gulag Boss reinforces the observation that the boundary between prisoners and Gulag employees was anything but firm. They shared a culture of drinking, swearing, card-playing, stealing (both for the work and for personal consumption), and tufta; Gulag workers were often former prisoners and prisoners were often former Gulag workers or else worked as prisoners in the camp administration; both endured primitive conditions, a significant degree of unfreedom, and long working hours (speaking of the guards Mochulsky lamented, “There are no words that could convey their suffering.” (36)); and both awaited the day they could leave the Gulag—indeed, some on both sides of the barbed wire chose escape or suicide. They also shared, at least in some instances, a mutual understanding of their respective situations. Mochulsky describes his relations with his first group of prisoners “very friendly.” (37) And even with the group of recidivists he was able to find common ground and respect.
5. Gulag workers were not a bunch of sadists. Sure, we knew this already, but Gulag Boss helps better to understand the challenges that could lead to the abuse of prisoners on the one hand and the true pride that at least some Gulag administrators took in their work on the other hand. Mochulsky sees the Gulag as a terrible institution, yet he believed in the specific project he was working on—providing coal for the war effort—and in the broader project of building socialism. Did he care about the prisoners? Perhaps not too much. At least this does not come through in the memoir. Yes, he went out of his way to save the lives of the prisoners under his watch, and this seems to have been motivated to a significant degree out of concern for their well-being. But he also wanted to fulfill the plan. He wanted to get coal to the munitions factories. He wanted to save his Motherland from the Nazis. Mochulsky clearly took pride in his work, and this is a motivation that should not be taken lightly. He literally nearly worked himself to death.
6. Political prisoners did not always act honorably in the camps. Mochulsky accuses some of them at least with preying on the harder-working inmates and backstabbing each other with fabricated denunciations to camp authorities. This is a point that rarely comes through in prisoners’ memoirs, virtually all of which were written by politicals, and most of which cast a strict line between the wild and corrupt criminals and the noble and longsuffering 58ers. This is a topic that merits more discussion, tempered, of course, by Primo Levi’s conception of the “grey zone.” One wonders how criminals and the so-called muzhiki viewed the politicals and how our understanding of the Soviet penal system would be different if we had memoirs from these segments of Gulag society.
7. The Germans actually did land troops near Gulag facilities to try to incite a prisoner revolt. Wow.
To close I would like to present an observation on Gulag Boss made by Simon Sebag Montefiore in Literary Review (his review can be found here) and open it up for discussion. Montefiore in general liked the book, calling it a “fascinating and important read,” and highlighting (not surprisingly, given Montefiore’s own work) the very few gruesome tales of rape and murder from its pages. (In doing this, in fact, he really misses the point of the book). But he also questions Mochulsky’s narration, criticizing him for not “fully acknowledging that the entire system was a heinous, murderous lie;” for writing “as if the brutality and madness were somehow far away from his own career;” and for never “fully condemn[ing] the Soviet project.” Though Mochulsky is deserving perhaps of some sympathy due to the environment in which he was raised, Montefiore allows, “readers must not forget that the writer himself was complicit in this colossal crime.” Montefiore here is making two points. First, Mochulsky is guilty of mass murder primarily because he was part of the Gulag machinery. And second, the Soviet project must be condemned absolutely because of its crimes.
So what do we make of Mochulsky? And how does our understanding of the Gulag inform our final judgment on the Soviet Union as a whole? For me these are much tougher questions to answer than they are for Montefiore. Because this post is running long already, I would like to just say a few words in response to the first question. The issue of complicity strikes me as quite complex. Perhaps Montefiore in Mochulsky’s shoes would have taken a principled stand against the murder and corruption that surrounded him in Pechorlag and would have been tried and executed for treason. Or perhaps he would have committed suicide. But I wonder if I, as a heavily indoctrinated 22-year-old, would have had such courage. Most “ordinary men,” to borrow Christopher Browning’s term, are cowards. They adapt, they rationalize, they conform, they survive. This seems to be a common thread in human history. Gulag Boss, like any memoir, may be embellished in parts. Mochulsky may have presented himself in a more favorable light than he deserved. But let us assume for the moment that everything in this memoir is factually true and accurate. Does it matter that Mochulsky risked his career to create better living conditions for the prisoners under his watch? Yes, I think it does. Does it matter that he used persuasion rather than coercion when faced with recidivists who refused to work? Yes, I think it does. Did Mochulsky “command a killing machine,” in the words of Montefiore? No, I do not think he did (again, assuming the accuracy of his account). A variety of factors made the Gulag in the 1930s and 1940s a place where murder was easily perpetrated. And it was indeed perpetrated, sometimes on a mass scale (although many if not the majority of deaths in the Gulag could perhaps be labeled “manslaughter” rather than “murder” as they were not directly intended but nonetheless resulted from a number of internal and external pressures). But the Gulag was not established as a “killing machine,” nor was that was ever its purpose. Its purpose was production, isolation, and, perhaps, re-education through labor and other means. I am convinced, therefore, that not every guard, administrator, bookkeeper, doctor, engineer, and janitor should be slapped with the perpetrator label that Montefiore and others so easily distribute.