Thanks, Steve, for pulling this conversation together. And thanks, Deborah, for bringing Mochulsky’s memoir to a broad audience. There’s just nothing like it out there.
As I was reading Mochulsky’s fascinating and gripping memoir, I kept returning to a line from Leona Toker’s wonderful book, Return from the Archipelago. Toker writes that for each gulag memoirist, there is a “terror gap” or “untidy spot” where he or she fears to tread, an Orwellian Room 101: “Each author is reluctant to face some special type of suffering, depravity, horror.” I think that Mochulsky’s memoir is especially interesting for what it says about trauma and memory.
Some of the most striking elements of camp life– fear, hunger, and horror– are subjects that the author distinctly avoids addressing at length. Yet they are quite present. Mochulsky tells the story of a NKVD interrogator who went crazy after he had to shoot a young girl for spying; later, he goes on at length about the injustice of a system that arrested young girls for petty offenses and threw them into camps. Perhaps he too felt like a criminal and perpetrator. I get the distinct sense that he struggled with this.
Mochulsky actually feared slipping from boss-engineer to prisoner-engineer, too. Throughout the memoir, this possibility seems to hang over him. He describes being repeatedly threatened by his superiors, despite his remote location. The reader feels his terror when his horse got stuck in the marsh and he came close to a sentence for wrecking or squandering socialist property (I was on the edge of my chair). It was these stories that made me feel a certain sympathy towards him. He was a boss, sure. But we all know that the camps’ civilian employees were not exactly invulnerable.