Mochulsky comes across fairly positively in his account, even if today’s reader is frequently frustrated by his lack of introspection and personal accountability. He is remarkably resourceful at problem solving, and seems genuinely concerned with the physical well being of the prisoners. As Deborah writes in her afterward, perhaps Mochulsky “was a man who want[s] to show us that even in an evil system there were people who tried to do their best”.[1. Deborah Kaple, “Afterward,” Fyodor Visilevich Mochulsky, Gulag Boss, trans. and edited Deborah Kaple (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011) 181.] I’m very curious about the issue of the “good boss”—the boss who, in other words, treats the prisoners humanely, while continuing to maintain a position of power and responsibility within this incredibly cruel and inhumane system. In my own research, I’ve come across one possible “good boss” candidate, who, like Mochulsky, commanded a sub-camp within a much larger camp complex.
This man, Filip Ivanovich Kazachenko (pictured), presided over the Antibess and then the Orlovo-Rozovo subdivisions of Siblag, in present day Kemerovo Oblast’.[2. For more, see Wilson T. Bell, “The Gulag and Soviet Society in Western Siberia, 1929-1953,” (PhD dissertation, University of Toronto, 2011) 87-88, and 242-243: http://hdl.handle.net/1807/29921] In any case, I’d like to explore (very briefly) two questions regarding the “good boss.”
- How possible/common was the “good boss”?
- What do we make of some of the silences in Mochulsky’s memoir?
On the first question, clearly the “good boss” was not common. Memoirists rarely have anything positive to say about camp personnel. As Alan relates in his own work, even the boss of Vorkuta, M.M. Mal’tsev, about whom Solzhenitsyn himself had heard some positive remarks, was, basically, a tyrant who could be incredibly cruel or beneficent, when it suited him.[3. Alan Barenberg, “From Prison Camp to Mining Town: The Gulag and Its Legacy in Vorkuta, 1938-1965: Volume One,” (PhD dissertation, University of Chicago, 2007) esp. 95-99.] One is hardly surprised by the following account of a Siblag boss, excerpted from my manuscript:[4. Bell, “The Gulag and Soviet Society,” 242]
Sergei Vladimirov, who spent ten years in Siblag from 1942-1952 and wrote his memoir under the pseudonym V. Blousov, vividly describes an incident when a guard killed a young prisoner who had been fishing, and the prisoners gathered around, threatening to beat the guards. The subdivision’s commander, Major Zvantsev, whom the prisoners had nicknamed “The Boar,” objected to the prisoners’ complaints:
“You are thinking of rebelling?” he shouted. “To the cooler (kartsere) with you! I’ll send you to the tower! Bastards (Svolochi)! (…) Disperse!”
From the crowd could be heard in response:
“Murderers! They’ve killed (zagubili) the boy!”
“For a little fish… a person died (pogib)!”
“A person?” roared The Boar, “There aren’t any here! Here are enemies of the people, traitors of the Motherland, bandits, crooks (zhuliki). The dregs of humanity, scum (mraz’), riff-raff (podonki), that’s who is here!
On the balance, of course, The Boar is closer to the norm than Mochulsky. But, that a Mochulsky is even possible in the Gulag underscores the degree to which the prisoner’s experience depended on the personality of individual commanders, as opposed to directives from Moscow. Kazachenko is a case in point. Prisoners—both men and women—from his subdivisions remember him fondly, as someone who knew agricultural production inside and out, who referred to them as “temporary detainees” rather than prisoners, and who cared about the prisoners’ living conditions. One prisoner describes her transfer to another Siblag sub-camp, where the prisoners there simply could not believe her stories about living conditions under Kazachenko.[5. For these memoirs, see Memorial f. 2, op. 1, d. 84, ll. 34-35 (Evsei Moiseevich L’vov); and Memorial f. 2, op. 1, d. 7, l. 35 (Sof’ia Sergeevna Potresova)] Kazachenko, like Mochulsky, seems to have done well in the system. He remained within the Siblag system until the early 1950s, and is remembered in the 2009 journal, Vestnik UIS Kuzbassa, as the “Legend of Siblag”.[6. “Legenda Siblaga,” Vestnik UIS Kuzbassa, no. 1-2 (Jan-Feb 2009) 9-10]
Just as an aside, the journal issue itself is fascinating. Put together by a division of the Federal Penitentiary Service, the Kuzbass UIS (Ugolovnaia ispolnitel’naia sistema), it is a special issue titled, “130 years of the UIS”. In other words, the founding of the UIS is dated to the tsarist period, emphasizing continuity through the Soviet period to the present day!
In any case, to get to my second question: just how “good” was Mochulsky? I want to take him at face value, and I admire his ability to find secure sources of food for prisoners under his command, and to ensure that they at least had rudimentary shelter. Yet there were a few points that nagged at me – silences in the text. For example, he describes some instances of problem solving—finding alternative food sources, convincing work refusers to work—in great detail, yet other instances receive almost no elucidation. Following the outbreak of the war, Mochulsky begins inspecting the track at night (along with his daytime inspections), and this immediately increased labor discipline on the night shift.[7. Mochulsky, Gulag Boss, 80.] Mochulsky credits his presence for the change (“prisoners understood that their work could at any moment be checked”), but are we really to believe that no coercion was involved? Why the lack of detailed description, here? Later, as boss of the militarized section of the railway, Mochulsky writes, “I only dealt with the prisoners as a labor force. I did not have anything to do with their maintenance or daily lives”.[8. Mochulsky, Gulag Boss, 102.] He does not explain exactly what he means by this statement, but one can certainly infer that, at this point, the prisoners’ daily lives were miserable, and Mochulsky is trying to absolve himself of blame (and, perhaps, feels guilty). Still, overall I agree with Jeff – it matters that Mochulsky tried—and at times succeeded—in being a good boss in an overwhelming cruel and violent system.