Gulag Boss – Mochulsky and Gulag Space

Thank you, Steve, for organizing this group discussion and for inviting me to participate! No doubt one of the more interesting points of inquiry will be to assess Mochulsky’s role and behavior as a “perpetrator,” and Deborah Kaple eludes to a possible “ordinary men” understanding of Mochulsky in her afterward (p. 179). But I want to focus my first post on the following: what does Gulag Boss tell us about Gulag space?

Lynne and Alan’s posts (here and here) underscore the isolation of the region. Yet, it’s worth noting that spatially, Mochulsky exists mostly outside the camp zone. He lives either just outside the zone’s borders or even in the towns that house administrative headquarters. His forays into the zone are rare, and often against the advice of his colleagues. Most of his contact with prisoners is on the construction site, and even here, most of this contact is with unescorted prisoners, those prisoners who received the right to move outside of the zones without guard. Once Mochulsky enters the Political Department as the Komsomol organizer, moreover, his contact with prisoners basically ceases. Instead, he organizes activities for camp personnel and their families. (Just as an aside, while researching camp Party and Komsomol documents in the Novosibirsk archives, I was struck by the infrequent references to prisoners. Indeed, the Party and Komsomol organizations went about their business much as a Party or Komsomol organization would in any Soviet organization: addressing questions of membership, coordinating educational activities amongst the membership and other employees, disciplining members for infractions, and so on.)

To get back to the issue of space: The camp sprawls over hundreds of miles, with camp subdivisions and stations dotting the landscape. Broadly speaking, however, the camp extends out of these “dots” and along the railroad and into the forests and the towns. The actual camp borders–the physical barbed wire–have little relation to what could be described, overall, as “Gulag space,” which occupies a much more pervasive geography. This was true of the remote camps, but it was also true of many of the camps located within urban centers. Pushing our definition of the Gulag beyond the barbed wire–and even beyond the construction site–raises the question of blurred boundaries between the “archipelago” and the “mainland”. Where, in other words, does the Gulag end?

 

About Wilson Bell

Wilson Bell is Assistant Professor of Russian history at Thompson Rivers University
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