First, thanks to all the contributors to this discussion. Honestly, it has to this point exceeded my expectations. The intellectual content has been high, the questions thought-provoking, and the traffic heavy.
For a moment, I want to dwell on the level of “truthfulness” in Gulag Boss and question how looking at the memoir with an assumption that it represents falsehood rather than truth might change our analysis of the questions around the tricky issue of complicity. Here I am largely not questioning whether the particular events described in the memoir are “true.” Rather, I think the contributors to this conversation are united in the belief that the memoir is filled with silences, especially in relation to prisoners’ Gulag experiences. If this is the case, then the memoir is at best “partial truth.” What does that mean for our evaluation of Mochulsky?
(As an aside, when I teach my students about Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization, I ask them to think about whether telling a partial truth is truth or simply a different type of lie. In a way, that is what I’m asking here. In class, I always hope their answer will focus on the complexity of the question, not least by pointing to the near universal acceptance of the need for modern states to keep at least some secrets. Here, I hope that this intervention does not lead to a less complex evaluation of Mochulsky, though it might. I would add, on the pedagogical subject, that I find the discussion of truth, lies, and how much truth to tell throughout the film Ballad of a Soldier often helps complicate the question for my students, but now I have really strayed off point in a way that would certainly be edited out of a non-blog review. Whether that is positive or negative is yours to decide.)
I am not trying to assert here the possibility of some single absolute truth that “should have” guided Mochulsky’s writing in the memoir, nor am I even suggesting that we have the available resources to determine the memoir’s truthfulness on its specific points. Deborah has explored these questions in her afterword:
No matter how compelling or evocative a memoir is, it is just one person’s recollection. It reflects what that person was most interested in telling. The “real truth” is perpetually elusive, because one can never see the entire canvas of a lifetime, and because memory is always flawed or colored by later events. It is possible for an author to delude a reader by passing off false events as real, but it is equally plausible for an author to delude himself by telling a false story he believes fervently as the truth….even if one possesses perfect recollection of the past, most people naturally cast their past actions in a more ethically heroic light than might have been the case in reality. (pp. 175-176)
Deborah even goes on to detail her attempts to find corroborating information on Mochulsky’s employment in the Gulag system.
Rather, I want to suggest that much of what we know about Gulag life renders Mochulsky’s portrait seriously wanting in terms of the experience of the Gulag’s most powerless inhabitants.
So what I want to do, I guess, is flip Jeff’s framework on its head. He attempts, incisively, to render the questions surrounding the issue of “complicity” more complex than what he found in a Montefiore review of the memoir.
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).
What if instead we assume that the memoir rather than “factually true and accurate” is instead partial, self-justificatory, and self-serving? Would we answer the questions differently, or would we have to start with different questions altogether? Would we find it, as I do, difficult to believe that Mochulsky never participated in the brutalities that were so much part of Gulag life, that his interventions in prisoners’ lives were so exclusively positive from their point of view?
Wilson begins to get at the source of my uncomfortableness when discussing the “silences” in the memoir. As he writes,
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….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. 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”. 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).
I think these silences nagged at Montefiore in his review, and they nagged at me a lot when reading the memoir. It is worth reminding ourselves that Mochulsky served as a Gulag boss during its deadliest years, when upwards of 25% of the Gulag population was dying each year. 1 Yet, while Mochulsky does not overly romanticize prisoners’ living conditions in Gulag Boss, neither does he dwell on or even give a particularly good sense of exactly how bad conditions were. Often, the prisoners were simply irrelevant to his story. In fact, I found myself (rightly or wrongly) enraged when reading of the skiing competitions that “became like holidays for all the civilians in camp,” precisely because I know that prisoners were starving to death at unprecedented rates in the same time period. (p. 115) I suppose at such moments, the distance between Gulag employee and Gulag prisoner was so large that it became difficult to react unemotionally. (I doubt, by the way, that Pechorlag fared significantly better than the rest of the Gulag in this period, or that Mochulsky’s prisoners fared significantly better than the rest of Pechorlag. Perhaps Alan can fill us in on the former.)
It’s not just the silences, though. Sometimes the way Mochulsky describes his “problem-solving” is so over the top that they struck me at the very least as exaggeration. For example, arriving at the camps, he notices that the prisoners have no barracks and are likely to find the encroaching winter unsurvivable. Yet they cannot take time to build barracks because of the need to fulfill daily production plans. So he and a colleague devise a workaround. They will falsely report completion of the daily plan for two weeks while barracks are built. Then the prisoners will work to catch up to the production they were supposed to have completed. Fearful of the potential consequences if anybody reported this falsification, Mochulsky sought to get all local parties on board with the idea. When he described the idea to the assembled prisoners, “In the dimming eyes of the worn-out men, hope lit up. They became animated, and as a chorus might, they all agreed to the plan I proposed.” (p. 37) Mochulsky has become almost god-like in this passage, an impression only stengthened when he describes how he was nearly persecuted by superiors for trying to save these prisoners’ lives. (pp. 43-44)
Mochulsky’s description, by the way, of his efforts to supplement prisoner food by letting sick and weak prisoners set traps to catch partridges, calls to mind the unrealistic response of central Gulag authorities to food supply problems in Karlag during the war, when they proposed that prisoner diets be supplemented by picking mushrooms in the steppe. First, one wonders how able these sick and weak prisoners were to catch partridges, given that releasing prisoners from general labor for health reasons was only grudgingly allowed to the worst cases. Second, one wonders whether this activity can actually provide enough additional food to improve prisoner diets in any meaningful way. (Based on my own experiences mushroom hunting in the steppe, I register strong doubts in regard to this practice at Karlag and wartime death rates in that camp, even higher than the overall Gulag averages, would seem to back me up. I can’t, though, speak at all to the question of partridges in the far north.)
At any rate, I’ve already gone on far too long. I hope to find a moment to add some more thoughts on this and other subjects in the coming days. In particular, and I might throw this out as an open question to others, I want to think a little about how we evaluate Mochulsky’s memoir in comparison with another camp employee Danzig Baldaev’s series of violence-porn Drawings of the Gulag. Montefiore would certainly be unable to condemn Baldaev for his failure to fully condemn the Soviet project. Yet Baldaev’s drawings tread perhaps well over the line between describing the violence of the Gulag and reveling in it.
- See chapter four of my Death and Redemption for a lengthy discussion of the Gulag during the war. ↩