Gulag Boss: Scribblings

Deborah Kaple’s publication of Gulag Boss: A Soviet Memoir is a real achievement and a significant contribution to the burgeoning field of gulag studies. Mochulsky’s memoir presents a rare first-person description of the gulag by an NKVD employee working on a mandatory work assignment following his university graduation. I found this book interesting for many reasons, but thought, for the sake of the blog, that I would note two in particular.

I believe that Mochulsky offers readers one of the best descriptions of the isolation of many of the camps. Not only are these camps situated in desolate, remote pockets of the enormous Soviet landmass, they are at times virtually self-run. Mochulsky arrives in a number of sub-camps in which there is no leadership, apart from the VOKhR guards. The degree of autonomy of these sub-camps is more frightening, of course, than enabling, as they become forgotten islands, neglected by a cadre-short central administration and left to their own non-existent resources. The kind of neglect that is apparent here–as well as in many special/labor settlements–was a deadly aspect of the gulag, one that was as threatening as tyrannical bosses, murderous criminals, and back-breaking work regimens.

Mochulsky also–and unwittingly–offers some interesting insight into what for lack of a better word I would call gulag morals. First, he discusses censoriously (pp. 81-2) the “big deal out of nothing” made by intellectual zeks when they see civilian gulag workers engaged in corruption and black market activities. Then, when a former prisoner, now shop keeper, provides him with food while he is recovering in the hospital, Mochulsky is innocently grateful. Mochulsky sees this kind of illicit trade in food as insignificant, when, of course, it regularly resulted in malnutrition, disease, and death in the camps. Has he internalized gulag morality? Or does this example illustrate to us something about larger Soviet values around consumption and distribution? Or, perhaps, this is a case of the big zone and the small zone merging?

Gulag Boss is an extremely useful complement to what we know of the gulag from the inside. Most of that information comes either from intellectuals who were imprisoned or from official documents. (Of course, peasants and their children, as well as members of the wartime deportations from Poland and the Baltic states also wrote about their experiences.) Mochulsky’s account reveals parts of the reality behind the official documents as well as offering a different voice from within the gulag. Putting aside his perhaps socialist realist prowess at turning around the dire situation in several sub-camps and the way in which the zeks form a gray blur in the background, Mochulsky’s story offers a rare picture of the everyday life of gulag civilian employees. The “gulag archive” (f. 9401, 9414, and 9479 among others in GARF) contains hundreds of similar stories–ill-equipped personnel, starving guards, disease among employees. These conditions and the fact that many gulag civilian servants were “mobilized” or “conscripted” for duty, may suggest a moral gray zone in the usual victim-perpetrator dichotomy. Yet, in the end, it is important to keep in mind that the fate of zeks and the gulag employees was not similar, however terrible general conditions were. Power remained vastly incommensurate.

About Lynne Viola

Lynne Viola is University Professor of Russian History at the University of Toronto
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7 Responses to Gulag Boss: Scribblings

  1. Andrew Jenks says:

    Hi Lynne,
    Your point about the incommensurate nature of power is really important. Jeff’s post, interestingly, seemed to emphasize the similarities in their conditions. Perhaps you could elaborate on just how the fate of zeks and gulag employees — especially lower level employees – was different?

  2. Lynne Viola says:

    Jeff is correct about the similarity of the material conditions of zeks and many gulag civilian employees. Yet there was always a power differential between any kind of staff and most prisoners. There is also a moral equation here which is no less important. I will leave others to comment.

  3. Pingback: Gulag Boss – Mochulsky and Gulag Space | Russian History Blog

  4. Jeff Hardy says:

    I could not agree more with Lynne’s point–the power dynamics (and hence morality) are completely different. And while Gulag personnel face dire living conditions, they rarely die of exhaustion or malnutrition. So there are important distinctions that likely outweigh the similarities. I highlighted the similarities in my post because I think this is what Gulag Boss highlights, and because I think they have traditionally been neglected. To borrow Kate Brown’s idea of concentric circles of unfreedom, Gulag prisoners and personnel are clearly in different circles, but perhaps their circles are closer together than, say, the circles of low-ranking Gulag personnel on the one hand and skilled workers or white-collar types in Moscow on the other hand.

  5. Wilson Bell says:

    Mochulsky’s very real fear (especially when he is one of the chief engineers on the railroad) that his actions could get him sentenced to a term in the camps underscores, at the very least, a major psychological difference between camp personnel and prisoners. On the other hand, many low-level camp personnel (and some high-ranking figures, too) were ex-prisoners. The boundaries really aren’t always clear-cut.

  6. Jon Waterlow says:

    On the subject of the varying levels of power held by the gulag employees as compared with the zeks themselves, it would be interesting to learn more about those former-zeks who, upon release, did not leave the world of the camp but instead managed to find some kind of employment there. These individuals who straddled the boundary lines between prisoner and guard/authority figure might offer additional insights as to the where the dividing lines or limits lay for each group in terms of morality, criminality, and localised ‘blat’.

  7. Lynne Viola says:

    Hi Jon. I think that is a very interesting insight. According to documents in Istoriia Stalinskogo Gulaga, 40% of free workers in the camps were said to be former prisoners in 1937 (vol. 2, pp. 34, 44-8). Alan, Wilson, Steve, and others know a lot more about this than I do. But I like the idea that these former prisoners represent some other, perhaps liminal community.

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