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.