Gulag Boss: Some thoughts

Thank you Steve, for organizing this incredible blog, and for choosing to begin with Gulag Boss. It’s an honor to have so many scholars I admire read this book and comment on it. You are right: this is so much better than waiting for the random review to come out 15 months from now. And thank you all for taking the time to do this.  I’m sorry to be so late in responding. I guess I temporarily forgot that handing out a take-home midterm exam yesterday to my Freshman Seminar students might cause them to become crazed and needy! What can I say? It’s what we do.

One thing that made me happy about many of your comments was seeing that Mochulsky inadvertently answered some questions that have puzzled us. For instance, it thrilled me to see that Alan could finally find a reason for this rail line to be built, of all the myriad of projects in Komi that were started and abandoned. Jeff mentioned that seeing the political prisoners behave badly was unusual (I was also surprised), as well as seeing that the Germans actually landed near the camp during the war (this really surprised me, too).  I, too, felt that the Selektor was an important part of camp boss life, and yet I’d not seen much about it in the literature.  The Selektor is an excellent symbol of Lynne’s point about the sheer isolation and desolation of the camps, so far from Moscow.

Like Golfo, I was on the edge of my seat as well when Mochulsky’s horse got stuck in the mud, and shocked at the callousness of the other “free” employees in leaving the 3 boys there to fend for themselves. Already, before they even arrived at the camp, they had to worry about being arrested for the “plundering of State property.” It was, as nearly everyone mentioned, a stark reminder to us of that very fuzzy line between perpetrator and prisoner, as well as the blurred boundaries between the archipelago and the mainland, the famous “little camp” and “big camp.” Mochulsky’s memoir, for me, has made it much harder  to simply dismiss the Gulag administrators as perpetrators.  He has put a very real face on the challenges and choices they faced every day on the job.

In his life, it seems to me, Mochulsky was lucky, and he was wily. He was a very hard worker, and from the few times I met him, I could see that he was a very good “people person.” He was interested in others, he understood pretty clearly where everyone stood in the various hierarchies that he negotiated, and he was an exemplar of the “Soviet Man” in the old-fashioned sense of the term. He had a strong work ethic, he was dedicated to doing the job set down for him, and he was good at whatever he was given. On top of that he was, in my opinion, a perfect example of the people that Vlad Zubok wrote about in his book Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia. He was one of the last of the generation that actually, really, believed in socialism as an ideal, as something that Russia should and could achieve. I think this is why his regrets at the end aren’t what we think they should be (sadness for the wronged victims, etc.) but instead, that they had the chance to build something beautiful (socialism) in Russia and they squandered it.

We also have to always remember that he wrote this memoir for a Russian public, and not for us necessarily.

This brings me to something not mentioned in all of your wonderful, thoughtful comments, but something that I’ve wondered often. Why did he write this memoir? I wish I had asked him why he wrote it, but at the time, it seemed evident. Of course if he had had that extreme kind of experience, and he survived it, he had to write about it. It must have changed him in many ways, but then again, did it? We can’t say.

All I know is that after his various jobs in the Gulag, he enjoyed a stellar career as a diplomat in Asia, he travelled widely, he worked with Andropov at the Central Committee, he was respected, and yet, there was this part of his history that nagged at him. I know from his family that he told these very stories to them and to his friends for years. The experience, of course, was unforgettable and uncomfortable. For how could he, a believing socialist, a people-pleaser and a talented employee, square himself with something as horrendous as the Gulag was when nobody around him (and there had to be thousands of other people in Soviet society with the same experience as guards, Gulag personnel or bosses), how could he come to terms with such a deeply troubling experience in a country that refused to recognize it in all of its ugliness? And one in which nobody ever stood up and publicly said: This was wrong, this was a crime, we are to blame.

As Alan mentioned in his post, the best they got are people like local leaders in Komi who promote the region’s achievements and their glorious contributions to the war effort, all without bothering to mention or take note of the incredible human cost.




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