Thanks to everyone for their participation in this first Russian History Blog conversation. I think we are finding some new ways to talk about books, and I hope to do more of this in the future. All of the commentary taken together has, I hope, led us to a deeper engagement with the meaning and importance of Gulag Boss. I will be interested to see if any of our discussion makes its way into our more traditional scholarship in the future.
I do want to take a minute to respond to some of the terrific thoughts about my post: Gulag Boss: On Truths and Silences. It has forced me to rethink my response to the memoir and perhaps to come to grips with my emotional, as opposed to my scholarly, response to the book.
I must say quite honestly that I meant my post to be provocative. It’s not that I didn’t believe what I wrote, but I did in part just want to take the conversation in a slightly different direction. Your responses have been fascinating and have, I think, carried us much further into the tricky issues of Mochulsky’s moral culpability for his involvement in the system. I do not intend to present this as a simple issue, yet I suppose I find myself more apt to condemn Mochulsky than others. (And, yes, I realize that’s not a particularly scholarly response, but it reflects a deep truth of how I read the memoir.)
I had an interesting conversation last week with Tarik Amar at Columbia University. He was telling me of a recent conference where the Mochulsky memoir became a topic of discussion, and he noted wide disagreement over whether the term “perpetrator” applied to Mochulsky. The crux of the conversation seemed to revolve around the degree to which Mochulsky had “choice” in his actions. Some seemed to argue (and keep in mind that I am reporting this second hand) that the perpetrator label did not apply, because, in essence, Mochulsky was “just following orders.” Of course, we have seen precisely this kind of claim of innocence many times in history, and it has largely been rejected both legally and morally.
In addition to the question of following orders, our discussion here has focused on Mochulsky’s beliefs. I find myself largely in agreement with Deborah that Mochulsky was a product of his time and the memoir is particularly revealing for how it shows the power of belief in an idea. I guess we part ways to an extent in my slightly different emphasis reading the memoir. That is, I don’t find his belief and his normality to be mitigating factors in my reading, and here, I think the Kopelev comparison is quite telling. Kopelev so openly sought to come to terms with the inhumanity that he not only witnessed but in which he participated and this shines a particularly stark light on the inability of Mochulsky to engage in the same kind of soul searching. Are we entitled to expect that kind of soul searching from him? Perhaps, not, but we still can take something from its absence in our evaluation of him. I would add, too, that Kopelev was already in the midst of coming to terms with these issues long before 1968, as he was arrested precisely for speaking out against brutalities committed by Soviet soldiers in Germany during the war. For these reasons, I think we as readers are much more sympathetic to Kopelev.
Jeff is right, by the way, that it was not the skiing itself that bothered me so. I do not begrudge any of these individuals having a life outside their work, and I fully accept that their lives and their jobs were enormously difficult and undesirable. What bothered me was that skiing and other aspects of the camp employees’ everyday lives were worthy of discussion in the memoir but the lives of prisoners, and Mochulsky’s interaction with the lives of prisoners, were not. Now, this is an exaggeration, of course, because Mochulsky did talk about the prisoners and, as Golfo reminds us, did at times focus on their fates. (I had not noticed the particularly emphasis on women as victims, and I thank Golfo for this insight.) Yet Mochulsky’s own interaction with the prisoners seems impossibly benign (in my reading, of course, and I’ll grant Jeff’s point that I have no contrary evidence. I suppose I would be more accepting of Mochulsky as a good boss in a bad system if he seemed to care about prisoners as more than a way to express the goodness of his own actions).
Despite my troubled response to the memoir, I learned a tremendous amount from it. We certainly know far too little about the lives of Gulag employees, and even less about how they viewed their experience. This memoir begins to help us address those gaps in our knowledge. The scholar in me appreciates the memoir on this level, but I simply felt it necessary to explore my emotional response to the work as well. And in that realm, it was the silences that spoke volumes. Perhaps in describing the memoir as self-justificatory, I have judged Mochulsky too harshly. Maybe his belief in the big idea meant that he did not intentionally lessen the extent of and his own possible participation in the brutality that marked Gulag life. Maybe these aspects of the experience simply failed to make the kind of impression on him and his thinking that I would have hoped. In the end, though, if this is the case, it might be the most troubling of all.