Gulag Boss

Gulag Boss – Administration and Complicity

Gulag Boss is clearly a valuable contribution to the growing body of Gulag literature.  For decades our understanding of the Gulag was informed almost exclusively by prisoner memoirs.  Then in the 1990s and 2000s came the archival revolution, which provided a wealth of information about the internal workings of the Soviet penal system.  But although they have taught us much over the past two decades, archival documents will never present the full picture of how the administration of punishment worked in the Soviet Union; they lack, for the most part, the candid voices of the actual administrators explaining how to properly interpret the documents.  Which orders were important?  Which orders were ignored?  How were promotions and disciplinary actions really decided?  What personal intrigues stood behind such actions?  Were some commands given orally rather than in written form?  Were there motivations behind certain decisions that were not printed on paper, or which among the given motivations carried the most weight?  What did Gulag commanders and guards really think of their work and of the prisoners?  These are questions that are sometimes answered in investigatory reports and petitions, but often the historian is left guessing.  And it is precisely these sorts of questions that memoirs or oral histories of Gulag personnel can help answer.  They can provide a sort of bridge between the prisoner accounts and the official documents.  Unfortunately, historians have at their disposal very few such sources and this is where Gulag Boss is particular valuable.  One only wishes it were three times as long and detailed as it is.


So what do we learn from Gulag Boss?  Or, what do we already know about the Gulag that is reinforced by this memoir?

1. I was fascinated by Mochulsky’s description of how the leadership and communication in the local Gulag units worked.  His description of the “Selektor” in particular is priceless: the endless stream of profanity and threats concerning the economic plan streaming from the camp administration; the daily reports streaming up channel on production, productivity, mortality, sickness, the supply situation, and so forth; and the camp gossip that one could sometimes catch by eavesdropping on other conversations.  This is an incredible window into officialdom and into camp operations.  The reader feels the acute level of stress produced by daily, oral reporting of a variety of indicators, the most important of which was production.


2. Mochulsky reminds us that the Gulag authorities were anything but unified.  Rather, there were multiple fissures in the camp administration, both vertical and horizontal, which proved difficult for Mochulsky to navigate.  Sometimes he was in favor with higher camp-level authorities, sometimes not.  Sometimes he got along with the political and guard leadership in his camp points, sometimes not.  Whenever he did something against regulations, it seems, somehow that information was leaked to higher authorities.  So this is a very challenging environment for low-level Gulag personnel, even with the supposedly clear mandate to just fulfill the production plan.  On this note, Mochulsky’s memoir speaks somewhat to the order of discipline and promotion with the Gulag ranks.  Clearly, as the author points out, much is due to circumstance and good (or bad) fortune.  The account of his disciplinary trial for engaging in tufta is fascinating.  That bosses of other camp units were able to defend him against their superiors suggests a break-down of authority and a camaraderie among certain low-level bosses.   Mochulsky’s rapid rise from foreman at a camp point to being on the Gulag nomenklatura demonstrates the possibility for rapid promotion.  And it is quite interesting that the political department wins out over the economic department when they both want Mochulsky in important positions.  Economics may have ruled camp operations, but the economic bureaucracy within the Gulag system was not necessarily the most powerful.


3. Gulag Boss provides a nice account of living conditions for Gulag workers, largely confirming what we have found from archival documents.  In short, they were often terrible for low-level employees and guards.  They seemed to live hardly better than the prisoners, particularly in the new camp units that were being established when Mochulsky first arrived at Pechorlag.  Camp administrators and guards were fed poorly, both in terms of quantity and variety, and their sleeping arrangements left much to be desired.  To a significant extent the guards and other employees of the Gulag were prisoners as well; they were not free to leave their place of work, they endured privation, malnourishment, and poor medical care; they worked long days; they had few opportunities for culture or sport; they were largely segregated from women; and so forth.  On the other hand, high-level camp administrators had significantly better living conditions.  Not only did they enjoy comfortable apartments instead of tents or dugouts, they had fresh food brought in daily at incredible expense from Moscow.


4. Gulag Boss reinforces the observation that the boundary between prisoners and Gulag employees was anything but firm.  They shared a culture of drinking, swearing, card-playing, stealing (both for the work and for personal consumption), and tufta; Gulag workers were often former prisoners and prisoners were often former Gulag workers or else worked as prisoners in the camp administration; both endured primitive conditions, a significant degree of unfreedom, and long working hours (speaking of the guards Mochulsky lamented, “There are no words that could convey their suffering.” (36)); and both awaited the day they could leave the Gulag—indeed, some on both sides of the barbed wire chose escape or suicide.  They also shared, at least in some instances, a mutual understanding of their respective situations.  Mochulsky describes his relations with his first group of prisoners “very friendly.” (37)  And even with the group of recidivists he was able to find common ground and respect.


5. Gulag workers were not a bunch of sadists.  Sure, we knew this already, but Gulag Boss helps better to understand the challenges that could lead to the abuse of prisoners on the one hand and the true pride that at least some Gulag administrators took in their work on the other hand.  Mochulsky sees the Gulag as a terrible institution, yet he believed in the specific project he was working on—providing coal for the war effort—and in the broader project of building socialism.  Did he care about the prisoners?  Perhaps not too much.  At least this does not come through in the memoir.  Yes, he went out of his way to save the lives of the prisoners under his watch, and this seems to have been motivated to a significant degree out of concern for their well-being.  But he also wanted to fulfill the plan.  He wanted to get coal to the munitions factories.  He wanted to save his Motherland from the Nazis.  Mochulsky clearly took pride in his work, and this is a motivation that should not be taken lightly.  He literally nearly worked himself to death.


6. Political prisoners did not always act honorably in the camps.  Mochulsky accuses some of them at least with preying on the harder-working inmates and backstabbing each other with fabricated denunciations to camp authorities.  This is a point that rarely comes through in prisoners’ memoirs, virtually all of which were written by politicals, and most of which cast a strict line between the wild and corrupt criminals and the noble and longsuffering 58ers.  This is a topic that merits more discussion, tempered, of course, by Primo Levi’s conception of the “grey zone.”  One wonders how criminals and the so-called muzhiki viewed the politicals and how our understanding of the Soviet penal system would be different if we had memoirs from these segments of Gulag society.


7. The Germans actually did land troops near Gulag facilities to try to incite a prisoner revolt.  Wow.



To close I would like to present an observation on Gulag Boss made by Simon Sebag Montefiore in Literary Review (his review can be found here) and open it up for discussion.  Montefiore in general liked the book, calling it a “fascinating and important read,” and highlighting (not surprisingly, given Montefiore’s own work) the very few gruesome tales of rape and murder from its pages.  (In doing this, in fact, he really misses the point of the book).  But he also questions Mochulsky’s narration, criticizing him for not “fully acknowledging that the entire system was a heinous, murderous lie;” for writing “as if the brutality and madness were somehow far away from his own career;” and for never “fully condemn[ing] the Soviet project.”  Though Mochulsky is deserving perhaps of some sympathy due to the environment in which he was raised, Montefiore allows, “readers must not forget that the writer himself was complicit in this colossal crime.”  Montefiore here is making two points.  First, Mochulsky is guilty of mass murder primarily because he was part of the Gulag machinery.  And second, the Soviet project must be condemned absolutely because of its crimes.


So what do we make of Mochulsky?  And how does our understanding of the Gulag inform our final judgment on the Soviet Union as a whole?  For me these are much tougher questions to answer than they are for Montefiore.  Because this post is running long already, I would like to just say a few words in response to the first question.  The issue of complicity strikes me as quite complex.  Perhaps Montefiore in Mochulsky’s shoes would have taken a principled stand against the murder and corruption that surrounded him in Pechorlag and would have been tried and executed for treason.  Or perhaps he would have committed suicide.  But I wonder if I, as a heavily indoctrinated 22-year-old, would have had such courage.  Most “ordinary men,” to borrow Christopher Browning’s term, are cowards.  They adapt, they rationalize, they conform, they survive.  This seems to be a common thread in human history.  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).  A variety of factors made the Gulag in the 1930s and 1940s a place where murder was easily perpetrated.  And it was indeed perpetrated, sometimes on a mass scale (although many if not the majority of deaths in the Gulag could perhaps be labeled “manslaughter” rather than “murder” as they were not directly intended but nonetheless resulted from a number of internal and external pressures).  But the Gulag was not established as a “killing machine,” nor was that was ever its purpose.  Its purpose was production, isolation, and, perhaps, re-education through labor and other means.  I am convinced, therefore, that not every guard, administrator, bookkeeper, doctor, engineer, and janitor should be slapped with the perpetrator label that Montefiore and others so easily distribute.

By Jeff Hardy

Jeff Hardy is assistant professor of history at Brigham Young University.

14 replies on “Gulag Boss – Administration and Complicity”

Hi Jeff,
Very interesting and informative. I’m having my students learn about the gulag through this forum — and also through Steve’s Gulag: Many Days, Many Lives web site. So this is really exciting to have these digital resources and discussions. I was really struck by Montefiore’s condemnation of Mochulsky as essentially a mass murderer on a par with Nazi camp guards. Why do you think the parallel between the Nazi death camps and the gulag remains such a fixture in both popular understandings and even in certain parts of the academic world? The evidence, at least based on all the latest research into the gulag, seems to clearly suggest the obvious wrongheadedness of such facile comparisons. I know this question comes up all the time, but it still seems to be a central one — especially given the tendency of my students to assume little difference between the Nazi death camps and the gulag as we approach “gulag week” on the academic calendar.

I think the comparison with the Nazi camps is a relic of the Cold War. The vast differences between the two systems clearly outweigh any similarities. This is not to downplay the Gulag’s brutality. But the systems had different purposes, treated prisoners and personnel much differently, and were organized in quite different ways. Margarete Buber-Neumann’s descriptions of Ravensbrück compared with Karlag in Under Two Dictators are quite instructive.

Thanks for your comment Andrew. Let me first say that I think Nazi-Soviet comparisons in general can be useful, but often the result is a realization of how different the systems were. So why does this Holocaust-Gulag comparison persist in the public and scholarly imagination? An excellent question, one that cannot be properly answered in a reply such as this. But I’ll give it a stab nonetheless. The popular and non-specialist conception of the Gulag is still informed primarily by the memoirs and tales of Solzhenitsyn, Ginzburg, Shalamov, Larina, Razgon, and Bardach. These memoirs collectively have the effect of first, portraying the Gulag as a system of death camps, and second, conflating the Terror and the Gulag. The Gulag, in this view, was simply a continuation of Stalin’s drive to murder large segments of the population based on class or ethnicity or their standing as Old Bolsheviks, or whatever else. It is a compelling and straightforward narrative, and it makes for a convenient Holocaust comparison, particularly for those who still use totalitarianism as an explanatory device. So Montefiore cherry-picks a few grotesque details, and then condemns the rest of the book as whitewashing genocide. But as you say, recent research demonstrates that this line of reasoning does not hold up well to scrutiny. Why do we not compare the Gulag with a different set of Nazi camps–the labor camps? That might be more fruitful; at least it would provoke a new set of questions. Or, to take a longer chronological approach (because the Gulag should not be defined by the late 1930s and early 1940s alone), why not compare it with other systems of judicial incarceration, be they colonial, postcolonial, or Western? The Gulag was, after all, the Soviet Union’s penal system. That was its primary function–to hold inmates sentenced to imprisonment. And if we can look past the fact that millions of its prisoners were innocent of the crimes they were accused of (which is admittedly a big “if”, but let us remember that the police, secret police, courts, and the Gulag were all different institutions with their own philosophies and pressures), and if we can look past a few wartime years when the mortality rate in the Gulag skyrocketed, then we might find that its attitude toward prisoners was not really out of line with the international norms of the twentieth century. But that is not a straightforward narrative, nor is it a particularly convenient one.

Interesting point about international norms of the 20th century — which also links up to points made by Alan in his post about forced labor and Vorkuta. I was reading a Wall Street Journal article yesterday about the use of prison labor in a mid-Western state — I can’t recall which right now. Because of a crackdown on immigration agricultural enterprises are starving for manual labor. So they have contracted with the prison system to provide prisoners who will do the job at one half the pay rate of “free” pickers. The practice also reminded many of the use of chain gangs in the United States of the first half of the 20th century (Cool Hand Luke, etc.). Perhaps those kinds of comparisons would be just as fruitful — not so much to prove that the systems were just like each other (for this would rightly cause howls of moral and academic protest), but more to show how they were similar but also different. At any rate, I find that students tend to understand the gulag better through a comparative approach. Thanks for the inconvenient narrative.

A stimulating post, particularly your comments on Sebag-Montefiore’s views, and what this memoir tells us about Stalinist state violence more generally.

I reviewed the book for the Times Literary Supplement a couple of weeks ago, and tried to address some of the same issues. I agree with you, the Sebag-Montefiore view is more interested in moralising than explaining, and the ‘killing machine’ terminology is misleading. But I also found a tension within the text: between Mochulsky’s denunciation of the camps as monstrous and his occasional desire to show that he improved the lives of the prisoners on the one hand, and his general lack of interest in the prisoners’ suffering and eagerness to show how clever he was in solving various organisational problems on the other. So I’m not sure I agree with you that this is the memoir of somebody rationalising, conforming and surviving. Mochulsky seems more committed to a particular world-view than that. He betrays a set of attitudes which can be seen in many of his generation and background in the USSR: a belief in the modernising, technocratic aspects of the system; a scepticism of party ideologues and of ideas popular in the Terror period, like ‘class struggle’; a respect for hard-work and discipline (he says how much he approves of the kulak prisoners, because they work hard, and how much he disapproves of the lazy, arrogant Polish aristos); and nationalism (he feels sorry for the imprisoned Russian POWs involved in the Finnish war); and a respect for hard-headed efficiency (hence he does improve prisoners’ lives by building them barracks, but one gets more of a sense that he is appalled by the irrationality of the Gulag system, than by its inhumanity). Of course, this document is open to various interpretations, as there are tensions within it, and a difficulty in distinguishing between what Mochulsky thought in the 30s and what he thought in the 90s, but that was my sense of it.

But this is what makes the text so fascinating, as it gives us an unusual insight into the thinking of a particular type of technician-official, in unusually unpleasant and extreme circumstances. And I agree, it’s a great resource for students.

David: Thank you for your review! I’ve read your wonderful books and use them in my communism class. It’s nice to connect with you. Anyway, I agree with you that Mochulsky had a particular worldview that drove him. As you know, he answered my ad in the newspaper, and so, as with all the others, I immediately tried to give him the promised money to cover transportation costs. (This was 1993 and most people his age needed the money.) Unlike any of my other respondents, he told me that he was a member of the Communist Party, and that a Party member would not take money for something like this. He asked me if I knew the word бескорыстный (unselfish) and told me that this was a trait he felt the Party advocated. So he refused the money. It was still very important to him to be part of the CPSU.

Hello everyone, and thanks! I haven’t read the book, so I apologize if my questions tough on issues that Mochulsky simply does not cover. My comments are inspired by Jeff and Lynne’s posts. I am thinking about the question of resources in the more remote sub-camps, and about living conditions. On the train this summer in Arkhangel’sk (the neighboring region to the west), I met someone who was born and grew up in a former special settlement there. I was particularly taken by his description of the barracks that his family lived in, in the early 1950s. It consisted of eight rooms, divided among four families. Each family had two rooms that were connected by a Russian oven. He said it was always very warm. Now I imagine that the camps that Mochulsky describes were more rudimentary; am I right? And what other resources were available in the camps and “sub-camps?” Did they live of supplies that were delivered? Or did they have to fend for themselves? Any evidence that hunted or fished? I know that at least in Arkhangel’sk that the forest was considered an invaluable source of sustenance, be it from game, berries, mushrooms and so on. There were bears too, at least until the 1950s! And finally, did the camp in any shape or form attempt to grow its own crops?

David: Thanks for your response–I look forward to reading your review. And you’re absolutely right that Mochulsky did not simply survive and conform; in fact, he seemed to thrive and innovate (while still rationalizing, at least implicitly). No question, he was a man of his generation.

Auri: I hope you find an opportunity to read the book! In short, yes, conditions on average were quite a bit worse than the communal living you describe. They lived primarily on supplies delivered through a centralized Gulag supply network, although some camp units (including one of Mochulsky’s) engaged to a very limited degree in berry-picking, hunting, fishing, etc. A number of camps were agricultural camps producing food for the Gulag system as a whole, but those assigned to other tasks (logging, mining, construction, etc.) with rare exception did not grow their own crops.

The comparison with the chain gang is not without merit. In the postbellum South, states contracted out prisoners (or ran forced-labor prisons themselves) in mining, agriculture, roads and railroad construction, and other areas, just like the Gulag. The mortality rates were incredibly high, frequently surpassing the Gulag mortality rates (or, at least, the official Gulag mortality rates). Both of these areas–the South and, broadly speaking, Russia–had been primarily agricultural areas that were trying to industrialize and modernize, and had no qualms about using prisoner labor. In both cases, too, the prisoners were mostly the same people who had been subjected to forced labor in earlier times – the peasants as serfs in Russia, and African Americans as slaves in the South.

One of the impressions I’ve gained from looking at both the Gulag and the Nazi extermination camps is that there was a difference of intent, but the results were often tragically similar–the difference between a rogue elephant on the rampage, and the blind and terribly clumsy elephant who steps on you anyway. But there’s nothing personal about it.

Small comfort, of course, if you happen to be under the elephant.

But the thing that strikes me over again, is just how much of the tragedy, the cruelty and suffering was not of intent. It came from ignorance, or mismanagement, or waste, or lack of transport, or lack of supplies, or corruption, or pressures from above–a perfect storm of circumstances hardly ever traceable back to a single source; and just as much a human disaster as the Soviet attempt to centralize and collectivize the management of agriculture.

The Soviet Union as a closed society was never the efficient monolith that the West perceived–it merely gave that impression, and for that, I believe Stalin as a person, along with a tight central control of Soviet media in his time, was largely responsible. Throughout the Cold War, and even afterwards, the repressive, monolithic image is the one that remains with us–something I think we can fairly compare to Lincoln’s image as the Great Emancipator, as both are pervasive and neither is historically accurate.

Thanks, Jeff, for this post; and Steve, for opening this conversation. I look forward to reading more.

I am currently working on a feature script about GULAG and this kind of information is invaluable for me! Can I ask you if there is available any other literature at all similar to Mochulskys memoirs? (Meaning – from a perspective of a guard/commander.)

Thank you!


Hi Ansels,

I haven’t seen any other memoirs come out from guards or commanders. There may be some in Russian that I have not seen yet. You might look at Anne Applebaum’s book Gulag: A History to see if there is anything in her list of sources. Keep us posted on the script!


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