Gulag Boss

Gulag Boss and Room 101

Thanks, Steve, for pulling this conversation together. And thanks, Deborah, for bringing Mochulsky’s memoir to a broad audience.  There’s just nothing like it out there.

As I was reading Mochulsky’s fascinating and gripping memoir, I kept returning to a line from Leona Toker’s wonderful book, Return from the Archipelago.  Toker writes that for each gulag memoirist, there is a “terror gap” or “untidy spot” where he or she fears to tread, an Orwellian Room 101: “Each author is reluctant to face some special type of suffering, depravity, horror.”  I think that Mochulsky’s memoir is especially interesting for what it says about trauma and memory.

Some of the most striking elements of camp life– fear, hunger, and horror– are subjects that the author distinctly avoids addressing at length.  Yet they are quite present. Mochulsky tells the story of a NKVD interrogator who went crazy after he had to shoot a young girl for spying; later, he goes on at length about the injustice of a system that arrested young girls for petty offenses and threw them into camps.  Perhaps he too felt like a criminal and perpetrator.  I get the distinct sense that he struggled with this.

Mochulsky actually feared slipping from boss-engineer to prisoner-engineer, too. Throughout the memoir, this possibility seems to hang over him.  He describes being repeatedly threatened by his superiors, despite his remote location.  The reader feels his terror when his horse got stuck in the marsh and he came close to a sentence for wrecking or squandering socialist property (I was on the edge of my chair).  It was these stories that made me feel a certain sympathy towards him.  He was a boss, sure.  But we all know that the camps’ civilian employees were not exactly invulnerable.




5 replies on “Gulag Boss and Room 101”

I like your comparison to other Gulag memoirs. It’s interesting that, whether consciously or not, Mochulsky’s memoir basically follows the same linear path as many prisoner memoirs – the encounter with the NKVD; the “sentence” to a remote camp; great attention to the details and hardships of the journey; life in (or this case, out) the camps; narrow escapes; illness and recovery; transfer to easier work; and, finally, “release” (which wasn’t easy, even for a boss).

Well put, Wilson, I noticed that too. But is this unique to the Gulag, or is this a standard literary/memoir trope?

To follow up on Golfo and Wilson, I wonder how much Mochulsky was influenced by reading prisoner memoirs? Without a clear model to follow, it seems to me that he has combined many of the conventions of the prisoner memoir with an autobiography of his work successes, including in particular his contributions to the war effort. This might account for the sometimes awkward combination of elements in the book.

Personally, I doubt he read them, although I bet he read the newspaper accounts in the 1990s. If you think about it, the structure of his memoir and the various prisoner memoirs is simply chronological, which is the easiest form for a non-professional writer to take on.

It is perhaps rather oblique, but Mochulsky does write in his preface, “Various eyewitnesses of these horrifying years have written books, articles, and other accounts documenting this dark side of our history.” (p. xxxvii)

Of course it is not clear from this that he read these eyewitness accounts, but even so I’m not so quick to dismiss the influence of the Gulag prisoner memoir as a model (particular in the ways that Leona Toker writes about the subject). I would also want to think about this question through the lens of late-Soviet writing about the Soviet experience (as Irina Paperno writes about this subject). Sure, the account is chronological, but on questions like when the story begins, when it ends, and what things to include in between, these questions of genre could be quite telling, though I have no particular conclusions to offer at this moment.

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