Gulag Gulag Boss

Gulag Boss: On Truths and Silences

First, thanks to all the contributors to this discussion. Honestly, it has to this point exceeded my expectations. The intellectual content has been high, the questions thought-provoking, and the traffic heavy.

For a moment, I want to dwell on the level of “truthfulness” in Gulag Boss and question how looking at the memoir with an assumption that it represents falsehood rather than truth might change our analysis of the questions around the tricky issue of complicity. Here I am largely not questioning whether the particular events described in the memoir are “true.” Rather, I think the contributors to this conversation are united in the belief that the memoir is filled with silences, especially in relation to prisoners’ Gulag experiences. If this is the case, then the memoir is at best “partial truth.” What does that mean for our evaluation of Mochulsky?

(As an aside, when I teach my students about Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization, I ask them to think about whether telling a partial truth is truth or simply a different type of lie. In a way, that is what I’m asking here. In class, I always hope their answer will focus on the complexity of the question, not least by pointing to the near universal acceptance of the need for modern states to keep at least some secrets. Here, I hope that this intervention does not lead to a less complex evaluation of Mochulsky, though it might. I would add, on the pedagogical subject, that I find the discussion of truth, lies, and how much truth to tell throughout the film Ballad of a Soldier often helps complicate the question for my students, but now I have really strayed off point in a way that would certainly be edited out of a non-blog review. Whether that is positive or negative is yours to decide.)

I am not trying to assert here the possibility of some single absolute truth that “should have” guided Mochulsky’s writing in the memoir, nor am I even suggesting that we have the available resources to determine the memoir’s truthfulness on its specific points. Deborah has explored these questions in her afterword:

No matter how compelling or evocative a memoir is, it is just one person’s recollection. It reflects what that person was most interested in telling. The “real truth” is perpetually elusive, because one can never see the entire canvas of a lifetime, and because memory is always flawed or colored by later events. It is possible for an author to delude a reader by passing off false events as real, but it is equally plausible for an author to delude himself by telling a false story he believes fervently as the truth….even if one possesses perfect recollection of the past, most people naturally cast their past actions in a more ethically heroic light than might have been the case in reality. (pp. 175-176)

Deborah even goes on to detail her attempts to find corroborating information on Mochulsky’s employment in the Gulag system.

Rather, I want to suggest that much of what we know about Gulag life renders Mochulsky’s portrait seriously wanting in terms of the experience of the Gulag’s most powerless inhabitants.

So what I want to do, I guess, is flip Jeff’s framework on its head. He attempts, incisively, to render the questions surrounding the issue of “complicity” more complex than what he found in a Montefiore review of the memoir.

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).

What if instead we assume that the memoir rather than “factually true and accurate” is instead partial, self-justificatory, and self-serving? Would we answer the questions differently, or would we have to start with different questions altogether? Would we find it, as I do, difficult to believe that Mochulsky never participated in the brutalities that were so much part of Gulag life, that his interventions in prisoners’ lives were so exclusively positive from their point of view?

Wilson begins to get at the source of my uncomfortableness when discussing the “silences” in the memoir. As he writes,

Mochulsky comes across fairly positively in his account, even if today’s reader is frequently frustrated by his lack of introspection and personal accountability. He is remarkably resourceful at problem solving, and seems genuinely concerned with the physical well being of the prisoners….Yet there were a few points that nagged at me – silences in the text. For example, he describes some instances of problem solving—finding alternative food sources, convincing work refusers to work—in great detail, yet other instances receive almost no elucidation. Following the outbreak of the war, Mochulsky begins inspecting the track at night (along with his daytime inspections), and this immediately increased labor discipline on the night shift. Mochulsky credits his presence for the change (“prisoners understood that their work could at any moment be checked”), but are we really to believe that no coercion was involved? Why the lack of detailed description, here? Later, as boss of the militarized section of the railway, Mochulsky writes, “I only dealt with the prisoners as a labor force. I did not have anything to do with their maintenance or daily lives”. He does not explain exactly what he means by this statement, but one can certainly infer that, at this point, the prisoners’ daily lives were miserable, and Mochulsky is trying to absolve himself of blame (and, perhaps, feels guilty).

I think these silences nagged at Montefiore in his review, and they nagged at me a lot when reading the memoir. It is worth reminding ourselves that Mochulsky served as a Gulag boss during its deadliest years, when upwards of 25% of the Gulag population was dying each year. [1. See chapter four of my Death and Redemption for a lengthy discussion of the Gulag during the war.] Yet, while Mochulsky does not overly romanticize prisoners’ living conditions in Gulag Boss, neither does he dwell on or even give a particularly good sense of exactly how bad conditions were. Often, the prisoners were simply irrelevant to his story. In fact, I found myself (rightly or wrongly) enraged when reading of the skiing competitions that “became like holidays for all the civilians in camp,” precisely because I know that prisoners were starving to death at unprecedented rates in the same time period. (p. 115) I suppose at such moments, the distance between Gulag employee and Gulag prisoner was so large that it became difficult to react unemotionally. (I doubt, by the way, that Pechorlag fared significantly better than the rest of the Gulag in this period, or that Mochulsky’s prisoners fared significantly better than the rest of Pechorlag. Perhaps Alan can fill us in on the former.)

It’s not just the silences, though. Sometimes the way Mochulsky describes his “problem-solving” is so over the top that they struck me at the very least as exaggeration. For example, arriving at the camps, he notices that the prisoners have no barracks and are likely to find the encroaching winter unsurvivable. Yet they cannot take time to build barracks because of the need to fulfill daily production plans. So he and a colleague devise a workaround. They will falsely report completion of the daily plan for two weeks while barracks are built. Then the prisoners will work to catch up to the production they were supposed to have completed. Fearful of the potential consequences if anybody reported this falsification, Mochulsky sought to get all local parties on board with the idea. When he described the idea to the assembled prisoners, “In the dimming eyes of the worn-out men, hope lit up. They  became animated, and as a chorus might, they all agreed to the plan I proposed.” (p. 37) Mochulsky has become almost god-like in this passage, an impression only stengthened when he describes how he was nearly persecuted by superiors for trying to save these prisoners’ lives. (pp. 43-44)

Mochulsky’s description, by the way, of his efforts to supplement prisoner food by letting sick and weak prisoners set traps to catch partridges, calls to mind the unrealistic response of central Gulag authorities to food supply problems in Karlag during the war, when they proposed that prisoner diets be supplemented by picking mushrooms in the steppe. First, one wonders how able these sick and weak prisoners were to catch partridges, given that releasing prisoners from general labor for health reasons was only grudgingly allowed to the worst cases. Second, one wonders whether this activity can actually provide enough additional food to improve prisoner diets in any meaningful way. (Based on my own experiences mushroom hunting in the steppe, I register strong doubts in regard to this practice at Karlag and wartime death rates in that camp, even higher than the overall Gulag averages, would seem to back me up. I can’t, though, speak at all to the question of partridges in the far north.)

At any rate, I’ve already gone on far too long. I hope to find a moment to add some more thoughts on this and other subjects in the coming days. In particular, and I might throw this out as an open question to others, I want to think a little about how we evaluate Mochulsky’s memoir in comparison with another camp employee Danzig Baldaev’s series of violence-porn Drawings of the Gulag. Montefiore would certainly be unable to condemn Baldaev for his failure to fully condemn the Soviet project. Yet Baldaev’s drawings tread perhaps well over the line between describing the violence of the Gulag and reveling in it.

5 replies on “Gulag Boss: On Truths and Silences”

Steve: Very interesting post, lots to think about. The point you made that interests me the most is something I also gave a great deal of thought to as I translated the manuscript. It is the author’s seeming lack of interest in the actual prisoners and their plight. For the most part he is only interested in them as his labor force. Places in the book like the skiing competition for the civilian employees rankle, since we naturally focus on the prisoners and their horrible fate of being illegally consigned to slave labor in a hellhole for no real reason.

But in fairness, even though it is hard to look at it this way, Mochulsky from the beginning sets out to give us a glimpse of the lives of the “civilian employees” like himself, not the prisoners. Believe me, this troubled me a lot from the first time I read the manuscript, but now I think that this is one of the most interesting and eye-opening features of this memoir. Mochulsky is not like me! He seemed as normal as could be, and he probably was, but his entire life had been about an unwavering belief in an idea, AT ANY COST. I now see this memoir as a kind of a window into the power of belief in an idea more than the unmasking of a callous boss. And that is what makes it fascinating.

Actually, Mochulsky’s perspective brings to mind Lev Kopelev’s memoir To Be Preserved Forever. Kopelev (born 1912) and Mochulsky (born 1918) were both part of the Soviet generation about which Kopelev writes so eloquently:

“With the rest of my generation I firmly believed that the ends justified the means. Our great goal was the universal triumph of Communism, and for the sake of that goal everything was permissible—to lie, to steal, to destroy hundreds of thousands and even millions of people, all those who were hindering out work or could hinder it, everyone who stood in the way” (p. 11).

And then, he writes as a changed person, a man who has been forced to leave his Party and eventually his country, a man who no longer believes in this ideal, and he writes honestly:

“I took part in this [dekulakization] myself, scouring the countryside, searching for hidden grain, testing the earth with an iron rod for loose spots that might lead to buried grain. With the others, I emptied out the old folks’ storage chests, stopping my ears to the children’s crying and the women’s wails. For I was convinced that I was accomplishing the great and necessary transformation of the countryside; that in the days to come the people who lived there would be better of for it; that their distress and suffering were a result of their own ignorance or the machinations of the class enemy; that those who sent me—and I myself—knew better than the peasants how they should live, what they should sow and when they should plow” (p. 12).

Even after seeing corpses everywhere, and people dying from hunger, he does not waver in his belief that he is doing something bigger, more important, indeed, serving a power above and beyond simple everyday life. The idea! The promise of Communism.

Of course the difference is that Kopelev gets expelled from his beloved Communist Party in 1968 when he protests the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and eventually he leaves the USSR. And finally, after all is said and done, he is able to see that this blind hewing to an idea was wrong. Mochulsky never had to question his belief in his lifetime. The Party was good to him, he had a very successful career and he didn’t, as far as we know, question his role in this horrendous institution where he worked for 6 years. To his mind, the Communist Party said he had this job to do, and he evidently tried to do his best while there.

For me, this helps explain what he wrote at the end of the manuscript in the chapter called “The Real Essence of the Gulag” (p. 168). This is where he fails to say that he regrets the great loss of life of the prisoners, that he regrets his small part in running a killing machine, or even that he regrets his participation in other Party/NKVD atrocities. No, in the end, he looks for ways in which he can stick to his conviction that he and other Soviet citizens were correct in pursuing the important task of building Socialism.

He says: “Little by little, I began to see with my own eyes the inhumanity and basic criminal character of the Soviet leadership’s policies in this area. As a patriot of our country, for a while I searched for ways to explain away our government’s carelessness and incompetence. I looked for reasons why our government seemed unable to put into practice the party’s lucid plans for building the first socialist state in the world” (p. 169).

After asking a few rhetorical questions about the Soviet government’s Gulag policies, he returns to his main concern:

“They hid the truth about the Gulag from ordinary citizens, I realized, and these citizens believed the official propaganda…If we were building the most advanced, first socialist government in the world, then where did this policy come from?….This meant that the same leaders who came up with it and insisted that they were changing the world, these leaders knew that this policy was at its very core criminal and bad for people. “

He ends with: “But why would you torment people in the pursuit of it, when the idea of socialism and communism is for the good of people?” (p. 72).

Finally, let’s return to Kopelev, whom I think verbalizes Mochulsky’s tenacious belief in an idea better than Mochulsky himself.

Kopelev says, “Good and evil, humanity and inhumanity—these seemed empty abstractions. I did not trouble myself with why “humanity” should be abstract but “historical necessity” and “class consciousness” should be concrete. The concepts of conscience, honor, humaneness we dismissed as idealist prejudices, “intellectual” or “bourgeois,” and hence perverse” (p. 13).

It seems to me that both of these men were members of that generation who, barring expulsion from the Party like Kopelev, would go to their graves believing that the building of socialism was so important and so necessary that any sacrifice could be justified for the common good.

I don’t know offhand what the official mortality figures were like for Sevpechlag during these years, though it would be fairly easy to find out by looking at the microfilm collection from GARF R-9414 (the “Gulag” archive). I would suspect that the mortality rate was at least as high as the average for the Gulag as a whole (25%). The camp was probably relatively well-supplied during the war because it was considered to be a military priority, and this would have made it more likely for prisoners to survive. Vorkutlag, which was similarly considered to be high priority, experienced somewhat lower than average mortality rates, rates which never exceeded 15% of the population per year (except in the case of katorga prisoners). While this is still horrifying, it is much less than the 25% average that Steve and others cite. On the other hand, Sevpechlag was a different kind of camp than Vorkutlag. Its prisoner population was spread out over the entire length of the railroad line that was being built from Kozhva to Vorkuta (approximately 400 km). Some of these areas were extremely remote and difficult to access before the railroad was completed. The situation that Mochulsky so vividly describes upon his arrival in the “Pernashor” sub-section (chapter 6), with prisoners sleeping out in the open in the Arctic winter, was probably quite common, since the camp was expanding so rapidly into places where there was no existing infrastructure whatsoever.

Figures for the population of the camp during the first half of the 1940s give a good sense of just how rapidly this camp expanded:
01.07.40 — 3851
01.01.41 — 34 959
15.06.41 — 91 664
01.01.42 — 102 354
01.01.43 — 58 8255
01.44 — 23 019
01.45 — 33 598
(Figures taken from, entry for “СЕВЕРО-ПЕЧОРСКИЙ ИТЛ,” online version of Roginskii, A. B., M. B. Smirnov, and N. G. Okhotin. Sistema ispravitel’no-trudovykh lagerei v SSSR, 1923-1960 : spravochnik. Moscow: “Zven’ia”, 1998.)

As you can see, the population of Sevpechlag nearly tripled in the six months leading up to the Soviet entry into World War II, and had reached over 100,000 prisoners by the beginning of 1942. The size of the camp then decreased significantly over the last three years of the war. Some of these population shifts had to do with administrative reorganization, since the railroad construction projects assigned to Sevpechlag changed, leading to the transfer of large numbers of sections from one camp to another. Nevertheless, the overall picture is of a rapidly expanding, and then rapidly contracting prisoner population. In other words, the camp was to a large degree temporary, and this undoubtedly meant that even fewer resources were devoted to building basic infrastructure for prisoners (e.g., wooden barracks) than was the case in other parts of the Gulag.

As for Mochulsky’s contention that he had little to do with the prisoners, clearly this was not the case. He was a micromanager who was constantly out on the job inspecting what the prisoners were doing. He may not have had much control over the prisoners’ fates, but he must have been acutely aware of their working conditions and overall physical health.

Thanks for the thoughtful post, Steve. I hope that our conversation will continue for at least another little while.

I agree that Mochulsky’s memoir is hardly likely to be “factually true and accurate” and is, as Steve points out, “partial, self-justificatory, and self-serving” and full of half truths, half lies, and omissions. That is true of virtually any memoir. My point was largely theoretical–I do not agree with the impulse to condemn all who worked in the Gulag. Sure, Mochulsky could have brutalized the prisoners (or depending on your definition of brutality there is no doubt about this matter at all), but as much as his memoir rings false in places, it also largely rings true based on what we know about the Gulag and about this generation of Soviet men. There are plenty of examples in prisoner memoirs of kind (or at least ambivalent) Gulag employees, even though the theme of prisoner memoirs is to highlight the worst cases of abuse. And Mochulsky very well may have been one of these. Did he send prisoners to isolation cells for regimen infractions? I have no doubt. That’s what wardens do in any prison system. But did he beat them? Perhaps not. Did he watch prisoners die of exhaustion and malnutrition? It’s hard to imagine that he didn’t given the time and place. Did he do what he could to lessen the number of such deaths? At least based on his memoir, yes. We have no evidence to the contrary other than the general mortality rates for this period, but his rapid ascension in the ranks might suggest that he kept his labor force alive. (One might also note that he was a Gulag “boss” for a very short time–perhaps not long enough to become brutalized) Just because 15-25 percent of prisoners in the worst two years of the Gulag die doesn’t mean that all Gulag officials are sadistic or immune to suffering. As Mochulsky’s memoir and Steve’s dissertation point out (if I’m remembering this correctly), there were often serious consequences for officials who presided over high mortality rates even during the war years. So despite the gaps and half-truths presented in Gulag Boss, I still maintain that Mochulsky could have been a good boss in a terrible system.

On skiing. I did not have an emotional reaction here (perhaps because I love to ski?). Yes, the juxtaposition of having a holiday while prisoners are dying is stark. But really, what do we expect? Do we really expect that free laborers in the Gulag system should have no amusement, no days off, no celebration of holidays, nothing (other than alcohol) that might take their minds off their work for a few hours or a day or a weekend? Do we expect them to place themselves under the same restrictions that they place on their prisoners? Should the nature of their work dictate how they spend their time off? Do we not think, rather, that if anyone in the Soviet Union needed an occasional break from their work, it would be Gulag employees? The Gulag was terrible work. It’s no secret that no MVD officers, no engineers, no doctors, no agronomists, no conscripts wanted to work there. These were ordinary people sent against their will to do their duty to their country. And the skiing episode for me at least highlights their humanity, their need to detox, their need to rejuvenate, their need to socialize. Now if for sport they got drunk and beat up some random prisoners we would be right to condemn them. But for skiing?

Perhaps, though, Steve is not upset about the skiing at all. It may simply be that Mochulsky chose to talk about skiing but not about death. And again this goes back to the holes in the narrative and nature of the memoir genre in general. Skiing fits into the narrative that Mochulsky has constructed, but starvation does not. Perhaps looking back over several decades it was the happy or positive moments that stuck in his memory. Perhaps he has tried to block the (no doubt horrific) details of suffering from his mind so as to lessen the disjuncture between the ideology in which he believed and the facts on the ground that he witnessed. If so, he would not be alone. The memoir genre is full of similar accounts. Perhaps this does not excuse him. But I would be slow to condemn him.

I just want to say how much I appreciate everyone’s thoughtful and very smart remarks in this discussion. I have learned so much from reading these postings. As a member of that generation which isn’t so used to blogging, Steve has sold me on the new media. The old fashioned book reviews just don’t cut it anymore.

It’s interesting to see what catches the eye of each of us. The skiing incident didn’t jump out at me in quite the same way (I had Jeff’s reaction), whereas I was very much struck by the line that Wilson noted originally, which Steve highlighted, about how, as Alan says, Mochulsky was a micromanager who checked the prisoners’ work at night: “Prisoners understood that their work could at any moment be checked.” I, too, was sure that this particular line concealed a great deal. No doubt, he knew how to turn the screws on the prisoners he managed, although he leaves out the details.

Like others, I was struck by his narrow managerial concerns, but I think it’s revealing of how the system sustained itself. Perhaps we have here the classic Weberian bureaucratic/technocratic mindset which Bauman describes so well (“I don’t ask big questions; I just do my job”). Where is his sense of empathy? Where is his compassion for the prisoners who were starving around him? We’re just not seeing it. And it’s true, as has been noted already, that this says something about the way complicity functioned. It seems to have operated on a number of levels.

At the heart of it, I think what Deborah described is deeply relevant. These men held a core value—that the economic strength of the country in the face of war trumped all else. It goes back to what Alan said about memory, too. There was this sense that anyone who valued the human inputs more than the material output had it backwards, and didn’t adequately appreciate the goal of building a strong national defense. Perhaps for many years Mochulsky was okay with this—“We had to do it to win the war”—but wondered too (the gulag, after all, lasted for a really long time).

One could argue that Mochulsky’s silence about the prisoners’ condition and the way he absolves himself of any responsibility for them, reveals that he had internalized the gulag system’s dehumanization of the prisoner. I’m reminded here of something that was written by one of us (sorry, it’s all merging together in my head) concerning how Mochulsky was sharply critical of the behavior of both the politicals and the criminals. For him, there was no division, of the kind we encounter repeatedly in the memoir literature, between the meek/humble/powerless political and the brutal/thieving/powerful criminal. They were all bad news.

I think his silence about the brutality of the camps betrays a deeper sentiment that the prisoners were not innocent or worthy of much human sympathy. On a moral level, the main issue that troubled him involved the young girls who were arrested, given sentences that were in no way commensurate with the infraction committed, and basically sent to the camps to be raped. Only there did I get a clear sense that Mochulsky perceived inmates as true victims. Otherwise, he might simply have viewed them as largely guilty, people who brought their fate upon themselves. Maybe he didn’t want to fully reveal this prejudice for fear that it would reflect poorly upon him in the new post-Soviet era. Perhaps what we’re seeing isn’t a partial truth as much as a partially-revealed truth. (By the way, Steve, I have to try that question on my students, too!)

You know, this brings to mind something Naimark describes in Fires of Hatred about how victims of political violence are placed in terrible conditions (ghettos, camps), that profoundly dehumanize them. This then allows the perpetrators to say, “See, look at them behave like animals. They really aren’t like us.” The brutal conditions themselves dehumanize. The bosses don’t need to be carrying guns. They can just witness their prejudices being confirmed by the terrible behavior of the inmates (who have been placed in terrible conditions). Political violence becomes self-fulfilling that way.

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