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Gulag Boss – Final Thoughts

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 hisĀ  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.

6 replies on “Gulag Boss – Final Thoughts”

Steve, if you haven’t picked up KGB: State Within a State by Yevgenia Albats (1995), I think you might find it really fascinating reading, particularly where issues of guilt and complicity are concerned.

I’ll quote you the paragraph that struck hardest in my memory:

“I cannot describe in words what happened to me during that time. I was more like a hounded animal than a tortured human being,” wrote Investigator Z. Ushakov-Ushimirsky to the leaders of the NKVD from prison. Ushakov-Ushimirsky had been among those who in 1937 perpetrated bogus accusations of a “military Fascist conspiracy” in the Red Army, and had personally beaten a “confession” out of Marshal Tukhachevsky. “I myself had occasion to beat enemies of the Party and Soviet government in Lefortovo Prison (and elsewhere,” he wrote. “But I never had any idea of how terrible it felt to be beaten, the agonies people experienced. True, our beatings were never so brutal; and besides, we interrogated and beat them only when absolutely necessary, and when they were really enemies….” (pg. 111).

In that sort of a situation, if you knew/realized and accepted what you had done, wouldn’t you go out of your mind? It takes more courage and brute honesty than most people have to stop rationalizing and face guilt head-on. (I’m deeply drawn to the subject, by the way, because the novel I’m working on now tackles precisely this issue, though at a later period than the one we’re dealing with here.)

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

I wonder if the perpetrator question is misplaced, but not because he “was just following orders” (actually, even by his own account he did not always follow orders, but that’s tangential to my point). Take the example of the postbellum U.S. South. In some states, such as Alabama, mortality rates in the convict lease system frequently reached 15% (!), a figure that is higher than any of the peacetime figures for the Gulag. Do we call the prison guards and bosses in these systems “perpetrators”? Maybe, but I doubt it. Instead, we tend to blame systemic racism in the criminal justice system, or perhaps, the companies that were using prisoner labor.
While everyone who played a part in the perpetuation of the incredibly inhumane Gulag system certainly bears responsibility for that system, if we’re going to use the word “perpetrator,” we need to ask, “what was perpetrated?” The Gulag camps were not death camps; these were the Soviet Unions prisons. That they were extremely brutal was due to a number of factors, including: 1) the criminal justice system, which became incredibly harsh as the Stalin era progressed (but was actually fairly lenient during the 1920s); 2) a lack of resources devoted to camp infrastructure, maintenance, supplies, and the hiring and training of personnel (something we clearly see in Mochulsky’s memoir); 3) a “gardening state” worldview that sought to categorize and label desirable and undesirable groups; and 4) the abuse of power by camp officials and guards (there are surely more, but let’s leave it at this, for now). All four of these are systemic, and only the 4th can we really lay at the hands of individual guards and sub-camp bosses. But on number 4, there no doubt were some guards and some sub-camp bosses who did their best to treat the prisoners well, even if they were a small minority.
To bring the issue back home, once again. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore shows in “Golden Gulag,” about the prison system in California, since 1980 the prison population in the U.S. has risen by 450%, despite falling crime rates. In some places, like California, this has resulted in appalling overcrowding and horrendous conditions. Sure, these conditions aren’t as bad as the Soviet Gulag, but this is small comfort. Do we blame the prison guards and lower-ranking prison officials for California’s own inhumane system? I don’t think we do, even if there are no doubt abuses of power within the prisons. Instead, I think we blame certain aspects of the criminal justice system, including some incredibly harsh laws that–like the bytovye laws of the Stalin era–condemn many prisoners to lengthy sentences for very petty crimes.
Anyway, I’m rambling and not quite as coherent as I’d like to be, but I’m curious to hear your reaction.
Thanks again for the thoughtful posts and for inviting me to comment on Mochulsky’s memoir. This has been a lot of fun.

Steve–thanks again for organizing this conversation. This final post of yours wraps things up quite nicely, I think. And Wilson, thanks for the bringing in the comparative angle here again–something that I think is extremely important. One note on that point–in Naimark’s recent book Stalin’s Genocides there is reference to an international criminal court trial on the Srebrenica massacre, which found that genocide can occur without perpetrators. I assume that Naimark is interpreting the ruling correctly (I haven’t double-checked him on this yet) and would be interested to find out how they arrived at this conclusion. In the case of genocide this seems fairly provocative, yet it seems to reinforce Wilson’s idea of systemic factors being more important than personal ones. In any case, lots to think about here.

I don’t think ICTY’s acrobatics do much to reinforce the point Wilson made. It doesn’t sound terribly useful to talk of systemic factors in a “genocide” comprised of a single massacre.

Thanks, Wilson. These are, of course, very difficult questions you pose, and I do think they are quite worthy of being pursued at some length perhaps in another forum. Obviously I argue quite strongly in my book that these were not death camps (and I must say that I expected going into the reading that I would be more sympathetic to Mochulsky than I was–perhaps this is what I have been trying to explain not only to others but also to myself), yet I hope that I also express the brutality that was inherent in the system. Mochulsky had some capacity, at least in his own telling, to violate orders, and I guess I just cannot get myself completely past the feeling that he “perpetrated” more than he is willing to admit in the memoir. As to your comparative question, one could of course turn it around and ask whether we should use the term “perpetrator” in some other cases even if we have been unwilling to do so to this point. I am not necessarily advocating this, but it is worth thinking through.

I think I will just leave my comments at this unsatisfactory conclusion complete with the notion that it is a conversation of important matters that must continue.


Wilson, thanks for raising some helpful, if challenging points. One thing I’d like to bring into the conversation is the distinction between guilt and culpability–setting the parameter that guilt equals the commission of an act harmful to another human being, while culpability assigns the degree of responsibility or blame.

To look at your example of California’s prison systems: on the one hand, social, economic and political factors do combine to produce overcrowding and perhaps, oversentencing. On the other, however, we can look specifically at abuses of power within those systems, and if we are honest, not only hold the perpetrators culpable, but assign a degree of responsibility to those who look the other way. There is a good-ol’-boy culture–one that I’ve seen take root in law enforcement–which is entirely blameable, and takes a high degree of moral courage to withstand. I would argue that it’s not that California lacks perpetrators or culpable people, but rather that we as Americans respond as Soviet society must have done, and prefer to dodge uncomfortable truths. Our perceptions of ourselves grow softened and warped, just as occurred in the Gulags, and we like to rationalize that there’s nobody to blame. The other fellow’s faults are far more apparent to us than our own.

So I like the fact that Steve is examining Mochulsky’s degree of culpability here, because there’s always an untidy little mirror image on the other side of it–and one that we’d probably do well to acknowledge.

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