Deborah Kaple’s publication of Gulag Boss: A Soviet Memoir is a real achievement and a significant contribution to the burgeoning field of gulag studies. Mochulsky’s memoir presents a rare first-person description of the gulag by an NKVD employee working on a mandatory work assignment following his university graduation. I found this book interesting for many reasons, but thought, for the sake of the blog, that I would note two in particular.
I believe that Mochulsky offers readers one of the best descriptions of the isolation of many of the camps. Not only are these camps situated in desolate, remote pockets of the enormous Soviet landmass, they are at times virtually self-run. Mochulsky arrives in a number of sub-camps in which there is no leadership, apart from the VOKhR guards. The degree of autonomy of these sub-camps is more frightening, of course, than enabling, as they become forgotten islands, neglected by a cadre-short central administration and left to their own non-existent resources. The kind of neglect that is apparent here–as well as in many special/labor settlements–was a deadly aspect of the gulag, one that was as threatening as tyrannical bosses, murderous criminals, and back-breaking work regimens.