Thursday, October 02, 2014

Book Notes: Gulag Boss by Fyodor Mochulsky

Much has been written (and published in English too), about Stalin's mass concentration and heavy labour camps known as "The Gulag". A lot of this material is written with an emphasis on the development of Stalin-ism, the consolidation of the Soviet dictatorship, The Great Purges and so forth - and is weighted towards Moscow in its focus. In such books, The Gulag is a monstrous reality to which people are routinely sent and rarely return; but yet The Gulag itself remains resolutely off-stage. Studies of Stalin's USSR of this type focus for instance on the weakening of Red Army in the purges and its subsequent unreadiness to face Nazi aggression in 1939.  

Another raft of literature grieves the lives of victims lost to the terror, to the camps, show trials and to the labour camps. Again however, much of this is written in the memoirs of those left behind, who grieved a loss they felt in St Petersburg, Moscow or Kiev. Some memoirs of those dispatched to Siberia do exist; but the vast majority of the poor souls taken by the NKVD had no means of leaving any record of their experiences. Nevertheless some reports of Gulag prison life have survived.

Fyodor Mochulsky's time spent in Stalin's Gulags, in places such as Perchorlag in The Arctic Circle; lead to quite different memoirs. Mochulsky was a young railway engineer when he was sent to oversee the extension of the Soviet rail network, far across the tundra to the coal fields of the North. The Soviet planners had correctly understood that a Nazi invasion would quickly capture the coal reserves of the West of the Soviet Empire - and that accessing vast quantities of coal would be essential for the forthcoming war effort. This was both as fuel for their own war effort, and as a trade for essential supplies from the Allies. With little choice, Mochulsky found himself the boss of a team of slave labourers, both criminals and political prisoners, digging cuttings, raising embankments and bridges and driving rails across vast frozen territories.

As a memoir, "Gulag Boss" is an unusual read. Although he was a part of one of the greatest ideological movements of the twentieth century, in a vast system of persecution and exploitation - we learn remarkably little of what Mochulsky made of it all. While it seems that as a post-revolutionary child he was thoroughly propagandised into accepting the basic premise of The Soviet Union's Marxist-Leninist project; he offers little by way of reflection on it - or on the daily brutality which unfolded from it. One would expect an autobiography to be a self-justifying series of recollections, and there is plenty of material of that nature here. What is odd though is the almost complete lack of any sense of the brutality of the system, or of Mochulsky himself being involved or implicated in it. On one occasion he admits to be being threatened by the system; but he barely reflects at all on his role as an enforcer of its systematic exploitation. Part of this, no doubt, is that much of his time was spent as part of the war effort against the Nazi's in which huge sacrifices were made across the board - and so the slavery in which he was implicated was less distinct from the norm.

Mochulsky added a PS at the end of the book containing unanswered questions he has about the validity of Stalin's methods. Strangely though, in the course of his narrative there is no sense that he sat by his stove in his remote Arctic hut, vexed and tormented by his posting, or wrestling its ideological underpinning. Perhaps the most surprising and long-lasting aspect of this book is that this Gulag-boss was more interested in the infrastructure of the railways than in the workers who toiled to construct it. His memoirs do nicely describe some of the more eccentric or notable characters he met on his travels (and there certainly are some colourful ones), but there is little mention of workers dying in the freezing conditions, or of frostbite and hypothermia. The reader is left with many stories of inter-prisoner violence; but no information about who Mochulsky may have beaten, or shot, or ordered to be shot, or simply allowed to be beaten. We know that this system was created by Stalin, who was personally responsible for the presence of many of the political prisoners on the railway - but what Mochulsky actually thought of Stalin we do not find out.  This man, a small cog in the vast oppressive Stalinist wheel, describes gulag management with astonishing technocratic detachment. While his descriptions of skiing miles across tundra, or searching for rails beneath the snows are rich; his social history could have described life in a post office or supermarket - for all its engagement or insight. For Mochulsky, the gulag was simply a place of work and he was good at his job.

Its perhaps hard to know why Fyodor Mochulsky decided to write and publish his memoirs late in his life after the end of the Soviet Union he had known. Nevertheless the document he has left, which avoids almost all the major questions but emphasises what an efficient manager he was, and how well he exceeded his production quotas; is a fascinating and unique insight into a dark and concealed corner of history. Oppression it seems is not only the work of  ideologically driven tyrants and warriors; it is delivered by dull men who are just doing their jobs.

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