IN 1940, WHEN he was twenty-two years old, Fyodor Mochulsky received his diploma from the Railroad Transport Engineering Institute in Moscow. A promising student and a largely contented Soviet archetype, he was a candidate member of the Communist Party and his speech was made heavy with the cumbersome lingua franca of high Stalinism. After graduation, he readied himself for factory life, or as he put it, “any practical work they had for me in any region of our huge country.”
But the state had other plans for Mochulsky. He was called into a meeting with a greying functionary at the Central Committee; with a few words and a scan of Mochulsky’s kharakteristika, or academic and political dossier, he was assigned to a labor camp in the Artic Circle. And thus, as he writes in Gulag Boss, his memoir of the years that would follow, a book compiled from diaries that span much of the 1940s but were translated and released only last year, “I, Fyodor Vasilevich Mochulsky, as fate would have it, found myself in a different situation.”
That “situation,” to be more precise, was a string of labor camps called Pechorlag, on a frozen and desolate patch of land 2,500 miles northeast of St. Petersburg. The earth was all tundra and swamps, barely populated except for a smattering of native Komi people and a swelling population of prisoners shipped in from across Russia. He was assigned the job of prison boss, in charge of both the regular, criminal population and those called “politicals” or “58ers,” in reference to the notorious Article 58 of the Soviet criminal code, which outlined a litany of “counterrevolutionary” crimes. Together Mochulsky and the prisoners under his command were to lay down hundreds of miles of railway track that would bring coal from the far north into Russia’s industrial heartland.
What is most remarkable about Mochulsky’s memoir is its utter ordinariness; it reads as if he had been dispatched not to Stalin’s Gulag but to the factory floor after all. Such are the humdrum banalities of life as Mochulsky experiences it. And this is the twisted, uncomfortable brilliance of the book, both as a historical document and as a piece of literature, however dry: by reducing the sprawling, all-consuming horror of the Gulag to a series of small concerns and logistical hurdles, Mochulsky shows how an entire system built around the notion of capricious cruelty could function for so long.
In Gulag Boss, unlike in the Gulag literature written by prisoners—among them, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or Varlam Shalamov’s The Kolyma Tales—the Gulag is not defined by a numbing anti-reality, in which men lose all sense of time and reason. For Mochulsky, the Gulag is the very place where Soviet man can fully realize himself, where work-plans can be fulfilled by 150 percent and the prized “Red Flag Order of Labor” can be won. The NKVD, the Stalin-era secret police force that is Mochulsky’s employer, and which would become the KGB in 1954, comes across as nothing so much as a state-run industrial concern simply trying to build a rail line.
Rarely are a book’s most nominally boring passages the most revelatory. Mochulsky trucks in dirt to build an approach for a rail bridge, convinces the prisoners in the Briansk Woods camp to cut more lumber, and pushes the 95th camp unit to lay so much rail track they win the May Day Socialist Competition in 1941. In many places, the reader half expects the saggy-faced Leonid Brezhnev to break in with a five-hour speech on how many bulldozers the Chelyabinsk Tractor Plant produced this year. In The Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt wrote that “The deeds were monstrous, but the doer … was quite ordinary, commonplace, and neither demonic or monstrous.” Mochulsky takes that observation one step further: there may be something monstrous that exists in some ambient, higher plane, but even within that universe, most deeds are themselves ordinary and commonplace.
In Mochulsky’s Gulag, responsibility for carrying out true horror, which comes randomly and opaquely, is parceled out to a few, such as the mad, alcoholic executioner who briefly haunts Mochulsky’s camp life. It is telling how Mochulsky pains to distance himself from that ruined man—“I was secretly happy when I received a new appointment and left this constant, unwanted interlocutor,” he writes. No, he wants to say, he is something else, an ingenious and hard-working Communist who is only concerned with using his smarts to fuel the Soviet war effort against the Nazis.
Mochulsky puts himself at the center of every drama—the smaller, more quotidian the better—and shows up just in time with the ingenious, self-reliant fix. He casts himself as a sort of Soviet proto-MacGyver, cleverly fudging a report here or repurposing some wood there. It is the normal self-aggrandizement of the memoirist, filtered through the particular utopianism of those who came of age during the revolutionary period. He criticizes the weaknesses of the Soviet system—the inefficiencies, the poor food supplies, the plodding bureaucracy—but is always careful to paint those lapses as failures of implementation, not of design. It’s a familiar motif from throughout Russian history: the nobles may be unworthy, but the tsar remains wise.
When Mochulsky first arrives at Pechorlag, the prisoners sleep on branches on the bare ground, exposed to the unforgiving Artic cold. Many die. One day, a friend of Mochulsky who works as a guard in another camp asks him, “What kind of labor re-education is going on with these prisoners if they are all just dying during the winter?” It is a fair question. But rather than confront its underlying truth—that the very idea of “labor re-education” is a cruel, manipulative absurdity, and so there is no kind of labor re-education going on at all, nor will there ever be—Mochulsky sets out to build barracks and a mess hall so the prisoners can get enough sleep and food to fill their work plans.
The camp’s prisoners, to the extent they even exist in the book, are not really prisoners at all, but labor-units that either in their laziness, inefficiency, or simple disobedience conspire to foil whatever task Mochulsky has cooked up for them or, usually after some clever talking-to from Mochulsky himself, band together to overfill their work orders. When they starve or freeze, their suffering is not human but material—sick or dead workers cannot finish the rail line by winter. Perhaps most important, this bit of reasoning acts as a psychic balm for the diarist: these people do not suffer; so Mochulsky cannot have inflicted any suffering.
Indeed, as we see him, Mochulsky is busy drafting plans for new railroad routes, not preparing mass graves. But surely someone was—only who? On this point, the book’s editor and translator, Deborah Kaple, wisely points the reader to a speech made by Arseny Roginsky, the director of Memorial, a Russian organization that has created a historical record of political persecution during the Soviet period, in which he laments “the Stalin paradox”: somehow the Stalinist machine produced millions of victims but no criminals.
In the book’s last entry, rather out of the blue, a new version of Mochulsky emerges. Gone is the earnest and proud young Communist, spouting all the stock phrases of a budding Soviet functionary. Mochulsky is brooding, disturbed. He writes of the “inhumanity” and “basic criminal character” of the Gulag. If socialism was such a good idea, he writes, why did it require the destruction of so many people to accomplish it? He finds himself asking the perennial Russian question: “For what?”
It is this question that Russians are asking themselves again. The decade of rule under Vladimir Putin has brought many of the things the regime has promised: a stable government that projects strength on the international stage, rising incomes that have allowed for an unprecedented degree of consumer freedom, a kind of bland, predictable order that has allowed people to concern themselves with their private lives. But if building that required something so base, so cynical, so corrupt as Putinism, then how long can those costs continue to be justified? At some point, as Mochulsky seems to have become aware, a reverence for stability above all else requires barbarity of one sort of another. As the growing demonstrations of tens of thousands of people in Moscow show, not everyone in today’s Russia is waiting for their memoirs to experience that sort of awakening.
Joshua Yaffa is a former Associate Editor at Foreign Affairs and a visiting scholar at the Harriman Institute at Columbia.