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Gulag Boss: A Soviet Memoir [Hardcover]

Fyodor Vasilevich Mochulsky , Deborah Kaple
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

13 Jan 2011
The searing accounts of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Evgeniia Ginsberg and Varlam Shalamov opened the world's eyes to the terrors of the Soviet Gulag. But not until now has there been a memoir of life inside the camps written from the perspective of an actual employee of the Secret police. In this riveting memoir, superbly translated by Deborah Kaple, Fyodor Mochulsky describes being sent to work as a boss at the forced labor camp of Pechorlag in the frozen tundra north of the Arctic Circle. Only twenty-two years old, he had but a vague idea of the true nature of the Gulag. What he discovered was a world of unimaginable suffering and death, a world where men were starved, beaten, worked to death, or simply executed. Mochulsky details the horrific conditions in the camps and the challenges facing all those involved, from prisoners to guards. He depicts the power struggles within the camps between the secret police and the communist party, between the political prisoners (most of whom had been arrested for the generic crime of "counter-revolutionary activities") and the criminal convicts. And because Mochulsky writes of what he witnessed with the detachment of the engineer that he was, readers can easily understand how a system that destroyed millions of lives could be run by ordinary Soviet citizens who believed they were advancing the cause of socialism. Mochulsky remained a communist party member his entire life-he would later become a diplomat-but was deeply troubled by the gap between socialist theory and the Soviet reality of slave labor and mass murder. This unprecedented memoir takes readers into that reality and sheds new light on one of the most harrowing tragedies of the 20th century.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: OUP USA (13 Jan 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199742669
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199742660
  • Product Dimensions: 2.2 x 14.9 x 21.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 617,371 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Gives us a fascinating insight into the mind of a once-loyal Stalinist. Fydor Vasilevich Mochulsky, Times Literary Supplement original and suprising book New York Review of Books unique insight The Spectator Gulag Boss is essential reading and I could hardly put it down. Literary Review

About the Author

Fyodor Vasilevich Mochulsky (1918-1999) was a foreman and boss at Pechorlag GULAG NKVD from 1940-1946. Deborah Kaple is Associate Research Scholar and Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Princeton University. She is the author of Dream of a Red Factory: The Legacy of High Stalinism in China (OUP, 1994).

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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Gulag Boss 2 Mar 2011
I expected more from the book, not perhaps graphically, but more detail in the prisoners treatment. There is some illuminating parts to his struggle but again it for me it glosses over his rise in the party.

I enjoyed the book but will now look for more in depth reading on the subject.

Excellent on first entry level.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.8 out of 5 stars  8 reviews
29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gulag Boss, or How Fyodor Mochulsky won Success 26 Nov 2010
By Fred Bacon - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
During the 1990's, while researching researching the history of the Soviet Advisors Program, Deborah Kaple met a retired Soviet diplomat in Moscow by the name of Fyodor Vasilevich Mochulsky. Mochulsky had worked in China during the 1950s as part of the Soviet Advisors Program and was happy to relate his experiences to Ms. Kaple. But there was another side to Mr. Mochulsky which did not come out until much later in their working relationship. As their friendship and trust strengthened, Mochulsky handed her a manuscript which he asked her to have published in the West. Troubled by his memories of the years working as a boss in a Gulag, Mochulsky had tried unsuccessfully to publish his memoirs during the glasnost years of the 1990s. It was this manuscript which he asked Deborah Kaple to have published abroad.

There is a vast literature of memoirs and histories of Stalin's brutal slave labor camps, but this is the first memoir told from the point of view of a GULAG NKVD employee. It offers a unique, but limited, perspective on what it was like to serve in the mid-level management of the camp system. Although hired to be a construction foreman, Mochulsky often found himself having to serve as the camp administrator, or Boss, for his units. (He was moved frequently from one camp location to another.)

After graduating from Moscow Institute of Railroad Transportation in 1940, Fyodor Mochulsky was selected by the NKVD to work as a railroad construction foreman in the new Pechorlag work camp near the Arctic Circle. As a beneficiary of the USSR's public education system, Mochulsky was obliged to serve two to three years of public service in return. So, when the NKVD offered him a job, he had little option than to accept the appointment.

The Pechorlag camp system was a string of small camps in the Komi Republic. Each camp unit was assigned the task of constructing a section of railroad meant to carry coal from the newly discovered Vorkuta fields in the northern Urals. In 1940, the inevitability of war with Germany was obvious to everyone, even the purblind Stalin. These northern coal fields were considered vital to Soviet defense as a hedge against the loss of the Donbas coal regions in the south. This is one of the more interesting aspects of Gulag Boss. It's an facinating problem to try to infer from Mochulsky's account how much forethought the Soviet leadership exhibited versus how much retroactive continuity he has imposed upon the past. War erupted less than a year after he arrived at Pechorlag. Was the government actually thinking that far ahead in 1940, or did the urgency of the war years propagate backward through his memories to give the illusion of prescience?

How does a man, who appears decent and honest on the surface, deal with the conflict between his socialist ideals and the brutal horrors of the Gulag? From the moment that he first arrives at Pechorlag, it is obvious that the facts on the ground are in distinct contrast to what he has been told. Rather than a humane prison system where criminals are rehabilitated through labor, he finds a camp where prisoners are left to sleep on the bare ground as the merciless Arctic winter approaches. How Mochulsky pragmatically sets about handling this and other problems forms the basis of the book.

In reading Gulag Boss, I'm reminded of the beginning of Dicken's David Copperfield where the narrator speculates whether or not he will prove to be the hero of his own story. Obviously Mochulsky has cast himself as the hero, though there are certain dark underpinnings of a proletarian arrogance intertwined throughout. Each new assignment brings forth challenges which he surmounts with the ease and skill of one of Horatio Alger's heros. In fairness, Ragged Dick never had his boss tell him, "If you succeed, you will win an award. But if you fail, you will be shot."

Despite some nominal sympathy for the prisoners, Mochulsky primarily portrays them as just another set of problems to be solved. Food supplies trapped in the ice so that the prisoners are left to starve? Weave nets from horse hair and trap partidges. Prisoners refusing to work? Identify the leaders and negotiate with them.

There is a certain benign sterility to the labor camps as presented by Mochulsky. He is well aware that the camps were unconscionable, but they were a fact of life. Since he was just a low to mid level manager, he had no other options than to meet his work quotas as best that he could. It's yet another example of Hannah Arendt's thesis of the "banality of evil." Mochulsky is a man trapped in a machine not of his making. He could turn the gears or be caught in them. It's no surprise that he chose to function within the confines of the system and close his eyes to the horrors as soon as he left.

Gulag Boss is a facinating memoir. Whether you read it as simple adventure story or delve deeper, to lift the skin of the sea to watch the dog sleeping in its shadow, your time will be well spent.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The mundane approach to slave labor 3 Mar 2011
By James D. Crabtree - Published on
This book is based upon the reminisces of Fyodur Mochulsky, a civil engineer who wound up working for the NKVD in the capacity of a work boss in the Gulag system of slave labor camps. As such, it is an unusual account of the slave labor system from the administrative side rather than from the prisoner side.

Not that Mochulsky sees the Gulag as a reservoir of slave labor, at least not at first. In fact, he thought he would be a simple engineer supervising technical work on a railroad being built in the challenging arctic environment of the Komi region. Instead, he found himself in charge of prisoners due to a lack of key personnel, with the responsibility for the construction of a stretch of the vital railway. His life became one of "norms"... not just limits for which the railroad line could be built, with standards regarding grade of track, number of sleepers per meter, etc. but also the norms regarding the use of human material. Prisoners were fed according to how much track they laid down. The "norm" for a regular day was very low, a fact that Mochulsky doesn't speak about much. He also never mentions how many "zeks" died while working on his line, although given the arctic conditions and the poor health of many of the prison population this MUST have occured.

When WWII broke out it became imperative that the rail line be completed. The line made the coal fields of Vorkuta accessible and without that coal the weapons factories east of the Urals could not function. German POWs arrived at the Gulag and were utilized to complete a vital bridge under Mochulsky's supervision.

Mochulsky would later be selected for political work and would receive a commission in the NKVD. By that time, however, he was rather disenchanted with his association with the secret police but was having difficulty getting out. He finally managed to get reassigned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

This is a very telling book and a very absorbing read. Mochulsky tells not only of his own experiences dealing with many types of prisoners, such as the poor unfortunate Soviet volunteers who were captured by the Finns and then thrown in the Gulag upon release from POW camps, but also many stories he heard while in the camps. The book includes some photos taken while he worked on the railroad, in itself a rarity. There are some non-standard translations (such as the "Order of the Red Flag For Labor" which has been translated everyplace else I have ever seen as the "Order of the Red Banner For Labor") but these are not enough to detract from the text.
4.0 out of 5 stars a different viewpoint of the Gulag system 28 Mar 2014
By Ron Greer - Published on
borrowed from the library. Not a book I would buy but it was a decent read. I've read several books from the viewpoint of prisoners so to read about the viewpoint of someone forced to be a boss was interesting. He makes it pretty clear he had little choice but to take on the numerous positions he had in the prison system and that there was a fine line between being an administrator or prisoner. He found creative ways to get the prisoner to work, such as allowing them to elect their own cook and housing the various group in separate huts. He describes each situation from an engineers point of view and yes avoids discussion of the deaths that no doubt occurred.
3.0 out of 5 stars Ok 21 Jan 2014
By MIKE - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
More less describes conditions in soviet camps , but not a word about murder or torture so widespread in the gulags !
4.0 out of 5 stars A view of Soviet political repression from the other view 18 Jun 2013
By Nick - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
It is an interesting look at the views and perspectives of one of the men who ran the GULAG. As such, it is well worth reading. Too often we take the view of the imprisoned and thus forget how easy it is in a totalitarian state to slip into the role of one of the persecutors. This is not an easy read, but it may be well worth the time.
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