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.