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13 November 2018

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Gulag Boss: A Soviet Memoir

Fyodor Vasilevich Mochulsky, translated and edited by Deborah Kaple (Oxford University Press, $29.95)

This book is the antidote to the chronicle of suffering that comprises most prison camp memoirs. The author was not a career NKVD man but a railway engineer by trade, and he went from college directly to building the railway to Vorkuta, using convict labor during the years 1940-44. A no-nonsense practical man, he got to know the prisoners, improved their conditions, made bargains with them (which he kept) and turned them into an effective work force. The railway was (roughly) completed, coal was provided for the Russian war effort, and Mochulsky was recommended for the Red Banner medal. Most impressive are his descriptions of personal bravery in fighting for common sense in the face of ritualized political behavior, and winning. And in the chapter “The Real Essence of the Gulag” the author poses a series of detailed questions we would all like to put, which we can summarize here as “What was it all for?”

As always in Russia, there are amazing sidelights: how Mochulsky fed the brigade with partridge all winter, persuaded the criminal prisoners to work hard, worked with German POWs, discovered a prosperous village of refugee kulaks, and tells tales about sex in the camps.

The book contains a number of useful appendices: a list of the reasons people were arrested following particular campaigns from 1917 to 1952; the text of article 58 of the RSFSR criminal code; and a glossary of political terms used at the time. It is a pity camp technical terms were not included, since these are so specific. Further editing would have been useful in the case of about twenty translation and editing mistakes and possibly some out-of-place modern colloquialisms could have been avoided, but these are not numerous.

— Andrew Jameson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Jan/Feb 2012