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“Life is so precious, and wasted here so cheaply, so uselessly, so worthlessly.”
The author’s cogent sentence well summarizes his powerful, documentary memoir.
Chistyakov was an unwilling draftee into the Armed Guards unit overseeing the horrors of the BAMLag – a forced labor Gulag to build the Baikal Amur Mainline railway in 1932-1948.
Chistyakov’s diary entries span just a year of service, but their candid, vivid accounts bring an invaluable first-person perspective to the era not seen since perhaps Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. And it is a unique perspective, since the overwhelming majority of memoirs to date are from former prisoners. Chistyakov, as head of a guard battalion, was caught between two immovable stones: the Chekists above insisting on fulfillment of plans, chasing down of escapees, and Stakhanovite work regimes; and the intransigent slaves (prisoners) who were forced to work at inhuman tasks in ungodly conditions.
It takes a toll on Chistyakov, and as the memoir progresses, he is increasingly pessimistic that he will ever return to his beloved Moscow. And indeed he will be swept up in the purges and die at the front in World War II. Beyond that, beyond this honest, gripping memoir, nothing else is know about the single precious life that Chistyakov lived, that was wasted so cheaply.
Reviewed in Russian Life: July/August 2017