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Washington Post

Simon Sebag Montefiore
Gulag Boss: A Soviet Memoir
By Fyodor Vasilevich Mochulsky (Translated and edited by Deborah Kaple)
(Oxford University Press 272pp 17)
Mochulsky (right)

In 1940, a 22-year-old Soviet engineer named Fyodor Mochulsky finished his studies and was offered a job by the NKVD, Stalin's secret police, in the Gulag labour-camp system. He was a candidate member of the Communist Party and typical of the so-called Stalin Generation, born after 1917 and reared on Soviet propaganda. Educated, intelligent and extremely able as an engineer and manager, he was also typical in his belief that, however young he was, he was capable of taking on colossal responsibilities. Whatever his hopes for the future, a young man like this would not turn down such an offer from the Party. After all, it was just after the Great Terror, and Europe was already at war: even if a career in the Gulag was not ideal, the consequences of saying no to the Party could be fatal.

Weeks later, Mochulsky and three young friends set out for Pechorlag, one of a vast chain of camps in the Komi region in the Arctic Circle, northeast of St Petersburg. Even for the privileged elite of the NKVD and Communist Party, the journey across the tundra by steamboat, horse, foot and ski was perilous. One can only imagine the hardships faced on such trips by prisoners, many of whom died along the way.

Mochulsky arrived as a Gulag boss and remained one throughout the Second World War. Forty years later, a Homo Sovieticus who had enjoyed a successful career in the higher echelons of the Central Committee bureaucracy as a diplomat, adviser to the Chinese and KGB officer, he met Deborah Kaple, an American academic researching Sino-Soviet relations. Before he died he wrote his memoirs of his years in the Gulag, which Kaple has translated into English - and they are an absolutely fascinating and important read.

When he was given the job, he was told that the camps functioned to improve and educate the prisoners, a proud ambition of Soviet socialism. On arrival at the Gulag, however, he immediately encountered a bizarre and savage system: prisoners were divided into 'politicals' and criminals, with the latter being treated best and used to terrorise the politicals, most of whom were totally innocent. For a negative comment or silly mistake, they had been sentenced under the dreaded Article 58 to long years in a frozen Hades. The criminal thugs played demonic card games in which they gambled for the right to kill some innocent political prisoner by smashing a nail into his brain. Mochulsky relates how he managed the criminal gangsters who ran the camps. He made deals with the work brigades and sometimes even lied to his superiors. He chronicles how women were brutally raped, corrupted and turned into sex slaves, both by men and by lesbian criminal bosses. Mochulsky also realised that the prisoners were being worked to death: Pechorlag actually existed so that a railway could be built to transport coal urgently needed in the war. Thousands perished in this ruthless push, yet Mochulsky narrates his story with the coolness of an engineer faced with a series of intricate human and mechanical challenges.

He has an ear for the stories of prisoners, such as a boy sentenced to ten years for seducing his boss's wife. One of the most memorable characters he encountered was Tseitlin, a successful film director, palm reader and charismatic Mephistophelian creep from Moscow who was addicted to luring and seducing teenage girls with the offer of movie fame. Mochulsky also met a young girl sentenced for nothing who was raped by another prisoner the moment she was arrested and locked in a Black Maria van. By the time she reached the Gulag, she had been raped more times than she could remember. Another distinctive character was an ex-NKVD officer who confided in Mochulsky that he became an executioner in the Terror and was ordered to kill an innocent fourteen-year-old girl. He did the deed but then collapsed, went mad and was sentenced to death, only to gain a reprieve and eventually become a Gulag boss himself. Always detached, always the capable Stalinist manager who tolerates no obstacles to fulfil his orders, Mochulsky simply recounts these tales without fully acknowledging that the entire system was a heinous, murderous lie.

Mochulsky tells how he himself narrowly avoided being sentenced to the Gulag. He was put on trial by the local Party committee but emerged with flying colours. He was clearly an impressive and shrewd manager and it is astonishing that a man in his twenties was capable of such complex assignments.

As a reader, one first has to ask if this memoir is genuine. It seems to be. Then one wonders why Mochulsky wrote it. The answer is that by 1992 he understood that the system had not only failed but had been riddled with crime and corruption on a vast scale. But the book is as interesting for what it leaves out as for what it contains. Although he commanded a killing machine in which he must have seen dead bodies almost daily, Mochulsky never records any act of cruelty on his own part. He writes as if the brutality and madness were somehow far away from his own career: yet he was an official running this world. He never mentions mass murder or fully condemns the Soviet project.

Gulag Boss is essential reading and I could hardly put it down. One cannot help but be sympathetic not just to the prisoners but also somewhat to the writer, who presents himself as an innocent and rational man caught in a rational and noble project that has been strangely distorted. But readers must not forget that the writer himself was complicit in this colossal crime. It is estimated that about twenty million people entered the Gulag system during the reigns of Lenin and Stalin. No one knows how many were killed, but it certainly amounts to many millions. The murder, corruption, rape and cruelty still beggar belief.

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Simon Sebag Montefiore's Jerusalem: The Biography will be published in January (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).