First published in Russian in 2014, this is the first American edition of a chilling, revealing diary of a reluctant gulag prison guard.
Chistyakov, whose last entry appears on Oct. 17, 1936, and whom translator Tait informs us died at the front of Tula Province 1941, during “the first months of the war with Germany,” was an educated Muscovite who somehow fell afoul of the Russian secret police and was conscripted in October 1935 to guard prisoners in the Siberian gulag. This was a punitive position in the harsh region of the frozen taiga, and Chistyakov was designated as a senior guard at the Baikal Amur Corrective Labor Camp, where creature comforts were few, escapes by the zeks (common criminals) frequent, and suspicions among officers rife. In her introduction, Irina Shcherbakova provides an informed sense of what the gulag system was all about: the importance of the strategic Baikal-Amur railway in the wake of Japanese occupation of Manchuria and takeover of the Chinese Eastern Railway and the need for cheap workers (unpaid forced labor) to live and work in these extreme conditions. Chistyakov’s diary entries reveal brutal details of his harsh living conditions, a sense of bewilderment at an educated man’s being stuck in such a wayward place with few literate people around him, shame at his sordid daily duties such as tracking down escapees, and ultimate despair about trying to find a way out. He even tendered a letter of resignation at one point, which was derided by the other officers, and contemplated suicide. While there are moments he found uplifting—a letter arriving, spring erupting, hunting, visiting the baths, editing the “wall newspaper”—his sympathy for the battered zeks gave way to his own sense of impending doom.
A singular crack inside the gulag system.