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Translating Gulag Boss

Unfortunately, there’s no doubting the fact that oppression and cruelty has existed and will indeed continue to remain in society. The question that does need to be asked, however, is how ordinary people can commit these extreme and vicious acts of evil upon their fellow man? In Gulag Boss: A Soviet Memoir by Fyodor Vasilevich Mochulsky, and translated by Deborah Kaple, that question is explored through the lens of one normal man who eventually ran one of Stalin’s most notorious prison camps.

In the year 1940, Fyodor Vasilevich Mochulsky was not a bad man. On the contrary, he was a twenty-two-year-old student at a transport engineering institute, and a candidate member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union with a bright future ahead of him. Inopportunely, Mochulsky was young and ambitious in 1940’s Soviet society; a time period that became synonymous with tyranny and mass murders. He was sent to Pechorlag – a brutal prison camp situated north of the Arctic Circle – to work as an engineer on a long railroad line over permafrost. However, upon arrival at the forced labor camp, Mochulsky found himself thrown into the role of boss due to the lack of personnel at the site. After a shameful six-year stint at Pechorlag, he returned to Moscow and wrote the first ever memoir from an employee of a Stalinist Gulag camp.     -Nick Mafi, Publicity

Below, read Deborah Kaple’s fascinating account on how she came across Mochulsky’s book as well as the arduous process of translating the text from Russian to English.

The tasks and logistics of translating Gulag Boss from the Russian helped me to understand the deeper meaning of the book. What Mochulsky’s account of his years at Pechorlag best illustrates is the banal, bureaucratic nature of evil as it was manifested in Stalin’s Gulag.

This translation had a rather long and meandering path from Russian to English. I was living in Moscow for a year in the early 1990s when I met Fyodor Mochulsky. He was one of several respondents I had contacted for a book I was writing about the Soviet Advisors’ Program in China in the 1950s. I met him a few times, and then, when I was about to leave Moscow, he called to tell me that he had one more thing to share. This was not uncommon; most of my Russian respondents were generous and genuinely interested in the book I was writing.

When I met him this last time in a park in central Moscow, he told me one more thing about himself: When he was in his 20s, he had worked as a boss in a Gulag camp called Pechorlag, a railroad building camp above the Arctic Circle. I was understandably surprised that this affable, intelligent man had worked for the NKVD (the secret police, which administered the Gulag camps) in a prison labor camp, but continued to listen. He explained that he had written a memoir about his Pechorlag years, but when he had tried to publish it, doors had slammed in his face. He was very disappointed. Gorbachev’s “glasnost” policy had freed Soviets to investigate many aspects of their previously-hidden history, and every day there were more and more revelations in the press, especially those having to do with the secretive, repressive Stalin period.

He told me that in the course of getting to know me in our meetings about his later work in China as an Advisor, he had decided to give me his manuscript, along with the 30 photos he had taken in the Gulag. He wanted me to translate it because, he said, he was sure that there would be interested readers outside of Russia.

I took the manuscript home, and continued working on other projects. A few years later, I discovered it again, still in its same Soviet-era envelope, and I took it down and read it. Yes, this really was interesting, a totally compelling read. Even though I wasn’t then a Gulag specialist, I knew that this was a valuable document. Before I committed to translating it, I went looking for other memoirs of camp bosses, in Russian or English or any language. I emailed around the world asking if anybody had seen one. I read a large portion of the voluminous literature on the Gulag to see if I could find mention of the bosses, but alas, nearly all of them were written by former prisoners, and the boss was not one of their main concerns. By and large, prisoners had bigger worries about their own survival: getting enough to eat, not freezing to death, not contracting typhus or other deadly diseases, not being killed by other prisoners. The boss does not figure much in their accounts.

I also worked on proving the veracity of this memoir. His descriptions of camp life match those of the prisoners’ accounts, by and large, but even so, I looked for certain dramatic events that he recounted, hoping to see them described in some other memoir or account. I listened to many survivors’ testimonies at the Shoah Foundation, from people who had been imprisoned in the same camp during the 1940s. I queried the people at Memorial, the non-profit organization in Moscow dedicated to preserving the memory of the Gulag. I also searched the Soviet Communist Party Archives housed at Harvard University. I saw references to the head of the Gulag Administration at Pechorlag, but I did not find anything specific to Mochulsky. I never managed to find any mention of him by name, and I realized that I will until the FSB (the current NKVD) decides to open its GULAG NKVD documents to the public.  More informal inquiries seemed to support his claims.

With all of that in mind, I started to work. I was a little cavalier about the process of translating from Russian to English when I began. It did not seem too daunting. Mochulsky’s language is very straightforward and unembellished. As I went on, I gradually learned that knowing the language well was not the only skill I would need. I had not fully understood the extent to which the NKVD  had developed into such a complex bureaucracy. So from translating Mochulsky’s careful accounting of titles, names of administrative units, ranks and other indicators of status or station in life, I increasingly understood how complicated the operations of the Gulag was at the camp level. Bureaucratically, two major Soviet government organized managed Gulag operations. At each camp, down to the smallest unit of the camp, the NKVD and the Communist Party worked in tandem (and sometimes against each other, as Mochulsky demonstrates). Consequently, each of these organizations has names, ranks and titles specific to its own. As I worked through the text, I kept detailed records on who was mentioned, and what his title, role and job seemed to be. It was important to keep this straight, as these two organizations often rather jealously vied for power.

Working at it so closely, I came to understand the full meaning of the Gulag. When we hear the word Gulag, we think of prison, or labor camp, but Mochulsky refers to the Gulag by its Soviet name, GULAG NKVD. This acronym is specific in Russian. GULAG NKVD literally means “Main Administration of Camps of the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs.” This is much bigger than our concept of a camp. GULAG NKVD was the fastest growing bureaucracy in the 1930s and 1940s. Its list of projects includes nearly all the major rail lines, many new cities, hydroelectric power plants, dams, bridges, Moscow’s metro and canal. In the Komi Province where Mochulsky’s camp Pechorlag was located, prison labor built all of the industrial infrastructure, all the rail lines and most roads, and every city.

The need to learn the Soviet bureaucratic language and figure out the organization of responsibility at Pechorlag also led me to keep careful records on specific words and terms. I needed a system that would consistently translate certain terms the same way, and I needed to decide what these terms would be in English. I wanted to be as accurate as possible, and yet I wanted to satisfy the English-language reader who expects the prose to be clear and easy to follow.  Eventually, I made a big chart that showed all the various bureaucratic terms for both the NKVD and for the Communist Party, so I could keep straight who was whom and where each person fit into the hierarchy.

I also kept a notebook. Starting at the beginning of the memoir, I numbered every paragraph, and within that, each sentence. Into the notebook went every little detail I would need, especially if I had a question about the meaning or a word use. There were a few sentences in the book I worked on for a long time, pondering over each word, trying to figure out exactly what Mochulsky meant to say. One puzzling sentence I finally showed  to my Russian friend Ksenia, who told me that it made no sense to her, either. The sentence was not written grammatically, and it included a misspelled word, which threw us both. But in the end, we figured it out.

Certain details in Mochulsky’s text piqued my interest as I labored over the translation. Luckily, some very talented Russian and foreign scholars have delved into the Russian archives, and produced many new, interesting monographs. For instance, when Mochulsky talks about the waves of prisoners coming to Pechorlag in 1940 and 1941, I was able to actually locate the figures for this, making it even more clear how enormous the slave labor effort was, and what he was experiencing as a result. Thanks to an edited volume by M.B. Smirnov, for example, I found that in 1940 when Mochulsky arrived, Pechorlag had 3,800 Gulag prisoners. A year later, there were already 35,000 prisoners, and by June 1941, there were 92,000.1

Many small details that Mochulsky included in the memoir enriched my own research and teaching at Princeton University. At one point in the memoir he mentions a Gulag play he saw in Moscow in the 1930s, called Aristocrats, which had given a benign, even humorous picture of life in the Gulag.2 It intrigued me enough to search it out, and read this embarrassing, shameful piece of propaganda. My students and I read portions of it in class. We were struck by the enormity of the Soviet government’s deceit of its people about the nature of the Gulag.

In the end, with all this attention to the detail of translating this document, I learned to be very careful when thinking or talking about Stalin’s Gulag. It was not the work of one evil institution, or even a few, it was the work of millions of people toiling at all levels in a giant web of relationships, all entrenched in their bureaucratic pursuit of maintaining an enormous system of slave labor for almost 30 years.  We certainly cannot say that every person who worked for the Gulag was intrinsically evil, but the work they did, and the organization they worked for, was criminal.

1 Smirnov, M.B., ed. Sistema ispravitelno-trudovykh lagerei v SSSR 1923-1960 [The System of Corrective Labor Camps in the USSR, 1923-1960], (Moscow: Zvenia, 1998), p. 387.

2 This was based on a play by Nikolai Pogodin, Aristocrats: A Comedy in Four Acts, trans. Anthony Wixley and Robert S. Carr (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1937 [?].

Deborah Kaple is Associate Research Scholar and Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Princeton University.

Recent Comments

  1. Andrew Jameson

    Dear Deborah and OUP,
    Are you planning to produce a UK version of Gulag Boss? You remember I submitted 3 full A4 pages of suggested corrections to the text of this book, while reviewing it positively in the UK Russian teachers journal RUSISTIKA.
    It would be nice to know if these corrections will be incorporated in any further edition of Gulag Boss.
    Yours with best wishes
    Andrew Jameson, Malvern UK.

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