The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard by Ivan Chistyakov (Translated by Arch Tait) - review by Donald Rayfield

Donald Rayfield

One Shift in the Life of…

The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard


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Few of the millions of gulag prisoners who returned from the penal colony spoke of their experiences; very few wrote about them. Almost none of the million men who guarded, beat, starved and killed those prisoners wrote of their careers. The major exception is Sergei Dovlatov, who as a child in the Second World War was evacuated from the city of Ufa to live with an NKVD officer and was drafted to work for three years in the Komi camps during the relatively humane post-Stalin era. His writings, for all their human pathos and protest, are primarily comic studies of the absurd. Unlike Dovlatov, Ivan Chistyakov, who in 1935 was recruited into the army only to end up serving as a camp guard on the dreadful Baikal–Amur railway project, did not make literature out of misfortune. Keeping a diary – written in a beautiful, educated hand, with pen-and-ink drawings – for a whole year was a deliberately self-jeopardising act. His initial resignation at being appointed to do an unpleasant job far beneath his abilities (he seems to have been an engineer or metallurgist, and to have taught or researched in a Moscow polytechnic) quickly turned to despair as he realised his term of service was indefinite, as well as a danger to his health – mental and physical. The alternatives were either suicide (which several of his fellow guards chose) or an act of insubordination that would lead to his arrest, which might bring release after a couple of years’ enslavement. His keeping of a diary, about which his superiors evidently found out, was an offence that would ensure he was arrested. Very likely, Chistyakov was eventually apprehended, then released, only to die at the front in 1941.

The period 1935–6 was, compared with the years of the Great Terror, survivable for gulag prisoners: it needed mass arrests to provide a sufficiently sizeable contingent of prisoners for the authorities to feel able to dispose of them through overwork or bullets. Most of the prisoners for whom Chistyakov was

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