What It Was Like to Work at a Russian Gulag

Ivan Chistyakov was living a modern life in the city, working as an engineer and checking out plays and movies. Then he got shipped off to Siberia.

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Jul 31 2017, 4:38pm

A gulag in the USSR around 1930. Photo by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

In October 1935, Ivan Chistyakov was judged "insufficiently proletarian" and expelled from the Communist Party in Josef Stalin's Russia. Suffice it to say this was not a positive development for the young engineer's budding career. In a real-life Orwellian nightmare, the 30-something urbanite was then shipped off to the Baikal Amur Corrective Labor Camp (BAM) in Siberia to work as a guard without any real justification—other than the fact that he was a bit too clever. As he put it in his diary, "How smoothly it happened. They just called me in and sent me off. Party members have the Party Committee, the factory management, and the trade union to intercede… For the rest of us, nobody puts in a word."

In the new book The Day Will Pass Away: The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard 1935-1936, the long-dead Chistyakov muses about daily life in one of history's most notorious prison worlds. The text, translated from the Russian's surviving diaries by PEN Literature in Translation award winner Arch Tait, offers firsthand details of the harsh conditions both inmates and guards faced in what amounted to a vast frozen wasteland. Surrounded by hordes of criminals, undesirables, and rebels who questioned the status quo, Chistyakov did everything he could to remain sane. But after a stint in what felt a bit like hell, he was arrested in 1937, when Stalin's purges were at their height. He was eventually sent to the front as Hitler's troops advanced in Operation Barbarossa in 1941, where he was killed.

VICE chatted with Tait to find out what it was like translating an 80-year-old diary, the plight of inmates versus that of the people guarding them, and what bearing this dark era has on modern Russia.

Here's what he had to say.

VICE: Going through Chistyakov's writings, did you feel like you were discovering something for the first time? How remarkable of a find was this, really?
Arch Tait: I read Ivan's diary first, and only later saw a notebook from a year earlier, with his hunter's tales. That was like upgrading from a two- to a three-dimensional image. Here he was, a year earlier, living the life of an ordinary citizen of the USSR in his own habitat. An added bonus was the discovery of his vividly colored and amusing illustrations, particularly in that earlier notebook.

As a translator, if you can't meet your author, you're listening carefully for their voice, trying to work out the kind of person you're dealing with, what their values are. That second notebook revealed Ivan as a quick-witted, rather crotchety bachelor who liked playing practical jokes on those around him. The diary is a remarkably forthright record of his thoughts. He holds back only on the topic of his friends and family.


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What emerged as you dug in past the surface-level mythology of the gulag?
That this is the reality of trying to literally build a utopia. Reality very soon gives the lie to theory and increasing brutality is needed to suppress that increasingly obvious fact. "So far," Ivan comments, "the life we live is purely theoretical. It is whatever they say it is in the newspapers. If you try talking out loud about the real state of affairs you'll be in big trouble." And he soon is, when the wife of a "political adviser" lets slip that she and her husband have been discussing the contents of his supposedly private diary. "Oh, boy,'" Ivan reflects, "this diary is going to provide a lot of evidence."

Within six months of his arriving, we read, "I took out my pistol and put it against my throat. It would be so easy to press the trigger and then … feel nothing."

By 1935, the Soviet system was perfecting the art of adverse selection, the ability to weed out those insufficiently uncritical and servile, one of whom is Ivan Chistyakov. Once in the Gulag, he is accused, after standing in for the company commander, of an "inappropriately convivial approach to work," which is seen as being due to his non-proletarian ("petty bourgeois") social antecedents. One of his frustrations is that the camp supervisors seem to know only how to intimidate, criticize and curse. They "periodically squawk like ventriloquists" dummies: "Reprimand! Under arrest!! Punishment cell!!! How can I take orders from people like that?"

The initial arrival and transition period was obviously crazy for him, in part because he seems to realize many of his wards don't belong there.
Ivan finds he has considerable respect for the hardcore social undesirables. The women form gangs with thieves' rules and customs. For them, the brigade leader is their godmother. "Momma rules everything and everyone. Momma beats or pardons, decides who gets work, feeds them or leaves them to go hungry. Momma is in charge. Men keep to themselves or, occasionally, pair up."

Men gamble at cards and, if they lose, their forfeit is to say something filthy to the guards, or to hack off a finger or a hand in front of everyone.

Ivan is a long way from Moscow. He mentions in passing, "Someone got killed, someone else got killed. In 3 Platoon a bear ripped the scalp off a hunter and smashed up his rifle. They bayoneted it." Guards, too, get killed. "In our unit, if someone gets murdered, they file a report and that's that. You chose to come here, so what more do you expect?"

He describes the attitude towards killing: "We went out into the taiga looking for escapees and found scattered corpses. Who killed them? When? Nobody has any idea who these people were. If someone gets on your nerves and you take a shot at them, you just leave them where they fell. If someone finds them, fine. If they don't, they're dead anyway."

How did Ivan being such a reluctant part of the Soviet state color his time there?
Someone asked Ivan, "What are you, a well-educated man, doing serving as a platoon commander in the armed guards?" His response was, "Search me. Someone has a nasty sense of humor?" He was evidently a manager in an engineering factory in Moscow, a keen sportsman and hunter, and loved the theater and cinema. He found the cultural offerings in Zavitaya [where the gulag was locate] profoundly depressing, and his enthusiasm for painting, sketching and photography were seen by his superiors as confirming that he was indeed a bourgeois class enemy. "The guards are beginning to disgust me," he wrote. "They're certainly sentient. Animals with a brain. Well, animals anyway. But they have no interest in anything, they're idiots. Blockheads. They're stoned out of their minds at night, five nights a week, for months, years."

His personal comedown from a more sophisticated life in the city was obviously hard. But Ivan also seems to pepper in digs at the brutality thrust on inmates.
Ivan is fairly reticent about his day-to-day work, but gets sent out in dire conditions to hunt for escapees. "We have been sent juveniles," he reports. "Louse-ridden, dirty, without warm clothing. There is no bathhouse because we cannot go sixty rubles over budget, which would work out at one kopek a head. There is talk of the need to prevent escapes. They look for causes, use guns, but fail to see that they themselves are the cause, that escapes are a result of their slothfulness, or their red tape, or just plain sabotage. People are barefoot and inadequately dressed even though there is enough of everything in the stores."

Despite periodic lamentations, one criticism of the text is the relatively short shrift Ivan gives inmates as opposed to people like himself. Does it bother you?
For me, the most absorbing aspect of the diary is the portrait it gives of Ivan Petrovich Chistyakov, a man unfortunate enough to have lived in interesting times. Its last entry is written a year before Stalin's major purges began in 1937. On arrival, Ivan immediately confronts a reality very different from what the propaganda had prepared him for. He turns up at the headquarters of the NKVD's [secret police] Armed Guards Unit to find [men lying] on their beds, smoking. Two are grappling, rolling around locked together, one with his legs in the air, laughing, squealing. Another laments his lot with a wheezing accordion, bawling, "We are not afraid of work, we just ain't gonna do it."'

At first, although shocked by the transition from his reasonably comfortable life in Moscow to the wretched conditions in Siberia, he feels some pride in the project of building a strategically important second track of the Trans-Siberian Railways further to the north of China. Soon, however, he's protesting that "the era of War Communism is over and the Cheka [secret police] should have changed. Stalin has said, 'A greater concern for people should be shown in full measure.' But here? Here I'd be reluctant to even imagine Stalin's words might be applied.'

Ivan is like a caged bird.: "There is another world abroad. I know it exists, but I can't get there. I want to work at my real profession, study, keep up with metals technology and try it out in practice. Live among educated people, go to the theater and cinema, to lectures and museums and exhibitions. I want to sketch. Ride a motorbike, and then perhaps sell it and buy one of those catapult-launched gliders and fly."

Within six months of his arriving, we read, "I took out my pistol and put it against my throat. It would be so easy to press the trigger and then … feel nothing."

Besides being a window into a bygone era of suffering, does the text actually have any bearing on contemporary Russian culture?
The current Russian regime seems keens to rehabilitate the Stalin period as somehow normal Russian history. Chistyakov, an educated man with an artistic temperament, testifies to the human unacceptability of what was being done at that time. He describes dawn breaking: "The light grows no brighter but, in an instant, from behind the hill, the fireball of the sun emerges, warm, radiant and greeted by an outburst of song from the dawn chorus. Morning has broken. The day begins, and with it all the vileness."

After four months in Siberia, Chistyakov wrote a poem:

The only thing we really want/Is the right to a good night's sleep,/And perhaps a day off to call our own/Although actually what we really want/Is to shuck off BAM and get back home.

Learn more about Ivan Chistyakov's diaries, out August 8, here.

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