Owen Matthews Owen Matthews

Only obeying orders | 12 January 2017

There was no redemption for this reluctant functionary of Stalin’s vast machine of terror, which he himself fell victim to

Spare a thought for the poor Gulag guard: the rifleman standing in the freezing wind on the outside of the wire, almost as much a captive of the Stalinist prison machine as the inmates he’s guarding. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Evgeniya Ginzburg and Varlaam Shalamov have left the world a rich, searing portrait of the Gulag from the point of view of the prisoner. But the diary of Ivan Chistyakov is unique — a narrative of the brutal conditions in Stalin’s Gulag, told from the point of view of one of the captors.

Chistyakov was a senior guard at the Baikal-Amur Corrective Labour Camp or BAMLag, and he wrote his personal diary in 1935–6, just as Stalin’s henchman Naftaliy Frenkel was putting his scheme for mobilising convict labour into high gear. Told with a telling eye for detail, the diary is a crushingly bleak portrait of casual violence, unfulfillable quotas, endless fights and escape attempts, inefficiency and injustice — all played out against the deadly dark and cold of a Siberian winter. On 10 December Chistyakov writes:

Minus 45 degrees. The trains run slowly. Only the moon, with a superior air, glides serenely through the sky. I stay indoors all day, wearing outer clothing… the stove warms you on one side while you freeze on the other.

His surviving diaries — which fill two neatly written exercise books — were donated by a relative to the Memorial Human Rights Centre in Moscow and published in Moscow in 2014. The timing of this translation could not be more apposite. Last November, Memorial — which is dedicated to chronicling the history of Stalin’s repressions, as well as later human rights abuses — published a list of over 40,000 members of the NKVD, the Stalin-era secret police, painstakingly compiled from the few open sources available to historians.

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