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The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard
Ivan Chistyakov Translated by Arch Tait Granta Price 19.35 Euro by Marco Vichi Translated by Stephen Sartarelli Published by Hodder & Stoughton Price €25
Ivan Chistyakov's diary of the time he spent as a conscripted Gulag prison guard on the second track of the Baikal-Amur Mainline starts in October of 1935 and breaks off a year later in October of 1936.
Chistyakov has been living and working in Moscow when out of the blue he was sent to work in Siberia as a Gulag prison guard.
He had absolutely no desire to go there to work as a prison guard and if there is one thing that is absolutely clear it is the fact that he hated it from day one and never waivered in this hatred. He hated where he was working, he hated the weather, he hated the conditions, he hated the people he worked with, he hated the prisoners who made his hated job more difficult each and every day, he hated the rules and regulations which governed his life and most of all he hated the fact that he was having a year of his life stolen from him. When he was told he was going to work on the mainline, no choice given, he was initially told that he would only be going for a year. When he got there he quickly realised that even though he was told he was only going for a year he could if he was unlucky enough be spending a lot more time working there. What is most surprising about his diary is the fact that he kept one, and kept one in such detail in which he talked about everything he hated about his life as a prison guard.
If the authorities even got to read just one page his diary there is absolutely no question that he would be spending a long time in Siberia, although not as a guard but as a prisoner. There are large parts of the diary in which he questions the system in which he is living that you have to wonder what Chistyakov was really thinking. He was a bright, intelligent guy and even though he kept his diary secret it could easily have been discovered and he would have been in a lot of trouble. Even though his diary wasn't discovered it didn't stop him from getting in trouble some years later.
In 1937 Chistyakov spent one year as a prisoner in the Gulag. As a former guard he would have known exactly what this would have entailed.
Almost every entry in his diary of this earlier period however was full of details about his life as a guard but not really at all about the people he was guarding but about how much he hated the job he was doing, how stupid and pointless he found it, full of irritating details, stupid superiors who were only interested in their own positions, how to secure them and how to exploit them. At one point he says that he should talk about the prisoners, but he rarely does.
Prisoners were divided into criminals, politicals and at this time juvenile delinquents who were young people with no families and roamed in small gangs around the country, dislocated from society by revolution, war and famine.
The prisoners who exercised Chistyakov's mind most were the criminals because they were the ones that caused most trouble and were the ones in the main that attempted escape. Male criminals were only out for themselves and were dangerous, particularly when drunk.
However the really dangerous ones were the female criminals who always worked in a group with their own leaders whose rule was law.
One day Chistyakov sees two female criminals beating another woman to death but the guards can't intervene because it would only cause a riot and lead to further deaths which would inevitably upset the work schedule.
A brutish life where Chistyakov yearned for so much more. Sadly he died fighting the Nazi's in 1941 when they invaded the USSR.