Sunday 22 October 2017

A soul hardened by the Siberian winter

Memoir: The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard, Ivan Chistyakov translated by Arch Tait, Granta, hardback, 288 pages, €20.99

Life under the Gulag: Crowds gather beside a supplies train for starving Russians who had been deported to Siberia. Photo APIC/Getty Images
Life under the Gulag: Crowds gather beside a supplies train for starving Russians who had been deported to Siberia. Photo APIC/Getty Images
The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard by Ivan Chistayakov

How long before the cold turns a civilised Muscovite into a monster? Robert Eustace on the sad diary of a Gulag guard.

For a reader, the appeal of a great diary is its intimacy. The real pleasure of Pepys does not come from the glimpse he gives into 17th-century politics or the intimate workings of the navy board, but from the diarist's early-morning remorse, for instance, at having beaten up his pet monkey while drunk the night before.

As Alan Bennett wrote: "Here it is, set down by someone you have never met, someone long dead even. And it is as if a hand has come out of the page and taken yours."

The sadness of the diary kept by Ivan Chistyakov over the long year from the winter of 1935 to the end of 1936 - when he served as commander of a platoon of armed guards on the Baikal-Amur railway (BAM) - is that, far from allowing us to take the author's hand and empathise, we feel him slip further away as the horrors of his situation bear down on him.

Preserved in a couple of tattered exercise books, it is a record of his rapid dehumanisation. The novelist Solzhenitsyn, "lying on the rotting prison straw", blessed his imprisonment for showing him that the "object of life is not prosperity… but the maturity of the human soul," which could never be taken from him. It seems that the soul was harder to keep a hold of on the other side of the barbed wire.

The BAMlag, which in the late 1930s was engaged in the construction of a second line to the Trans-Siberian Express, was the largest group of camps in the Gulag archipelago. This distant corner of south-eastern Siberia was notorious for its chaotic brutality. Top-secret NKVD internal documents of the period, one addressed directly to Stalin but never sent, report thousands of barely clothed prisoners arriving in freight cars long before any accommodation had been prepared.

One convoy of 29, whose arrival happened to coincide with the inspector's visit, were all dead within 37 days, either starved or frozen. As the inspectors left, they had little hope for those remaining, going about in rags, sometimes without shoes, in temperatures between -20°C and -50°C. "They resemble humans, or more likely savages of the Stone Age".

What little we know about Chistyakov must be gleaned from his diary and a single photograph of him, smiling and painting, which was later captioned: "Chistyakov, Ivan Petrovich, repressed in 1937-8. Died at the front in Tula province in 1941."

He was clearly an educated Muscovite; indeed, his longing to return outdoes any heroine of Chekhov's: "I sometimes picture Moscow so vividly it makes my head ache."

He arrives in the east with wide-eyed horror: "Suspicious furtive looks. Unshaven faces, shaven heads… dejection, boredom. Siberia!"

Although aware of the suffering of his charges from the outset, his immediate preoccupation is the cold. This may seem callous, but the conditions defy belief. When it reaches a steady -40°C, it becomes impossible to shave because the lather freezes on the soap. His hair freezes to his forehead during the night.

At this early stage, there is some poetry in his writing. "The air chimes like crystal. It feels as if [it] could break like glass and splinter. In places the ground has fissures as wide as my hand. It's so cold that even the rails can snap, with a sound unlike anything I've ever heard."

However, in these conditions, as Solzhenitsyn observed, the line separating good and evil that cuts through the heart of every human being can oscillate, and the speed with which Chistyakov descends into pettiness and miserable indifference is heartbreaking.

He is worn down by the prisoners' constant escape attempts, which he is almost powerless to prevent, and by their astonishing behaviour. On January 23, 1936, he notes that a group of "sparkies", or young offenders, "stripped naked in 40 degrees of frost and ran all the way from the station to the phalanx. The little devils didn't freeze to death, but it beats me why they did it."

He hears of card-players who, left without anything else to wager, have to bet their fingers, hacked off and cast down on the table with terrifying curses. In the spring of 1936, he writes: "It's cold outside, it's cold inside and it's cold and cheerless inside me."

His lack of empathy has become acute: "We went out into the taiga and found scattered corpses. Who killed them? When? Nobody has any idea who these people were. If someone gets on your nerves, you take a shot at them, you just leave them where they fell."

Horrendous incidents are noted without comment: "Bugayev went out [looking for escaped prisoners],… one he shot, clean through the chest, crawled back 35km. We didn't go out looking for him. He rotted out there for 12 days."

It would be too easy to judge Chistyakov who, driven to the edge of his endurance, is by this point openly suicidal. What is harder to stomach is that he sets this down alongside petty barrack-room gossip, complaints that there is no choice of food in the canteen and his fury at finding that he won't be paid his expenses. Several times, he complains that the prisoners' welfare is of greater concern to the authorities than his own.

For a man incapable of examining the reality of his existence, this may well have been a means of coping; when he does allow himself to be introspective, the diary becomes a prolonged howl: "My heart is so desolate, it alarms me."

Chistyakov was, for uncertain reasons, arrested in 1937. For several months before, he had entertained the possibility of having himself imprisoned - the only alternative to suicide as an escape from his work. This sounds like insanity.

"The prisoner knows he is a prisoner; but no brands, no fetters will make him forget he is a human being," wrote Dostoevsky, but it is hard to comprehend a situation in which subjecting oneself to imprisonment of this kind could be a means of reclaiming one's humanity.

Is it Chistyakov's failing that he is difficult to understand, and to empathise with, or is it ours? As Solzhenitsyn wrote in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: "You cannot expect a man who is warm to understand a man who is cold."

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