OUR WRITER has an eye for nature and a lyrical touch. At twilight, he notes subtle shifts of color: “The horizon, a red line, burns ever brighter until it overflows and spills out, flooding the sky and turning everything purple.” Each sunset is beautiful and each is different, yet our writer is no aesthete or nature mystic. He permits no gushing. Sunset brings a sense of hopelessness with its beauty, but by cataloging its effects he preserves a sliver of his humanity. At the end of the same lengthy, detailed paragraph he writes: “A tardy ray flashes out, as if hastening after the sun and, as it vanishes, bestows a smile, like a girl who has said goodbye and, walking away, looks back from a distance.”
About the writer we know little, not even his precise age. Ivan Petrovich Chistyakov exists because of the notebooks he furtively kept while serving as a senior guard in 1935–’36 at the Baikal Amur Corrective Labor Camp, one circle in the vast hell of the Gulag. Had his diary been discovered, Chistyakov would have faced severe punishment, possibly execution. Without his journals, he would otherwise have been erased from history, like millions of his fellow Soviet citizens. That we know his name and a piece of his story is an unexplained miracle. In her introduction to The Day Will Pass Away, Irina Shcherbakova, a founding member of the imperiled Memorial Human Rights Centre in Moscow, tells us Chistyakov’s two notebooks were anonymously donated to the center. At the back of one of the notebooks is a blurry snapshot — sadly, not included in the book — and a note: “Chistyakov, Ivan Petrovich, repressed in 1937-38. Killed at the front in Tula Province in 1941.”
In Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial, Lynne Viola, a professor of history at the University of Toronto, recounts statistics that still defy belief and give context to Chistyakov’s plight:
The 1930s were years of mass repression in the Soviet Union. From 1930 to 1939, close to 725,000 people were executed, over 1.5 million were interned in prisons and labor camps, and well over 2 million people were forcibly exiled to “special” or “labor settlements” in the far hinterlands of the Soviet Union.
Strictly speaking, Chistyakov is not among those numbers. He was a Muscovite expelled from the Communist Party in the purges of the late 1920s and early 1930s. He commanded an armed guard unit on the Tayshet-to-Bratsk section of BAM, the Baikal-Amur Railway, and on the secondary lines being built by Stalin’s bottomless pool of forced labor. Started in 1912, before the Bolshevik Revolution, the remote railway was intended to connect European Russia to the Pacific without crossing northeastern China. The project was headquartered in Svobodny — Russian for free. The environment was deadly. In each day’s entry, Chistyakov notes the temperature, which some days drops to -50 degrees Celsius (-58 degrees Fahrenheit). There is never enough clothing or firewood, and the barracks housing prisoners and guards alike are shoddy and uninsulated. A scene often repeated is a guard seated by a stove warming his face and hands while his back freezes. Being a guard hardly distinguished Chistyakov from the prisoners he was assigned to supervise. By nature, Chistyakov is passive, neither a Soviet true believer nor a dissident. Even the protests in the privacy of his diary are muted. After first arriving, he is repelled by the indifference and casual brutality of his fellow guards:
We have been sent juveniles: 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.
Stalin’s innovative contribution to mass terror was to blur the lines separating prisoners from guards, the guilty from the not guilty, traitors from loyal Soviet citizens. Nikolai Yezhov, head of the NKVD during the latter days of Chistyakov’s time in the Gulag, was himself executed for treason by order of Stalin in 1940; his predecessor, Genrikh Yagoda, had been executed on similar charges in 1938. No one was immune to arrest, interrogation, torture, and violent death. In Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial, Viola scrupulously documents what she calls “the purge of the purgers” in the Soviet Ukraine late in the Great Terror, between 1939 and 1942. The men Viola writes about were not, she carefully notes, “victims, at least not in the usual sense of the term. On the contrary, they were perpetrators, members of the Soviet internal security police, the NKVD, who themselves had worked as interrogators, jailers, and executioners during the darkest days of the terror.”
Viola tells the story of Ivan Stepanovich Drushliak, nicknamed “Vania the Terrible.” Born in 1913 in Ukraine, he joined the Komsomol, the Communist Party’s youth division, at age 15, and three years later joined the Party while a “model worker” in a factory. Drushliak became an investigator/interrogator for a regional office of the NKVD in 1935 and was transferred to Kiev three years later. A supervisor described his job performance as “assiduous.” Another said he was “looked upon in general as a sadist.” All prisoners were expected to sign confessions, and Drushliak had a gift for exacting them with the use of a truncheon he named “Rando.” By all accounts, his success rate was impressive. And yet Drushliak was arrested in April 1939 and sentenced to be shot by a military tribunal in January 1940. “Drushliak,” Viola writes, “had abused his office, fabricated confessions, and crudely violated socialist legality in carrying out interrogations in the course of the Great Terror of 1937–1938.” In other words, he had done exactly what he was ordered and encouraged to do. Why the seeming reversal? As Viola explains, Stalin’s brutality was not irrational or inconsistent:
[His] scapegoating of officials of various stripes for violations in policy implementation removed the blame from him. It permitted him to explain away “violations” and “excesses” in policy implementation as the work of a relatively few bad apples. It was a face-saving measure for Stalin, and not unlike similar practices used by other governments to avoid blame […] Stalin was not interested in justice per se; his goal to purge Soviet society of its Fifth Column, if not exactly fulfilled, had gone as far as it could.
Because Chistyakov had, in Shcherbakova’s words, “non-proletarian social antecedents,” and was expelled from the Communist Party along with other “socially alien elements,” he was probably fated to disappear into the Gulag, whether as prisoner or guard. We know he was arrested in 1937 after leaving Siberia. As Viola writes in Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial, in words with renewed significance in today’s politically volatile, polarized climate: “Anything could be politicized within the context of the Great Terror, including what perhaps were the negligent actions or unpopular personality of the village medic.”
Included as an appendix to The Day Will Pass Away are the diary entries Chistyakov made in 1934 while on a hunting trip to a marshy region outside Moscow. Shcherbakova likens their prose style to Turgenev’s in A Hunter’s Sketches, and they remind this reader of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories, in particular “Big Two-Hearted River.” They share a tight-lipped attentiveness to detail and the sense of a ritual being enacted: “The chill of morning makes me shiver. Through a crack in the roof I see a luminous pink sky. In the village nearby a shepherd is playing a horn with only three notes.” Had his life and the life of his country been different, Chistyakov might have flourished as a writer. In Arch Tait’s translation, his prose is vivid and concise. He has a knack for describing landscapes and the silent exchanges of men sharing hopelessness. In the final entry of his Gulag diary, dated October 17, 1936, Chistyakov writes: “Outside it is already winter. My room is cold. We have no wood or coal.”