The Forgotten Evil behind the Iron Curtain

Gulag Boss: A Soviet Memoir by Fyodor Vasilevich Mochulsky, Oxford University Press, 2010

The Firm: This Inside Story of the Stasi by Gary Bruce, Oxford University Press, 2010

An entire American generation has come of age since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe. The new threat is Islamic radicalism, and only North Korea, a nation that has developed a nuclear weapons program and missile delivery systems, which it sells to other rogue regimes, gets much attention as a holdover of the "second world" -- the Communist nations that were for 45 years our enemy in the Cold War. China is now our manufacturer of choice, and the collector of American dollars and U.S. debt. An authoritarian government has opened up the economy but little else. Russia pines for its former role but no longer has the influence it once had in Europe or elsewhere.   

Two books from Oxford University Press provide a reminder of just what life was like on the other side during the last sixty years of the 20th century. The books offer a look at two forms of repressive Communist societies.

One, and by far the more brutal, was the Soviet Gulag, a collection of hundreds of work camps where between 20 and 30 million Russians and others were sent after their arrest to help build the Soviet industrial state before, during, and after World War 2. Millions died in these camps -- a full quarter of all prisoners every year during the horrific years of the Soviet war with Nazi Germany from 1941-1945. Prisoners were arrested for two primary reasons: concern that they were not loyal and, to a much larger extent, the need for bodies to work. The prisoners lived  in inhuman conditions -- bitter cold, flimsy sleeping quarters, minimal food and water, in unsanitary surroundings.   

The Nazis plainly intended to murder their concentration camp victims. The Soviets, by and large, did not care what happened to most of their prisoners, expecting only that "the job got done." But they killed an enormous number in any case. Deborah Kaple, the editor and translator of this rare memoir by a Gulag civilian employee (a "manager" of the prisoners), provides estimates of between 800,000 and 7 million executions in the Gulag or en route to the Gulag camps during the quarter-century from 1928 to 1953. She notes,

The Soviet Gulag surely ranks as one of the most evil political creations of the twentieth century, along with Hitler's Holocaust in Europe, Pol Pot's slaughter of millions in Cambodia, and Mao Zedong's serial campaigns that killed millions of Chinese citizens.  The Gulag stands alone as the longest running program of state sponsored killing in that very bloody century.

Many of those executed were deemed "counter-revolutionaries" and were political prisoners. These prisoners were treated far more harshly than the everyday rapists, murderers, and common criminals and thugs who were also sent to these camps. But millions of Soviet citizens, who were  neither criminals nor political risks, were sent to the Gulag as well. This group included many farmers, labeled "Kulaks," who were seen as a threat to the new Soviet collective farms, a transformation of a society so vast, rapid, and unsuccessful that millions of Russians died from starvation in the 1930s, many in areas like the Ukraine, in a deliberate attempt to punish a specific population.

The Soviet regime was paranoid about the threats from within, and this theme of fighting those who wanted to roll back the Revolution was inculcated among those civilians sent to work and supervise the prison work forces as well as within the prison population.  

Gulag Boss is a fascinating memoir in that it focuses on a short period (1940-1946) and a particular work project -- the building of a rail line in the area north of the Arctic Circle, in Pechorlag. The rail line, a mammoth engineering and construction project, was needed to bring coal from mines in the north to the Soviet industrial and weapons-building facilities in the rest of the country. Due to the remote location and bitter weather, the region was not part of the Nazi invasion route in the war that began between the two former allies in mid-1941.

Mochulsky devotes almost all of his memoir to how he, the manager on one portion of the rail line, solved the various technical and human resource problems he faced. One such problem included fatigue and the high death rate of his prisoners. He solved this "problem" by providing incentives to the prisoners: a bit more food each day, if they accomplished their work goal during each daily twelve-hour shift. This was the Gulag version of a "win-win." Another problem was just getting Mochulsky from Moscow to the camp to begin work, a trek that took 45 days. Given the hardship of his journey, it is easy to understand why so many prisoners died or, having become too weak to continue, were executed en route to their work camp.

Mochulsky's memoir makes him out to be a slightly more good-hearted boss than most prisoners knew. But for some of his efforts, he himself feared arrest and crossover to the other side if judged guilty of one of the many myriad crimes of which someone in his post could be accused. Mochulsky has a high self-image -- he presents himself as a great problem-solver, and his track record of addressing difficult problems in his years in and around Pechorlag was apparently recognized by his superiors, who gave him a series of more senior, prestigious postings. Eventually, he became part of the USSR's diplomatic team, spending twenty years in Asia.

Only in the introduction to the memoir, long after a succession of better jobs and foreign postings, does Mochulsky suggest any regret or sense of shame for how miserably the "state" treated its citizens for so long a period.

The United States and Great Britain became allies of Stalin after the Nazi invasion of the USSR. This temporary period of consorting with the devil was deemed necessary to ensure a successful outcome in the war in Europe against the Nazis. It did not take long for the "alliance" to break apart as soon as the war ended. In fact, it was breaking apart in the final months of the war.

Mochulsky's memoir is the story of one man consorting with the devil on a smaller scale. Surely he understood that the regime was treating millions of ordinary Russians in a brutal, criminal, inhumane fashion. But there was the bigger cause -- preservation of the state against its enemies: first the counter-revolutionaries, and then the Nazis. The memoir's self-serving history of small favors Mochulsky provided his workforce, is , if nothing else, an attempt to show that he was not part of the most rotten element of the Soviet system.       

The Stasi was a repressive force of a very different kind. The East Germans did not routinely murder dissidents or conduct mass arrests. Instead, they gathered information on a very large number of the state's citizens. No other country in the world has ever had as high a percentage of the population participating in domestic spying (as many as one in forty adults). This included the employees of the Stasi and the far larger army of informants they relied on. Though Stasi employees furiously burned documents in the days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, over 111 miles of such documents remained. A quarter of the East Germans had Stasi files in the documents that were recovered.  

In the recent movie on the last years of the Stasi, The Lives of Others, the playwright Dreyman goes to the archives to find his files years after the regime has collapsed. An employee wheels out a table with a few dozen thick folders. Dreyman, after all, was the subject of the "complete program." The level of intrusion carried over to such details as the make and model of typewriter the playwright used. One Stasi employee tells his superiors that the model typewriter used to print the embarrassing article on East German suicides that was sent to a West German magazine was not available in East Germany, and he provides a list of the kind of typewriters used by Dreyman and his band of artist friends. This was not  a case of cinematic hyperbole. Bruce makes clear that this level of information was precisely what was sought for those deemed threats to the state.

But Bruce makes another point: that the Stasi was an enterprise. To grow, it needed results -- more subjects of investigation, more informants, more Stasi employees. And of course, all of this was to result in a reduction in the domestic threats to the state. But East Germans, particularly in the two districts Bruce has analyzed, Gransee and Perleberg, were pretty docile on the counter-revolutionary front. Was this due to the success of the Stasi intimidation (no one you can trust), or was it reflective of aspects of the German personality (acceptance of authority)?

When the regime collapsed and the merger of East and West Germany occurred, many former Stasi employees went on to live fairly comfortable lives in retirement or found other employment. There was almost no attempt to prosecute former Stasi employees for any crimes, and most of the civilian population in the former East Germany seemed more interested in learning what was in their records than in seeking retribution against their former neighbors who were spies or informants.

Bruce also relays that as the years have passed, some East Gemans, despite massive infusions of cash from their Western brothers, have grown a bit nostalgic for their former Soviet satellite state. It is not clear whether this is a reaction (resentment) to adopting the role of the welfare recipient part of the new German state or a reaction to the new risks of failure in this state.

In The Lives of Others, Gerd Wiesler, the Stasi captain who develops feelings for Dreyman's wife, obtains information from her on where the secret typewriter is hidden and then removes it from the apartment before the Stasi come to arrest Dreyman for his crime. Wiesler's actions are obvious to his superiors, who relegate him to a life of steaming open letters, a major enterprise in East Germany at the time. Bruce argues that steaming open letters is intrusive enough, and Wiesler can hardly be seen as a hero for accepting this role, or for all of his other Stasi work. Bruce argues that there is little or no evidence of behavior like Wiesler's in the history of the Stasi (assisting the subject of an investigation). But movies take cinematic license, and The Lives of Others is so remarkable in presenting the dreary, oppressive overhang of the state security system that a trace of humanity by one of its members, if anything, shames all the others and the system that allows such invasions of privacy.  

Bruce is very good at describing the veneer of law that the East German state sought for its decision-making, spying, and arrests. A few thousand East Germans had applications approved each year to move to West Germany. Many more were granted approval for family visits, or conference visits abroad. A much larger number were denied such "gifts."  

Remarkably, the Stasi files contained documents on half as  many West Germans as East Germans. The traffic between the countries moved both ways, especially to and from Berlin, a divided city, located entirely within the East German state. The risk of a West German seeking asylum or choosing to move to the East was almost nonexistent. But East Germans who visited the West or West Germans who visited the East were all useful for creating new subject files for the Stasi, or new informants.

While the Gulag was a feature of a regime that routinely terrorized its population, the Stasi were more creepy than vicious. As a border state to West Germany, East Germany ran deep with paranoia. The nation was filled with Soviet forces -- serving as both a deterrent and as a constant threat to the West.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite empire was one of the great events of recent world history. Sadly, younger Americans know almost nothing of the world described in these books or understand the significance of the West's victory in the Cold War. Some just do not understand why "we couldn't all just get along." It is almost incredible, in retrospect, that some Americans were advocates for the political and economic system that took hold in the USSR and East Germany. Evil showed its face in different forms in Communist states. These important books provide two versions. Neither of them was very pretty.