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Ivan Chistyakov’s diary is unique historical testimony. He commanded an armed guard unit on a section of BAM, the Baikal-Amur Railway which was built by forced labour.
We have few memoirs written even by people on the outside of the barbed wire. This diary, written inside the Gulag, gives a day by day account of life there over several months in 1935-36 and is probably unique.
The original diary is in the safekeeping of the Memorial human rights centre in Moscow which, since the late 1980s, has been collecting documents, testimony, memoirs, and letters relevant to the history of political repression in the USSR. It was passed to them by people who had come upon it among the papers left by a distant female relative.
The diary consists of two medium-sized exercise books. One describes three days in August 1934 which Chistyakov spent hunting, before being conscripted into the interior troops and sent to BAM. His notes are reminiscent of Ivan Turgenev’s classic A Hunter’s Sketches, illustrated by the author. They suggest nostalgia for the old, pre-revolutionary Russia and are in total contrast to the other notebook, which was written in 1935-36 when Chistyakov was working in the Gulag.
We do not know where Ivan Chistyakov was in 1939 when, along the railway built by the labour of prisoners he had guarded in 1935-36, long echelons of wagons passed bearing new prisoners to BAM. Among them was one of Russia’s greatest twentieth-century poets, Nikolai Zabolotsky.
It is a miracle that Chistyakov’s diary, whose entries break off, probably, with his arrest, somehow survived, that it did not fall into the hands of NKVD officials, that it was not discarded and destroyed, and that somebody managed to send it to Moscow.
Thanks to this miracle, one more voice of a lonely man who lived in a fearful era has come down to us.