“This Diary Is My Life...”
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 know very little about the man. Apart from his notebooks we have only a blurred snapshot on the back of which there is a note: “Chistyakov, Ivan Petrovich, repressed in 1937-38. Killed at the front in Tula Province in 1941”. All other information has to be gleaned from the diary.
How old was its author? Over 30, evidently, because he mentions that he has already lived half his life, and that he had been at the front. Even if that refers to fighting right at the end of the Civil War in 1920-21, he would have had to be at least 18-19 years old then.
Before being conscripted into the army (to his great misfortune he was drafted into the interior troops) Ivan Chistyakov lived in Moscow, not far from Sadovo-Kudrinskaya Square on the inner ring road. He took the tram to work, in his free time went to the theatre, played sports, enjoyed sketching, and in general lived much like any other relatively educated Soviet city dweller of the early 1930s. (Their way of life is characterised in the prose of such writers as Yury Olesha, Mikhail Zoshchenko, and Mikhail Bulgakov.)
Ivan Petrovich Chistyakov had a thoroughly ordinary Russian name, but was less fortunate in having non-proletarian social origins. He probably had secondary vocational education, and was expelled from the Communist Party during one of the thoroughgoing purges of the late 1920s and early 1930s when ‘socially alien elements’ were deprived of their Party card. (Chistyakov believed he was sent to BAM because the authorities already regarded him as suspect.)
What his work was before he was conscripted is not apparent from the diary. He might have taught at a technical college, or been an engineer. He seems not to have had a family, although he occasionally mentions receiving a letter or a parcel, but nowhere does he refer to a wife or children.
Ivan Chistyakov was mobilised into the interior troops just as Stalin’s vast projects, under the direction of the OGPU-NKVD secret police were really getting started. The Gulag,  a vast network of forced labour camps, was in the course of being created and was very short of personnel. In autumn 1935 he was sent to one of its most remote and terrible locations, Bamlag: the Baikal-Amur Corrective Labour Camp.
In 1932 the Soviet of Peoples Commissars of the USSR gave orders for a Baikal-Amur railway line to be constructed. BAM was a project of military importance, and was initially entrusted to the Commissariat of Transport and Communications. The time allowed for completing it was a mere three-and-a-half years because of the situation in the Russian Far East. Japan had occupied Manchuria in 1931-32, effectively depriving Russia of the Chinese Eastern Railway. This was the main link between Vladivostok, Russia’s only major port in the region and home port of the Pacific Ocean Fleet, and Siberia and the central regions of Russia. The remaining Trans-Siberian Railway was single track in many places, and for more than 1,000 kilometres ran close to the Soviet border with Manchuria. South Sakhalin belonged to Japan, and accordingly a second, more distant, outlet to the Pacific coast was of major strategic importance to the USSR.
Despite a propaganda campaign, it proved impossible to mobilise the huge numbers of workers needed for hard labour in the extremely severe conditions of what a popular song in a Soviet propaganda film called “our near and dear Far East”. It was soon clear that the only way to complete the task set by Stalin in such a short time was to use unpaid, forced labour.
Accordingly, responsibility for the project was transferred to OGPU. Following completion of the White Sea-Baltic Canal, the first large-scale construction project of the Gulag using forced labour, thousands of people were redeployed to BAM. Huge numbers of prisoners and exiles (mainly dispossessed so-called “wealthy” kulak peasants) flooded into Bamlag.
In mid-1935, when Chistyakov was at Bamlag, some 170,000 prisoners were already working there, and when the camp was disbanded in May 1938 the number had risen to over 200,000. A total of over 1.8 million prisoners were held in the Gulag at that time.
In 1935 Bamlag extended over an enormous area, from Chita to Ussuriysk, a distance of more than 2,000 km. It was administered from Svobodny in the Far East Region.
The first director of Bamlag was Sergey Mrachkovsky, an old Bolshevik and, in the recent past, a member of the Trotskyite opposition. In September 1933, when the project was vastly upscaled, the entire management of Bamlag, including Mrachkovsky, was arrested in connection with the criminal case of the “Counter-revolutionary Trotskyite Group”.
The new director of Bamlag was Natalii Frenkel, one of the most odious creators of the Gulag system. Prior to being put in charge of BAM, Frenkel had had an extraordinary career. In the early 1920s he was found guilty on a charge of embezzlement and smuggling and sent to the Solovki camp. In the course of a few years, Frenkel succeeded in transforming himself from a convict into the director of the camp’s production section. On his release he enrolled in the service of OGPU. In 1931-3, Frenkel was a director of OGPU’s White Sea-Baltic Canal project.
In his novel Life and Fate, Vassily Grossman portrays this new world of prison camps and its organiser:
“At the beginning of Lenin’s New Economic Policy, Frenkel set up a motor factory in Odessa. In the mid-1920s he was arrested and exiled to Solovki. While serving his sentence, he submitted a brilliant plan to Stalin in which he proposed, with full economic and technical argumentation, that huge numbers of prisoners should be exploited to create roads, dams, power stations, and reservoirs. The boss was taken by his suggestion. The traditional pattern of forced labour with its hallowed convict battalions and old-fashioned penal servitude, toiling with spades, axes, pickaxes, and saws was invaded by the twentieth century.
The world of the camps began assimilating technical progress, drawing into its orbit electrically powered locomotives, excavators, bulldozers, electric saws, turbines, ore-cutting machinery, and a vast fleet of vehicles and tractors. This world mastered the use of aircraft for transportation and communications, wireless and intercom telephony, automated machinery, and ultra-modern ore enrichment technology. It planned, designed, sketched, and created mines, factories, new seas, and gargantuan power stations. It developed explosively, leaving the old-time forced labour looking as touching and comical as children playing with toy bricks.”
One of these ambitious new Gulag projects was the construction of BAM, a highly complex railway project extending over many kilometres. Its implementation included, however, like all the other camp construction projects, murderous exploitation of the manual labour, using spades, wheelbarrows, pickaxes, and saws, of hundreds of thousands of prisoners.
Grossman fully recognised the importance of Frenkel’s role. He survived in charge of the Bamlag project for the whole of the subsequent period, and was one of the few Gulag officials not to be arrested. He managed to stay in this highly risky saddle, and even to advance his career.  Frenkel began his period in charge of Bamlag by radically restructuring the camp subdivisions. As a master organiser and connoisseur of camp life, he created ‘phalanges’, specialist brigades of 250-300 men in which all the prisoners were dependent on each other to ensure they met their obligations under the plan and competed successfully for rations. Chistyakov several times mentions these phalanges in the diary. The realities of the new system are accurately described by Varlam Shalamov, the author of Kolyma Tales, who in the early 1930s found himself on the wrong side of the barbed wire:
“It was only in the early 1930s that a solution was found to the crucial question of what was more effective: the stick – or the carrot of tying the level of food rations to production output. It was realised that a sliding scale of rations and/or the promise of a reduction of sentence could induce even ‘saboteurs’ and ordinary criminals to work hard and effectively, without pay, even when the guards were not present. They would also inform on and betray their fellows for the sake of a cigarette or an approving glance from the concentration camp bosses.” 
The system proposed by such Gulag innovators as Frenkel consisted of using “unpaid forced labour where a gastric scale of food rations was combined with the hope of early release in return for accumulated merit points. This was all worked out in immense detail, with extremely large variations in the inducements and punishments in the camps. A prisoner in the punishment cells would be allotted 100 grams of bread every second day, while one who achieved the onerous ‘Stakhanov norm’, as it was officially called, would qualify for a whole 2 kilograms of bread daily.  That is how the prisoners were motivated who constructed the White Sea Canal and the Moscow-Volga Canal built during the first five-year plan. It had a major economic impact.
It had a no less major impact on the moral degradation of those in charge, on the prisoners, and other citizens. A person who is strong in spirit grows stronger in prison. The camps, however, with their tantalising promise of early release, degraded everyone, the boss and his subordinate, the free labourer and the prisoner, the unit commander and the employed metal worker,” Shalamov writes.
Every month Frenkel received contingents of new convicts, and his camp mushroomed. In early 1933 the Bamlag network consisted of only two camp divisions constructing the main branch of BAM, but later a majority of prisoners were redeployed to building a second track for the Trans-Siberian Railway. Numerous sections and independent camp centres were set up along this entire stretch of the railway. The second division of Bamlag (where Chistyakov ended up) looked like a vast, industrious anthill. It was engaged in constructing the second railway track, locomotive maintenance depots, train stations, and other civilian facilities. These included engineering workshops, ancillary farming projects, its own propaganda brigade, and a camp printing press. There were production phalanges consisting of hundreds of prisoners (or “soldiers of the railway” as they were called in NKVD propaganda in the first half of the 1930s), phalanges for miscreants and malingerers, and isolation cells for offenders. 
The Bamlag prisoners built the railway in unbelievably severe geographical and climatic conditions, in extremes of cold, and heavy downpours. They laid the rails through untamed territories of the Far East, mountains, rivers, swamps, overcoming cliffs, permafrost, and sodden subsoil. Under such conditions construction work would normally be considered possible for no more than 100 days in the year, but the prisoners worked all year round, whatever the weather, for 16-18 hours a day. Many contracted “chicken blindness”: when darkness fell they ceased to be able to see; malaria, colds, rheumatism, and gastric ailments took their toll.
As a result of the inhuman exploitation of the labour of tens of thousands of people, by the end of 1937 the main part of Bamlag’s task of laying a second track on the line from Karymskaya to Khabarovsk was completed. The prisoners were now switched to laying a second track all the way to the Pacific Ocean for the Trans-Siberian Railway, to building a number of military highways, and to embarking on construction of BAM itself, running from Taishet, north of Lake Baikal to Sovetskaya Gavan’, a total length of 4,643 kilometres.
Thus, Frenkel had under his command no mere camp, but an enormous army of slaves and overseers scattered over vast expanses of territory from Lake Baikal to the Pacific Ocean. The previous management system was no longer adequate, and in May 1938 Bamlag was split into six separate camps under a special Directorate of Railway Construction of the USSR NKVD Gulag in the Far East, headed by Frenkel.
With the outbreak of World War II in 1941, this enormous construction effort was halted; the Gulag simply had not sufficient people or resources.
The laying of the new section of the Baikal-Amur Railway from Taishet to Sovetskaya Gavan’ was resumed only in the 1970s, when thousands of youth brigades, which were proclaimed to be Young Communist Shock Troops, were sent out there.The project took a further 12 years and was completed shortly before the start of perestroika. This section of the railway has since been renamed. It is no longer known as BAM.
Cogs of the System
Our picture of the world of the camps derives primarily from memoirs left by former prisoners who were victims of repression. Nowadays we can learn about the functioning of the Gulag system, its mechanisms and structures, from the archives where thousands of documents are preserved. Today we know a lot about the organisers and those in charge of the Gulag.
We know little, however, about the “man with a rifle” on the far side of the barbed wire. We have little understanding of the so-called cogs of that enormous machine of repression. Ex-prisoners, as we see from numerous memoirs, most often recalled their investigators, the interrogators in prison after their arrest who compiled records and indictments, to say nothing of those investigators who were unambiguous sadists and torturers and who were a widespread phenomenon in 1937-38 during the Great Terror. It would be difficult not to remember such people. Moreover, it was the investigators who determined the fate and length of sentence in the camps of those arrested. Prisoners often saw that particular individual, rather than the repressive machinery of the state, as the source of the violence, injustice, and brutality visited on them.
As a rule, those who guarded the prisoners tend not to figure in the reminiscences of people who spent many years in the camps. Guards changed frequently, all looked much the same, and the prisoners generally only recollected a particular one if he unexpectedly demonstrated humane feelings, or exceptional cruelty.
The prisoners’ attitude towards those guarding them is described by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in Gulag Archipelago:
“It was a failing on our part: when you are in prison or a labour camp the personality of the jailers interests you only to the extent that it enables you to avoid being threatened by them or to exploit their weaknesses. For the rest, you have no inclination to take an interest in them: they are unworthy of your attention... but now, belatedly you realise that you failed to take a sufficient interest in them... Would anyone who was in the least capable of useful activity go to work as a prison camp guard? We need to ask the more general question of whether a camp guard could ever be a good person? What system of moral selection had life put them through? Any human being with the least glimmer of spiritual development, with the least stirrings of conscience, the ability to distinguish good from evil, would instinctively struggle with all the means at his disposal against ending up in the ranks of that dismal legion. But suppose he didn’t succeed? A secondary selection follows during training and the initial period of service, when the administration itself looks closely and winnows out all those who manifest, not a strong will and firmness (brutality and heartlessness), but weakness (kindness). After that comes a third phase of selection over a period of many years: those who did not realise where they were headed, and what was being proposed to them, now understand and are horrified. To be continually the tool of violence, a constant participant in evil is not something everybody is immediately capable of. You are trampling underfoot other people’s destinies. Inside you something is resisting, and breaks, and you simply can’t go on living this way! Very belatedly, people did nevertheless start struggling to get out, claiming to be ill, obtaining certificates, taking a cut in salary, removing their epaulettes – anything just to get away from it all! The rest, then, were sucked in? The others got used to it and their fate struck them as normal. Of course it was useful, even honourable. And some had no need to be sucked in, because they were already there.”
Solzhenitsyn’s words about those who failed in their struggle to avoid working in the camps, who felt they couldn’t go on living that way, who just wanted to get away from it all, are wholly applicable to Ivan Chistyakov. The diary he left gives us a unique insight into the thoughts and feelings of someone who found himself in this role.
“They Summoned Me and Sent Me Off...”
It was through no choice of his that Chistyakov was sent to the ends of the earth to command a unit of VOKhR  marksmen, whose job was to guard the prisoners on their way to work, to patrol the camp perimeter, to accompany echelons, and to catch anyone who tried to escape.
From that moment, every day he spent at BAM was filled with just one wish: to get himself out of that nightmare world by whatever means he could find. He describes it tirelessly: the severe climate, the disgusting accommodation in which at night your hair would freeze to your forehead; the absence of a bathhouse, of decent food, the constant colds he suffered, the stomach pains:
I have no desire to serve in the army, let alone at BAM, but what what can I do about it? If there was only a warm place where we could relax, but we don’t even have that. The stove heats you on one side  while the other freezes. You develop a lackadaisical attitude, why care about anything? Yet every day that passes is part of your life, a day you could have lived instead of wasted.
Chistyakov was in command of a guard unit. He was the very lowest link in the chain of command and was under pressure from two directions: on the one hand from the coarse, illiterate, drunken marksmen, many of whom were themselves prisoners serving short sentences, or had been prisoners in the past.
There is no one here you can talk to. You can’t talk to the zeks  obviously, and if you talk to the marksmen they’ll become over-familiar and you’ll lose your authority. We are just a prop for the system, and when the project is finished we will walk off the stage unnoticed. The whole, or a large part, of the burden of this project is borne by us, the marksmen in the teams and the commanding officers of units.
On the other hand, he was also being pressured by his Chekist superiors, who had been transferred to BAM from the dreaded Solovki complex where they had been trained in the ways of the Solovki power which had replaced Soviet power. It was a school whose approach was now extended to the entire Gulag system. The brutal methods used against the prisoners (which Chistyakov was to encounter at BAM), are described by Varlam Shalamov on the basis of his own experience of the camp in the early 1930s:
“Somebody must have shot those three escapees. It was during the winter, and their frozen corpses were stood by the guardhouse for a full three days to demonstrate to the camp inmates the futility of attempting to escape. Somebody must have given the order to parade those frozen corpses to teach us a lesson. There in the North, which I knew like the back of my hand, someone must have issued instructions for convicts to be given ‘the mosquito treatment’, to be tied naked to a stake for refusing to work or failing to achieve the output quotas.” 
It is obvious from this kind of testimony that Chistyakov’s role in Bamlag must have been deeply repugnant to him, and indeed he writes about that quite openly in his diary:
The night brings us alarms, escape attempts, murders. Autumn nights, come to their aid. May you at least be a kindly protectress of the captive. Today two more of them escaped. Interrogation, pursuit, reports, headquarters, questioning by the Third Section, and instead of sleep the night brings anxiety and nightmares.
This man is no Chekist. He is an outsider, here under duress, and from time to time he is given to reflection. He remembers “how many I gave a longer sentence. No matter how you try to remain calm, sometimes you lose control. Some of them you arrest.” 
He was stunned by the appalling conditions in which prisoners, engaged in the heavy labour of building a railway, were kept.
We went round the huts: bare bunks, cracks in the walls everywhere, snow lying on sleeping men, no firewood.
A heap of people stirring about. Intelligent, thinking, highly qualified people. In rags, muddy. They can’t sleep at night, and during the day they have to toil, often in thin shoes, in bast shoes, without mittens, eating unheated food in the quarry. At night in the hut it is cold again, and again people are crying out in the dark. You can’t help but think of home and warmth. Like it or not we are all guilty. The camp administration takes no care of the prisoners and the result is refusal to work. The prisoners are perfectly right. They are only asking for the bare minimum, necessities which we should be giving them, which it is our duty to provide. Resources are allocated for this, but we just hope for the best. Such negligence, such reluctance, or God knows what, on our part just to do our job.
In his jottings shortly after arriving at BAM we still find clear expressions of sympathy for those he is obliged to guard. He understands why people refuse to go out to work, and why, given the least chance, they try to escape.
We have been sent children: louse-ridden, dirty, barely clothed. There is no bathhouse because we cannot go 60 roubles over budget. That would be one kopek a head. They talk about the need to combat escape attempts. They look for the causes, use firearms, and fail to see that they themselves are the cause, that it is the result of their slothfulness, bureaucracy, or wrecking activities. People are barefoot, lack clothing, while all along there is enough of everything in the stores. They don’t issue supplies even to those who are willing to work and would, claiming that it will just be wasted. So they don’t waste it, and the prisoners don’t work. They try to escape.
Chistyakov is incensed by the methods in use on this project, a combination of muddle-headedness and profound indifference and heartlessness towards people deprived of the barest necessities. His diary is perhaps one of the few reliable sources exposing the perversity of Stalin’s forced labour system. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that the author is describing what happened day after day, from inside the system.
At every step he encounters evidence of the inanity and inefficiency of organising labour in this manner. For example, the administration fails to provide firewood for a contingent of new prisoners, and in -50°C people simply must find a way to keep warm. As Chistyakov admits, that have no option but to steal and burn precious railway sleepers intended for the project.
They are collecting sleepers by the cartload. A few from here, a few from there, and in total they destroy thousands, so many that it’s terrifying to think about. The administration either don’t want to or are incapable of recognising that these people need firewood, and that burning sleepers will be, and is, more expensive. In all probability, just like me, nobody actually wants to be working here at BAM, and that’s why they pay no attention to anything. The top ranks, the party members, old Chekists do their work in a slap-happy fashion, and don’t give a damn about anything. Discipline is maintained solely by the revolutionary tribunal, by fear. 
On almost every page of the diary Chistyakov expresses irritation and dissatisfaction with the Chekist leaders, who are constantly in hysterics, “ kicking you out of the office, screaming”, because their superiors are demanding that they should at all costs fulfil the plan and complete the project in an absurdly short time. He also expresses his lack of faith in their coercive work methods, although it would have been dangerous for him to say anything about that out loud:
Just try talking about the reality of the situation and you’ll really get it in the neck. You’ll know all about it.
From what Chistyakov says, he appears to have behaved in substantially the same way as the prisoners. In other words, he tried his best to avoid carrying out inane orders. He knows something the camp bosses do not, when “they imagine that a subordinate who has been given an order is duty bound and willing to carry it out promptly and punctiliously. In actual fact not all are slaves. A whole category of sloggers among the prisoners strain every fibre not to carry out any order they are given. This is the natural reaction of a slave, but the camp bosses in Moscow and those below them for some reason suppose that every order they give will be carried out. In fact, however, every order from above offends against a prisoner’s dignity, irrespective of whether the instruction itself is constructive or destructive. The prisoner’s brain has been deadened by every conceivable order, and his free will is impugned.”
The real tragedy of Chistyakov’s situation is that, whether he likes it or not, and as he himself occasionally realises to his horror, he is becoming “acclimatised to BAM”. Gradually the sympathy he initially felt towards the prisoners atrophies until it all but disappears. Fights and murders among the criminals, endless escape attempts for which he is answerable, all lead to a blunting of his humane feelings. This is the more pronounced because in Bamlag few the prisoners are educated people. That time had not yet come, the mass terror of 1937 was still ahead.  The main contingent were criminals, jailed for ordinary crimes, dispossessed “wealthy” peasants, and street children who had been rounded up. These were prisoners who were particularly likely to attempt escape, and circumstances were in their favour: the constant moving of the phalanges as the railway track advanced, the lack of a fixed camp infrastructure. Chistyakov writes that every day he covers many kilometres on foot or on horseback. These conditions made it almost impossible to prevent escapes.
For the women prisoners (mainly criminals or prostitutes) he felt horror and revulsion mixed, at times, with pity:
There is a fight in the phalange, between women. They are beating someone from the old society, and beat her to death. We are powerless to intervene. We are not allowed to use firearms against a phalange. We have no right to walk around armed. They are all Article 35s, but you feel sorry for the woman all the same. If we have it our way, they get punished; if we are right, they feel regret for what they have done. You get these outbursts. God only knows what is going on. The Third Section certainly doesn’t. They give us a roasting, impose sentences whether the use of firearms was justified or not, but a prisoner gets away with murder. Well, okay. Just leave the prisoners to get on with beating each other. Why should we stain ourselves with their blood?
The Sound of Trams
Did echoes of events in the rest of Russia in 1935-36 reach the Far East? In his diary Chistyakov several times mentions Communist Party officials like Voroshilov and Kaganovich, and current political events. This is mainly in connection with his obligation to conduct political instruction sessions, based on the newspapers, with his marksmen. He reads them Mikhail Kalinin’s speech about the draft of a new Soviet constitution. He tells them about the building of the Moscow metro and the world situation, mentioning Hitler. He does not, however, give the impression of having thought overmuch about the significance of these events, or even about how hollow the word ‘constitution’ sounds in the context of the situation he himself describes in Bamlag. Chistyakov writes derisively about a meeting which took place in the canteen in support of the trial, which was just beginning, of the “Trotskyite- Zinovievite Bloc”.  What he mocks, however, is not the show trial of the political opposition as such, but the absurd and illiterate speeches by Chekists who were “incapable of inspiring or directing the thoughts of their audience”.
Neither, however, does Chistyakov have any fanatical belief in Communism, or any particular enthusiasm for the “great construction projects”. He knows that he and others like him are mere rubble for Stalin’s “foundation pit”:
I and the rest of the armed guard unit are participants in a great construction project. We are devoting our lives to building a socialist society, but what will be our reward? There will be none. Our only reward may well be a revolutionary tribunal.
Chistyakov is a fairly typical bit player of the early Soviet era. He only wants to be a loyal citizen. His aspirations are modest. He wants to live a life with the ordinary human joys: “I want to play sports, to learn about the wireless, I want to work within my speciality, to study, to research and test in practice the technology of metals, to mix with educated people. I want to go to the theatre, the cinema, lectures and museums, exhibitions. I want to draw. I want to ride a motorbike, and perhaps trade it in for a rubber-propelled glider, to fly...”
He was to enjoy none of these things. Such were the times he lived in. Soviet power was to give him no opportunity of acquiring even a minimum of personal freedom, and the hopelessness of his situation is something he felt from his very first day at BAM. He sensed that even the modest life he had lived as a Muscovite was over. In the first half of the 1930s Moscow was a grey city, with communal flats, crowded trams, queues, food ration cards, and badly dressed people, but now it seemed to Chistyakov the most beautiful place on earth. He outdid even Chekhov’s three sisters in his yearning to return there.
I pictured Karetno-Sadovaya Square, the sound of trams, the streets, the pedestrians, the thawing snow, and the yardsweepers clearing the pavements with their scrapers. I picture it until my head aches. I have less than half my time left to live, and even that has been reduced by BAM. Nobody cares in the slightest about my life. How can I gain the right to control my own time and my life? Even some wretched fence in the Moscow suburbs seems near and dear to me.
From today’s viewpoint this sense of nostalgia and fatalism seems strange, almost neurotic. Chistyakov had probably been conscripted for only one year, and soon that ill-starred year would end and he should return home. He knew only too well, however, the country he was living in. He knew he was powerless when faced by the authorities, who could deal with him however they pleased. Most importantly, he was aware how fragile was the partition which separated him from those he was compelled to guard. A recurring motif in the diary is the constant expectation of his own arrest. He is undoubtedly aware that the whole tenor of his life at BAM is going to lead inevitably to his exchanging the status of commanding officer of an armed guard unit for that of a prisoner. The threat of arrest dogs him. He really could face the tribunal his superiors keep threatening him with, either for failing to prevent escapes, or for any of the other actions and inactions which could provide grounds for accusing him of negligence. He could be consigned to the Gulag for many years. In the climate of denunciation which reigned among the Chekists in the Bamlag, with everybody spying on everybody else, Chistyakov was vulnerable from virtually every angle. He was an outsider in terms of social class, he had been purged from the party, he criticised his bosses, didn’t take orders seriously, etc. The fact that he kept his distance from the others, didn’t get drunk along with everybody else, and was constantly writing and drawing alerted the Chekists and made them suspicious of him.
Chistyakov gradually reconciled himself to the idea of his impending arrest. He told himself he might only get a short sentence and, having served his time, at last be able to return to his old life.
I will all the same have to serve a sentence and then leave here. It’s not that bad. I certainly won’t be the only person in the USSR with a criminal record. People just get on with it now, and will continue to do so in the future. That is what BAM has taught me. That is how it has re-educated me. It has made me a criminal. In theory I am now already a criminal. I am quietly sitting here among the soldiers of the railway, preparing myself and getting used to that future. Or perhaps I’ll top myself.
“I Am Going Out of My Mind...”
It may be that the nostalgia and despair Chistyakov increasingly felt during his year at BAM were intensified by a sense that any other way of life was now a mirage. The whole world seemed to be one big Bamlag.
“There was something else I realised: the camps were not a hell in comparison with a paradise elsewhere but a mask copied from that other life,” Varlam Shalamov was to write, formulating what armed guard unit commander Chistyakov is attempting to say in his diary. Why is the camp’s mask copied from the outside world? The camp mirrors the world. There is nothing there that you would not find in the world beyond the barbed wire, in terms of the social and moral arrangements. The ideas in the camp only replicate ideas from the outside world, transmitted downwards in the form of orders from superiors. Any social movement, campaign, twist or turn in the world outside is promptly reflected in the camp. The camp reflects not only the struggle of political cliques succeeding each other in power, but the culture of these people, their secret urges, tastes, customs, their suppressed desires. The camp is a mask of society also because everything there is the same as in the world outside. Blood is just as bloody, and the secret policemen and stool pigeons are working flat out, initiating new cases, compiling profiles, conducting interrogations, carrying out arrests, releasing some and catching others. It is even easier to control other people’s destinies in the camp than outside. Everybody works every day, just as in the outside world, and working outstandingly well is supposedly the only way to be released. Just as in the outside world, however, these promises prove false and do not lead to release. The motto on the gates of the camp are constantly repeated: “Labour is a matter of honour, glory, valour, and heroism”. Lectures are given about current affairs, national loans are signed up for, meetings are attended. People succumb to the same diseases as in the world outside, are hospitalised, get better, or die. Nowhere are blood and death illusory. It is the blood that makes this mask a reality.” 
Gradually, indeed, the sense of isolation, doom, and fear take hold of Chistyakov so powerfully that the possibility of death almost becomes reality. He contemplates suicide ever more frequently. After the terrible cataclysms of the revolution and civil war, suicide became almost a fad. That choice struck many of Chistyakov’s contemporaries as almost the easy way out. Reporting a suicide in the camp, he writes about it as a possible escape for him too.
One of the prisoner marksmen has shot himself. The report says he was afraid of being sentenced to a new term, but the reality was probably different. They write these reports to keep up morale. What will they write if I top myself? I am going out of my mind. Life is so precious, and is being wasted here so cheaply, so uselessly, so worthlessly.
As time goes by the idea of killing himself becomes increasingly real, and seems simple, almost commonplace:
I took out my pistol and put it in my mouth. It would be so easy to press the trigger and... after that I would feel nothing. How easily it can be done, as if it was only a joke. There is nothing to be scared of, nothing supernatural. It’s just like supping a spoonful of soup. I don’t know what held me back from pressing the trigger. Everything was so real, so natural, and my hand was not trembling.
When Chistyakov writes about suicide he quite deliberately lowers the pathos and tragic nature of such a decision. He several times chooses to use a slang word for it which was common during the civil war: “to top yourself”.
For all that, although in places this seems almost the diary of a suicide, he did not kill himself. In a world which for Chistyakov had been reduced to the confines of the camp, he nevertheless still had supports which held him back. He drew strength from the Far East’s countryside, the taiga forest, the hills he described, the landscapes he drew. That is what he had to set against the horror of life at Bamlag.
The main thing that held him back, however, which gave him strength and enabled him to survive in BAM, was his diary. Writing it was risky. He unflinchingly paints a truly dire picture. It is full of such despair and such descriptions of what was really going on in Bamlag that almost every line could be used to demonstrate anti-Soviet attitudes and hence be used as grounds for imprisoning him. He sometimes speaks openly about this:
What if the Third Section read these lines, or the Political Section? They will see it their own way.
But he cannot stop making the entries: This diary is my life.
Ivan Chistyakov was a minor figure, as he himself says many times, but this awareness brings him to a point where he begins not only to complain on the pages of the diary (and only there), but to rebel against the system which was trying to swallow him alive. In this awareness he occasionally rises to tragic heights.
He writes, Alas, here the days are of longing and anger, sorrow and shame.
He comes to an almost Kafkaesque understanding of his powerlessness in the face of an inhumane state machine which erases the boundary between freedom and unfreedom. He rises to tragic irony when he writes about the ‘historical inevitability’ of the camps:
A path on which yearning and anger are wrecked. A path of even greater nonentity and humiliation of the human. From time to time cold, rational analysis comes into play and much subsides for want of fuel. Throughout history there have been prisons and why, ha-ha, should only other people find themselves in them and not I? This life in the camps is inevitable in certain historical circumstances, so why not for me too?
Of course, this is only a diary, but Chistyakov, a guard at BAM who against his wishes became a cog in an enormous machine of repression, defends in his diary his right to at least jot down these entries.
In 1935, when Chistyakov was sent to BAM, Stalin famously announced, “Life has become better, comrades. Life has become more enjoyable!” In his diary this little man, astonishing as it may seem, himself unaware of the fact, flatly gainsays the all-powerful leader. If only in a whisper, if only in secret, Chistyakov announces something both terrible and crucial for Russia: “In the system of the state the humanity of a human being is of no consequence.”
The destiny of the diary’s author was played out as he had foretold. In 1937 Chistyakov was arrested, but was probably not sentenced to a particularly long term, since otherwise he could not in 1941 have been on the frontline. He was killed 300 kilometres from his beloved Moscow, which he probably never saw again.
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. Years later he was to describe BAM as, in all probability, Ivan Chistyakov might have wished to:
“Our train of sorrows trundled along the Siberian Railway for two months and more. Two small, iced-up windows near the roof timidly illuminated our goods wagon for a short while during the day. The rest of the time the stump of a candle burned in a lantern, and if no candles were issued, the wagon sank into impenetrable darkness. Huddled close to each other, we lay in this primal darkness, listening to the thudding of the wheels and abandoning ourselves to cheerless thoughts about our lot. In the mornings we were able barely to glimpse through the tiny window the boundless expanses of the fields of Siberia, the infinite snowbound taiga, the shadows of towns and villages canopied by plumes of vertical smoke, the fantastic sheer cliffs of Lake Baikal. We were transported on and on, to the Far East, to the world’s end. In early February we arrived at Khabarovsk. We stood there for a long time. Then suddenly we were pulled backwards, travelled to Volochaevka and turned off the main line to the north along a new branch line. To either side of the track we passed columns of camps with their watchtowers, and settlements with new gingerbread houses built to a standard design. The Kingdom of BAM welcomed us, its new settlers. The train stopped, the bolts clattered, and we emerged from our refuge into this new world, bright with sun and fettered by 50 degrees of frost, and surrounded by slender, spectral Far East birch trees which rose to the very sky.” 
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.
(Translated from the Russian by Arch Tait)
 OGPU was the United State Political Directorate of the Soviet of People’s Commissars of the USSR; NKVD was the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs.
 GULag was the State Directorate of Camps of the NKVD.
 The Chinese Eastern Railway (KVZhD) in Northeast China passed through Manchuria, part of China, and linked Chita with Vladivostok and Port Arthur. It was built in 1897-1903 as a southern branch of the Trans-Siberian Railway, belonged to Russia, and was maintained by Russian subjects. In 1928 all the Russians servicing the KVZhD were expelled from China, and in 1934 the railway was sold to the Governent of Manchuria. In 1945 it was returned to the USSR, and in 1952 transferred back to China.
 Vassily Grossman, Life and Fate, Moscow, 1988, pp. 790-91.
 By 1940 Frenkel was Head of the Directorate of Railway Construction of the USSR NKVD Gulag. That is, he was in charge of all the rail-building camps of Soviet Russia.
 Varlam Shalamov (1907-1982) was one of Russia’s most gifted writers of the second half of the twentieth century. He spent 17 years in Stalin’s camps.
 Common criminals.
 The Stakhanov norm was a heightened production quota. The term appeared in 1935 and is associated with the name of Alexey Stakhanov, a coal miner who purportedly exceeded by many times the quota for mining coal.
 Varlam Shalamov, Kolyma Tales, p. 45.
 “Malingerers” were prisoners who for one reason or another refused to go out to work.
 Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Arkhipelag GULAG, vol. 2, Moscow, 1988, p. 494.
 VOKhR, the Reserve Security Force, not tied to anyone ministry.
 The stove, a ‘burzhuika’, was suitable for heating only a small room.
 Zek: abbreviation of ‘zakliuchennyi’, a prisoner.
 A pun in which ‘Sovetskaya vlast’’, Soviet power, is replaced by ‘Solovetskaya vlast’’, Solovki power. The Solovki special-purpose forced labour camp was set up in 1923 and closed in 1933.
 Varlam Shalamov, p. 43.
 All penalties imposed on prisoners were likely to deprive them of the right to early release.
 Chistyakov often uses the outdated term, ‘revolutionary tribunal’, an institution created in 1917 which existed only until 1922. As an army officer he was in fact answerable to a military tribunal.
 Varlam Shalamov, p. 25.
 Of course, there already were some people of that kind in Bamlag. Until 1934 the renowned scholar and philosopher, Pavel Florensky, was there serving a ten-year term. Chistyakov’s diary contains no mention of anybody sentenced for political crimes, however.
 Article 35 of the Criminal Code provided for up to five years’ imprisonment for violating the passport laws and for those categorised as ‘socially harmful elements’. These included tramps, prostitutes, and petty criminals.
 Mikhail Kalinin was a Soviet party and government official, at that time chairman of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee of the USSR.
 A new Soviet constitution was adopted on 5 December 1936.
 The “United Anti-Soviet Trotskyite-Zinovievite Centre” was a criminal case fabricated in the mid-1930s, in which a number of individuals were accused of conducting anti-Soviet activity, espionage, sabotage, and terrorism, complicity in the murder of Sergey Kirov, and preparing terrorist acts against leaders of the Communist Party and Soviet government. There were sixteen accused, including Grigoriy Zinoviev who had already been imprisoned in connection with a “Moscow Centre” criminal case, and Lev Kamenev, who had been imprisoned in connection with a “Kremlin” criminal case. The trial was held in Moscow 19-24 August 1936, and all the accused were sentenced to death by firing squad.
 Varlam Shalamov, p. 46.
 The reference is to a marksman who was also a prisoner or a former prisoner.
 From ‘Strange’ Poetry and ‘Strange’ Prose: a philological Festshrift in honour of the centenary of N.A. Zabolotsky, eds. E.A. Yablokov (Moscow) and I.E. Loshchilov (Novosibirsk), Moscow: “Pyataya strana”, 2003, p. 13.