Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 4, 2019

The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard (2014), by Ivan Chistyakov, translated by Arch Tait

Let me say at the outset, this is not a book that anyone would read for pleasure.  The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard is raw and confronting, written by a man struggling to maintain his mental health in an environment designed to brutalise him.  I read it for Vishy’s Red October Russian Reads, and it is indeed a very salutary reminder of the extremes of the Soviet experiment…

It has relevance today because there are, no doubt, similar situations in repressive regimes such as China’s, but also in places like Australia’s detention centres where we know from media reports that it is not just the detainees who suffer mental health problems.  (But we only know this about Australian guards, there are only hostile media reports about PNG local guards and yet it would be surprising if some of them were not also gravely troubled by their work and what they witness.)

Not much is known about the author of the diary, Ivan Chistyakov.  As it says in the Introduction by Irina Shcherbakova, it is a miracle that somehow this text survived until the fall of the USSR: all through Stalin’s Terror and the successive regimes, that somehow it did not fall into the hands of the NKVD officials, that it was not discarded and destroyed, and that somebody managed to send it to Moscow.  It is now held for safe keeping in the Memorial International Human Rights Society in Moscow and its translation and publication was supported by an organisation to which I belong: PEN International.

What we can surmise from the text is that Chistyakov was an educated man in his thirties, well-read and fond of poetry.  He was probably a teacher, perhaps a teacher of engineering, but conscripted into the army and then assigned to serve as a prison guard in Siberia.  There’s no word about wife and children, but someone sent him much-valued parcels and letters.  It seems to me also that this diary was intended as testimony of a witness.  Not yet knowing the extremes to which Stalin’s Terror would extend, perhaps he hoped to share it in some way.  But there is no doubt that it was kept covertly by its eventual recipient until after the fall of the USSR.

The period of time covered by this diary is from October 1935 to October 1936, i.e. before Stalin’s Terror really began.  But Stalin’s ambitious plans to modernise the USSR with extensive rail links to service ports could not be realised without a massive labour force, and nobody was volunteering to go to Siberia.  The cheapest, most pliable work force was the forced labour of prisoners, and prisoners had to be guarded, so conscripts like Chistyakov, who had been expelled from the Communist Party during the purges of the 1920s and 1930s, were despatched into appalling conditions to meet the construction deadlines that Stalin had set.

I’ve read Solzhenitsyn, and more recently Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov and also Zuleikha, a novel by Guzel Yakhina so I had some idea of the conditions that Soviet prisoners endured in forced labour, but it had not occurred to me to feel any sympathy for their guards.  But this diary makes it clear that Chistyakov had no choice in the matter, and he suffered privations not dissimilar to the zeks he was guarding.  His clothing, accommodation and equipment is atrocious: he is often cold, hungry and unwell, and whereas both Kolyma Tales and Zuleikha show that it was possible, though always risky, for some kind of camaraderie to assuage loneliness and despair among the zeks, The Diary of a Prison Guard shows that this was never possible in Chistyakov’s position because he had to keep his distance from the zeks in order to maintain authority, and amongst his fellow guards there was always suspicion and the risk of being denounced under one of the punitive laws against dissent.  There is no one who is his intellectual equal, or even as educated as he is, and the system is designed so that guards are always blamed for anything that goes wrong, with an extension of their service as punishment.  Since the zeks are forever escaping, and deadlines are rarely met because of the incompetence of the administration causing delays in supplies and so on, Chistyakov’s fear of being stuck in this nightmare forever is well-grounded.

A cultured Muscovite, he yearns for his old life:

I want to play sport, to learn about radio, I want to work at my real profession, study, keep up with metals technology and try it out in practice.  Live among educated people, go to the theatre and cinema, to lectures and museums and exhibitions.  I want to sketch.  Ride a motorbike, and then perhaps sell it and buy one of those catapult-launched gliders and fly.  (p.167)

His only succour is the coming of the thaw in February after the long gruelling misery of a Siberian winter:

Sun, sun! What joy you bring us! how life-giving are your rays! We can sometimes forget our misfortunes.  How much lovelier you would be in freedom, or have people there forgotten you?  I have always thought of you as a god. You give life to the natural world, reconcile people and make them kinder and happier.  You inspire and bring us joy.  You are the wellspring of life and my only happiness. Many of my closest friends have stopped writing to me. They have forgotten me, but you do not. Every morning and evening you sustain my soul with beauty. During the day when your radiant disc is high in the sky, I am in love with you. Your warm, caressing rays play on my cheek and gladden me and I am alive again and filled with energy.  (p.64)

This kind of optimism is rare in the diary.  A good deal of it consists of railing against the privations, and the pointlessness of so much of what he does.  He catalogues the stupid ways in which the zeks are deprived of any motivation to work, and while he despises them as uneducated boors with only a couple of years education, he doesn’t think much of his colleagues and superiors, whose incompetence and corruption make things worse for everyone.  He argues forcefully that treating everyone better and providing them with proper clothing, food, heating, accommodation and equipment would result in much more effective work.  The rates at which escapees die in the snow is shocking, and there’s evidence too that at least some of the women prisoners were subjected to rape.

As the months pass, his loneliness and frustration lead to despair. He thinks of suicide, and how easy it would be to use his pistol.  He thinks his life is half over, and that there may never be an end to this misery.  He realises that the best way to achieve escape is to commit one of the numerous offences which lead to expulsion from the army and a set term of punishment.  The diary breaks off abruptly after a year, which suggests that that’s what he does.

No more is heard of him until he dies aged only 41, at the front in Tula in World War II.

Author: Ivan Chistyakov
Title:The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard
Translated from the Russian by Arch Tait
Introduction by Irina Shcherbakova
Publisher: Granta Books 2016, 250 pages
First published in Russia in 2014 by Corpus Publishers
ISBN: 9781783782567
Source: Xmas gift from The Offspring

Availability: it appears to be out of print.


  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  2. Definitely not a light read, by the sound of it – but intriguing to hear from the guard’s point of view…


  3. This looks so wonderful, Lisa! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. Will add this book to my TBR. Loved the passages you have quoted. It is so amazing that this manuscript has survived!


    • It’s astonishing. I hope someone is writing the novel of how it came to be hidden for over half a century and then came to light.


      • Yes, so unbelievable, Lisa! I would love to read that novel if it is written!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. […] Karen at Booker Talk has done it here (and #It’sACompliment I’ve copied her format)and Kate from Books are my Favourite and Best has done it here but *sigh* as usual I couldn’t think of anything until I realised that I had already done it, quite by accident in my review of The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard.  […]


  5. […] Karen at Booker Talk has done it here (and #It’sACompliment I’ve copied her format)and Kate from Books are my Favourite and Best has done it here but *sigh* as usual I couldn’t think of anything until I realised that I had already done it, quite by accident in my review of The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard.  […]


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