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New Books in History
Here's something remarkable: at some point in the future, something you believe to be just fine will be utterly disdained by the greater part of humanity. For instance, it is at least imaginable that one day everyone will believe that zoos were [NB] profoundly immoral. The future will condemn us for imprisoning animals. The future will ask "How could they have done such a barbaric thing?" And the future, more than likely, will answer "Because they were evil." When looking into humanity's sordid past, we often say this sort of thing. Why did American slaveholders trade in human flesh? Because they were evil. Why did the Nazis persecute the Jews? Because they were evil. Why did the Khmer Rough murder countless innocent Cambodians? Because they were evil.
"Because they were evil," however, is not an explanation; it's an ethical judgment. It might make you feel morally superior; and indeed you might well be morally superior. But it will not help you comprehend anything. For if you really want to understand why seemingly ordinary people did what you feel are truly awful things, you have to listen to them explain why. In Gulag Boss: A Soviet Memoir (Oxford UP, 2010), Deborah Kaple gives us just this opportunity. She presents us with Fyodor Vasilevich Mochulsky--ordinary fellow, Communist Party member, and GULAG officer from 1940 to 1946.
Born in Belorussia after the Revolution, Mochulsky was raised on Bolshevik ideas. Not surprisingly, he believed in the project; he wanted to help create a bright future for humankind. So he trained as an engineer, because building socialism was all about building in those days. In 1940, Mochulsky was tapped by the NKVD (it ran the GULAG system) to build railroads north of the Arctic Circle. He thereby came to control the lives of a great number of what were essentially slave-laborers. He, of course, did not see them as such. To him, they were "enemies of the people" and had received their just (if somewhat harsh) reward. Under his direction, many of them suffered and died. This bothered him a bit, but not enough to question "the system." He thought it was basically sound, though perhaps in need of better implementation. And that is the way he saw his role: he was improving "the system" without ever asking whether "the system" itself was bankrupt. Of course, looking back on what he did (he wrote the memoir in the 1990s), he has regrets. But he had none at the time. Mochulsky believed in what he was doing, just the way you believe that it's fine to imprison animals.
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