frozen hell


In 1940, a 22-year-old Soviet engineer named Fyodor Mochulsky finished his studies and was offered a job by the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police, in the Gulag labour-camp system. He was a candidate member of the Communist Party and typical of the so-called Stalin Generation, born after 1917 and reared on Soviet propaganda. Educated, intelligent and extremely able as an engineer and manager, he was also typical in his belief that, however young he was, he was capable of taking on colossal responsibilities. Whatever his hopes for the future, a young man like this would not turn down such an offer from the Party. After all, it was just after the Great Terror, and Europe was already at war: even if a career in the Gulag was not ideal, the consequences of saying no to the Party could be fatal. Weeks later, Mochulsky and three young friends set out for Pechorlag, one of a vast chain of camps in the Komi region in the Arctic Circle, northeast of St Petersburg. Even for the privileged elite of the NKVD and Communist Party, the journey across the tundra by steamboat, horse, foot and ski was perilous. One can only imagine the hardships faced on such trips by prisoners, many of whom died along the way.

more from Simon Sebag Montefiore at Literary Review here.