The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard

Written by Ivan Chistyakov
Review by Laura Shepperson

The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard is a faithful translation of the diary kept by Ivan Chistyakov, a Russian gulag prison guard for a year in the mid-1930s. Chistyakov records both his admiration of the beauty of the natural surroundings, and his unfettered opinion about both his situation and his political superiors. It is not so much that Chistyakov is unafraid of retribution for his opinion, so much as he has resigned himself to it. He is almost certain, he believes, to be arrested once his year at the gulag is complete. The effect of this belief (which proved to be true) is to muddy the distinction between prisoner and guard. Chistyakov writes, sketches, and even visits the local theatre. But he is freezing, he has neither proper provisions nor lodging, and he desperately wants to return to his beloved Moscow.

Chistyakov’s repeated gripes do become monotonous, and he lacks sympathy for the actual prisoners. I would recommend this book to experts and to aficionados of the period, but its real value will be its use as an original source for other examinations of the era, to add texture and a viewpoint that would otherwise go unrecorded.