While he won’t have time at the moment, Russia’s Vladimir Putin might profit from flicking through ‘The Day Will Pass Away: The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard 1935-1936’ by Ivan Chistyakov and published by Pegasus Books.
He might pause on the passage on page 38:
“27 December 1935. Commissioner Morozov [Frost in Russian] from the Third Section: what can he actually do, what guidance is he supposed to offer, when he doesn’t have a clue about the situation or the measures we have already taken, when he doesn’t know that we have already tried everything, we’re not our own enemies, and we’re not trying to get ourselves awarded fatigue details or arrested. All they do is swear at us, punish us: the commissioner, the political adviser, the company commander, the head of the Third Section. That’s all any of them can do. Who is there to advise, support and explain? Nobody. Just get on with your job!”
The ring is familiar to anyone who has been in a bureaucratic hierarchy under impossible pressures.
Which brings out the importance of the degree of choice in any system.
Not that there was very much of that in Chistyakov’s case. In the summer, he was a Muscovite technician, unconscripted, catching the tram to work and going to concerts.
By Christmas time, he was working in 50 degrees of frost, sleeping in all his clothes and dreaming that the bathhouse might get fixed. As a prison guard officer, he was well up the hierarchy.
His diary entries suggest that his incentive to do his job (or be seen to do it) was the implicit threat that he might drop down to join the zeks. Their incentive – also effective – was a sliding scale of daily bread ration, from 2 kg to 100 grams.
You might suspect that keeping a diary was a sign that he wasn’t cut out for the job. In any event he was ‘repressed’ a year later and presumably joined the prison population. In 1941, he died at the front near the town of Tula, not far from his beloved Moscow.
Now Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’s version of the system has come a long way in the last eighty years and we can comfortably assure ourselves that its brutality is substantially mitigated. It is unquestionably less bad.
But strip away the material improvements and the essentials look pretty similar.
That is important for understanding what is happening in Ukraine right now.
Putin acquired power by offering Russians more attractive choices than others. But they look less attractive now – particularly for the soldiers called upon to fight and perhaps die on Chistyakov’s battlefields of eighty years ago.
The choices for military age Ukrainian men might not seem terribly good to us, but they have better and more honourable choices than Russians. And so far that seems to march with a greater willingness to fight.
The latest reports from well-informed observers like the Institute for the Study of War suggest that the Russian military is regrouping and using its weight of materiel to grind out a solution in the east. Enough to avoid toppling the structure of choices which Putin has been erecting since his presidential inauguration on 7 May 2000.
An embarrassment of choices too for us in the west. Many of them hard. Whether to give Ukrainian fighting men the equipment they need to win – or just to survive? Whether to continue to pay record prices for Russian carbon? Whether it is realistic to tell voters that the costs are all going to be carried by multinational companies? Whether it is in our interests to aim for a stalemate that minimises our own short-term financial damage?
Or even whether to try to help change the choices available to today’s Ivan Chistyakovs.