The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard | Granta

  • Published: 02/11/2017
  • ISBN: 9781783782574
  • 128x20mm
  • 288 pages

The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard

Ivan Chistyakov

Translated by Arch Tait

In the archives of the Memorial International Human Rights Centre in Moscow is an extraordinary diary, a rare first-person testimony of a commander of guards in a Soviet labour camp.

Ivan Chistyakov was sent to the Gulag in 1937, where he worked at the Baikal-Amur Corrective Labour Camp for over a year. Life at the Gulag was anathema to Chistyakov, a cultured Muscovite with a nostalgia for pre-revolutionary Russia, and an amateur painter and poet. He recorded its horrors with an unmatchable immediacy, documenting a world where petty rivalries put lives at risk, prisoners hacked off their fingers to bet in card games, railway sleepers were burned for firewood and Siberian winds froze the lather on the soap.

From his stumbling poetic musings on the bitter landscape to his matter-of-fact grumbles about his stove, from accounts of the conditions of the camp to reflections on the cruelty of loneliness, this diary is unique – a visceral and immediate description of a place and time whose repercussions still affect the shape of modern Russia.

A rare and fascinating insight into the Soviet camp system, and a reminder that the imprisoned weren't its only victims

Anna Reid, author, Leningrad

The diary of Ivan Chistyakov is unique - a narrative of the brutal conditions in Stalin's Gulag, told from the point of view of one of the captors... Told with a telling eye for detail, the diary is a crushingly bleak portrait of casual violence, unfulfillable quotas, endless fights and escape attempts, inefficiency and injustice - all played out against the deadly dark and cold of a Siberian winter... Perhaps the most chilling psychological insight offered by the diary is the portrait of a humane man conforming to an inhuman system... There is no redemption in The Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard - only a portrait of the banality of evil, and the part that the daily compromises made by a single broken man, play in a vast machine of terror

Owen Matthews, Spectator

Written in a beautiful, educated hand [...] these notebooks are, so far, unique in confirming the insight of the gulag inmate Varlam Shalamov: that the system dehumanised the guards as much as the prisoners

Donald Rayfield, Literary Review

The Author

Ivan Chistyakov was a Muscovite who was expelled from the Communist Party during on the the purges of the late 1920s and early 1930s. He commanded an armed guard unit on a section of BAM, the Baikal-Amur Railway, which was built by forced labour. He was killed in 1941.

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The Translator

Arch Tait ( has translated 30 books from Russian, and short stories and essays by many of today’s leading Russian writers. His translation of Anna Politkovskaya’s Putin’s Russia was awarded the inaugural PEN Literature in Translation prize in 2010. Most recently, he has translated Mikhail Gorbachev’s The New Russia (2016).

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Ivan Chistyakov on

Essays & Memoir | Granta 137

Diary of a Gulag Prison Guard

Ivan Chistyakov

‘Freedom, even with hunger and cold, is still precious and irreplaceable.’