Why did I love this book?
I love this book because it “names names.” It is a tragic recounting of the sending of petty criminals combined with a mostly random rounding up of innocent “undesirables” off the street by the police in the USSR in 1934 who are then shipped to exile in Siberia where they were expected to work for the good of the Soviet state. In a matter of months thousands of them died from maltreatment, exposure, and starvation. The book traces the chain of events from inspiration by head of the Gulag Berman and chief of the secret police Iagoda all the way down the chain of command of the Party and police officials to the man responsible for stranding the people on a river island in Siberia. The book gives a glimpse into the nature of the repressive organs and mentality of the Soviet state in a way that humanizes the experience by showing the predicament many of the authorities found themselves in. The “cogs in the wheel” who had to transport, feed, care for, and guard the prisoners were not necessarily cruel and unfeeling people but mostly found themselves in machine that demanded obedience and left them with few or even no options. In some ways it can be viewed as analogous to Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, in that evils act are sometimes perpetrated by not so obviously evil people.