Varlam Shalamov (1907-1982) was a Russian writer who was sent to the Gulags and lived to tell the tale. I read about this collection of tales on one of the blogs I read, but I forgot to note which one, and it took me so long to read the book on my kindle, (because I read it only in cafés and waiting rooms and sometimes sitting beside my sleeping father until he woke up) that now all I can do is to thank my anonymous source for the recommendation.
Kolyma Tales isn’t a very cheery choice for the festive season, but it’s surprisingly uplifting. The narrator tells his stories of everyday life in the Gulags, not as Solzhenitsyn did, piling on the harrowing misery as a political act which helped to raise awareness of the Soviet use of the Gulags as a system of repression, but with wry humour and a Chekhovian awareness of the vagaries of human nature. The foreword makes these differences explicit:
Where Solzhenitsyn constructs a single vast panorama, loose and sprawling, Shalamov chooses the most concise of literary forms, the short story, and shapes it consciously and carefully, so that his overall structure is like a mosaic made of tiny pieces. Where Solzhenitsyn writes with anger, sarcasm and bitterness, Shalamov adopts a studiedly dry and neutral tone. Where Solzhenitsyn plunges into his characters’ fates, telling their story from a variety of subjective viewpoints, Shalamov takes strict control of his discourse, usually conducting his narrative from an undivided viewpoint and aiming at complete objectivity. Where Solzhenitsyn is fiercely moralistic and preaches redemption through suffering, Shalamov contents himself with cool aphorisms and asserts that real suffering, such as Kolyma imposed on its inmates, can only demoralize and break the spirit.
As later, in a story called ‘Sententious”, the narrator says:
Little flesh was left on my bones, just enough for bitterness – the last human emotion; it was closer to the bone. (Loc 3771)
The narrator has no illusions about the prospects for his own survival. The foreword also tells us that
With headquarters in the city of Magadan, Far Northern controlled all of Kolyma, an enormous natural prison bounded by the Pacific on the east, the Arctic Circle on the north and impassable mountains on the third side of the triangle.
and conditions were brutal:
[a] preliminary estimate of the total number of ‘repressed persons’ (those imprisoned and/or murdered): 22.5 million. The estimates of some non-Soviet historians run considerably higher. If we speak only of Kolyma, there is a 1949 estimate by the Polish historian Kazimierz Zamorski of 3 million people exiled there, not more than 500,000 of whom supposedly survived. In 1978 Robert Conquest estimated that 3 million people met their deaths in Kolyma, certainly not fewer than 2 million. It is hard to grasp such figures.
But it is the narrator’s fatalism that brings meaning to these facts. He knows that his survival is a matter of luck, and that the other prisoners all know it too. In a story called ‘Dry Rations’ a wealth of characters are all vivid and memorable, but friendship is alien to this life:
Friendship is not born in conditions of need or trouble. Literary fairy tales tell of ‘difficult’ conditions which are an essential element in forming any friendship, but such conditions are simply not difficult enough. If tragedy and need brought people together and gave birth to their friendship, then the need was not extreme and the tragedy not great. Tragedy is not deep and sharp if it can be shared with friends. Only real need can determine one’s spiritual and physical strength and set the limits of one’s physical endurance and moral courage. We all understood that we could survive only through luck. (Loc 788)
So while there is a grim kind of solidarity, there is no prospect of any help from anyone else, because it’s every man for himself. Death is an everyday occurrence and to be accepted pragmatically, especially if it offers the opportunity to scavenge some much needed boots or an extra crust of bread. Nevertheless, there is a sort of social code, and in ‘Committees for the Poor’ the reader learns that:
Prison ostracism is a weapon in the war of nerves. And God help the man who has had to endure the demonstrated contempt of his fellow inmates. (Loc 2875)
There are three commandments of prison life: ‘Don’t believe, don’t fear, don’t ask.’ (‘An Individual Assignment’, Loc 524) The consequences for breaking these rules remind me of Holocaust literature where survival could be contingent (but only to some extent) on keeping under the radar of capricious guards who had ceased to regard their captives as human.
Yet there is humour. The arrival of an American bulldozer under Lend-Lease doesn’t suggest that there will be any reprieve from the hated work of hauling logs, because the prisoners will just be forced to do something else degrading and contemptible. But it does offer other opportunities:
In their hunger, they claimed the machine grease was butter sent by Lend-Lease and there remained less than half a barrel by the time a sentry was sent to guard it and the camp administration drove off the crowd of starving, exhausted men with rifle-shots. The fortunate ones gulped down this Lend-Lease butter, not believing it was simply machine grease. After all, the healing American bread was also tasteless and also had that same metallic flavor. And everyone who had been lucky enough to touch the grease licked his fingers hours later, gulping down the minutest amounts of the foreign joy that tasted like young stone. After all, a stone is not born a stone, but a soft oily creature. A creature, and not a thing. A stone becomes a thing in old age. Young wet limestone tuffs in the mountains enchanted the eyes of escaped convicts and workers from the geological surveys. A man had to exert his will to tear himself away from these honeyed shores, these milky rivers of flowing young stone. But that was a mountain, a valley, stone; and this was a delivery from Lend-Lease, the creation of human hands. Nothing terrible happened to those who had dipped their hands into the barrel. Trained in Kolyma, stomach and bowels proved themselves capable of coping with machine grease. A sentry was placed to guard the remainder, for this was food for machines – creatures infinitely more important to the state than people. (Loc 3692)
I don’t remember any mention of women in Solzhenitsyn’s books, (but it’s a very long time since I read them so correct me if I’m wrong). But in ‘The Green Procurator’, Shalamov is explicit about the exploitative Soviet attitude to women that had led to mass rape during the occupation of Berlin:
Several months passed, and Krivoshei’s wife arrived in Kharkov. She had not come to visit him, but had followed her husband, duplicating the feat of the Decembrists’ wives. Krivoshei’s wife was neither the first nor the last of such ‘Russian heroines’. These wives had to resign themselves both to the cold and to the constant torment of following their husbands, who were transferred periodically from place to place. The wife would have to abandon the job she had found with such difficulty and move to an area where it was dangerous for a woman to travel alone, where she might be subject to rape, robbery, mockery… Even without such journeys, however, none of these female martyrs could escape the crude sexual demands of the camp authorities, from the highest camp director to the guards who had already had a taste of life in Kolyma.
All women without exception were asked to join the drunken bachelor parties. Female convicts were simply commanded to: ‘Undress and lie down!’ They were infected with syphilis without any romancing or poems from Pushkin or Shakespeare. Treatment of convicts’ wives was even freer, since they were considered legally independent persons, there was no article in the criminal code to protect them. If a camp supervisor were to rape a female convict, he always risked being informed upon by a friend or a competitor, a subordinate or a superior.
Worst of all – the whole colossal journey was meaningless, since the poor women were not permitted to visit their husbands. A promise to permit such a visit was always a weapon in the hands of a potential seducer. (Loc 4611-20)
Grim as these tales are, they are a testament to the human spirit – because Shalamov survived to write them without bitterness and despair. He was released in the post-Stalin Khrushchev thaw after 14 years, and allowed to return to Moscow in 1956 although his family refused to acknowledge him, no doubt out of fears for their own safety. Although Kolyma Tales had to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union, he was allowed to work as a journalist and also wrote poetry which was praised by Boris Pasternak.
It’s a long book at 508 pages, but well worth reading.
Author: Varlam Shalamov
Title: Kolyma Tales
Translated by John Glad
Publisher: Penguin Books, 1994, see note below about its initial publication history.
Personal copy, purchased from Amazon $14.99
The original manuscript of Kolyma Tales was taken to the United States in 1966. Individual tales were published in the New Review between 1970 and 1976. The Russian version appeared in print only in 1978 by Overseas Publications Interchange Ltd in London. They could only be printed with a note claiming that they were being published without the author’s consent in order to protect Shalamov. In 1980, John Glad had Kolyma Tales published from his own translations, which featured a selection of the stories. The follow-up book, Graphite, offers further stories from Kolyma Tales. (See Wikipedia).
The book first appeared in the Soviet Union in 1989 and it was bought in bulk by queues of Soviet people.
Available from Fishpond for only $18.90 (Kolyma Tales) and I wish I’d bought it as a proper book instead.