Catherine Brown

Tales from the Gulag

Kolyma Stories: Volume One


New York Review Books 741pp £14.99 order from our bookshop

This collection of stories forms a Gulag memoir to rival Solzhenitsyn’s, as Solzhenitsyn himself acknowledged. Between 1954 and 1973, after fifteen years spent mainly in the camps of the Kolyma region of northeast Siberia, Varlam Shalamov (1907–82) poured out stories that – once the Khrushchev thaw was halted – he knew might never be published.

In 1968 Kolyma Stories was leaked to the West and in 1980 it appeared in an English translation by John Glad. The publication of this book and a forthcoming companion will more than double the amount of Shalamov’s work available in English. Donald Rayfield’s translation is clear, idiomatic and sound, though no translator could hope to render exactly the roughness of Russian criminal slang into English. Anglophone readers can now catch up with Russian children, who have studied Shalamov’s stories since they were released during perestroika in 1988. Russia’s attempt to come to terms with its past may still have a way to go, but the inclusion of Shalamov’s work on the national curriculum is at least a good sign.

Shalamov’s stories are fictional in that the narrator knows what the other characters are thinking and the stories are artistically shaped. But what is being shaped, we are led to believe, are memories. The stories don’t appear in the order of composition and there is no narrative chronology structuring the volume. The effect is to disorientate. Readers have no more power to predict where the next story is going to take them than the prisoners had to determine their fates. Characters come and go: like Shalamov, we might never see them again. There is no grand narrative: history is not happening; we read as Shalamov lived, from one episode to the next. Few stories are longer than ten pages, so we never get to feel at home in them. Yet the scale is huge: the country, the range of temperatures, the length of prison sentences and of the book itself.

The first story, ‘Trampling the Snow’, throws us into virgin snow and an explanation of how one tramples it down. Over the following stories we get to know our way around a little. We find out how to cook and how to disinfect clothes. We learn that rules vary: you can be shot for speaking, yet there are possibilities for considerable sociability. The ‘mainland’ (meaning the Soviet Union outside the Gulag) is a foreign country, where things are done differently; the Gulag retains the decimal system for counting days, long after the rest of the country has abandoned it. When the narrator is released, he successfully returns to Moscow and his waiting wife, but some of the camps’ volunteer workers refuse to return because they would be ‘worthless trash’ on the mainland, having been big fish in the camps. ‘The war’, when it is happening, feels distant: observations such as ‘The war was now in its second year’ are casually dropped into stories. Prisoners and guards arriving from the front line are, astonishingly, perceived as soft. ‘Party workers and the military are the first to fall apart and do so most easily,’ Shalamov noted in 1961 in ‘What I Saw and Understood in the Camps’, a list of reflections from the camps that is reproduced in Rayfield’s introduction.

Many of the stories, with Chekhovian matter-of-factness, merely relate the horrors (though not the very worst: torture, called ‘interrogation’, takes place off the narrative stage). But in others, Shalamov has the leisure to reflect. When he was younger, he used to say to himself, ‘Well, we’re not going to starve to death… And at the age of thirty I found myself in the situation of a man really starving to death, literally fighting over a piece of bread. And all that was before the war.’ His main conclusion is: ‘Nobody can get anything useful or necessary out of the camps, neither prisoner nor chief, neither the guards nor the casual witnesses, such as engineers, geologists, and doctors, neither the bosses nor their subordinates.’ Shalamov’s list of forty-five reflections includes ‘I realized that one can live on anger’ and ‘I realized that one can live on indifference.’ Random switches of fortune save many from suicide: ‘We understood that even the worst sort of life is made up of alternating joy and grief, good luck and bad, and there was no point feeling that the bad luck would outweigh the good’; people survive longer than horses mainly because they cling to life ‘more than any other animal’. In desperation, Shalamov tries to cripple himself by making a rock fall onto his leg to break it, but at the last moment he instinctively jerks his leg back: ‘So I realized that I was no more suited to self-harm than to suicide. All I could do now was wait for small disasters to alternate with small successes, until the big disaster ran its course.’

Most interesting are Shalamov’s observations on the categories of people most likely to survive. High up are the ‘gangsters’: organised and powerful common criminals who hold the camp administration partly to ransom. In ‘The Red Cross’, Shalamov describes how gangsters use cross-shaped knife slashes to kill those doctors who do not succumb to their threats by giving them unwarranted relief from work or periods in the sanatorium: ‘If the doctor had been bribed, that was bad, very bad. But if he had been intimidated, that could be excused, since the criminals’ threats were by no means empty.’ In describing the gangsters, Shalamov’s tone for once becomes moralistic: officers and guards ‘were coarse and cruel, the propagandist was a liar, the doctor had no conscience, but all that was trivial compared to the power of the criminal world to deprave others. The bosses, propagandist, and doctor were still human and there were very occasionally glimpses of something human in them. But the criminals were not human.’

Perhaps surprisingly, the most resilient of all are the religious. Point seven in his 1961 list is: ‘I saw that the only group of people able to preserve a minimum of humanity in conditions of starvation and abuse were the religious believers, the sectarians (almost all of them), and most priests.’ One story recounts how a bishop, stranded in an exiles’ village with two Zionists, two anarchists and two Socialist Revolutionaries, converts them all in two years.

The narrator’s final words, concluding the account of his return to Moscow, are ‘I had come back from hell.’ Even though Shalamov would end his days in a psychiatric institution in conditions of Gulag-like vileness, he in the meantime knew some joy, which contradicts the generalisation in one of the stories: ‘The intellectual becomes a permanently scared creature. His spirit is broken.’ On the train back from exile he feels ‘the constant happiness of freedom’, even as his bunk is vomited on by a drunk lieutenant. Above all he manages to remember. ‘I was frightened by that terrible human strength, the desire and ability to forget … When I realized this, I mastered myself. I knew that I wouldn’t let my memory wipe out all that I had seen.’ He didn’t, so we have this book. Like Shalamov, we are grateful for small mercies.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter