In the Gulag

Kolyma Tales.
by Varlam Shalamov.
Translated by John Glad. Norton. 222 pp. $4.95 (paper).

by Varlam Shalamov.
Translated by John Glad. Norton. 287 pp. $14.95.

To all appearances, the man who died last January in the obscurity of a Moscow old-age home was a minor Russian poet. At seventy-five, Varlam Shalamov had four modest volumes of verse to his credit, some essays, and, as is common in the USSR among impecunious literati trying to make ends meet, a few translations from an incongruous assortment of languages, including Kazakh, Chuvash, Bulgarian, and Yiddish. (An ethnic Russian, he probably had put them together with the help of interlinear renditions, a normal Soviet practice.) A brief article in the Soviet Literary Encyclopedia printed in 1975 notes also that Varlam Shalamov had begun to publish over four decades earlier and casually mentions that he had been wrongly arrested in 1937, and released in due time (whenever that was) for lack of evidence.

The casual aside is important, for it alone hints at what is nowhere stated openly in the meager literature dealing with Shalamov’s work that has appeared over the years in the USSR. The truth is that Shalamov’s original and translated verse is incidental, as are his other writings brought out by Soviet publishers. His fame rests, instead, on scores of short stories about Soviet prisons and labor camps where he was an inmate, with some interruptions, for an incredibly long period stretching from the late 1920’s to the mid-1950’s.

A full list of his alleged crimes may not matter now, since these were, in any case, subsequently found to lack substance. One “criminal” transgression, however, is both real and grotesque enough to warrant mention for the sake of the historical record. In 1943, while war against Nazi Germany was at its height, Shalamov was sentenced to an additional ten years of confinement for asserting that Ivan Bunin, the Nobel Prize-winning Russian author then living in France, was a classic of Russian literature. Now that Bunin is dead, such claims are routinely asserted in the Soviet Union—while much of Shalamov’s own work is still deemed subversive. Unacceptable to official publishers, it has been relegated to samizdat.

Varlam Shalamov’s stories of Kolyma, a region in northeastern Siberia where, in Robert Conquest’s estimate, over the years between two and three million people died in Soviet camps, had been known in dissident circles in the USSR for some time before finally reaching the West. Several of his tales came out in German fifteen years ago, and shortly thereafter a French edition appeared, a translation of the German text, with the author’s name misspelled. Incredibly, it is misspelled again (as Shalamav) on the jacket of the second of the two volumes recently brought out in this country; the first, one is happy to report, is already available in paperback. Both contain a representative selection of Shalamov’s prose. John Glad’s English rendition reads well, no mean feat considering the idiosyncratic Russian spoken by the author’s cast of prisoners and jailers.



Inevitably, writing of this kind elicits questions of an extra-literary nature. One of these, understandably, has to do with the authenticity of Shalamov’s portrayal of the Soviet universe of prisons and camps. On that score, there should be no doubts. Shalamov’s reliability as an eyewitness is attested by no less an authority than Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who in The Gulag Archipelago (a book on which he had invited Shalamov to collaborate) actually defers to Shalamov as a chronicler of the Soviet penal inferno. Writing in his own now classic study of the subject, Solzhenitsyn states:

Shalamov’s camp experience was more bitter and longer than mine, and I acknowledge with esteem that it fell to him rather than to me to plumb those depths of beastliness and despair to which the whole camp way of life was dragging us all down.

There are scattered references to Dostoevsky in Shalamov’s stories. These are meant to draw the reader’s attention to the drastic changes for the worse that have taken place in Siberia’s prisons in the century that ensued since Dostoevsky’s eyewitness account of them, one of the first ever by a major writer. (Dostoevsky’s account actually evoked some grumbling from the imperial Russian censorship for suggesting that criminals were being coddled in Siberia. By contrast, before Stalin’s death, officially inspired Soviet writing, on the rare occasions when it referred to the subject at all, emphasized the supposed humaneness in the treatment of prisoners. Nikolai Pogodin’s play, The Aristocrats, which is set in the Gulag, is a comedy. The Soviet Theatrical Encyclopedia describes it as dealing with “the subject of labor that transforms human beings and enriches them spiritually.”)

It is not Dostoevsky, however, but Chekhov who comes to the, mind of the reader of Shalamov. His best stories reflect the master’s literary attributes of restraint, understatement, description without explanation, and scrupulous avoidance of preachiness. These combine to convey a sense of the matter-of-factness of horror—which is something quite different from the “banality of evil,” an unfortunate and misleading phrase invoked by the late Hannah Arendt to explain the moral meaning of participation in the Nazi program of genocide. Thus, we read in one tale: “The orderly was happy that the man died in the morning, and not in the evening, since the orderly got the dead man’s ration for the day. Everyone realized this.” A similar effect is produced in another story:

In the package was an official document with a request to show convict Frisorger (crime, sentence) his daughter’s declaration. A copy of the declaration was enclosed. In it she wrote briefly and simply that she was convinced her father was an enemy of the people and that she renounced him and requested that her relationship to him be regarded as nonexistent.

Hunger, disease, heavy labor, sub-Arctic cold, intimidation, and terror practiced not merely by the camp guards but also by their unwitting allies, the common criminals, ultimately reduce camp inmates to a level that is even lower than constant pain. That state is one of permanent lethargy, physical and mental alike:

We understood that death was no worse than life, and we feared neither. We were overwhelmed by indifference. We knew that it was in our power to end this life the very next day and now and again we made that decision, but each time life’s trivia would interfere with our plans. Today, they would promise an extra kilo of bread as a reward for good work, and it would be simply foolish to commit suicide on such a day. The following time the orderly of the next barracks would promise a smoke to pay back an old debt. . . . We were disciplined and obedient to our superiors. We understood that truth and falsehood were sisters and that there were thousands of truths in the world. We considered ourselves virtual saints, since we had redeemed all our sins by our years in the camp.

A numbness of sorts pervades the tales as a whole, as if the accumulation of horrors could not be related or understood except under very heavy sedation. In Andrei Sinyavsky’s apt characterization of Varlam Shalamov: “He writes as if he were dead.”

Many of Shalamov’s readers will, no doubt, attempt to draw comparisons between the hell of the Gulag and that of the Holocaust. Understandable though the impulse may be, it is, when all is said and done, pointless. One detail, however, must not be allowed to escape attention. In contrast to West Germany after Hitler, no open trials of those responsible for the nightmare of the Gulag have ever been held in the USSR, and not all of the camps have disappeared in the wake of Stalin’s death, thirty years ago.

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