The newly-translated Kolyma Stories describe the unreal cruelty of Soviet labour campsby Tom Ball / September 27, 2018 / Leave a comment
Communism is in vogue again. Since all but vanishing from Britain’s political landscape in the 1990s, signs of resurgent support for Marxist-Leninism are now once again clearly manifest in young leftist circles.
Like everything else, politics is subject to the ebb and flow of fashion, and it isn’t a surprise that the teachings of the German economist and his Russian modifiers have been taken up by a new generation. More surprising, perhaps, was a series of tweets about the Gulag put out a couple of weeks ago by Goldsmiths University’s LGBTQ+ society in which they described the labour camps as “actually a compassionate, non-violent course of action.” Estimates vary, but most put the total number of gulag deaths at around one and a half million.
The tweets were deleted and the society quickly disbanded. But all the same the episode demonstrates our propensity to forget, and to wilfully forget.
The years Varlam Shalamov experienced in the Gulag, recorded in the short stories known as the Kolyma Stories, now translated for the first time in their entirety by Donald Rayfield in two volumes by NYRB books, help us to remember. Like millions of other independent-minded individuals living through the early decades of the Soviet Union, Shalamov’s life was systematically dismantled by Stalin’s regime. In 1929 he was arrested for counter-revolutionary activities and sentenced for the first of two stints that would see him incarcerated in the Gulag for 17 years, the worst of which were spent in Kolyma, an inhospitable region of the Russian far east.
Shalamov spent six years here mining for gold in temperatures that reached as low as minus 55, subsisting on a died of breadcrumbs and thin gruel. That he survived so long in Kolyma, where a third of the prisoner population died each year, is extraordinary. When finally released in 1954 he returned to Moscow, and set about turning his experiences and those of other inmates into literary form, producing six books of short stories that would come to be known as the Kolyma Stories.
Blurring the borders between autobiography and fiction, the tales detail the hardships of camp life: the daily beatings, lice-ridden clothing, and the deep chill of the Arctic circle in which, as a character in one story tells us, “hair froze to the pillow in the night.” The relentless suffering…