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 in nearly every story weighs so heavily on the reader that the stories, in spite of their brevity, can only be taken in a few at a time. They read like the landscapes in which they are set, with stark and repetitive descriptions, a minimum of colouration and an almost total lack of feeling and human warmth.
In the foreword to the Kolyma Stories, the author explains that only a radically new form of writing can describe the unreal experience of Gulag life: “The labour camp is a negative experience, a negative school, and the defilement of all—of the staff and the prisoners, of the security guards and the onlookers, the passersby and the readers of belle-lettres.” The tales take as their starting point a complete absence of meaning and moral sense. The days churn by and nothing progresses, with narrators scarcely able to compute the horror of their existence let alone pass judgment on it.
“We were in thrall to total indifference,” Shalamov writes in the story “Field Rations,” in which four prisoners decide how best to divvy up their dismal food allowance for a 10-day wood-chopping excursion. Freezing and starving, the inmates don’t have the energy to feel, only to survive. “We had no pride,” says the nameless narrator, “no self-esteem or self-respect, while jealousy or passion seemed to us to be something only Martians might feel.” By the end of the story, one of the four hangs himself from a tree they were supposed to fell. “We were very perturbed,” comments the narrator—but only for fear that they might not get the chance to rob the dead man of his pea jacket and quilted soft boots.
That there is no redemption or resolution here is surely one of the reasons why Shalamov never gained the widespread renown achieved by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whose own account of camp life in the novel A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich shocked the world after its publication in 1962. Whereas Solzhenitsyn’s title character was straight out of the 19th-century Russian novel, Shalamov’s shifting cast of desolate figures are far more modern creations, far less literary, far less comprehensible. Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan resembles a human being; Shalamov’s heroes have had the humanity beaten out of them.
The Kolyma Stories were not published in Russia until 1989. Some stories were published earlier in the west in the late 1960s and 1970s, but it is only now that the full corpus has been made available in English. Shalamov’s language, with the exception of some criminal slang terms, is plain, and Donald Rayfield’s major achievement lies far more in having assembled together all of the tales which number around 150, bringing to English-speaking audiences one of the greatest works of Russian prose from the last century.
Shalamov himself, however, is unlikely to ever be uncovered in the same way. There are very few records pertaining to his life. We do know he was a thorny and uncommunicative man, who seldom spoke about his time in the Gulag. He soured nearly all his closest relationships, falling out with Nadezhda Mandelshtam, wife of the poet Osip Mandelshtam who died in a Siberian transit camp, because he took against her literary celebrity. He fell out with Solzhenitsyn for similar reasons. He didn’t want to profit from writing about the Gulag. His writing was, instead, an attempt at regaining in some meaningful way the years that were robbed of him, to try to take back the life that history denied him.