Monday, October 10, 2011

Shalamov and Kolyma

I'm rereading Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma Tales.
I first encountered Shalamov's work a little over ten years ago.  As the translator John Glad notes in his Foreword,
"If you are about to read the stories of Varlam Shalamov for the first time, you are a person to be envied, a person whose life is about to be changed, a person who will envy others once you yourself have forded these waters." (ix)
He's not exaggerating.  As Glad observes, it is difficult to know how many people actually died in Soviet forced labor camps from the mid-1930's until Stalin's death in 1953, but a "preliminary estimate" offered by historian Dmitry Volkogonov in April of 1990 suggested that approximately 22.5 million people had been murdered or imprisoned in the Soviet gulags (x).

"Gulag" stands for "Glavnoe upravlenie ispravitel’no-trudovykh lagerei" or "Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps" and its existence spawned a genre specific to Russia and the Soviet Union--gulag literature--the best-known examples of which are Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago (although some would argue that Dostoevsky's Notes from the House of the Dead can also qualify).

The website, offers an online exhibit and resources designed to encompass the multi-faceted experiences of gulag prisoners.  In particular, there is an online exhibit devoted to "Stalin's Gulag" that describes the general conditions of the gulags under Stalin, and focuses specifically on Kolyma itself.

There is also a 60-page curriculum unit available as a PDF-file courtesy of Harvard University's National Resource Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies (NRC).

Kolyma is so remote that it cannot be reached over land: prisoners would be transported by train to transit camps in Siberian port cities where they would wait for the frozen waterways to thaw enough so that they could be shipped to Kolyma itself.

Varlam Shalamov spent a little over fifteen years in various Soviet gulags in and around Kolyma and Magadan.  With regard to his writing, the website devoted to Shalamov's life and work quotes him as saying,
“My writing is no more about camps that St-Exupéry's is about the sky or Melville's, about the sea. My stories are basically advice to an individual on how to act in a crowd... [To be] not just further to the left than the left, but also more real than reality itself. For blood to be true and nameless.”
In his description of what he saw and learned at Kolyma, Shalamov includes this observation, "a writer must be a stranger — in the subjects he describes. And if he knows the matter well — he will write in such a way that no one would understand him."

I think this is an excellent description of his own work: the Kolyma Tales are typically told with a kind of distance from the subject matter that seems unusual, given the extreme nature of the stories themselves and the fact that they are a blend of both fact and fiction.  Not exclusively autobiographical, they nevertheless use fiction in the service of gruesome historical fact.

And, in a way, because he knows his subject all-too-well, Shalamov writes in a way that reminds readers of what we can never know or understand about what he is telling us.  An otherwise neutral account of seemingly trivial details of prison life, told with indifference, is often shockingly and brutally interrupted by an incident of senseless violence.

And then the indifference and the neutrality resume, as if nothing has happened.  As Shalamov notes, in the camps, he "learned that one can live on indifference."

It is not possible to read Shalamov's work with indifference.

"Kolyma. 1931-1955. A tin and uranium ore mine, Butugychag mountain, south-west Kolyma, the end of the 1940s"
Photo by Tomasz Kizny, all rights reserved by Tomasz Kizny Collection. 
"Gulag Exhibition"


  1. I read Kolyma Tales a couple of months ago. Pretty amazing stuff.

  2. I agree (obviously!). I've read that the translation doesn't do justice to the original--but then, it never does...

  3. Have you seen the movie "Lenin's will" depicting Shalamov's life?

    1. I haven't--I will definitely look for it! Thank you for the suggestion.

  4. This movie is called in Russian "Завещание Ленина". Made in 2007. Lenght is about 9 hours. You may find it in online cinemas. I don't know if there is an english translation. Besides, there is a russian movie based upon his story 'The Last Battle of Major Pugachov', under the same title.

  5. Great! Thank you so much for the information--I will look for it!


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