Frost­bite, star­va­tion and end­less vi­o­lence

Var­lam Sha­la­mov’s re­mark­able col­lec­tion of short sto­ries de­tails the de­gre­da­tion and bru­tal­ity he ex­pe­ri­enced daily for 15 years as a po­lit­i­cal pris­oner in the Soviet prison gu­lag of Kolyma in Siberia

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and freed in 1951. Ini­tially he worked in the gold and coal mines and on con­struc­tion projects. He owed his sur­vival to hav­ing been se­lected for work as med­i­cal as­sis­tant in an in­fir­mary.

“Ev­ery story of mine is a slap in the face of Stal­in­ism,” Sha­la­mov wrote. “A slap in the face must be short, res­o­nant.” He dis­missed the novel form, con­sid­er­ing elab­o­rate nar­ra­tives to be aes­theti­cised de­cep­tions, un­fit for the task of re­lay­ing a re­al­ity ear­lier gen­er­a­tions of writ­ers could never have imag­ined.

Sha­la­mov’s sto­ries of­fer no hope. There are no he­roes in a world where it was all you could do not to steal your starv­ing fel­low pris­oner’s bread ra­tion, or not de­nounce him in the hope of im­prov­ing your own chances of sur­vival. There is no glim­mer of a redemp­tive moral mes­sage, such as we find in Solzhen­it­syn. Sha­la­mov de­scribes a world of labour, frost­bite, star­va­tion and per­pet­ual vi­o­lence. But he does it from within a moral and lit­er­ary tra­di­tion that pre­cedes Stal­in­ism and his hope was to con­nect, how­ever pre­car­i­ously, with an ear­lier, more hu­mane era.

Sha­la­mov wrote in a let­ter to Nadezhda Man­del­stam: “The link be­tween eras, be­tween cul­tures has been bro­ken; the ex­change has been in­ter­rupted and our mis­sion is to pick up the ends of the string and tie them back to­gether.”

Sha­la­mov’s de­scrip­tions of Kolyma are su­per­fi­cially repet­i­tive, but each tale man­ages to be unique and rev­e­la­tory. He saw him­self as the ul­ti­mate out­sider: “My writ­ing is no more about the camps than St Ex­u­pery’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.” And yet, his ac­counts are never di­dac­tic. Whatever the au­thor’s protes­ta­tions that he is not writ­ing “about” the camps, the sto­ries create a com­plete mo­saic of the world of the con­demned and be­yond that of the so­ci­ety which en­slaved them.

His sto­ries can be so fac­tual they read like es­says and his es­says some­times evolve into sto­ries. Some of his nar­ra­tives are mere sketches or prose-po­ems – Sha­la­mov was also a poet, and there are in­di­ca­tions he val­ued his po­etry above his prose. His tone is re­strained, the style de­tached, but by his own ac­count he com­posed in a frenzy, weep­ing and rag­ing, de­claim­ing the words aloud. He per­formed this labour with­out the prospect of pub­li­ca­tion. Even af­ter the death of Stalin in 1953, the sub­ject of the camps was taboo. Pub­lic dis­cus­sion of the Gu­lag would have meant ac­knowl­edg­ing the ut­ter fail­ure of the revo­lu­tion. Sha­la­mov’s sto­ries were pub­lished posthu­mously in Rus­sia only in 1987.

This vol­ume, Sketches of the Crim­i­nal World, com­prises a col­lec­tion of es­says of the same ti­tle and Sha­la­mov’s last two col­lec­tions of sto­ries. The open­ing es­say, What Fic­tion Writ­ers Get Wrong, be­gins: “Fic­tion writ­ers have al­ways rep­re­sented the crim­i­nal world sym­pa­thet­i­cally, some­times syco­phan­ti­cally. De­ceived by cheap and tawdry ideas, it has given the world of thieves a ro­man­tic aura. Fic­tion writ­ers have been un­able to see through the aura to the ac­tual re­volt­ing re­al­ity of that world.”

Sha­la­mov de­scribes how vi­o­lent crim­i­nals and po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers were en­slaved to­gether, with the crim­i­nals in charge. The or­di­nary pris­on­ers were de­fence­less against the depre­da­tions of these or­gan­ised gangs, who stole their food and cloth­ing, and raped and mur­dered with im­punity. This sub-cul­ture (or cul­ture of sub­hu­mans, as Sha­la­mov would have it) was used by the state to ter­rorise those it con­sid­ered po­lit­i­cally un­re­li­able el­e­ments, and in some cases to ex­ter­mi­nate them. The per­se­cu­tion of pris­on­ers by pris­on­ers was in­sti­tu­tion­alised in the Gu­lag.

Sha­la­mov is such a pow­er­ful and con­sis­tent writer that you can ap­proach his work at ran­dom, from any point. Each piece is a cold, glit­ter­ing frag­ment of the mo­saic. For those who pre­fer to start at the be­gin­ning, Kolyma Sto­ries (com­pris­ing Sha­la­mov’s first three col­lec­tions, in a sin­gle vol­ume) was pub­lished by NYRB in 2019. A very good se­lec­tion of ear­lier sto­ries is also avail­able from Pen­guin as Kolyma Tales, trans­lated by John Glad.

Trou­ble by Philip Ó Ceal­laigh is due out in Septem­ber. Vik­ing will pub­lish his trans­la­tion of Women by Mi­hail Se­bas­tian in April.

A sketch by Rus­sian artist Nadezhda Borovaya, who spent seven years in one of Stalin’s Siberian gu­lags.

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