Kolyma Stories: Volume One by Varlam Shalamov, translated from the Russian and with an introduction by Donald Rayfield. New York Review Books,
741 pp., $22.95 (paper)
By the end of the twentieth century, nearly every country in Western Europe that had experienced Nazi occupation had undergone a reckoning with the painful topic of collaboration, including in the Holocaust. This process encountered resistance. But its replication across most of what then constituted the European Union testified to the emergence of a shared awareness, at least among elites. Separate national narratives of victimhood at the hands of Nazi occupiers were yielding to a supranational history of collective moral responsibility.
In 2000, two dozen European countries issued the Stockholm Declaration, pronouncing the Holocaust “unprecedented” and an assault on “the foundations of civilization.” Two years later, the Council of Europe designated January 27—the date of Auschwitz’s liberation (by the Soviet army, which went unmentioned)—as the “Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust and for the Prevention of Crimes Against Humanity.” “The Holocaust,” according to the council, “is a European heritage which has common roots in the European nations.” Citing an expansive list of victims—“Jews, Roma, Resistance members, politicians, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, disabled persons”— it declared the Holocaust “a paradigm for every kind of human rights violation and crime against humanity.” This was the new credo that future members of the European Union were expected to adopt as their own. “Holocaust recognition,” as the historian Tony Judt put it, “is our contemporary European entry ticket.”
New member states from the former Soviet bloc didn’t quite see things this way. One of the first objections came from the foreign minister of Latvia, Sandra Kalniete, who was born in 1952 in Siberia after her parents and grandparents had been deported along with roughly 200,000 other residents of the recently annexed Baltic states—or as Soviet authorities called them at the time, “kulaks and their families, the families of bandits and nationalists.” A third of the deportees wound up in the slave labor camps of the Gulag. “Behind the Iron Curtain,” Kalniete declared,
the Soviet regime continued to commit genocide against the peoples of Eastern Europe and, indeed, against its own people.
For 50 years the history of Europe was written without the participation of these victims of genocide . . . . It is only since the collapse of the Iron Curtain that researchers have been able to access archived documents and the life stories of the victims. These confirm the truth that the two totalitarian regimes—Nazism and Communism—were equally criminal.
Without mentioning Hitler’s genocide against European Jewry, Kalniete—three of whose grandparents perished in Siberian exile—took it as the template for understanding what Stalin did to various targeted groups within the Soviet sphere. Today, in Riga’s Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, Vilnius’s Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights, Budapest’s House of Terror, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the Gulag has become an anchor of historical memory.
As in postwar Western Europe a half-century ago, so in today’s postCommunist Eastern Europe the prevailing narratives are of national innocence and victimization by foreign powers. The Iron Curtain has crumbled, but Europe’s division has been reborn in the form of two antagonistic cultures of memory in which the Holocaust and the Gulag—embodiments of the evils of Nazism and communism—stand in implicit competition. In a plea to overcome this division, the late SpanishFrench writer Jorge Semprún, a survivor of Buchenwald, expressed the hope that
the experience of the Gulag will be incorporated into our collective European memory. We hope that, alongside the books of Primo Levi, Imre Kertész, or David Rousset, the Kolyma Stories of Varlam Shalamov will take their place. This would signify that we are no longer paralyzed on one side.
Tikhonovich Shalamov, the son of a Russian Orthodox priest, was arrested in 1929, at the age of twentyone, as a member of a Trotskyist organization. His crime consisted of having proclaimed, at a demonstration marking the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, “Down with Stalin!” and “Carry out Lenin’s Testament!” He had also been caught reproducing copies of the testament, in which the ailing Lenin had recommended that Stalin be removed as general secretary of the Communist Party because he was “too rude.” Shalamov was sentenced to three years in a forced labor camp in the northern Urals, part of an expanding network founded under Lenin and known since 1930 as the Main Administration of Corrective Labor Camps and Settlements, or Gulag (the acronym in Russian). Having returned to Moscow in 1932, he was rearrested five years later, at the height of the Great Terror, and sentenced to five years of hard labor. “In keeping with the Russian character,” he later wrote, “anyone who got five years was happy not to have gotten ten.”
This time Shalamov was sent to the Kolyma region in the far northeast corner of Siberia, at the edge of the Arctic Circle, eight time zones from Moscow. Temperatures there average around twenty below zero (Fahrenheit) during the six months of winter, making it one of the coldest places on earth. Shalamov’s attempts to escape, along with some incautious remarks, got his sentence extended by ten years. During this time he worked in gold fields and coal mines, felled trees, nearly died of typhus and dysentery, and, like most camp inmates, lived constantly on the edge of starvation and physical collapse, as well as in fear of being killed either by camp guards or by his fellow prisoners, many of whom had been arrested for violent crimes. Whereas Alexander Solzhenitsyn spent eight years in what he called the “first circle” of the Gulag inferno, Shalamov spent a total of eighteen in what was effectively the ninth circle. “Shalamov’s experience in the camps,” Solzhenitsyn wrote, “was longer and more bitter than my own, and I respectfully confess that to him and not me was it given to touch those depths of bestiality and despair toward which life in the camps dragged us all.” Shortly after his return to Moscow in 1956, Shalamov began writing sketches, short stories, parables, and prose poems about his time in Kolyma, all of them distinguished by extreme verbal economy and emotional power. “You can’t get a razor blade between his words,” Solzhenitsyn once remarked. The horrors of everyday life and death in the camps are conveyed almost gesturally, without a hint of commentary, as in the conclusion to a story about a prisoners’ card game gone bad. Garkunov, the narrator’s workmate in timber-cutting, has been quietly watching Naumov, a horse herder, gamble away his entire wardrobe to his fellow gangster Sevochka, who then allows him to gamble on credit. After another loss, Naumov suddenly turns to Garkunov and demands his sweater, a gift from his wife, so that Naumov can pay off his debt:
“Go on, take it off,” said Naumov. Sevochka made an approving gesture with his finger. Woolen garments were highly valued. If he had the wool sweater laundered and then had the lice steamed out of it, he could wear it himself. It had a nice pattern.
“I’m not taking it off,” gasped Garkunov. “You’ll have to flay me first.”
Men hurled themselves at him and threw him to the floor.
“He’s biting,” someone shouted. Garkunov slowly got up and used his sleeve to wipe the blood off his face. Right then Sashka, the same Sashka, Naumov’s duty orderly, who had an hour ago given us soup for sawing the wood, squatted down and snatched something from the top of his felt boot. Then he moved his arm toward Garkunov; Garkunov gave a sobbing gasp and then slumped down onto his side.
“Did you have to do that?” Sevochka yelled. In the flickering light of the kerosene lamp you could see Garkunov’s face draining of color.
Sashka stretched out the dead man’s arms, tore the shirt open, and pulled the sweater off over his head. The sweater was red, so you could hardly see the blood stains. Sevochka, carefully avoiding getting his fingers dirty, put the sweater away in his suitcase. The game was over, and I could go home. Now I had to find someone else to saw firewood with me.
It’s hard to know what’s more disturbing: the murder itself or the narrator’s utterly self-absorbed response to it.
In “The Dwarf Pine,” a two-page sketch, Shalamov gives a lyrical account of how this tree, a species native to Siberia, adapts to changes of season, suggesting a model for human survival in the pitiless arctic climate. With the arrival of winter,
the dwarf pine bends. It bends lower and lower, as if under an immense, ever-increasing weight. Its crown scratches the rock and huddles against the ground as it stretches out its emerald paws. It is making its bed. It’s like an octopus dressed in green feathers. Once it has lain down, it waits a day or two, and now the white sky delivers a shower of snow, like powder, and the dwarf pine sinks into hibernation, like a bear. Enormous snowy blisters swell up on the white mountain: the dwarf pine bushes in their winter sleep.
Before humans, with their meager five senses, can detect the approach of spring, nature’s subtler feelings come to life:
And so the pine dwarf rises amid the boundless white snowy wastes,
amid this complete hopelessness. It shakes off the snow, straightens up to its full height, raises its green, ice-covered, slightly reddish needles toward the sky. It can sense what we cannot: the call of spring. Trusting in spring, it rises before anyone else in the north. Winter is over . . . .
The dwarf pine is a tree of hope, the only evergreen tree in the Far North. Against the radiant white snow, its matt-green coniferous paws speak of the south, of warmth, of life.
And then the final passage: “I always used to think of the dwarf pine as the most poetic Russian tree, rather better than the much vaunted weeping willow, the plane tree, or the cypress. And dwarf pine firewood burns hotter.” Those last five words eviscerate the sublime reverence that precedes them, as the narrator’s sensibility degrades the tree of hope into a superior piece of firewood. In this as in other stories, the blurring of boundaries among plants, animals, and people reveals not so much a mutual spirit as the malign character of human beings.
Like many survivors of the camps, Shalamov never fully escaped, even after his release. For two decades he compulsively wrote and rewrote dozens of stories about the kingdom of Kolyma—its overlords and underlings, its severe landscape, its primitive barracks, mines, and hospitals. By the mid-1970s he had compiled 145 stories into six cycles totaling over a thousand pages. Most of the stories take up fewer than ten pages and are devoted to a single incident on a single day. One enters them in medias res, without being introduced to their protagonists, since, as Shalamov put it in an essay about prose writing, they are “people without a biography, without a past, without a future.” Some stories fit on a single page. When Shalamov died penniless in 1982, only “The Dwarf Pine” had been published in his native land, along with several books of poetry.
Unlike the younger Solzhenitsyn—at least until he became famous—Shalamov refused to tweak his work in order to ease it past the censors. Instead, his stories circulated on typed onionskin paper in the unregulated, uncontrollable world of samizdat, passed by hand and multiplied by typewriter. A certain romance lingers around the phenomenon of samizdat, that extraordinary ownerless technology of free speech whose near-total immunity to manipulation by the state (not to mention hackers and advertisers) would be the envy of today’s Internet users.
But samizdat proved a double-edged sword for Shalamov. It cut a direct path to readers hungry for knowledge of the camps where untold millions of Soviet citizens had been sent and in many cases died. But it frequently mangled the texts themselves, as reader-typists corrected perceived mistakes, filling in Shalamov’s deliberate silences and rearranging the order of the stories at will. When in 1966 selections began to be published in a Russian émigré journal in New York, they were in the wrong sequence and edited so as to appear less like works of literature and more like autobiographical documents, the better to feed the cold war appetite for indictments of communism. These and other corrupted versions then served as the basis for translations of the stories into French, German, and English. Shalamov was horrified.
One of the great virtues of Donald Rayfield’s new translation is that, for the first time, readers of English will now have a complete rendition of Kolyma Stories, based on unabridged Russian texts and arranged in six cycles precisely as Shalamov intended. Correct sequencing of the stories allows us to see them like a Cubist painting, an ensemble of perspectival fragments that suggest a larger structure—perhaps the structure of memory itself, as Shalamov circles back to images, people, and events from the vantage points of different cycles, making visible the work of memory as it selects, rearranges, and reembeds material from the past. The present volume contains the first three cycles; when the remaining three appear in a planned second volume, Rayfield will have more than doubled the quantity of Shalamov’s work available in English. That alone is an enormous contribution.
Whether he will have improved its quality is less certain. Unlike his predecessors, Rayfield conceives the work of translating Kolyma Stories as “straightforward.” Shalamov, he claims in his introduction, “avoid[ed] any stylistic effects” and “wrote in a way that everyone can understand.” The only exception, according to Rayfield, is the occasional use of slang from the criminal underworld, an argot so rich and idiosyncratic as to have inspired a dozen dictionaries that attempt to render thieves’ dialect in standard Russian—including one compiled by Shalamov himself, apparently lost in Kolyma. Prison slang, Rayfield concludes, “must defeat the translator,” and his solution is generally to have the criminals speak normally. Previous translators have been more successful in this regard. In the story “The Snake Charmer,” for example, Shalamov uses a slang expression to describe how an imprisoned former scriptwriter named Platonov would earn extra food from the largely illiterate criminals (i.e., would charm the snakes) by orally retelling novels such as Dracula or Les Misérables at evening gatherings in the barracks. Such spoken-word performances were known as tiskat’ romany, literally to “press” or “squeeze” novels. The translator John Glad opted for “retell novels,” choosing clarity over color.1 Robert Chandler and Nathan Wilkinson did the opposite, using scare quotes to indicate the nonstandard idiom: “‘pull novels.’”2 Rayfield gives us “‘churn out novels.’” But to “churn out” implies that one is producing rather than reproducing something, that one is doing so mechanically or in haste, and that the results are substandard, whereas Platonov’s performances are captivating and unhurried.
More is at stake here than clarity versus color. The narrator of “The Snake Charmer” informs us that he is retelling Platonov’s own account of his performances, because Platonov recently “died the same death as many others did: he swung his pickax, lost his footing,
Varlam Shalamov, Kolyma Tales, translated by John Glad (Penguin, 1994), p. 86.
2Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida, edited by Robert Chandler (Penguin, 2005), p. 323.
Varlam Shalamov, 1970s