Ben­jamin Nathans

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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

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