Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov.
Varlam Shalamov, like many who lived in the Soviet Union during the first half of its existence, endured many soul-crushing trials and tribulations as he navigated the horrific depths of the Siberian prison system. Born in 1907, Shalamov was first arrested in 1929 at the age of 22 for attempting to publish Lenin’s Testament (Encyclopedia Britannica). This prison sentence would be his introduction to life as a prisoner under the Soviet state, but it wouldn’t be until a later arrest in 1937 that he would find the inspiration for Kolyma Tales, a sweeping work of fiction largely rooted in and inspired by his own experiences in Kolyma during this sentence (Encyclopedia Britannica). After this arrest, many years passed before he enjoyed freedom again; he remained in the Siberian prison system until 1951 (Encyclopedia Britannica).
Spending 14 years in the Kolyma prisons certainly would give anyone a breadth of knowledge and experience from which to write upon; the raw emotions portrayed throughout Koylma Tales are certainly reflective of this. Shalamov’s brilliant writing brings readers into a world of hell that seemed endless for many of those trapped within. As this book is a collection of short stories, there is no overarching plot and there are no main characters that re-appear throughout the book. Despite this, there are still themes that appear repeatedly throughout the entire book, making each individual story feel like opening a new chamber of hell. These themes include the destruction of the soul, the harsh and oftentimes endless realities of Siberian prison camps, and the way humans adapt when forced to live in horrendous circumstances. There are moments of light scattered throughout the book, such as when relief gifts from the United States appear in the camp in “Lend-Lease” or when a prisoner has the opportunity to return to Moscow from Kolyma in “The Train”. These moments of light still, however, feel small in comparison to the shockingly dark details presented in the rest of the book.
The prisons in Kolyma Tales are inhumane and, in many instances, truly horrific. Prisoners are routinely forced to work in extreme climate conditions, are never fed properly, and usually end up dying or going insane before managing to finish their sentences. The prisoners are, in some cases, so desperate to escape their conditions that they’ll even resort to self-mutilation. In an early story, “Dry Rations”, a prisoner known as Savelev witnesses another prisoner’s suicide. Immediately after this, he grabs an ax, “put his left hand on the log, spread [his] fingers, and swung the ax”, chopping off his fingers in the process (Shalamov 69). Despite this extreme effort, Savelev is not permitted to be released early, nor is any consideration given to his severely deteriorated mental state. Rather, he “was sent to the first-aid point and from there to Investigations to be tried on a charge of self-mutilation” (Shalamov 69). Shalamov holds none of the hard-hitting points back in this book; every horrific event such as this is told in painstakingly plain detail, without any fluff or room for speculation.
While there are many other scenes such as these that allow readers to fully realize and internalize the nightmarish realities Kolyma prisoners faced, there’s one in particular that I believe deserves closer attention. It showcases the true psychological state that these prisoners are forced down into, as well as one of the few times throughout the entire book we receive any sort of reasoning for the extreme treatment of prisoners. This scene is from “Quiet”, a story that focuses on a new supervisor doing an experiment on a Kolyma work gang. In this experiment, the prisoners are actually fed properly, since according to this supervisor feeding prisoners properly will make them more likely to want to work for the state (Shalamov 86).
In this scene, one of the suicidal prisoners, known as “the sectarian”, ends up acting out after the guards try to put the gang to work after the experiment. The narrator observes that “the sectarian, who was sitting next to [him], stood up and walked past the guard into the fog, into the sky” (Shalamov 87). The guards call for him to halt, but the sectarian doesn’t stop walking. After this, “a shot rang out, then the dry sound of a gun being cocked” (Shalamov 87). The narrator realizes that the shot was the guards killing the sectarian as he attempted to leave. He reasons that this was the sectarian’s way of committing suicide, as he already knew the guards wouldn’t just let him get up and walk away.
This act is enough for the guards to prove to the new supervisor that his strategy of feeding the prisoners properly doesn’t work. This is when the rationalization for the treatment of prisoners comes through; according to one of the guards, the prisoners only “start moving [their] shovels” when they’re cold and hungry (Shalamov 88). Without a proper meal, it’s much harder for a prisoner to keep themselves warm in the freezing Siberian temperatures. By moving and doing work, it helps warm them up. In addition, without the desperation of hunger, prisoners don’t care as much about working towards their next rations. It’s appalling to see how blasé the guards are about basic human rights, but this small portion of the story helps contextualize the treatment of the prisoners throughout the rest of the book.
The scene also showcases the psychological state the prisoners are forced down into, connecting with one of the book’s larger themes regarding the reshaping or even destruction of the soul. The sectarian was suicidal throughout the whole story, but didn’t have it within him to find the strength to kill himself. The narrator rationalizes at the end of the story that the supervisor’s experiment actually gave the sectarian the strength he needed to end his life (Shalamov 88). The conditions this prisoner was forced to endure as part of a Kolyma work gang crushed his soul, forcing him into a psychological state in which he only cared about ending his life, even after he’d been given what would certainly be considered a luxury by Kolyma’s prisoners. The other prisoners, including the narrator himself, don’t seem to care all that much about the sectarian’s suicide. The narrator is simply relieved that he won’t have to endure any more of his singing, granting the story its title (Shalamov 89). This showcases the general apathy that prisoners take on in Kolyma, as a sort of safeguard against going fully insane, it seems.
Kolyma Tales is not a fun book, but it is a necessary book. Even though this book is officially classified as a work of fiction, it is still rooted in the author’s experiences in what is arguably one of the worst examples of human abuses in prison systems in contemporary times. There’s no sugar-coating in this book; it’s raw and unfiltered. It isn’t flowery or complex in its language, but it doesn’t need to be- Kolyma Tales aimed to be a book that pulled back the curtain on Stalin’s Siberian prison camps, and one doesn’t need to be Shakespeare to do that. The singular criticism I have of this book is that some of the stories feel disappointingly short at times. If anyone is interested in learning more about Siberian prison camps, particularly during Stalin’s brutal reign, I highly recommend this book. Just don’t read it if you’re in a fantastic mood.
Review by Olivia Mittak.
Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Varlam Shalamov.” Encyclopedia Britannica, January 13, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Varlam-Shalamov.
Shalamov, Varlam. Kolyma Tales. Translated by John Glad. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1980.