Varlam Shalamov’s Gulag stories

The Russian author turned 15 years in the Gulag into fiction of extraordinary daring. His stories are timely reminders of the human cost of communism.

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A late Soviet-era joke has two dissidents lying in adjacent beds in a psychiatric hospital. They have been diagnosed as suffering from “schizo-heterodoxy”, a condition that requires them to be subjected to treatment that will destroy their health and faculties. One says to the other: “It is unbelievable that we should be imprisoned and abused under a fake psychiatric diagnosis simply for criticising the government. But all over the world there are people who remember us: liberals, conservatives, independent communists… We have not been forgotten.” After a period of taciturn reflection the other dissident laughs, and murmurs: “You know, I suspect the official diagnosis of your mental condition may be correct.”

Sometimes described as the Chekhov of the Gulag, Varlam Shalamov ended his days in one of these hospitals. Born in 1907 as the son of a Russian Orthodox priest who was also a political liberal, Shalamov grew up in poverty and was excluded from higher education on account of his family background. In 1926 he managed to enrol at Moscow University to study law, but was denounced by a fellow student for “concealing his social origins” and expelled. In 1929 he was arrested for supporting an underground student movement that demanded the publication of a letter known as “Lenin’s Testament” that questioned Stalin’s leadership qualities. Sentenced to hard labour in the Ural Mountains, where he worked in a chemical plant for three years and married his first wife, he returned to Moscow and found employment as a journalist.

In 1937, the start of the Great Purge, he was rearrested and sentenced to five years in Kolyma in Russia’s Arctic Far North, the site of the most feared section of the Gulag, where gold and other metals were mined in extreme conditions. In 1943 he was sentenced to another ten years, apparently for the crime of describing the émigré writer and Nobel Prize winner Ivan Bunin (1870-1953) as a “classic Russian author”. Released in 1951, Shalamov returned to live near Moscow after Stalin’s death in 1953. Three years later he was officially rehabilitated and awarded a small pension for invalids. He began publishing poems he had been writing over the years and working on what would become Kolyma Stories.

During his first spell in the gulag Shalamov’s first marriage ended and he was rejected by his daughter. He remarried a few years later and the marriage lasted until 1966, but seems not to have been happy. Like many former gulag inmates he had acquired the habit of speaking as little as possible and remaining silent whenever a third person, who might have been an informer, was present. Worsening deafness also made communication difficult. Finding himself homeless in the late Seventies, Shalamov entered an institution for the elderly, where conditions were like those in the gulag.

Visitors commented that the pyjamas he had been issued resembled those of prisoners. Reverting to the life of the camps, he hid bread under the mattress and hoarded sugar lumps. By now nearly blind, suffering from loss of muscular control and balance as a result of Ménière’s and Parkinson’s disease, and speaking with difficulty, he continued to compose poems and dictate them to visitors. Together with publicity attracted by his stories, some of which had by then been published abroad, this seems to have triggered his final move. In January 1982 a psychiatric commission diagnosed him as suffering from dementia. Nearly naked and in bitter cold, loudly resisting and possibly believing he was being returned to Kolyma, he was moved to a psychiatric hospital where he died of pneumonia some days later.

Shalamov claimed to have learnt nothing in the gulag except how to wheel a loaded barrow. Yet, as the distinguished Chekhov scholar and historian of Stalinism Donald Rayfield observes in his introduction to his magnificent new edition of Shalamov’s stories – the first of two volumes to be published by New York Review Books, which together will more than double the amount of his work available in English – this was not always Shalamov’s view.

A fragment from 1961, “What I Saw and Understood in the Camps”, shows him coming to some conclusions. Among a list of 45 lessons he learnt were: “the extreme fragility of human culture” – given heavy labour, cold, hunger and beatings a man becomes a beast in three weeks; humans are human because they cling to life more than any other animal – no horse can survive working in the Far North; the only people to preserve a minimum of humanity were religious believers; women were more decent and self-sacrificing than men; party workers and the military were the first to fall apart; a slap in the face is a weighty argument for an intellectual; if a writer really knows his material, he will write in such a way that nobody understands him.

This first volume of Kolyma Stories is organised in three sections containing 86 stories. In “The Second-hand Book Dealer”, Shalamov relates how during his time as a camp paramedic he heard of the pharmacological techniques used to suppress the will of the accused in show trials. In “Condensed Milk”, an escape plan is shelved with the arrival of tins of the delicacy. “The Dwarf Pine” is a meditation on a Siberian tree that grows in cracks on mountain slopes. The book is packed with gems, each complete in itself. Together they form part of a mosaic unlike anything in world literature. A struggle with memory comparable with that of Proust or Beckett, this is a work of art of the highest order by a writer of extraordinary daring and ambition.

Rayfield tells us that Shalamov “rejected all faith from an early age”. There is no intimation in his writings of any divine providence of the sort that permeates Solzhenitsyn’s or those of Dostoevsky when he recalled his exile in Siberia in tsarist times. But Shalamov’s refusal of faith went beyond the mere rejection of monotheism. Though he records rare instances of kindness, there is nothing in his stories of the supposed redemptive power of “the human spirit”. In his work, as Rayfield notes, “Only animals behave chivalrously – the male bear and the bullfinch who draw the hunter’s fire so their mates can escape, the husky that trusted prisoners and growled at guards, or the cat that helps a prisoner catch fish.”

The camps drained the inmates of their humanity: “Any human feelings – love, friendship, envy, charity, mercy, ambition, decency – had vanished along with the flesh we had lost during our prolonged starvation.” In time many prisoners joined the dokhodiagi or “goners”, living dead shuffling through the camps to final oblivion. In the course of his 15 years in the gulag, six of them in Kolyma, Shalamov became one of these goners. No longer caring whether he lived, he was saved by a doctor who enabled him to become a hospital worker and survive.

The world Shalamov describes is emptied of human meaning. Any sense of hope, heroism or tragedy has wasted away. If inmates wept it was because they could not button up their trousers to protect themselves against the cold. If they tried to escape it was usually in their first year, before they had been broken. If an opportunity came to cut short their lives they were too enfeebled or indifferent to seize it. Those who emerged alive did all they could to leave behind what they had seen. “A human being survives by his ability to forget”, Shalamov wrote. He spent the rest of his life refusing to forget.

Forgetting is not a passive process but part of the work of memory, which fashions a coherent past from disjointed experiences. Shalamov renounced the usual literary genres because, like memory, they conceal how we actually live. He subtitled an account of his time in the Urals “An anti-novel”, and even though his years in the camps defined his work, he denied he was a Gulag writer. “My writing is no more about the camps than Saint-Exupéry’s is about the sky, or Melville’s about the sea.” He resembled Chekhov in his combination of non-judgemental realism with unyielding severity in his view of the human world. Yet it would be mistaken to read Shalamov as practicing any sort of literary naturalism. Like his poetry, which continued a pre-revolutionary symbolist tradition, Shalamov’s vast cycle of gulag tales abounds in multiple meanings.

Among the stories collected here, “On Lend-Lease” contains some of the most telling symbolism. When an American bulldozer arrives in Kolyma under the 1941-45 Lend-Lease programme – in which the US supplied the Soviet Union, among others, with food and equipment to assist in the war effort against Nazi Germany – it uncovers a mass grave in the course of stripping a hillside of timber:

A grave, a prisoners’ common grave, a stone pit packed to the top as long ago as 1938 with still-undecomposed corpses, had now spilled over… These human bodies were crawling down the slope, perhaps about to be resurrected… Nothing had rotted: the twisted fingers, the toes with their infected sores, the stumps after frostbitten digits had been removed, the dry skin had been scratched until it bled, and the eyes burning with the lustre of starvation… Later I remembered the eager fire of the willow herb, the furious flowering of the taiga in summer, when it tries to cover up any human activity, good or bad, in grass and foliage. I remembered that grass is even more oblivious than humanity. And if I forgot, so would the grass. But stone and permafrost wouldn’t.

Here a grisly parody of a Christian idea of resurrection mingles with a vision of ever-renewing Nature that evokes Siberian animism. Human beings die and are forgotten. Every year a new world comes into being that knows nothing of them. But stone does not forget, and in forcing himself to remember his time in the camps Shalamov may have become like stone. Yet he did not belong among the frozen dead. His stories are shot through with flashes of lyricism, as he looks up from soul-killing labour to find the leafy earth renewing itself around him.

Shalamov wrote of the camps as if they were a world in themselves. In reality the Gulag was not self-contained. The great majority of prisoners were not there for political offences but ordinary Russians convicted of stealing state property or sabotaging production. Famine and war further changed the composition of the inmates. The gulag’s frontiers were permeable, with millions moving continuously in and out. The life-threatening conditions imposed on prisoners were extreme versions of deprivations that existed throughout Soviet society.

One of Shalamov’s fellow-prisoners described Kolyma as “Auschwitz without the ovens”. The analogy is misplaced. Somewhere between a quarter and a third of Kolyma’s inmates may have died every year out of a population that numbered between 500, 000 and a million. But the gold-mining camps of Russia’s Far North did not exist – as did the extermination camps in Auschwitz and Treblinka – solely to deal out death. They were part of a system of slavery, one of the most wasteful of human life that has ever existed, and it is here that a comparison with Nazism can be made.

Both systems used slave labour on a colossal scale. Nazi slavery operated on racial lines, whereas the Soviet version was indiscriminate. Starting in Lenin’s time, when most of those consigned to camps came from the peasantry and industrial working class, it expanded to include people from every section of society. The use of slave labour for grandiose prestige projects began in 1931 with the construction of the White Sea Canal, in which tens of thousands died. In the event the canal proved too shallow and narrow to be of much use. But slave labour continued to be used in similar projects, with the camps being replenished by new prisoners as existing inmates died or became too wasted to work.

Many Western observers have been tempted to view the Gulag as a continuation of the tsarist system of exile and hard labour. Yet while conditions in tsarist times could be harsh, including brutal floggings, not all exiles suffered greatly. Banished to a remote Siberian village in 1897, Lenin rented a comfortable room in a private home. He received books on loan from libraries in Moscow and St Petersburg, which he used in writing the study that made him a Marxian theorist, The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899). Also, the Gulag was on a scale unlike anything in tsarism. In 1917, before the revolution, around 28,600 prisoners were serving sentences of hard labour. Between 1929 and 1953, something like 18 million people passed through the gulag.

The architects of the camp system were clear as to its progressive credentials, as were its Western admirers. Trotsky dismissed the idea that slave labour is inefficient as “the worst sort of bourgeois prejudice”. When the liberal academic and wartime information officer Owen Lattimore visited Kolyma with the American vice-president Henry Wallace in 1944, Lattimore praised the camp as resembling Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority. Shalamov, who records the visit in his story “Ivan Fiodorovich”, reports that Wallace commented that he was used to doing this kind of work on his farm. Only in the Fifties did Wallace admit that the well-fed inmates he met were guards in prison uniforms.

Until the Soviet collapse, when documents became available that demonstrated the scale of the Gulag, many Western scholars denied the enormity of its human cost. Today in Russia a new generation has grown up, many of whom revere Stalin. In Western countries communism has once again become fashionable among the jeunesse dorée. The millions who were killed or had their lives broken in the camps have been re-forgotten. If the taciturn dissident in the late-Soviet joke had somehow survived to the present, he would still be laughing. 

John Gray’s most recent book is “Seven Types of Atheism” (Allen Lane)

Kolyma Stories, Volume One
Varlam Shalamov, Translated by Donald Rayfield
New York Review Books, 766pp, £14.99

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The inside story of Mossad