Varlam Shalamov’s short stories of life in the Soviet Gulag leave an impression of ice-sharp precision, vividness and lucidity, as though the world is being viewed through a high-resolution lens. His subject matter, as well as his complete lack of sentimentality, means that much of what is brought into focus is horrifying or pitiful. Yet his capacity to capture and distil the experience, moment by moment, has an exhilarating effect, like that of the frozen bilberries he picked in the depths of the Siberian winter: ‘bright blue, wrinkled like empty leather purses, containing a dark, bluish-black juice… I ate the berries myself, my tongue carefully and eagerly pressing each one to my palate. The sweet, aromatic juice of each squashed berry intoxicated me for a second.’
In 1929, aged 22, Shalamov was arrested and deported to the Northern Urals for three years. This, however, was only a taster. In 1936 he was re-arrested and sent to the gold-mining area of Kolyma, the terror of the entire Soviet camp system. With the deadly ‘T’ for Trotskyite on his papers, he was not expected to survive. He clung on by a thread through six years of slavery in the gold mines until he was able to train as a paramedic. Only after Stalin’s death in 1953 was he finally permitted to return to Moscow. The rest of his life was spent writing his ‘endless recollection’ in the form of verse, short stories and drama. The New York Review of Books is now publishing the short stories in English in their entirety for the first time (this is the first volume of two), in an excellent new translation by Donald Rayfield.
‘I hate literature,’ Shalamov wrote. ‘I try to write not a short story, but something that would not be literature.’ His camp experience alienated him utterly from the life of the urban intelligentsia that he’d aspired to as a young man. No whiff of literariness is permitted: the highest truth of the Kolyma Stories, he asserts, is to bear witness. Shalamov’s position — his boast, even — is that he offers no comfort. Kolyma Stories expose all the ghastly clichés of the redemptive power of manual work and the nature of Soviet power, Soviet shibboleths that many veterans of the camps continued to hold dear. He understood ‘the extreme fragility of human culture, civilisation. Any man becomes a beast in three weeks, given heavy labour, cold, hunger, and beatings.’ Friendship is impossible in such situations; men are sustained by anger and the mute instinct to survive. Perhaps most relevant to today’s Russia are his observations on the brutalisation that the criminals in the camps inflicted on the millions of innocent politicals: ‘Thieves and their morality have left an indelible mark on the soul of each.’
Yet Shalamov was himself a complex character — even more so after the trauma of the Gulag, of course — and his prose is riven with contradictions. Anti-literature, but full of creative and stylistic ingenuity; an unflinching record of man’s capacity for cruelty, yet lit up by flashes of empathy, generosity and courage. This unsurpassed chronicler of the Gulag remarked, ‘My writing is no more about camps than Saint-Exupéry’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…’
In the harshest possible circumstances, Shalamov still had the strength to make certain moral choices. He never denounced and he avoided any position that might cause him to send someone to their death. In freedom, too, he chose the hardest path. ‘A human being survives by his ability to forget. Memory is always ready to blot out the bad and retain only the good,’ he noted. Shalamov refused to forget.