Siberia Made Me

Kolyma Stories (New York Review Books Classics) BY Varlam Shalamov. NYRB Classics. Paperback, 776 pages. $22.

“Shalamov’s experience in the camps was longer and more bitter than my own,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago. “I respectfully confess that to him and not me it was given to touch those depths of bestiality and despair toward which life in the camps dragged us all.”

Varlam Shalamov was a decade older than Solzhenitsyn. Born in Vologda in 1907, he was arrested for the first time in Moscow, in 1929, for seeking to distribute copies of “Lenin’s Testament”—a document that called for Stalin’s removal as General Secretary of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. Sentenced to three years’ hard labor, he ended up in a camp in the Urals. In 1932, he returned to Moscow, where he wrote and worked as a journalist. Then, at the height of Stalin’s purges, in 1937, he was arrested again, for “counter-revolutionary Trotskyite activities.” This time, Shalamov ended up in Magadan, the Siberian city that served as an entry point for forced labor camps in the Kolyma region—camps in which millions of men, women, and children starved, froze to death, were worked to death, or were murdered outright. He remained in Kolyma until 1953, slaving away in its gold mines, coal mines, and lumber camps before landing a series of jobs in camp hospitals that made it possible to survive.

“Shalamov, like many former GULag prisoners, stuck to the principle of speaking as little as possible, and never when a third person (who might be an informant) was present,” Donald Rayfield says, in passing, in the introduction to his new translation of Shalamov’s stories. And yet, the camps had not broken him. “Of course,” he writes, in a story called “Carpenters,”

the first thing was to find some means of salvation. There were few such means. You could become a foreman or a guard, just hand around the bosses. Or around the kitchen. But there were hundreds competing for the kitchen, and Potashnikov had refused a year ago to be a foreman, because he had promised himself that he would not allow himself to enslave another human being here. Even if his own life was at stake, he refused to have his dying comrades hurl their last curses in his face.

This was the code Shalamov himself had adhered to: “My body and spirit proved to be stronger in this great trial than I thought,” he wrote in 1961. “I am proud to have betrayed no one, to have sent no one to their death, nor to the camp, to have denounced no one.”

The stories Shalamov wrote upon his return circulated in the USSR as samizdat, in the 1960s. In the ’70s they appeared in émigré journals—Grani and New Review. An English translation, by John Glad, was published by W.W. Norton in 1980; in 1981, a second volume appeared. (Both of these books are currently available in a single-volume Penguin Classics edition called Kolyma Tales.) The new translation is based on a seven-volume edition that appeared in Russia in 2013. It’s the first of two that New York Review Books is set to publish, and promises to be much more complete—a massive undertaking on Rayfield’s part, as the first book alone tops out at 740 pages. But the stories themselves are short, stark, and sharpened to a point.

The first, “Trampling the Snow” (“Through the Snow,” in Glad’s translation), is two paragraphs long: A description of what it’s like to tamp a road down, on foot, in a place where the temperatures might drop to minus 60° Celsius. The second story, “On the Slate” (“On Tick”), describes a card game between two gangsters that ends with the murder of a political prisoner: “Sashka stretched out the dead man’s arms, tore the shirt open, and pulled the sweater off over his head,” Shalamov writes. “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.”

Here, and elsewhere, the narrator might as well be Shalamov himself—a Virgil walking us through the Kolyma’s icy inferno. There is nothing redemptive about the suffering he endures or observes there. Time and again, Shalamov insists: There are no lessons the camps have to teach us. Life and death are matters of chance, with the odds stacked heavily in death’s favor. But, despite Shalamov’s own protestations, there are things to be learned here: Draft animals die quickly in Kolyma. Why does the human animal turn out to be tougher? What kind of animal is it? And what remains of that animal when cold, hunger, and cruelty strip everything human—“love, friendship, envy, charity, mercy, ambition, decency”—away? (“We had no pride, no self-esteem or self-respect, while jealousy or passion seemed to us to be something only Martians might feel and, in any case, was nonsense,” Shalamov writes. “It was far more important to learn the skills needed to button up your trousers in sub-zero winter temperatures. Grown men would weep when they found they could not do that.”) These are questions Shalamov returns to repeatedly—and actually answers.

Why do humans survive in Kolyma? “The feeling of self-preservation, clinging onto life, a literally physical clinging that subordinates his mind, is what saves a man. He lives by the same principle as a stone, a tree, a bird, a dog. But he clings more tightly to life than they do. And he can endure more than any animal.” What remains in the hearts of such men? “Resentful anger, the most lasting of human feelings.”

Shalamov saw himself primarily as a poet, and published several collections of verse. But his prose is as simple and spare as a scientist’s. The stories are exciting because they deal with extremes, like stories of Shackleton’s expeditions, or Jack London’s Klondike tales. (The region of Siberia Shalamov deals with is sometimes called “the Kolyma Klondike.”) But they are not heroic. One exception, “Major Pugachiov’s Last Battle,” deals with a doomed but daring escape—it’s an exception that proves the rule, not simply because it’s an adventure story, but because it is unabashedly virtuosic. Stories about suicides, or self-mutilations, are more typical, and they’re told matter-of-factly. In “On Lend-Lease,” prisoners use an American bulldozer to cover up corpses revealed by a logging operation: “In Kolyma bodies are consigned not to the earth, but to the stones,” Shalamov writes. “Stones are more reliable than the earth. Permafrost preserves and reveals secrets. Every one of those close to us who perished in Kolyma, everyone who was shot, beaten to death, exsanguinated by starvation, can still be identified, even after decades. There were no gas ovens in Kolyma.”

The permafrost, which is everywhere in these stories, seeps down to the sentence level. It flattens terrible details: a fork in a tree trunk, used by a prisoner who hangs himself without a rope (“the first suicide of that kind that I had seen,” Shalamov notes); the way a prisoner’s hands bend, in the mines, into a curve that fit the radius of a spade or a pickax, and refuse to uncurl for weeks and months afterward. And yet, those hands do eventually uncurl, and that’s how it goes with the stories themselves: Sit with them long enough and you begin to sense the depths of feeling under the permafrost, and something approaching Chekhovian artistry. Whatever else they may be, these stories are literature—great literature, with their own terrible beauty. Does it take something away from them to say they work equally well as eyewitness accounts or (despite the author’s own anti-pedagogical impulse) as lessons?

“The camp is world-like,” Shalamov said. “My stories are basically advice to a man on how to act in the crowd.”

Emil Gataullin, Lenin bust, Kadykchan, Magadan region, Russia, 2014. From the series “Kolyma. In the shadow of time,” 2014–15. © Emil Gataullin/Edition Lammerhuber, from Towards The Horizon (Edition Lammerhuber, 2016) .

Rayfield’s translation does not improve, appreciably, on Glad’s. In some cases—most notably, that of the title—it’s difficult to see what the guiding principle might have been, aside from a desire to put an original stamp on the material. Shalamov called his story cycle Kolymskie Rasskazy. And while the word Rasskazy translates as “tales” and “stories” both, “tales” is more elegant, and allows for the possibility that some of these works are sketches, rather than fully developed stories. (On the other hand, Rayfield’s title “The Spade Artist” is markedly better than Glad’s “The Virtuoso Shovelman.”) By the same token, it would be good to get more than a handful of notes, and more than a couple pages about Shalamov’s life and publishing history. (“Those who read German will enjoy Wilfried F. Schoeller’s Leben oder Schreiben: der Erzähler Warlam Schalamov,” Rayfield tells us in the introduction. Perhaps, but given the context, and scarcity of materials provided by Rayfield himself, this is less than helpful.) That said, these are minor qualms attached to a major project; they can be corrected, quite easily, in the forthcoming volume.

As for Shalamov himself, Solzhenitsyn asked him to collaborate on The Gulag Archipelago.He sketched out the project, proposed a division of labor, and was surprised to hear a curt “no” in response. “I want to have a guarantee for whom I write,” Shalamov explained.

What Shalamov meant was that he did not want to see his work used for propaganda purposes. He did not share Solzhenitsyn’s Christianity, his moralizing impulses, or his messianic sense of purpose. And if Solzhenitsyn was pulled, more and more, toward the epic, Shalamov remained a miniaturist. Dismissing the Archipelago’s author as a “businessman,” he stayed true to his own difficult course, and ended up dying in squalid conditions in Moscow, in 1982, while Solzhenitsyn lived out his exile in Vermont. In 2000, his grave was vandalized, though an asteroid, 3408 Shalamov, named after him in 1977, continues to orbit the sun.

Alex Abramovich is the author of Bullies: A Friendship (Henry Holt, 2016).