Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Nature in the north is not faceless, not indifferent—it is in league with those who sent us here.” Varlam Shalamov’s narrator knows from experience that the fresh air regime of the Kolyma camps is more likely to kill a prisoner than save him, especially because that prisoner is ill-clothed, ill-treated, overworked, and underfed.

Of all the “islands” in the Gulag Archipelago, the Kolyma camps were the most frightful: the final, icy grave for millions of Joseph Stalin’s victims. Barely populated before the 1930’s, this far corner of Siberia was “developed” for gold production in order to accommodate the vast numbers of political prisoners arrested during the purges. If the politicals provided the state with some gold, or lead, or furs, or fish before giving in to starvation, scurvy, dystrophy, or suicide—so much the better. Technically fiction, Shalamov’s Kolymskie rasskazy (1978; Kolyma Tales, 1980) are both a document and a testament.

“A Child’s Drawings” bears witness to the fact that those inside the barracks and barbed wire were not the only victims of Kolyma. As the narrator leafs through the stiffened pages of the discarded notebook and remembers his own childhood, his remembrances are happy ones; although Russian folktales are far from always benign, Ivan-Tsarevich, when in trouble, can call on a host of animal allies. The natural world, in exchange for his kindness, comes to his...

(The entire section is 445 words.)