(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

It is natural to compare Varlam Shalamov’s work to that of Solzhenitsyn; there are similarities in their subject matter, and they had great respect for each other. Solzhenitsyn was among the first to recognize Shalamov’s talent in the early 1960’s, when Shalamov’s brief sketches of life in the Kolyma labor camps began to trickle into the embryonic network in Moscow, Leningrad, and a few other cities. Recognizing their importance, Solzhenitsyn invited Shalamov to share the authorship of The Gulag Archipelago, the multivolume “experiment in literary investigation” on which he was working. Shalamov was too ill, however, to accept Solzhenitsyn’s invitation.

Unlike Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov does not aim at a panoramic view of the camp world. Also, his language is quite different from that of Solzhenitsyn. On the surface, at least, he does not appear to maintain a high pitch of passionate indignation and invective; he adheres to a deliberately cool and neutral tone. In contrast to the passionately self-righteous, not-to-be-intimidated Solzhenitsyn, with his steely courage and seemingly infinite capacity for resistance, Shalamov appears chilly, remote, preferring a miniature canvas that is fragmentary and almost incomplete. Rhetoric is left behind, the writer taking refuge in a kind of passive quietism. This first impression, however, is almost entirely false.

If Shalamov lowers his voice, it is to be even more direct, precise, and telling. His experience was quite different from that of Solzhenitsyn. Arrested in 1937, Shalamov was in Kolyma throughout World War II and observed the war only by means of the new arrivals of prisoners. Solzhenitsyn was arrested at the war’s end, in 1945. Shalamov’s camp experience was twice as long, and harsher; he knew no sharashka, or special projects camp, like that described in Solzhenitsyn’s V kruge pervom (1968; The First Circle, 1968). Instead, Shalamov was designated for extermination and according to all expectations should have died.

It is difficult for the Western reader, with current notions of history and modernity, to understand Kolyma. In the United States, slavery ended with the Civil War; in Russia, the serfs were emancipated at about the same time. Though readers may think of themselves as skeptical and as not believing in unabated progress, still, old habits die hard; many realities of the contemporary world and of foreign countries appear to be impossible. In the mid-1930’s, the Soviet government began to exploit its underground gold seams by means of slave labor of an unprecedented kind. Slaves, as is well known, are relatively unproductive; the People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD), however, resolved to overcome the reluctance of their prisoners to work through the goad of hunger, by deliberately undernourishing them unless they achieved high production norms. The result was that most of the prisoners died. Then again, the NKVD paid nothing for its captives and could always replace dead ones by enslaving new people. Kolyma was the ultimate pole of this murderous system, cut off from continental Russia yet attached to it by its need for laborers.

Shalamov was arrested for calling Ivan Bunin a “Russian classic”; others were arrested for still more trifling reasons—for example, writing to a fiancé. Once in Kolyma, the captives’ immediate overseers would be thieves and common criminals, officially described by the Soviet government as “friends of the people” or “socially friendly elements.” In the story “Esperanto,” Shalamov describes one of his jobs: “On the very first day I took the place of a horse in a wooden yoke, heaving with my chest against a wooden log.” Shalamov observes wryly that man has more endurance than any other animal. In the story “Zhitie inzhenera Kipreeva” (“The Life of Engineer Kipreev”), a prisoner, Kipreev, declares that “Kolyma is Auschwitz without the ovens”; the inscription over the prison gates—strikingly similar to the German “Arbeit macht frei” at Auschwitz—is “Labor is honor, glory, nobility, and heroism.” Few survived the first three years in Kolyma; the narrator observes in the story “Kusok mysa” (“A Piece of Meat”), “two weeks was a long time, a thousand years.” The area contained innumerable mass graves. In the frozen taiga, dead bodies did not decompose; in the chilling story “Po Lend-licu” (“Lend Lease”), a recently arrived bulldozer—a gift from the United States government—has as its first task to cut a trench to hold a mass grave of bodies that is slowly sliding down the frozen side of a mountain.

In conditions such as these it would be unrealistic to expect a sustained attitude of vituperation like that of Solzhenitsyn. The prison conditions described by Fyodor Dostoevski in Zapiski iz myortvogo doma (1861-1862; Buried Alive: Or, Ten Years of Penal Servitude in Siberia, 1881; better known as House of the Dead, 1915) were considered to be almost luxurious in comparison with those of the camps in Kolyma, and the same applied to Anton Chekhov’s 1894 description of the penal...

(The entire section is 2109 words.)