Varlam Shalamov

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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...

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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 colony on Sakhalin Island. In one of Shalamov’s stories, a general, sent to Kolyma at the close of World War II, notes that the experience of the front cannot prepare a man for the mass death in the camps. One character, informed that the Soviet Union has signed the United Nations resolution on genocide in 1937, asks with caustic irony, “Genocide? Is that something they serve for dinner?” (“The Life of Engineer Kipreev”). The conditions were closer to those described by Bruno Bettelheim in The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age (1960) and Eugen Kogon in his Der SS-Staat (1947; The Theory and Practise of Hell, 1950), although as Shalamov observes, “there were no gas furnaces in Kolyma. The corpses wait in stone, in the permafrost.” It should be remembered that Shalamov was not there for one year, like Bettelheim, or seven years, like Kogon, but seventeen years.


The key to the unique tone in these stories can be found in the story entitled “Sententsiya” (“Sententious”), which describes a prisoner on the verge of death who gradually revives. The evolution of feelings that pass through his semiconscious mind (he is the story’s narrator) is of extraordinary interest. At the beginning he is a walking dead man, one of those who were called Musselmänner in Nazi concentration camps, “wicks” in the Soviet camps. The narrator observes, “I had little warmth. Little flesh was left on my bones, just enough for bitterness—the last human emotion; it was closer to the bone.” His greatest need is for forgetfulness and sleep. Later he improves, and he notes, “Then something else appeared—something different from resentment and bitterness. There appeared indifference and fearlessness. I realized I didn’t care if I was beaten or not.” As he steadily improves there is a third stage: fear. Then a fourth stage follows: “Envy was the name of the next feeling that returned to me. I envied my dead friends who had died in ’38. I envied those of my neighbors who had something to chew or smoke.” The narrator says bitingly that after this point, the feeling of love did not return:Love comes only when all other human emotions have already returned. Love comes last, returns last. Or does it return? Indifference, envy, and fear, however, were not the only witnesses of my return to life. Pity for animals returned earlier than pity for people.

The passage suggests that the evolution of feelings did not stop there, but continued. It gives a valuable insight into Shalamov’s own attitudes. The narrator of the story has to learn language and individual words all over again. Each thought, each word “returned alone, unaccompanied by the watchful guards of familiar words. Each appeared first on the tongue and only later in the mind.”

Bitterness and Humor

Henceforth, this particular bitterness would stay with Shalamov as a substrate; in the foreground or almost hidden in the background, it provides his unique tone. John Gland has noted that Shalamov’s tone sometimes seems neutral, distant, or passive. Yet it is never truly neutral. Usually it is closer to the bitterness described above: a dark, profoundly reverberating irony that no other author has expressed as well as Shalamov and is “closer to the bone.”

Shalamov’s range often goes beyond this. He can surprise with his sense of humor. His description of the visit of an American businessman, Mr. Popp, to the Soviet Union, the hasty preparation of the authorities to receive him, and his meeting with the “Commandant” of a hotel, Tsyplyakov, are as funny as Mikhail Zoshchenko at his best. The variety of people in Shalamov’s stories is great. He describes naïve people such as the young peasant Fedya in “Sukhim paikam” (“Dry Rations”), the omnipresent criminals, religious fanatics, Esperantists, heroic officers from World War II such as “Pugachov” who were swept into the camps in 1945 and died attempting to escape, bureaucrats, guards, doctors, women, and the most ordinary people. Like Solzhenitsyn, he is particularly good at describing the special kind of meanness, or sadism, of one person toward another, cultivated by the totalitarian system and by the widespread presence of informers and spies. Even prisoners trying to recruit other prisoners for escape attempts were likely to be hired informers.

“An Epitaph”

Some of the stories are especially effective because of the variety and solidity of the characters. There is not only a single protagonist and a few other one-dimensional characters used as foils but also the unexpected breadth of real life. In the story “Nadgrobnoe slovo” (“An Epitaph”), a group of prisoners fantasize about what they will do when they leave prison and return to normal life. No two dreams are the same. One peasant wants to go to the Party headquarters, simply because there were more cigarette butts on the floor there than he had seen anywhere else: He wants to pick them up and then roll his own cigarette. The last words are given to a person hitherto silent who slowly, deliberately, expresses unrelieved hatred: “‘As for me,’ he said in a calm, unhurried voice, ‘I’d like to have my arms and legs cut off and become a human stump—no arms or legs. Then I’d be strong enough to spit in their faces for everything they’re doing to us.”’

Chekhovian Traits

There is real artistry in these stories, and it is of an unexpected, nontraditional kind. Shalamov has been compared to Chekhov (“the Chekhov of the camps”), and although the comparison is apt there are real differences between the two writers. Both show economy, sparingly sketch in a background, and lead toward a single dramatic point or realization at the end. Shalamov’s stories, however, are less obviously fictional than Chekhov’s. Although Shalamov uses a variety of narrators in the stories, a majority have a speaker who resembles Shalamov himself. There is an air of casualness about the stories, both old-fashioned and at the same time extremely modern. Far more frequently than with Chekhov, the reader is unsure of the direction in which a narration is leading, although usually the story has a hidden but inexorable direction. At the end of the story “Perviy zub” (“My First Tooth”), a storyteller tries out several alternate versions of a story on a listener; the technique is similar to that used by Akira Kurosawa in his film Rashomon (1950). The story ends:“I don’t like that variation either,” I said. “Then I’ll leave it as I originally had it.” Even if you can’t get something published, it’s easier to bear a thing if you write it down. Once you’ve done that, you can forget.

As an ending this is disarming, seemingly casual, although the sharp edge of irony should not be missed. Shalamov sometimes says that he wants nothing more than to forget; often when he describes an experience he will admit that he simply did not care what would happen. Yet these attitudes are incorporated into the subject matter of the stories. Shalamov the writer, the artist, remembers and cares intensely. Western readers often miss the deeply understated irony in these passages: It is unique, subtle, and extremely powerful.

Shalamov’s stories have interested many readers because of their unusual subject matter. On the verge of nonfiction, they are invaluable as documents. Their greatest value, however, is probably in their original use of form and their artistry. Stories such as the allegorical “Domino” (“Dominoes”) and “Zagavor yuristov” (“The Lawyers’ Plot”) achieve a concentrated depth of meaning that is truly remarkable. Like Elie Wiesel, Shalamov is a survivor and a witness who also happens to be an excellent artist. By his own admission, he subordinates art to the truth of experience. Yet his art only gains from this.


Shalamov, Varlam