Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov
This was a tough read but one I am very glad to have read. This was a collection of stories about the conditions in Soviet forced-labour camps during the Stalinist regime. It definitely filled in many of the knowledge gaps I had of what happened in the Siberian gulags. Only someone who spent time in a Siberian labour camp could ever have come up with such a collection of short stories, stories that capture the abysmal conditions of the camps, describe what the camp does to the human psyche (both the prisoner’s and the officer’s), and the new codes the prisoners must adhere to. What I found astounding were the details included in each story. They were definitely not things most of us would consider.
“Nature in the north is not impersonal or indifferent; it is in conspiracy with those who sent us.”
The disease, hunger, violence and despair are all described in descriptive detail. The conditions beg the question: does anybody really deserve to be sent to such places, regardless of the crime they (allegedly) committed? Siberia is a place where winter temperatures are often around -60F, where temperatures of -13F was considered summery. Of course, what makes things even worse is the fact that most of the people sent to the camp weren’t even criminals, but innocent victims of the Stalinist regime. Plus, often their sentences were disproportionate to their supposed crimes.
“The arrests of the thirties were arrests of random victims on the false and terrifying theory of a heightened class struggle accompanying the strengthening of socialism.”
I liked the structure of the book; it was divided into several short stories, each dealing with different characters. Shalamov’s tone was also very matter-of-fact, so it was easier for me to handle the gruesome details.
This is definitely such an important work of literature. I can only imagine with his 17 years of living in Kolyma, Shalamov had to get everything out of his system.
To end with a quote I really liked : “Life repeats Shakespearian themes more often than we think.”