- Series: Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin
- Paperback: 528 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Classics; Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin edition (February 1, 1995)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0140186956
- ISBN-13: 978-0140186956
- Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 1.1 x 7.7 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 94 customer reviews
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Kolyma Tales (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin) Paperback – February 1, 1995
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Text: English, Russian (translation)
From the Back Cover
It is estimated that some three million people died in the Soviet forced-labour camps of Kolyma, in the north-eastern area of Siberia. Shalamov himself spent seventeen years there, and in these stories he vividly captures the lives of ordinary people caught up in terrible circumstances, their hopes and plans extending no further than a few hours.
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Next, Varlam Shalamov. From 1937 to 1951, Shalamov (b. 1907, d. 1982) was a political prisoner in Kolyma facilities, including gold mines, logging camps, and a hospital, where he worked as an orderly (a fortuitous assignment that saved his life). After his release, he began writing stories about his experiences in Kolyma. They became valued underground samizdat literature within Soviet Russia. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, younger by eleven years, admired Shalamov and asked him to collaborate on his "Gulag Archipelago", but Shalamov declined, citing old age and declining energy.
Finally, KOLYMA TALES, which is the umbrella name for the five books of stories and essays about Kolyma that Shalamov wrote. All five are included in this edition, which was edited and translated by John Glad, who had a lot to do with bringing Shalamov to the attention of the West. Shalamov's stories are much different in tone and style than Solzhenitsyn's work, so different that it is difficult to conceive how they could have successfully collaborated as co-authors. Shalamov's tales are concise, with very little editorializing or lecturing. They are matter-of-fact, seldom outwardly condemnatory or judgmental. They have been said to be in the tradition and style of Chekhov. Based almost entirely on things that Shalamov personally experienced or that he heard about during his time in the Gulag, the Kolyma tales (unfortunately) are less fictitious than all-too-many so-called books of non-fiction. If you want to know what the Gulag was like, Shalamov is as good a guide as Solzhenitsyn.
Here is a representative sampling of episodes in KOLYMA TALES: a team of prisoners pulling a stone-filled sled up an inclined mine floor by leaning into a horse collar -- a means used to construct the monuments of Ancient Egypt; collecting dwarf cedar needles in the Siberian taiga to make an extract that supposedly cured scurvy (it didn't); the "last man out" method of efficiently clearing prisoners from their barracks on the top of a steep hill in order to go to work in the mine at the bottom -- the guards would seize the last man out the door by the hands and feet and throw him down the icy hill; and the use of American "Lend-Lease" supplies during World War II, most notably bulldozers to bury frozen convict corpses in mass graves.
My only complaint is the minor amount of repetition that results from grouping together what Shalamov originally issued in five separate books. Still, there are certain themes or leitmotifs that merit repeating: the absurdity, stupidity, and cruelty of the Soviet bureaucracy; the vast gulf between the criminals and the political prisoners; the twisted configurations that the hands and fingers of Kolyma prisoners assumed after months curled around the handles of shovels and pickaxes in sub-zero weather; and the saying I have used for the title of this review, a phrase that embodies the stoicism that prisoners learned to assume.
"All human emotions -- love, friendship, envy, concern for one's fellow man, compassion, longing for fame, honesty -- had left us with the flesh that had melted from our bodies during their long fasts. * * * We had no pride, vanity, or ambition, and jealousy and passion seemed as alien to us as Mars, and trivial in addition. It was much more important to learn to button your pants in the frost. Grown men cried if they weren't able to do that. We understood that death was no worse than life, and we feared neither. We were overwhelmed by indifference."
The brutallity of the heavy labor was such that if any prisoner ended up in the hospital they did everything possible to make their condition worse or atleast not get better, If they have a cut, they would tear the wound open and shove dirt in to create infections etc.. In one story, the men were in a hospital, but were looking for a way out from working in a gold mine. A group of them got together some bread scraps so they could buy a stick of dynamite from another prisoner. They then proceed to all put one hand on the stick of dynamite and blow their fingers off. After they blew their fingers off they were elated, because they now will not have to work in the gold mines. That certainly illustrates how bad life was in the gulag.
My great uncle ended up in Siberia for 10 years, survived, and was able to return to his country Latvia. Interestingly in Kolyma Tales, Latvians were mentioned a couple times, and typically they all died because they were big (need more food) in comparison to the typical Russian prisoner.
This book is a collection of short stories, most of which are about 3 – 6 pages each.
'The zeks were never allowed to see a thermometer but they were forced to work whatever the weather conditions and any residents of the Kolyma could tell how cold it was just by the weather. If there was a frosty fog, that meant it was -40°C. If you exhaled in a rasping fashion, it was -50°. If there was a rasping and it was difficult to breath it was -60°. After -60° spit froze in mid-air. Spit had been freezing in mid-air for over three weeks.'
As he admits, he survived only because of the good fortune that helped to get him into some of the easier camp jobs although death lurked around every daily incident if he would happen to lose his indoor job and be sent back to the mines. A good accounting of how low a political system will bend to glorify itself when it regards it's people as 'the replaceable cogs in the mechanism.'