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Showing 1-10 of 53 reviews(Verified Purchases). See all 89 reviews
on August 29, 2015
I agree with the excellent reviews concerning Kolyma Tales. But I can add to Shalamovs description of the gulag. A few times he mentioned that political prisoners had the hardest time in the gulag because they had ideals and came from better circumstances than the typical prisoner. Within only a few months in the gulag they come to a shocking realization that they have abandoned their values and ideals simply to survive. They cannot believe who they have turned into.
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.
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on May 14, 2014
Varlam Shalamov (whose name is misspelled in the digital edition, "m" substituted by "n" for some reason) is a Soviet writer who spent 20 years in Stalin's concentration/labor camps known as Gulag. It is a compilation of Shalamov's recollection of the time he spent in Siberian gulags, people he encountered, and a total breakdown of all humanity that took place in these horrible camps in a country overcome by Stalinist repressions. No different from Nazi concentration camps, gulags deprived their inmates of all humanity. The story is a testament to Shalamov's courage as a human being: he wrote these stories in the 1950s and 1960s while living in the Soviet Union. They were first published in the West in 1966, and only much later became available in his home country. These stories are not so much about the triumph of human spirit under impossible conditions - they are more about the permanent scars that totalitarian regimes leave on generations of people, in fact, on entire societies and their cultures.

There is no common story or characters that link all of the stories in the book. Millions of people perished in these camps, and many people perished while Shalamov managed to survive. Some stories tell of Shalamov's work in the gold mines, other stories tell of his time in Siberia after he was finally released, and yet other set of stories deal directly with the political system that made gulags possible, treatment of women in the camps, as well as with the non-political prisoners - killers, child molesters, thieves who had a better life in the camps than political prisoners.

This book is a translation from Russian. Some sections flow better than others. I am a Russian native speaker and a near-native speaker of English, it was my choice to read the English translation. After having read the book, I would recommend that a Russian native speaker reads it in Russian. There are certain cultural aspects that are less pronounced in the book because some phenomena had to be explained vs being translated directly for the non-Russian readership. Again, nothing wrong with translation - it is a masterpiece in any language.
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on December 29, 2015
I have read and reread this and will do so many times again. That this author isn't well known and upheld as a master in the literary canon is unconscionable. Imaging if Hemingway actually was a POW instead of out schmoozing upper-class proto-hipsters. He would have written like this. Bleak, stark, terribly clean, and fearful in it's nonchalant rendering of the inescapably fate of millions less fortunate and articulate. Anyone interested in WW2, Russia, History, POWs, Prison Labor, Siberia, Cold War, Political Dissent, Communism, etc. will find this fascinating. Along with anyone who appreciates immaculate prose that borders on poetry in it's stripped down simplicity. I'll stop gushing now. But seriously, it's that good.
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on May 15, 2016
A collection of short stories depicting the horrors of Soviet labor camps in far east Siberia; written by a survivor of Kolyma camps each story is based on a single episode from inside the camps, most of them absolutely shocking. All political prisoners brought to Kolyma were working as slaves at outdoor gold mines, half a year in temperature up to -40C. These camps must have been worse than Nazi concentration camps. The book shows Soviet communist system as the most revolting political system in which a human being meant absolutely nothing. Most Americans would consider such an inhuman treatment of people as was happening in Kolyma Gulags is unthinkable; this book should be a mandatory reading in our High Schools as our young generations have a very poor knowledge of history...
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on September 7, 2016
This is a masterpiece unjustly ignored by the stupid press and the even more stupid public. In this disgusting, materialistic, ignorant and conformistic world this tales of human suffering and struggle both moral and material could not attract attention. Shalamov is a poet and a true man, he is a great russian writer in the tradition of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Cechov. It should be required reading in any course on modern literature and modern history.
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on April 9, 2014
The Chekov of the Gulag, Varlam Shalamov, needs to be commended, one, for surviving seventeen years of imprisonment in the mines of the frozen north and two for telling the tale. The style, which, I believe, suffers from an indifferent translation, is spare and straightforward; Chekhovian, leaving the reader to make his/her own interpretations.

There is none of the hopefulness of One Day in the Life or the sarcasm of The Gulag Archipelago, none of the ironic and deliberate distancing of the brilliant stylist Borowski's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentleman [ on Auschwitz ] or any of the moral questions that the memorialists of the Nazi concentration camp universe usually ask. Instead, things are as they are: people starve, struggle to stay alive, work under brutal conditions for long hours, interact among themselves and with their jailers, get frostbite, go to hospital to rest and recover for the next round of work in the mines and so on.

The end result is a portrait of the worker's paradise as a hugely inefficient and impersonal machine which is indifferent to human life and suffering, and, in one, which despite its stated and supposedly humanitarian aims, slave labor is the fodder for the continuous turning of the economic wheel.

Once again with Amazon's rating system, it is a hard book to assign stars. While I can't say I love or like it per se, or that it is a work I would return to, Kolyma is important as a historical document and a unique blend of fact and fiction depicting a terrible world unknown to most of us.
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on September 9, 2012
I ended up reading this book through a rather circuitous route, reading quite a bit about Shalanov before finally reading his stories. Clearly books about life in the gulag are not going to be a light read and will end up focusing quite a bit on exhaustion, starvation, the nearly never ending cold, and how much the human spirit suffers or dies under such brutal conditions. One also finds such details in Solzhenitsyn. "Extreme deprivation" seems to encapsulate the experience pretty thoroughly. The total moral chaos of life in the gulag is portrayed in this book with aching thoroughness. The just are despised by those in power while the thieves and murderers are exonerated and intellectuals are seen by guards as especially worthless and deserving of all punishments; good deeds are punished while criminal acts are rewarded. A single careless and seemingly innocuous remark can add an extra ten years to an already absurdly long work camp sentence.

Kolyma Tales is laden with moving descriptions: the joy in suddenly finding oneself warm, having found an opportunity to stand near a fire; disbelief and relief caused by the acquisition of extra food; terror when faced with the random and stunning violence that dominated the Kolyma camp; grim resignation caused by seeing others die on a regular basis; fear of forming attachments since one never knows who is a traitor or who will ever actually stay around or survive; the profound sparseness of the existence of these people who take their bread ration to bed with them to savor it just that little bit longer, even though it is never even remotely enough to fill them up.

The image that most strongly struck me was the one where Shalanov described his train ride to Moscow after being released from the labor camp. He is struck by the love he sees a father - himself a worker released from the gulag - expressing for his young son, that love an emotion entirely missing in Kolyma, a place where mere survival from day to day is as much as its inhabitants can manage. At the end of the story, the author, looking from the train window, suddenly sees his wife waiting for him, the wife he has not seen in twenty years. Using few words, Shalanov beautifully expresses the myriad emotions he must have been feeling as he realizes he is re-entering life.

For any interested in Stalinism, modern Russian history, or Russian literature, this is a must read.
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on January 25, 2016
This work is justifiably noteworthy as a chronicle of the horror of Stalin's slave labor camps as told by one who was there. Not as politically charged (or preachy) as Solzhenitsyn's more famous work, but it still tells the tale in the form of short stories of what life (?) was like in the camps and just outside them. It is becoming increasingly hard for the new generation to believe that such things took place, but this work should be required reading for all students.
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on January 18, 2011
In the far northeast corner of Russia, astride the Arctic circle, lies Kolyma, an desolate, inhospitable area named after a river and mountain range, inaccessible except by sea. Unfortunately for the hapless victims of Stalin, gold and other minerals were discovered there in the 1930s. Stalin barbarically ordered the area to be developed and mined using prisoner labor. That labor included victims of collectivization and unending purges, common criminals and political prisoners, captured enemy combatants and returning Russian soldiers who had the misfortune of having been captured rather than fighting to the death. It is estimated that about one million prisoners died in the 80 prison camps making up the Kolyma complex. They died of starvation, exposure, illness and abuse. Varlam Shalamov was a political prisoner who served a 17-year sentence in the Kolyma camps, managing to survive using his intelligence and cunning to avoid certain-death assignments. Kolyma Tales is a collection of vignettes describing events and incidents lived by the author and fellow prisoners. The stories are utterly fascinating, told in a personal intimate style, with a disarming sense of humor, without bitterness. Solzhenitsyn so admired Shalamov's writing that he named him one of the best writers of the period. Unfortunately, despite his talent and genius, Shalamov failed to fulfill his promise with further works. I highly recommend Kolyma Tales not only because of its historic value (there are few accounts of Kolyma), but also because Shalamov's writing style so wonderfully simple, direct, positive and objective. One ends up concluding that all Shalamov's characters, prisoners and their keepers, are victims in a tragic irony, and asking oneself, "what is life?".
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on September 11, 2014
This is an important book even though it is a combination of personal experience and fiction since it chronicles the lives of several prisoners in the gulag system in Russia during the Stalin years. It is comparable to "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch" by Solzhenitsyn. Rather than concentrating on one particular day it covers many years and relates experiences of the author or that the author learned about when he was in captivity. Anyone interested in that particular subject or in the depths of suffering that humans can be put to when ruled by absolute power should read this book.
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