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on 16 August 2012
Kolyma Tales was written by a deeply scarred survivor of Stalin's Gulag, a man who was sentenced to the coldest, most awful part of the Soviet prison system for writing a single sentence - for saying that Ivan Bunin was `a classic soviet writer'.
Yet it takes an objective, unemotional stance as it describes the horrors and illogicalities of this prison system that was larger than Europe. The result is that it is far more deeply moving, shocking, and surprising than any emotional prose could manage.
The descriptions of the aching cold (twenty centigrade below was a `hot' day), the hunger (bread is the all-consuming obsession of the prisoner) and most of all of the monstrous behaviour of men and women towards other men and women (guards, doctors, directors, or prisoners). It is incredibly revealing about the crazy, irrational nature of the Soviet system. It also taught me a lot about the depths - horrors - human nature so easily descends to.
It's been compared to Solzhenitsyn's A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, and both are great books on the same subject. But Shalamov is darker. Kolyma was, unbelievably, far worse than other parts of the Gulag. Solzhenitsyn depicts kindness, humanity and respect surviving among the prisoners. There is none here; the most horrifying things are the terrible cruelty of prisoners to one another, the desperate measures to secure a hospital bed, and the anarchic rule of common thieves over the political prisoners
Shalamov deserves to be far better known - to stand along books by Primo Levi and Solzenhytsin that catalogue the worst horrors of what man has done to man, showing us what we can become. And it reminds us that we must never forget.
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Survivor of that time, that place." Anna Akhmatova, Requiem.
Varlam Shalamov was a survivor of 17 years in the work camps of that time and that place known as Kolyma. Upon his return to Moscow Shalamov crafted a series of short stories that memorialized his time in Stalin's labor camps. Those 54 stories were not published in the USSR but were circulated widely in samizdat form. They were publshed in the west as The Kolyma Tales. They are exquisitely well crafted, powerful, and moving.
Shalamov's prose style is sparse and to the point. The dry recounting of horror after horror has quite an impact on the reader. In fact, the level of passion in Shalamov's writing seems inversely proportional to the nature of the scenes he paints; the more horrific the tale the less emotional the writing. This is certainly an effective style. Some facts do not need embellishment. The stories speak for themselves.
Shalamov also does not tell the reader how to interpret a story. He simply tells a tale. Unlike Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn, who had a tendency to tell a story and then advise the reader what lessons should be drawn from it, Shalamov simply tells a story. In that sense his stories can be compared to Anton Chekhov and Isaac Babel.
It would be impossible to summarize each individual story in a short review. However, each was compelling in its own way. I was particularly struck by a few of them. The story "In the Night" concerns two men who sneak out of their barracks at night to dig up the grave of a newly deceased fellow prisoner. Why? Because the wanted to steal his relatively new underwear so they could trade it in for bread and tobacco and perhaps live an extra day longer. In Procurator of Judea a military doctor (not a prisoner) transferred from the front lines to Kolyma in order to accelerate his pension. The stark, dry picture of surgeons performing dozens of amputations of the frostbitten limbs of prisoners arriving on a squalid vessel is only a page or two long. It skips forward 17 years and notes that the doctor could remember the names of his orderlies but could not remember the names of the ship or any of its prisoners. The story simply concludes by noting an Anatole France story. Procurator of Judea. In which "after seventeen years, Pontius Pilate cannot remember Christ." Simple words simply spoken speak volumes.
I could not help but think as I read these stories about the use of literature, of art, as a means of providing permanent testimony to man's inhumanity to man in a century that has witnessed more than its share of horrors. Elie Wiesel, a survivor of a different horror once wrote that "rejected by mankind, the condemned do not go so far as to reject it in turn. Their faith in history remains unshaken, and one may well wonder why. They do not despair. The proof: they persist in surviving not only to survive, but to testify". Varlam Shalamov not only survived but testified and in so doing left a beautifully conceived and executed testament to the lives of those men and women who never made it back home.
This is a book that should be read, and read again.
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on 20 October 2003
Written by Varlam Shalamov, The Kolyma Tales chronicles life in the Kolyma Labour Camp in Siberia, an area where an estimated three million people died during the Stalin era. This account of his experiences in Kolyma is as powerful and unsettling as you might expect from someone who spent 17 years there. I read the Kolyma Tales during my degree course and I haven't complained about the cold weather since. Shalamov's style; impersonal and documentary is different to fellow Stalinist victims such as Solzhenitsyn and Ginzburg but no less influential. He also selects the most concise of literary forms; the short story, which is simple to read and perhaps reflects the structured day by day routine of camp life. Throughout the book Shalamov constantly avoids making conclusions for the reader or expressing overt opinions. Instead, he adopts a studiedly dry and neutral tone, usually conducting his narrative from an objective viewpoint.
Shalamov’s struggle is largely independent and one of isolation. Although he relates many stories seen through the eyes of fellow prisoners, his emotional attachment to others is extremely limited which adds to the isolated feel of the tales. When he describes a day of work, he merely refers to “the topographer”, and never attempts to ascertain the name of his colleague. This alienation and emotional detachment, which pervades the ‘Kolyma Tales’ is further highlighted when another of his work colleagues is murdered during an argument over a card game. Shalamov’s reaction lacks any kind of emotion and his thoughts concern only himself; “Sasha stretched out the dead man’s arms, tore off his undershirt, and pulled the sweater over his head. Now I had to find a new partner to cut wood with”.
Most of Shalamov’s stories focus on just one person or incident, and even within this narrow framework, the presentation is sparing. As opposed to Ginzburg's Into the Whirlwind, physical description of people and characterisation is minimal. Psychological analysis and internal reflection are equally simple but quite deliberate, illustrating that human feelings are so blunted by cold, hunger and overwork as to allow for only the most basic of responses.
The disjointed style of the ‘Kolyma Tales’ reflects the ‘day to day’ approach that Shalamov adopts. He expresses little curiosity concerning his fate or the fate of others, and refrains from contemplating the potential arrival of release and freedom; “nothing bothered us any more…we had long since given up planning our lives more than a day in advance”.
Shalamov’s existence and the lives of those who surround him are dominated by simplistic goals, such as an extra piece of bread, (in a similar fashion to Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) newer and cleaner clothes and the like. When he considers the act of suicide, Shalamov highlights his day to day camp-life philosophy and illustrates the extent to which his hopes extend to; “today they would promise an extra kilo of bread as a reward for good work, it would be simply foolish to commit suicide on such a day”.
The detached style that Shalamov adopts together with an understated sense of horror often succeeds in giving an even greater reality to the cruelty of the camps and the systematic criminality of the Soviet penal system than perhaps other more emotionally involved styles of communication.
The ‘Kolyma Tales’ stands as an amazing example of human survival in the face of the very worst that life can offer and I would certainly recommend it if you're interested in the Stalin Era or gulag literature in general.
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on 3 November 2012
Until I read this book, my only acquaintance with life in Soviet labour camps was through Solzhenitsyn's One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich.

I'd always assumed that that work represented a totally unflinching view of life in these hellish places. How wrong I was: compared to Kolyma Tales, 'One Day' seems almost sentimental. These are stories from Hell itself. And the clinical detachment with which they are told only makes them more chilling. The author describes a world where getting to the end of every single day is a matter of endurance and luck, and where even the most minor of misfortunes means the end of the road for you. A world where you cannot hope for even the faintest glimmer of humanity from those around you.

It is almost impossible to believe that such places existed in great numbers within living memory, and this reason alone would make the book priceless.
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on 23 August 2010
This book was an excellent read giving a very clear, realistic picture of life in the camps. The short story format made it an easier, more accessible read than some other literature of this era, but nothing was sacrificed in quality - the simple telling of each story is beautifully and masterfully done. I'm a great fan of Solzhenitsyn and found Shalamov's style, although different, just as enjoyable. As someone who has read extensively about this era - both factual books and fact-based fiction - I can't recommend this book highly enough.
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on 28 January 2015
Excellent writer and exceptional story to tell. I believe the way the story is told surely departs from narration of facts - the life in the camps, daily atrocities deaths and the likes. Short stories actually compose the book, but these cannot be misinterpreted as chronicles of facts and people in the labour camp. Thanks to Shalamov's style of writing and the description of his detailed observations, I got more the feeling of being told a somewhat extremely poetic, deeply meaningful tale. Read this book.
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on 13 April 2011
Human suffering seems endless. The cruelty is beyond believe, and yet it is written as a matter of fact, which has an even deeper impact. Must be one the books one simply has to read.
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on 19 November 2013
A sad and heart wrenching testament of life in labour camps.
Shalamov had was very resilient and talented man.

Absolutely beautifully written, such a shame it is not fiction
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on 5 September 2009
The prose style is often without emotion and free of moral commentary, however the material itself lends itself to a continual reappraisal of morality. By a series of short stories, seemingly disjointed, a tapestry of the GULAG environment and its soul destroying effects on its inhabitants, constantly forces the reader to reappraise morality and humanity. Its a profoundly unsettling and upsetting book, relentlessly showing from different angles and different stories, the dehumanising effect of this prisoners world.
The mundanity of everyday life is juxtaposed by the desperate struggle to survive. Seemingly small mistakes can be punished by death, illness catches the healthy unawares. Simply the wrong footwear, or loss of clothing can have fatal consequences. The whole mundane panorama of life takes on a a completely different meaning in the GULAG with the fine line between life and deaths myriad forms expressed in these short stories.
This is the great success of this book, in showing how arbitrary life is. How survival is often hostage to fortune. Painful truths emerge without moralising. In a wonderful line :
'Dugaev despite his youth understood the falseness of the belief that friendship could be tempered by misery and tragedy. For friendship to be friendship, its foundation had to be laid before living conditions reached that last border beyond which no human emotion is left to man- only mistrust, rage and lies...'
This is a superbly well written collection of stories. Deep, insightful and with a strong dose of Soviet realism about real things that happened to real people. It is a privilege to have such an articulate window into this world. We leave the better for having read it having the benefit of so many life stories and the lessons that we can take from them.
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on 1 April 2015
Dark, disturbing and true.
Its a subject I find very interesting and anyone who wants to know about the GULAG should read this.
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