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Kolyma Tales Paperback – 28 Jul 1994

4.5 out of 5 stars 31 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics (28 July 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140186956
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140186956
  • Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 2.8 x 19.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 37,596 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

Product Description

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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By Lonya TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on 20 Feb. 2005
Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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”.
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Format: Paperback
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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