Kolyma Tales is a book of short stories, some very short, about life and death in the area of the Soviet Gulag considered by aficionados of its horror to be the deepest pit of its hell. Kolyma (Koh-lee-mah) is a region in the far east and north of Siberia where prisoners were sent to die while scratching some gold from the frozen earth. Temperatures would drop to sixty below zero, Centigrade, I assume. Victor Shalamov somehow survived there for seventeen years and wrote what are considered some of Russian literature’s greatest short stories.
Most of the stories focus on a single situation involving a few characters, rather than narrating a dramatic series of events. Often there is darkly ironic, or deadpan twist to the end. The style is spare, precise, and descriptive, without sentiment. They are brutally powerful, without overwhelming you with depression.
A well fed leader of the camp prospecting squad approaches a convict to participate in his escape plan. The convict suspects a trap, but goes along, after saying he needs to gather strength: can he have a can of Lend Lease condensed milk? The squad leader gives it to him; the other convicts watch him eat it, like dogs that can’t turn their fascinated heads away. The convict says he’s changed his mind. The leader finds other dupes: all end up dying in the attempt.
After WWII, hordes of Russian POWs, released into the custody of Stalin’s government, were sent to the Gulag. They didn’t die fighting: they must be traitors. Unlike the usual run of the convicts, sentenced under Article 58, i.e. ‘political prisoners’ rounded up by quota from among the intellectual and middle classes, these men knew strategy, were used to risk, and understood how to use force. Some stage a breakout under a major. A good try, but…
One ‘funny’ tale is simply the indictment of an ‘injector’, a mechanical part of a pump that failed, leading to a failure of the crew to meet the work quota. The part is denounced and indicted for its crime. Is it a joke, or is it the work of a prison guard mechanically filling out forms, perhaps not knowing he’s describing a part and not a human convict? Still a joke…
Endless descriptions of the struggle to stay warm, to scrounge food, to come to terms with the swarms of lice that make their home on your body, to avoid work intended to kill you, to somehow ‘cheat’ a few days rest by faking illness, inducing infection in sores, anything. One man pretends his back is broken, and will not straighten up no matter what…for weeks. He succumbs to a diabolical doctor who injects him with a stimulant just for the joy of proving the superiority of his medical knowledge.
Several stories cover the ‘criminal element.’ These are the thieves, rapists, and murderers who were sentenced to the Gulag, but who are not considered “enemies of the people” because they were not sentenced under No. 58. They pose no danger to the building of socialism in one country. They form terrifying gangs and live by fleecing the other convicts and any camp administrators they can. The guards fear them and leave them alone – they murder with impunity. They make the system work pretty well for themselves, avoiding assignments to the death-details, but sometimes they need the convicts for whom they have utter contempt. They select an educated man as a “novelist,” one who will entertain them by reciting good stories from literary classics. This man is protected and given respect. Culture has its value, after all.
At one point, Shalamov refers to the guard tower as the architectural emblem of all that is Kolyma: a surviving tower is shown below in an old photograph. The Mask of Sorrow is a monument constructed to memorialize the victims of the Kolyma Gulag, and was constructed in 1996 with contributions from six cities in the region.
Shalamov’s stories were finally published in the USSR during Gorbachev’s presidency.