Kolyma Tales

March 21, 2012

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.

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Faithful Ruslan – a dog story?

June 17, 2011

Despite my immersion in the three volumes of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag, the novels of Vassily Grossman, and other Stalin-era material, I had never heard of Faithful Ruslan, by Georgi Vladmiov.  Many thanks to the author of the anonymous comment at this dog-oriented post who pointed me to it!  Vadlimov is not well-known here, but he should be.

The plot takes place over a year or two at the time of the great political thaw in the USSR, when Khrushchev made his secret speech denouncing Stalin’s great crimes (he did not refer to his own deep complicity in those crimes, of course) and many prisoners of the slave labor system, The Gulag Archipelago, were released.  Ruslan is a guard dog, born and bred to the role, who is let go after his master cannot bear to shoot him down.  He struggles to find a role in the world after his entire universe is upturned, except that he doesn’t really understand how completely it has been ended.  The camp is gone, the prisoners have not escaped: they were released, and they are not returning.

The story is told from a ominiscient (human) point of view, but the portrayal of dog-consciousness is absolutely wonderful.  Inherent in the structure of the tale are many levels of dramatic irony: we, the human readers know things that the hero, a dog, could never know in his time, or ever;  we know things simply by virtue of being readers, many years after the events related; the human characters know things the dogs do not know; and the dogs know, or seem to know, some things the humans do not and could not know.  The fractured points of view which comment on one another give the tale tremendous power.

On another level, the story is an allegory of Stalin’s USSR, and of human subservience to authority in general.  The allegory is not subtle – is subtlety called for in a discussion of Stalin’s rule?  Ruslan regards his hard master as a godlike being, and he lives simply to serve him and love him.  At one point, he dreams of a world in which everyplace is within the barbed wire of a great prison camp – wouldn’t that be wonderful! – but of course, there must be an inside and an outside, or where would you place the malefactors who would not follow the rules?

Through Ruslan’s memories and the conversations of the humans around him, we get vignettes of camp life that are harrowing in their brutality.  This relatively simple tale is very deep, sad, and upsetting.  My copy of this book is an old library edition – I’m not sure if it has been republished lately.  I was aware reading the blurbs and introduction that the great troika of 20th century horrors – Hitler’s genocide, Stalin’s gulag, Mao’s mass-murder by purge and policy – are fading away into history.  Do young people today feel them with the immediacy that I did as a student, though even then it was old news?


Uncle Joe’s bailout

October 1, 2008

Stalin is much with us these days.  At left, a crude cartoon published in yesterday’s NYTimes lampooning the proposed bailout that was voted down later that day.  It was paid for by someone in Texas who seems to own a venture capital business.  Today, he ran another one that was a crude parody of the famous Iwo Jima flag raising, with Bush, Berneke, and Paulson raising the flag of communism on American soil.

Also in today’s paper, an article about a fellow in Georgia who makes a tidy living by impersonating Joe himself.

And on my home front, my latest acquisition.  From Regency  political cartoons and satires to deadly serious state propaganda.  A limited edition printing of the report on the first Five Year Plan of the USSR, completed in FOUR years, under the glorious leadership of Uncle Joe.  With a little help from slave labor.

When I look through these pages, I feel a tremendous sadness.  The forced collectivization was on.  The mass murder of the kulaks was in full swing.  The Ukrainian famine had wrought its horror.  The Gulag was growing apace.  The Great Purge was but three years off, to be followed by the cataclysm of the Nazi invasion.  All under Stalin’s watch.  No hint of that in these stirring pages…

A colleague of mine is Russian.  She smells the paper and the ink, and is transported back to her grandfather’s library…


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – Dead at 89

August 4, 2008

A few brief quotations from The Gulag Archipelago, not intended to be representative of his work, but merely ones that struck me and that I recorded as I moved through the massive three-volume reminiscence of the camps:

On members of the engineering profession, mine.  This is not the planet I inhabit!

An engineer?  I had grown up among engineers, and I could remember the engineers of the twenties very well indeed: their open shining intellects, their free and gentle humor, their agility and breadth of thought, the ease with which they shifted from one engineering field to another, and, for that matter, from technology to social concerns and art. Then, too, they personified good manners and delicacy of taste; well-bred speech that flowed evenly and was free of uncultured words;  one of them might play a musical instrument, another dabble in painting; and their faces always bore a spiritual imprint.

The Gulag Archipelago vol. I

A bit of sardonic humor:

But then, only those who decline to scramble up the career ladder are interesting as human beings.  Nothing is more boring than a man with a career.

The Gulag Archipelago vol. III

Homespun philosophy of the Gulag:

All the problems which tease and torment men who have been free we solve with a single click of the tongue…”Things have been worse!”

The Gulag Archipelago vol. III

Has a geographer taken up this challenge?

Yes, and in the twenties the Archipelago was one thing, whereas in the fifties it was quite a different thing.  How would one indicate its march through time?  How many maps would be required?…But we hope to see such a map yet.

The Gulag Archipelago vol II?

That old rub between theory and practice:  A piece of really black humor:

As for the theory of escape – it is very simple.  You do it any way you can. If you get away, that shows you know your theory.  If you’re caught – you haven’t yet mastered it.

The Gulag Archipelago vol. III

The meaning of it all:

And how can you bring it home to them? By an inspiration? By a vision? A dream? Brothers! People! Why has life been given you? In the deep, deaf stillness of midnight, the doors of the death cells are being swung open–and great-souled people are being dragged out to be shot. On all the railroads of the country this very minute, right now, people who have just been fed salt herrings are licking their dry lips with bitter tongues. They dream of the happiness of stretching out one’s legs and of the relief one feels after going to the toilet. In Orotukan the earth thaws only in summer and only to the depth of three feet—and only then can they bury the bones of those who died during the winter. And you have the right to arrange your own life under the blue sky and the hot sun, to get a drink of water, to stretch, to travel wherever you like without a convoy. So what’s this about unwiped feet? And what’s this about a mother-in-law? What about the main thing in life, all its riddles? If you want, I’ll spell it out for you right now. Do not pursue what is illusory—property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life—don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don’t claw at your insides. If your back isn’t broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes see, and if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart—and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well. Do not hurt them or scold them, and never part from any of them in anger; after all, you simply do not know: it might be your last act before your arrest, and that will be how your are imprinted in their memory!

But the convoy guards stroke the black handles of the pistols in their pockets. And we sit there, three in a row, sober fellows, quiet friends.

The Gulag Archipelago, vol. I


Forever Flowing

June 6, 2008

Forever Flowing is the last book written by Vasily Grossman, and it too, was not published in his lifetime, in Russia, or anywhere else. The title refers to the prison trains, forever flowing eastward to the GULAG, like a river. This book is even more powerful a testament than his masterpiece, Life and Fate, but it is just that, a testament, a document, not really a novel, though it follows that form superficially. I have read criticisms of this book that say the translation is bad, that the manuscript from which it was taken was incomplete, but it is all we have, and it’s out of print in English! Even so, it is awesome.

Unlike Life and Fate, which deals with the fight for Stalingrad, the Nazi extermination camps, as well as the panorama of Stalins horrors, Forever Flowing focuses on the GULAG, the vast network of slave labor camps, the process by which people were placed there, and on the Ukrainian famine of the early 1930s. It also contains an extended essay on Russian history in which Grossman makes the heretical (for that time, certainly that place) claim that Stalin built on and carried on the essence of Lenin’s work, rather than distorting and perverting the work of that great, idealistic founder of the USSR. (Solzhenitsyn makes the same argument in The Gulag Archipelago volume I) That is, Lenin too, was an inhuman terrorist and totalitarian – he just never got too far because of his early death.

Grossman dissects the notions of the Russian soul that are so popular with thinkers of all political stripes. The soul that will redeem the rest of the world according to Dostoyevsky, and even Solzhenitsyn. For Grossman, the nature of that soul is quite simple – it is the result of 1000 years of slavery, Its gift to the world was not salvation, but Stalinism, and fascism.

Grossman makes the interesting claim that I have never encountered, that the Fascists of Italy and Germany imitated Stalin. I have often heard it said that Fascism and Communism were the same thing under different names – Grossman says it too – but he suggests that Hitler and Mussolini, observing the events in the USSR, the aggrandisement of the state, the crushing of all civil society, were impressed, and sought to imitate it within the boundaries of their own ideology. Certainly these dictators were aware of each other, and watched each other. Now, Putin carries on the tradition.

The story follows one GULAG zek, Ivan, after his release and his return to Moscow. He meets his relative, now a successful member of the Soviet “middle class”; he meets the man who denounced him and set him on his path through the camps for 30 years. The fellow is quite affluent – and he squirms with pain at the thought of having to deal with his guilty conscience. Fortunately, his former friend leaves him quickly. Ivan is not fated for happiness – he falls in love with his landlady, but she dies of cancer. He is alone – out of the world he knows in the camps – not part of the world to which he has returned.

Shortly after he begins his romance with his landlady, she tells him her story. They each tell of their personal horrors – though they want to be happy, they realize that they are the only ones to whom they can each open up and recall the horrors they have seen. Her story is the Ukrainian famine caused by the brutal policies of Stalin. First he shot or deported the male heads of households, the “kulaks”, the irredeemably “bourgeois” peasants (there’s an oxymoron!) who resisted collectivization, then he took the grain that remained to the villages. This policy was to feed the cities, and the workers there, support the state industrialization plan, and crush the resistance of the farmers to collectivization. The result was that hundreds of thousands of peasants starved to death. They starved in their villages, they crawled to the towns and starved there. The party activists came and took whatever grain they had – “parasites hiding the property of the people!” – and took that too. I have appended an excerpt from the description she gives – it is one of the most harrowing chapters I have ever read.

There is much dispute over the numbers that died in this famine and if it was “genocide.” Was it on purpose, or just the result of incompetence? Does it matter much? The policy was to ignore suffering and confiscate the grain.

Robert Conquest’s book on the famine, Harvest of Sorrow, has been criticized as having inflated numbers – he says 7 million died. He is a right wing conservative, so all the left wingers deny his evidence (or used to – are they around anymore?)   One comment I read attacked the book as trying to inflate Stalin to more of a criminal than Hitler – thus the 7 million figure!  Some dispute the magnitude of the event saying the fascist anti-semite Ukranians, the ones who welcomed the Nazi invasion – have an interest in inflating Stalin’s crimes to excuse their complicity with Hitler. All this is getting old now. Maybe 700,000 died – maybe 3.5 million – maybe 7 million. It was a lot, and it was brutal.

Vasily Grossman, Forever Flowing, New York: Harper & Row, 1972
(excerpt from Chapter 14).

from: http://www.faminegenocide.com/resources/witnesses.html

I don’t want to remember it. It is terrible. But I can’t forget it. It just keeps on living within me; whether or not it slumbers, it is still there. A piece of iron in my heart, like a shell fragment. Something one cannot escape. I was fully adult when it all happened…

No, there was no famine during the campaign to liquidate the kulaks. Only the horses died. The famine came in 1932, the second year after the campaign to liquidate the kulaks…

And so, at the beginning of 1930, they began to liquidate the kulak families. The height of the fever was in February and March. They expelled them from their home districts so that when it was time for sowing there would be no kulaks left, so that a new life could begin. That is what we all said it would be: “the first collective farm spring.”…

Our new life began without the co-called “kulaks”. They started to force people to join the collective farms. Meetings were underway from morning on. There were shouts and curses. Some of them shouted: “We will not join!”…

And we thought, fools that we were, that there could be no fate worse than that of the kulaks. How wrong we were! The axe fell upon the peasants right where they stood, on large and small alike. The execution by famine had arrived. By this time I no longer washed floors but was a book-keeper instead. And, as a Party activist, I was sent to Ukraine in order to strengthen a collective farm. In Ukraine, we were told, they had an instinct for private property that was stronger than in the Russian Republic. And truly, truly, the whole business was much worse in Ukraine…

Moscow assigned grain production and delivery quotas to the provinces, and the provinces then assigned them to the districts. And our village was given a quota that it couldn’t have fulfilled in ten years! In the village rada (council) even those who weren’t drinkers took to drink out of terror…

Of course, the grain deliveries could not be fulfilled. Smaller areas had been sown, and the crop yield on those smaller areas had shrunk. So where could it come from, that promised ocean of grain from the collective farms? The conclusion reached up top was that the grain had all been concealed, hidden away. By kulaks who had not yet been liquidated, by loafers! The “kulaks” had been removed, but the “kulak” spirit remained. Private property was master over the minds of the Ukrainian peasant.

Who was it who then signed the act which imposed mass murder? … For the decree required that the peasants of Ukraine, the Don, and the Kuban be put to death by starvation, put to death along with their tiny children. The instructions were to take away the entire seed fund. Grain was searched for as if it were not grain but bombs and machine guns. The whole earth was stabbed with bayonets and ramrods. Cellars were dug up, floors were broken through, and vegetable gardens were turned over. From some they confiscated grain, and dust hung over the earth. And there were no grain elevators to accommodate it, and they simply dumped it out on the earth and set guards around it. By winter the grain had been soaked by the rains and began to ferment — the Soviet government didn’t even have enough canvases to cover it up!…

Fathers and mothers wanted to save their children and hid a tiny bit of grain, and they were told: “You hate the country of socialism. You are trying to make the plan fail, you parasites, you pro-kulaks, you rats.” … The entire seed fund had been confiscated…

Everyone was in terror. Mothers looked at their children and began to scream in fear. They screamed as if a snake had crept into their house. And this snake was famine, starvation, death…

And here, under the government of workers and peasants, not even one kernel of grain was given them. There were blockades along all the highways, where militia, NKVD men, troops were stationed; the starving people were not to be allowed into the cities. Guards surrounded all the railroad stations. There were guards at even the tiniest of whistle stops. No bread for you, breadwinners! … And the peasant children in the villages got not one gram. That is exactly how the Nazis put the Jewish children into the Nazi gas chambers: “You are not allowed to live, you are all Jews!” And it was impossible to understand, grasp, comprehend. For these children were Soviet children, and those who were putting them to death were Soviet people…

Death from starvation mowed down the village. First the children, then the old people, then those of middle age. At first they dug graves and buried them, and then as things got worse they stopped. Dead people lay there in the yards, and in the end they remained in their huts. Things fell silent. The whole village died. Who died last I do not know. Those of us who worked in the collective farm administration were taken off to the city…

Before they had completely lost their strength, the peasants went on foot across country to the railroad. Not to the stations where the guards kept them away, but to the tracks. And when the Kyiv-Odesa express came past, they would just kneel there and cry: “Bread, bread!” They would lift up their horrible starving children for people to see. And sometimes people would throw them pieces of bread and other scraps. The train would thunder on past, and the dust would settle down, and the whole village would be there crawling along the tracks, looking for crusts. But an order was issued that whenever trains were travelling through the famine provinces the guards were to shut the windows and pull down the curtains. Passengers were not allowed at the windows…

And the peasants kept crawling from village into the city. All the stations were surrounded by guards. All the trains were searched. Everywhere along the roads were roadblocks — troops, NKVD. Yet despite all this the peasants made their way into Kyiv. They would crawl through the fields, through empty lots, through the swamps, through the woods — anywhere to bypass the roadblocks set up for them. They were unable to walk; all they could do was crawl…

What I found out later was that everything fell silent in our village… I found out that troops were sent in to harvest the winter wheat. The army men were not allowed to enter the village, however. They were quartered in their tents. They were told there had been an epidemic. But they kept complaining that a horrible stink was coming from the village. The troops stayed to plant the spring wheat too. And the next year new settlers were brought in from Orel Province (Russia). This was the rich Ukrainian land, the black earth, whereas the Orel peasants were accustomed to frequent harvest failures.


His Master’s Voice

May 24, 2008

Very nearly at the end of Grossman’s monumental novel, Life and Fate, the main character, Victor, a Jewish physicist gets a phone call.

He is a brilliant scientist, but a little too free with his thoughts and his talk. He has said things, made jokes, even about Stalin!, that a more circumspect academic would have avoided. His thoughts, well…he knows what was done to the kulaks, he knows the vast, murderous injustices of the Great Terror of 1937, he doesn’t believe in those sham trials of the old Bolsheviks…NO! But for the most part, he’s been careful, and there’s his work to keep him busy during the war.

His makes a breakthrough in his study of the properties of the atom. People are ecstatic, they hail him as a great successor to the quantum pioneers! But there is that matter of nationality…Rumors grow. Some people make criticisms of his work – too Idealistic, not properly Leninist/Marxist/Materialistic. Influenced by foreign elements. And his stated belief that physics knows no party? How can a true communist say such a thing?

He is denounced at a meeting that he refuses to attend. He will loose his position. He grows depressed as he sits at home, waiting for the knock on the door of the men who will take him away in a Black Maria to the Lubyanka, the interrogration hell of the secret police organs. After all, the former husband of his sister-in-law , a fanatical Bolshevik from the early revolution was just hauled in. Hadn’t Trotsky, long ago, praised an article he had written? He philosophizes, contemplates love – he wants them to come for him so it will at least be over!

Ah, but Grossman has other things up his sleeve as he dissects and portrays the ways the State can crush all life out of a man, and not just by killing him.

Victor gets a call from Stalin. Just a brief hello. “Your work is on a very interesting topic. I hope you have the resources you need.” The world has turned completely. From being about to topple into the abyss of the Gulag, Victor is now a privileged genius to be pampered, feted, trusted, and consulted. Why? The State has realized the importance of nuclear physics for its own ends – nothing to do with pure research. Russian scientists and policy makers are aware of the possibility of a nuclear bomb. They have their plans.

Victor need tell no one. Everyone knows of his call soon enough. They smile now, instead of looking away. They hug him, congratulate him, when before they denounced him. But there’s more…

Victor starts to get used to his new life, his freedom to work, the fast cars taking him to important meetings where everyone works cooperatively. The respect of his peers and superiors, not to mention his subordinates. Yes, he still knows what went on with the Ukraine famine, the forced collectivization, the disasterous fiasco of Stalin’s stupor when the Nazi’s invaded. He knows all that, but he is proud, elevated, to have been singled out by the great leader. He doesn’t think about those things so much…

All because he heard his master’s voice…


Sold into Slavery

December 24, 2007

soldintoslavery.jpg

In Solzhenitsyn”s massive trilogy about Stalin’s slave labor system, The Gulag Archipelago, he tells of many loyal party men, cast into the abyss, who insist to the end that “some mistake was made.” “If only commarade Stalin knew,” all would be made right. Such pathetic and twisted thinking is what made the spectacles of the great show trials possible. Well, in Martin Amis’ new book, The House of Meetings, the main character spends a long spell in the camps, and one day comes upon his younger brother, similarly imprisoned. The brother has no illusions. It’s very clear what has happened, he declares. “We have been sold into slavery.”

And so it was. Sold into slavery for the “greater good.” Their crimes? What was Joseph’s crime? The good? The industrialization of the USSR.

As the 1930s began, the USSR was hardly a Union of any stable sort, it was poor, devastated by WWI and the subsequent civil war, not to mention the Leninist Terror. (“We stand for organized terror – this should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution” V.I. Lenin 1906) Twenty-five years later, having survived the inferno of Operation Barbarossa, the Soviet Union was an industrial and military superpower. Slave labor made it possible.

Under Stalin, the USSR went from a backward agricultural nation of peasants to a highly urbanized industrial giant. The peasants’ grain was requisitioned, i.e., confiscated to feed the cities. The peasants starved. Industry thrived, raw materials were abundant, and slave labor, though inefficient and of low quality, was always available.

There was nothing irrational about the Gulag. It was a marvel of the planned economy. It worked.