45 Things Varlam Shalamov learned in the Gulag

Here are the first four:

1. The extreme fragility of human culture, civilization. A man becomes a beast in three weeks, given heavy labor, cold, hunger, and beatings.

2. The main means for depraving the soul is the cold. Presumably in Central Asian camps people held out longer, for it was warmer there.

3. I realized that friendship, comradeship, would never arise in really difficult, life-threatening conditions. Friendship arises in difficult but bearable conditions (in the hospital, but not at the pit face).

4. I realized that the feeling a man preserves longest is anger. There is only enough flesh on a hungry man for anger: everything else leaves him indifferent.

Here is the longer list, via Adam.  You can order the book here.


You can find a selection of his translated tales here:

The problem with this translations is that they are highly genderist and fail to acknowledge the contribution in translations of all peoplekind.

On a more important point, there is clearly a white patricachy embedded in modern literature which touches on the foundational but functional conceptual knowledge basis of the white man and their ethos of metaphysical and ontological dual natures. This ties into the dialectics of fundamental but interpretive moral errors which acknowledges the indubitable chaotic nature of double analytics of absolute revolutionary subjectivity. This is quite naturally why the white man must be replaced as the limitations of textual relations are necessary to dismantle customary prejudices.

9. I saw what a weighty argument for the intellectual is the most ordinary slap in the face.

I was going to ask “Seriously?” but I think Mike W said it best.

My nephew constructs similar sounding passages when playing with his alphabet blocks.

Come back and talk to us after you give up white man's computer, food, money, protection, jobs, welfare, health care, knowledge, language etc. You can squat in the dust and mumble and see who cares.

Computers are made by Asians, food is grown and harvested by Mexicans, manufacturing jobs are created in Asia. Healthcare, education, and housing is created in the US by Americans. Notice what gets cheaper and what gets more expensive. Let that sink in.

A much more interesting selection:

7. I saw that the only group of people able to preserve a minimum of humanity in conditions of starvation and abuse were the religious believers, the sectarians (almost all of them), and most priests.

8. Party workers and the military are the first to fall apart and do so most easily.

9. I saw what a weighty argument for the intellectual is the most ordinary slap in the face.

Interestingly some of those are contradictory - he says that the religious survived the best. Which is likely. However it is contradicted by his claim everyone hated the weak - not very Christian at all. But he also said:

4. I realized that the feeling a man preserves longest is anger. There is only enough flesh on a hungry man for anger: everything else leaves him indifferent.

Anger is not really typical of religious Christians. What is interesting is that Solzhenitsyn proves the truth of these rules. He came in as an officer and Party member. And promptly fell apart. He became a Christian and survived. He was very angry.

What is interesting about these camps, under all regimes, is the collaboration. VS says:

18. I am proud to have decided right at the beginning, in 1937, that I would never be a foreman if my freedom could lead to another man’s death, if my freedom had to serve the bosses by oppressing other people, prisoners like myself.

19. Both my physical and my spiritual strength turned out to be stronger than I thought in this great test, and I am proud that I never sold anyone, never sent anyone to their death or to another sentence, and never denounced anyone.

This would make him very rare indeed as most survivors who have written accounts collaborated - and by implication sent others to their death. If a foreman got more food, someone else got less. Even Solzhenitsyn worked for a while as a norm settler I think. Meaning he directly caused the work levels that killed. He also agreed to denounce but he said he never did. A true moral collapse.

The rules VS lays out are a little carefully phrased. I wonder if that means he did collaborate. I can't be bothered to look it up. Is a Capo to blame if they choose to die later rather than now?

38. I realized what a terrible thing is the self-esteem of a boy or a youth: it’s better to steal than to ask. That self-esteem and boastfulness are what make boys sink to the bottom.

Indeed. As anyone with a casual acquaintance with youth crime, self esteem is all too common among criminals. And we have been encouraging it in the young for a long time.

That would be the lesson in William Golding's Lord of the Flies, pretty much the only lesson to be drawn from it.

Re: the religious surviving longest, the opposite with party workers
I wonder if this pattern would hold up if instead it were a religious state responsible for the gulag (an inquisition of sorts). If the priests were betrayed by other priests and bishops, excommunicated by the system they deeply believed in. If, say, they were blasted with religious propoganda while forced to do back-breaking work in hellish conditions.

On #9, this is what happened to Robespierre. When he was finally faced with the cruelty and accusatory fury he had inflicted on others in the name of the Revolution, and had justified argumentatively, he attempted to kill himself. Given that he had previously left the killing to others while he mused about the necessity of Terror, he naturally failed.

41. The people whom everyone—guards, fellow prisoners—hates are the last in the ranks, those who lag behind, those who are sick, weak, those who can’t run when the temperature is below zero.

Real, actual, socialism right there.

"From each according to his ability...."

I have only read an old paperback edition of "One Day in the Life," with a foreword by Krushchev, but I recall that the greatest scorn there was reserved not for those who are ill - Shukhov himself is torn between hoping he is feverish enough to get out of work, and fearing illness -- or exactly for shirking -- see his deliberate sabotage of the chore of mopping the camp office -- but for those who do not pull their weight in situations where the work, however pointless, determines the immediate fortunes of all (within their group, not the camp as a whole). This seems to be a distinction men refuse to ignore, even if all other distinctions melt away.

"It had been a good day." I can see why Krushchev approved it - such spirit! So Russian! Just so, they got through the war! Overlooking, I think, the apparent limit to the size of the group to which strength may be directed, as part of ensuring its own survival.

Real socialism is freely distributing your wife's you know what. That's why I'm a big cuck.

Interesting. But 5. is obscure to me: "I realized that Stalin’s “victories” were due to his killing the innocent—an organization a tenth the size would have swept Stalin away in two days." Can anyone explain it? What "victories" is he talking about? "a tenth the size" of what?

He means that if a tenth of the people falsely accused of anti-Soviet activities were a part of an actual anti-Soviet organization, the Stalin's rule would not have even survived for two days.

Exactly. The fact that most of Stalin’s victims were innocent is blindingly obvious to most of us in the early 21st century, but was not necessarily obvious to Shalamov’s peers in the 1950s, and almost certainly not to Shalamov in 1937.

Unfortunately even now lots of people doubt the scale of Stalin's terror..

Would you rather live in the USSR or in Saudi Arabia? Be honest.

It would depend on what period you are talking about. Since the slow death of Brezhnev the USSR wasn't so bad.

But Saudi Arabia was probably still better. Easier to leave for one thing. You were less likely to be conscripted, sodomized and beaten to death for another. About the same chance of being beaten by the police if you came to their attention. Easier access to information in Saudi. More freedom generally. And toilet paper.

If you are a man, Saudi Arabia is better, no question. If you are a woman, it could be a close call.

46. If it doesn't kill you it makes you stronger. Except, at night.

At night is when my inner cuck really blossoms. My wife enjoys bbc, but secretly, so do I.

Death is the great equalizer -- all life (from the greatest kings of history to the microbes on your toe) ends up exactly the same in a briefest instant of cosmos time.
As the song goes-- the best you can hope for... is to die in your sleep.

Wow, I had no idea about all this. Thanks for the heads up.

The one I appreciated the most was #45. I understood that a writer has to be a foreigner in the questions he is dealing with, and if he knows his material well, he will write in such a way that nobody will understand him.
I also note that the word "fear" doesn't appear in this list, and yet it must have been the very air they breathed. I wonder what his relationship to that emotion was.

Where is this coming from? Reprints of The Gulag Archipelago, now this. Interesting. Has everyone been dragged kicking and screaming by the events of the last couple years into the realization that holy shit we could lose everything?

6 then 7, religion as a survival advantage.

12. ? How does trials are set up?

21 Beria amnesty?

36. Thieves are animals. They can kill you.

There's never been a reckoning for Communism, and it retains fascination among certain segments of the academy and the hard left. Ideally a Che t-shirt would be as culturally unacceptable as Nazi iconography.

I wonder why the Che t-shirt is mentioned as being offensive while the Confederate battle flag - which we see so much more often - is largely given a pass?

As somebody who alternates between the east and west coast, I see way more (uncriticized) Che iconography than Confederate flags.

Right. Those coastal people are the ones who matter.

Because the free market decided that Che Guevara is cooler than a bunch of inbreds? Who's the real commie now?

If you hate communism so much, maybe you shouldn't use made in China computers to write your comment?

I wonder what The Marxist fanatics who still swear by what the former USSR stood for have to say about the gulag
That it was all needed to rid the country of socialism's enemies.? That it is the unavoidable price for any revolution? Or these are all pieces of capitalist fiction to defame the revolution?

Not meaning to be whataboutist but, couldn't that thinking..."that it is the unavoidable price for any revolution"...be the same as that applied to the indigenous people of North America or the Palestinian Arabs by the *revolutionaries* there?

Yes. Let's not forget on this holy day that it didn't work out well for everyone, by design, both graphically and politically, as this banner, adopted in 1893, shamelessly commemorates.

Cry me a river. The hunter-gatherers have been losing to the farmers since the Neolithic. Now they're no longer hunter-gatherers and live long enough to see their grandchildren become adults. You're welcome.

Interestingly, the "hunter-gatherers" are the ones that developed the potatoes, maize and other agricultural necessities that have enabled the success of the post-Neolithic farmers.

You evidently believe that death by disease and violence are beneficial to societies, the evidence of which seems to be contrary. It might be possible that the plague and the Thirty Years War made Europe a better place. Maybe Jonas Salk should have bred a more pernicious disease than polio rather than finding a cure for it. A few nuclear weapons could have been dropped on those unaffected and then you could consider the survivors lucky.

The hunter-gatherers are in trouble whenever and wherever the farmers show up. This is not unique to the history of the US. We are who we are, and we are here, and that is all the justification we and everybody else in human history needs. Property rights don't start until the farmers show up and kick the hunter-gatherers off.

Human rights are only for those who we approve of.

Human rights don't exist at the sovereign level. At the sovereign level, if you have it and can keep it, then it's yours. The hunter-gatherers followed this rule as well. Again, these rights only show up after the hunter-gatherers are deposed.

Who are these people? I have never encountered one.

Trump is a fan of Putin and Putin is a fan of the USSR, so by transitivity, Trump is a fan of the USSR. There's your Marxist fanatic. Found him.

the paris review is still around,
who knew!

As socialists and communists crawl out of the dark corners they’ve been hiding in to renew their campaign to enslave humanity it is a great thing to spread these truths about them. My father survived six years in a North Vietnamese prison and Mr. Shalamov’s points ring true to me. Anyone who survives the cruel barbarism of utopians is changed forever.

Sorry, real war heroes don't get shot down and find themselves in North Vietnamese prison. Sad.

Ha ha! Well, this is the country that made Jane Fonda rich.

Those N. Vietnamese "utopians" were not engaged in a "campaign to enslave humanity", but rather to unite their country and defeat a corrupt and illegitimate oligarchy supported by a hubristic Western ideologue. Unfortunately, your father (and I) were not the good guys in that one.

No, that is the line that the leaders of the Vietnamese Communist party used to sell their bullsh!t to Western liberals. They were Communists. They were engaging in a campaign to enslave humanity. They did not give a damn about Vietnam or the Vietnamese and were happy to sell out their own people if it helped the Soviet Union.

And America was absolutely 100% the Good Guys. More so than in WW2.

Experience since 1975 says otherwise.

No doubt most Vietnamese just wanted everyone else to go away. But the motivation of the Communist leadership was power. Ask the people who fled in boats or endured the re-education camps.

I wonder what lessons the children in American gulags are learning.

Calm down.

Perhaps with some tai chi, or a little foosball, soccer, video games - maybe an after-dinner movie.

Can anyone compare the Penguin and NYRB versions?

Yes. many people can, and I am one of them, but I won't, out of respect.

Respect for NYRB and Penguin both, neither of which is a publishing house I would typically feel great respect for. But I give them both props for publishing these books: every once in a while a publisher understands that they are not doing a favor to the author for publishing that author, they are doing a favor to the reader.

The Wikipedia article on Shalamov is, in English, very good as of today (the Russian version is a disaster, in comparison, as of today).

The man had parents who were as talented as Fitzgerald and his wife (you need to read between the lines in the Wikipedia article to understand this). He was named after a great saint, Varlaam, and changed his name to Varlam. That is important to know. God knows how he managed to live as long as he did, if I had suffered the way he did I would not have lived nearly as long as that.

Most people who care about these things would probably agree with me that the Penguin version and the NYRB version both have faults: can you imagine a world where Penguin or NYRB get such things completely right?; of course you can't .... and I will not recommend one over the other. Look, every single time you buy a book from Penguin or NYRB you take the chance that you are buying a book from a publisher who does not understand the authors they publish.

I tried, and maybe someone else can explain this better. But can you imagine: the year is 1900 and you wonder what the next 50 years will bring, and all of a sudden someone delivers to you a book from the future, written by Varlaam (later Varlam) Adamovich Shalamov, and, remember, this is still 1900, you read that book, published by Penguin or NYRB, you barely notice the difference .... try and imagine

Every year has had its Paradiso every year has had its Inferno. God bless your family and your country, and God bless you. Someday the Paradiso details will outnumber the non-Paradiso details, and someday you will remember that you did not die that night you thought you were going to die. God loves us all even in our deepest sufferings.

It is a good idea to memorize verses of scripture, just in case ...

I have not dug through all of this, but what I saw was in Solzhenitsin. Anything he did not have to offer, much less I have heard from my wife about certain of her relatives?

#2... It takes precious calories to maintain body temp.

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