*Kolyma Stories*, by Varlam Shalamov

It is difficult to express just how good these Gulag short stories are.  I would very literally second the blurb by David Bezmozgis:

“As a record of the Gulag and human nature laid bare, Varlam Shalamov is the equal of Solzhenitsyn and Nadezhda Mandelstam, while the artistry of his stories recalls Chekhov. This is literature of the first rank, to be read as much for pleasure as a caution against the perils of totalitarianism.”

That is not blurb inflation.  Note that the book is long (734 pp. of stories), and the reading is slow, mostly because the narratives lack redundant information, not because they are clumsy or awkwardly written.  It also takes perhaps a few stories to get into the swing of things and figure out how the fictional yet not fictional universe works here.  But the content is entirely gripping, and full of social science.  You can buy it here.   A second volume from this translator will appear in 2019, completing the series.

An earlier version of the work, with a different translation and less complete, was published in 1995.  By the way, here is the author’s Wikipedia page.

Have you ever wondered how the contemporary world would react if a masterpiece were dropped into its midst?  If your guess was “with a fair amount of indifference unless it was Elena Ferrante and even then it wouldn’t really change anything except give rise to probably what will be a mediocre television series”…well, you were right.  For Shalamov, I don’t yet see an Amazon review.

Here is my earlier post on what Varlam Shalamov learned in the Gulag.


Has anyone ever wondered what contemporary Russians thought about those political prisoners in the gulag, and the government that put them there?
Like those nonpolitical types who just got up every day and went to work and never had trouble with the authorities?
What stories did they tell themselves to explain things?

Even today, many of those people still yearn for the civil order and national pride that living under Communism provided.

Putin's popularity is reflective of this, an attempt to make Mother Russia Great Again.

So wrong you're not even wrong.

It would be fascinating to interview the police officers who arrested Varlam, the judges who sentenced him and his neighbors who witnessed it to get their take on things.

Would they tell us a story of "well, actually" Varlam was a criminal, up to no good, and a threat to civil order?
Would they tell us that tales of brutality were just fake news and propaganda from unpatriotic malcontents, that in fact these prisoners were terrorists and dangerous?

Shalamov posed an obvious threat to Soviet-era civil order: he got his initial five-year sentence for professing Trotskyite sympathies, BUT THEN he got ten years added on for saying kind things about Ivan Bunin's prose style.

Who could have known just how criminal and threatening the Soviet literary establishment would find "innocuous" literary opinion?

How much could we say credibly that the Soviet regime was undermined and defeated by literary aesthetics alone?

Svetlana Alexievich" Second Hand Time" deals with this issue. Yuri Slezkine's "The House of Government" is also recommended. I don't think that besides the intelligentsia modern Russians are all that interested in this part of their history, perhaps because it is too horrific.

I was going to call out her style as well, and that really is a fascinating book in terms of putting you into the state of mind of mid 90's and 2000's Russians.

One important point is that the textbooks, i.e. history textbooks, not only in Russia but most all of the former soviet bloc are textbooks that were written or originally written during the Soviet Union.

Most normal/common people just don't know. It's not to the level of China but Russia in particular has excelled in the area of censoring and manipulating information so as to brainwash the populace.

Not Soviet specific, but similar.

I had the privilege to get to know a number of German people who lived through the Nazi era. The most frightening comment was from a woman who said that the only people who suffered were the troublemakers.

What made you a troublemaker was the problem, but it wasn't hers.

There is a little bit of this in every society, but the legal systems and rights jurisprudence puts the line far enough over that most people don't cross it. In the Soviet system it was enough to attract attention in some way.

I had a friend who was a Mormon missionary in Argentina during the dirty war, when people were simply disappeared without a trace.
I asked him if it wasn't frightening to be in such a place and he shrugged, saying he wasn't even aware of it.
Which is when I realized, that even in tyrannical states, the life of the average person can be calm and peaceful and pleasant. The nice middle class Argentines he bicycled around with were never the ones arrested or tortured or murdered.

When we Americans look at those dark awful nations there tends to be this smug "it can't happen here" assumption, like tyranny and oppression are obvious and announce themselves loudly.

But then, if tyranny wasn't wildly popular, how could it come to power in the first place? And if it didn't hide its horror behind curtains of lies how would it continue?

Typically it is targeted towards groups. If you aren't in the group, how could you know what is going on? Tyrannies typically don't advertise these things except in situations where they want to make an example of someone unsympathetic.

Progressives like Noah Smith still pine for the days of FDR.


I have talked to a small number of Russians about this. Basically they get defensive and angry and then defend Stalin.

They have not even begun to come to terms with the past. Unlike, say, the Germans. But they know. Because they are ashamed.

I've spent an inordinate amount of time with Russian citizens & expats, and spent a lot of time on this topic, maybe it's a bias of age/location/education, but they almost all fall into one of two categories. 1) They are very aware of the atrocities and the lies they grew up with, or 2) they have no idea and don't invest any mental effort into thinking about history. The latter category is most likely to have remained in Russia and defend Putin, however they aren't good Sovok's defending Stalinism. They have a new cult-of-personality focused on the man who has been entirely invisible during the World Cup (another bout of sickness perhaps - hopefully it kills him)

"But the content is entirely gripping, and full of social science."

Aw, make up your mind.

Best comment of the week.

Ha! Take THAT Tyler Cowen! You and your stupid blog, always saying stuff so dumb we have to come here every day to tell you.

What a pity , that you can't find better use for your time.

Good one, dearieme

Meanwhile, the #ReadMoreWomen campaign being conducted by feminist lit site Electric Literature assures us (overflowing with humane literary sensibility and critical aplomb):

"You've read enough white men for a lifetime".

Content to dismiss any challenging male writer out of prior ideological commitment to preferred gender constructs, this kind of populist/feminist lit crit unjustly abuses Shalamov and his literary contributions afresh, as if it wasn't enough that he was abused by the Soviet literary establishment.

It's hard to overstate Shalamov's impact on Russian readers, at least those who are old enough. I almost wrote my dissertation on him (and almost met his widow, but it never worked out). Since the American experience has nothing quite like the Soviet gulag, Shalamov has no counterpart in American literature. But mention his name to a Russian who is old enough, and you'll get a reaction, not necessarily a positive one. By that I mean not that he's considered a bad writer, but the subject matter hits home for too many people. Russians, at least of a certain generation, take their reading seriously. That was my experience anyway. Shalamov is virtually unrelenting in his pessimism.

"Imagine you put Solzhenitsyn and Chekhov in a super-collider..."

Thus Shalamov is an unreliable narrator? He will frame every story in such way as to make his fatalistic case? And let's be honest: the fact he survived Siberia, as did many others, means it was not as bad as say the Bataan Death March, which also wasn't that bad (10k dead out of 75k total is 13% casualty rate, which is below the average Soviet WWII major battle rate of roughly 20%, ditto the US Civil War).

Bonus trivia: to survive the Gulag, you must not be too fat (your body will lust for food) nor too thin (you won't have fat for those lean weeks when you don't eat), but just right, like Goldilock's porridge. And you know your neighbor is dead when the louse start moving off the body and onto yours. Good stuff!

"the American experience has nothing quite like the Soviet gulag"

How about African American slavery or Japanese American internment camps? Or the experience of refugee populations that emigrated to America like the Jews, Vietnamese, Cubans, or modern day Iraqis and Syrians? Or are the Russian people that unique?

Slavery yes. The other experiences are completely different and not brutal in the least. Don't be a fool.

3 million dead Vietnamese is not brutal? I suppose you think Pol Pot and ISIS were deeply misunderstood too. In your mind, Fidel Castro was a real nice guy to Cubanos too. Nope not brutal at all. I may be a fool but you are definitely an idiot.

How does this compare to Solzhenitsyn's " Gulag archipelago"?

Life in Tsarist Russia was no picnic. I don't wish to start a "you thought it was bad then" line of comments but Russian misery didn't begin in 1917. America has always had its lunatic fringe on the right, but never elected anyone from the lunatic fringe to president. Cowen, experiencing an acute case of complacency, seems to believe America won't have lasting consequences for having an offensive and ignorant man as president. Russia's ruthlessness under the Romanovs continued on after 1917. It's no coincidence that Hobbes is making a comeback. What is it with those people? When one of them would run me off the road while I was riding my bicycle, I used to question why they were angry. Was it something I did? The boss did? Their spouse did? After a time I realized they aren't angry, they are stupid.

Also from Kolyma: https://pianodao.com/2018/07/13/the-deliberately-forgotten-composer/

I've adored everything of Shalamov's (and Bezmozgis's, for that matter) that I've had a chance to read. Works like the former helped inform my own (more imaginary) writing on the gulag and Tyler, I'd be so eager to hear what you thought of my novel and its contemporary sublimations. Please let me know if I can send you a copy.

I read the old translation of Kolyma tales a few years ago and was struck by how bleak it was compared to Solzhenitsyn. I want to reread to confirm, but one thing that stuck out in my mind from reading it was how every christian died. This book tempered my natural optimism about life and humanity. There's hope in Solzhenitsyn. There is no hope in Shalamov, and he is convincing. :-(

So a couple weeks ago Russ Roberts induced me to buy the new translation of Solzhenitsyn's In the Inner Circle and now I'm buying this (I've only been disappointed by a Cowen recommendation once). Alex T. Had a great post here in 2010 about all the US econ textbooks that confidently predicted the USSR outperforming the US. Some might find it amusing to wonder if the apparent fondness of US economists of a certain age for Russian literature is related, some psychological need for wish fulfillment.

Literature can be great even if the economies are poor. eg Solzhenitsyn, Soyinka, Tagore.
Sometimes I wonder whether American literature and Philosophy compare poorly in the world as an inverse proportionality of its economic success.

You make a good point. I am all in favor of reading literature in translation especially from countries whose literature is sadly under-appreciated in the US. I am in the middle of The Aethaeum by Raul Pompeia, for example, and am awestruck yet saddenedbecause I doubt I will ever run into another anglophone with whom I could discuss it. When it comes to art, you will find no more nationalist a segment of US society than publishers and art professionals generally.

America has produced Kylie Jenner, the world's first Instagram billionaire. I'd rather be that than an author of books about gulags that nobody reads.

you would soon find out that you did not choose wisely

the world is full of infinite riches, wisdom is the greatest of riches, everything else is illusory

Proverbs 8

to get a capitalist, in the supreme court, is unfolding benevolence

and that directly correlates with the 'rights of man', hence if there was no property, you could 'be reading this without
any legibility.

Nobody reads books about gulags because they are boring. Yes yes yes of course, gulags are bad. Cripes, the virtue signaling that libertarians showcase is so tedious, offputting, and preachy.

"I don't yet see an Amazon review": also, the Russian wikipedia article on Shalamov is woefully inadequate.

I will try and get a review up soon.

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