Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma

  • Leona Toker


Varlam Shalamov’s “hell” is the network of concentration camps around the valley of the river Kolyma in the northeastern part of Siberia. In The Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn notes that Kolyma is “lucky”: A comparatively large number of survivors have written memoirs about it.2 Indeed, in 1937–1939 the region was a major destination for the victims of the Great Terror, among whom there was a particularly large percentage of intellectuals. Solzhenitsyn hints that the conditions of Kolyma may not have been much worse than those in other Siberian camps. For an inmate of the Gulag, however, Kolyma was the last circle of hell: Shalamov’s sketch about the prisoners’ arrival, by ship, to Kolyma is suggestively entitled “The Moorage of Hades” (pp. 382–384).


Concentration Camp Labor Camp Camp Life Gulag System Great Terror 
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  1. 1.
    Unless otherwise indicated, the stories cited appear in Varlam Shalamov, Kolymskie rasskazy, 3d edition (Paris: YMCA-Press, 1985). The parenthetic page references in the text are likewise to this edition, which is a reprint of the 1978 London (Overseas Publications Interchange) edition of Shalamov’s stories edited by Michael Heller. This collection contains the greatest number of Shalamov’s stories published in one volume (except the French translation byGoogle Scholar
  2. Catherine Fournier, Récits de Kolyma [Paris: La Découverte/Fayard, 1986]). Its drawback, in comparison with the recent Soviet publications (which have more serious flaws) is the inclusion of Shalamov’s later stories among those of his first three cycles, “The First Death,” “The Artist of the Spade,” and “The Left Bank.” The quotations are given in my own translation or, in some instances, in my emendation of John Glad’s translations collected and grouped in a somewhat arbitrary way in Kolyma Tales and Graphite (New York: Norton, 1980 and 1981). The need for the emendations arose from Glad’s approach to the stories as historical evidence rather than subtle works of art. For early comments on Shalamov’s art seeGoogle Scholar
  3. Irving Howe, “Beyond Bitterness,” New York Review of Books 27 (14 August 1980): 36–37 andGoogle Scholar
  4. George Gibian, “Surviving the Gulag,” New Leader 63 (1980): 17–18; one of the most recent statements is by Lev Timofeev, “Poetika lagernoi prozy: Pervoe chtenie ‘Kolymskikh rasskazov’ Varlama Shalamova,” Russkaia mysl’, nos. 3869–3863 (8 March–5 April, 1991).Google Scholar
  5. 2.
    See Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, trans. Thomas P. Whitney (parts 1–4) and Harry Willetts (parts 5–7) (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), part 3, chap. 4.Google Scholar
  6. 3.
    See Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy, trans. Ilse Lasch (Boston: Beacon, 1962), p. 39.Google Scholar
  7. 4.
    Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature,” in The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1883), vol. 1, pp. 15–16.Google Scholar
  8. 5.
    See, for instance, Iulii Margolin, Puteshestvie v stranu zeka (New York: Chekhov Publishing House, 1952). Margolin’s camps were, however, in the north of the European part of Russia, in the regions around Medvezhegorsk and Kotlass.Google Scholar
  9. 6.
    These letters are published in Semen Vilenskii, ed., Dodnes’ tiagoteet: Zapiski vashei sovremennitsy (Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel’, 1988); see esp. pp. 519 and 524.Google Scholar
  10. 7.
    See “The Path” (“Tropa”) in Varlam Shalamov, Voskreshenie listvennitsy, ed. Michael Heller (Paris: YMCA Press, 1985), pp. 275–277.Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    See, for instance, the last chapters of Alex Weissberg’s The Conspiracy of Silence, trans. Edward Fitzgerald (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1952), also published in the United States under the title The Accused. Google Scholar
  12. 10.
    Most of the available information on the Kolyma camps is systematized in Robert Conquest, Kolyma: The Arctic Death Camps (London: Macmillan, 1978). Also helpful is Conquest’s The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purges of the Thirties (London: Macmillan, 1969).Google Scholar
  13. 12.
    Varlam Shalamov, “O proze,” in Varlam Shalamov, Levyi bereg (Moscow: Sovremennik, 1989), p. 549.Google Scholar
  14. 18.
    Cf., for instance, Dimitri Panin, The Notebooks of Sologdin, trans. John Moore (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), pp. 66–68.Google Scholar
  15. 22.
    On contraction of consciousness as a result of physical suffering, see Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 27–59.Google Scholar
  16. 23.
    See Leona Toker, “A Tale Untold: Varlam Shalamov’s ‘A Day Off,’” in Studies in Short Fiction 28 (1991): 1–8.Google Scholar
  17. 28.
    See Alexandr Shmemann’s article in John B. Dunlop, Richard Haugh, and Alexis Klimoff, eds., Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Critical Essays and Documentary Materials (Belmont, MA: Norland, 1973), pp. 28–44.Google Scholar
  18. 29.
    Leona Toker, “Stories from Kolyma: The Sense of History,” Hebrew University Studies in Literature and the Arts 17 (1989): 189–220.Google Scholar
  19. 30.
    Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1968), p. 13.Google Scholar

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© Galya Diment and Yuri Slezkine 1993

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  • Leona Toker

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