Sharply observed stories, from the thin line between autobiography and fiction, of life inside the Gulag.
Shalamov (1907-82) sympathized with Trotsky, and his father had been an Orthodox priest. For both sins, he was packed off to the mines of Kolyma, in the far northeastern corner of Russia. In the decades after his servitude, like many former prisoners, writes the translator in his introduction, “Shalamov…stuck to the principle of speaking as little as possible, and never when a third person (who might be an informant) was present.” Nevertheless, he quietly wrote thousands of pages, in some of which he recounted what he had learned from the Gulag: “I realized that one can live on anger,” he wrote, and then, “I realized that one can live on indifference.” In the stories, people live on whatever they can to keep them going in the cold, darkness, and hunger of the camps. One prisoner recounts that he and his fellow inmates had figured out a way to beat the system so that they would not receive “punishment rations,” helped along by the fact that “the guard was a softie: he knew, of course.” Other guards in Shalamov’s pages are harder, but all are implicated in a system in which they, too, can easily become prisoners themselves; so it is when one persecuting Soviet officer crosses wits with a lawyer and winds up falling afoul of his bosses. “He didn’t torment working people,” says another inmate to the lawyer, Andreyev, adding, “It’s because of you, people like you, that we get put in prison.” Assuring us that everything here happened, if veiled and restructured for narrative purposes, Shalamov recounts his transition to work as a paramedic, taught by a famous surgeon who had the bad luck to be related by marriage to a disgraced former Bolshevik. His long cycle of stories ends with his return to Moscow after almost 17 years: “I had come back from hell.”
Available only for the last five years in Russia itself, a searing document, worthy of shelving alongside Solzhenitsyn.