SKETCHES OF THE CRIMINAL WORLD: FURTHER KOLYMA STORIES
by Varlam Shalamov
translated by Donald Rayfield
New York Review Books, 576 pages
reviewed by Dylan Cook
A man gets ready to murder his boss with a pickaxe. A woman is grateful that her newborn twins don’t survive. A doctor refuses to treat new patients, fearing that someone has been sent to kill him. Characters like these populate Varlam Shalamov’s criminal world, the depraved underbelly of society born and bred in the Soviet prison system. Many of the criminal world’s citizens were locked up under vague pretenses of “counterrevolutionary activity,” so why should they uphold the laws that failed them in the first place? Why not murder and steal before your neighbor beats you to it? Morals, after a while, can become relative. Life in prison may get easier without a domineering boss, cheaper without children to care for, and safer without new faces in the ward.
Varlam Shalamov was a natural dissenter. Born to an Orthodox priest in 1907, Shalamov lived as a staunch atheist. As Josef Stalin rose to power, Shalamov joined a Trotskyist group in direct opposition to the new government. There, he helped distribute pamphlets that were highly critical of Stalin, leading to his first imprisonment from 1929 to 1932. He continued writing politically charged pieces that brought him in and out of prison camps in Kolyma, the Far East of Russia, from 1937 to 1951. In the decades that followed, Shalamov documented his experiences through thinly veiled fictions in the six-part Kolyma Stories. The first volume, published two years ago, contains an updated translation of the first three parts, with stories that have been widely known since the 1980s. By contrast, many stories in Sketches of the Criminal World were only recently discovered and appear here in English for the first time. Together, the two volumes constitute the first complete English translation of Shalamov’s fiction. While his writing was suppressed in the Soviet Union, his stories leaked out into Europe and beyond, placing him on the world stage as one of the foremost chroniclers of the gulag. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago, admitted that Shalamov’s personal experience in the prison system was “longer and more bitter,” and that Shalamov shed necessary light on life in Soviet prisons. Only in 1987, five years after his death, were Shalamov’s stories published in the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev’s more lenient policies.Given his history, it’s unsurprising that Shalamov’s work is itself a protest, battling opinions on multiple fronts. Many “stories” in this collection are simply essays masquerading as fiction, offering Shalamov a platform to comment on literature, incarceration, and the intersection of the two. Russian literary giants like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gorky, and Babel were all too mawkish for Shalamov’s taste, and their attempts to accurately write about criminals simply missed the mark. None of these authors lived among criminals, real criminals, long enough to properly understand their rituals and influence. Shalamov did. By writing these stories, Shalamov was providing what he thought was the most genuine account of the gangsters who lived in and controlled Soviet gulags. There is nothing redemptive about these characters—they’re no Robin Hoods or Jean Valjeans. For Shalamov, criminals are not romantic ideals; rather, they represent the nadir of human morality.
There are two breeds of criminals in Kolyma. First are the freiers, the petty criminals that have no place in the criminal world. Most of these people were taken in under Article 58, a part of the Soviet penal code that allowed the government to arrest citizens under any suspicion that they were disloyal to the state. These everyday people that struggle against the system are the “criminals” that Shalamov fears are being canonized. They’re far from the hardened criminals, the gangsters, that live and thrive in this system. Being a gangster is more than a career, it’s a generational calling. The gangsters in Shalamov’s writing are the sons and grandsons of gangsters, and they bear children to one day fill their shoes. Naturally, the gangsters prey upon the freiers, stealing bread rations from them and murdering them when convenient. The freiers want to survive; the gangsters want to wield more power. Shalamov, through his first-person narration, does not firmly align himself in either camp. He treats both sides equally, and by doing so, he gestures towards the transition from freier to gangster, from human to inhuman. In “The War of the ‘Bitches,’” the narrator witnesses rival gangs in conflict. As the “war” presses on, the gangs begin recruiting both freiers and gangsters into their ranks. The narrator watches inmates futilely join and switch sides, asking:
How? Could the ceremony of kissing a knife change a criminal soul? Or had the notorious crook’s blood changed its chemical composition in the veins of an old crook just because his lips had touched a steel blade?
Reading Shalamov often feels like a quick slip into darkness. Many of his stories are poignantly short, often fewer than five pages, some no more than a paragraph. Today, these would likely be categorized as flash fiction, offering glimpses into characters’ lives without any direct plot. Shalamov knew the effect of this length, and he used it with great precision. His shortest stories focus in on an object or moment and strip them of their familiarity. In “Graphite,” one of the most famous stories from the collection, Shalamov directs his attention towards pencils. Pens, he says, are the preferred writing implement in prisons. Only indelible ink ensures that gangsters cannot cheat in a card game or that doctors cannot alter a death certificate. Pencil marks can be erased and changed to change fate, so pencils are seldom found in Kolyma. In a few pages, Shalamov turns graphite into an unattainable luxury. He shows that the criminal world is not entirely isolated from the civilian world, but runs parallel beneath it. Pencils are simply one of the freedoms that become alien when crossing over into a prison camp like Kolyma.
The natural world that houses these prisoners is just as antagonistic as any gangster or mob boss. High in the Arctic Circle, Kolyma winters last for nine months of the year, and the short summers are hardly enough to thaw the ice. A short walk can become dangerous as frostbite can set in within minutes. Out of both respect and fear for this environment, Shalamov’s writing is that of a naturalist. Describing flora and fauna are some of the only times Shalamov embellishes his usually terse prose style. Stories like “The Path” and “The Waterfall” depict the brief Kolyma summers and the respite that they provided. Natural warmth like this was a gift of hospitality in an otherwise unrelenting environment. “The Resurrection of the Larch,” more than any other story, shows the inextricable tie between the prisoners and nature. It was common for prisoners to send larch branches to their families, not because they were particularly pretty, but because they could come back to life in a glass of water. By sending home life, prisoners could send a message, more tangible than a letter, that they were still there. At the start of the story, the narrator writes:
In the Far North man looks for an outlet for his sensitivity, when it hasn’t been destroyed or poisoned by decades of living in Kolyma. A man sends an airmail parcel: not books, not photographs, not poetry, but a larch branch, a dead branch from living nature.
To Shalamov, survival itself was an act of defiance. Staying alive meant that your will was stronger than the prison systems. In the most personal, autobiographical story of the collection, “The Examination,” Shalamov recounts the process of becoming a paramedic. In his early years as a prisoner, Shalamov worked in coal and gold mines. He fought to become a paramedic, a less strenuous job, knowing full well that his body likely couldn’t take more abuse in the mines. Shalamov’s life comes down to a chemistry exam given by an indifferent proctor. Chemistry, we learn, is one of his weaknesses because his chemistry teacher was executed for counterrevolutionary activity. Now, the knowledge he was robbed of is the only thing that can save him. Living through his exam meant living through his sentence, a win against the Soviet government. “I survived,” he writes. “ I walked out of hell. I finished the classes, ended my sentence, outlived Stalin, and then returned to Moscow.” In a world shadowed by Stalin’s Iron Curtain, the general secretary is very rarely mentioned. Shalamov uses the name sparingly, only when he’s sure of a victory.
“How does someone stop being human?” Shalamov poses the question to the reader many times throughout his stories. Slowly, he begins to answer it by offering bite-sized portraits into life in a Soviet gulag. Bringing clarity to an oppressive regime’s darkest moments wasn’t pleasant for Shalamov, but it was necessary. Doing so could have easily placed him back in Kolyma, but political dissidents like Shalamov have to take that risk. His relentless, macabre imagery is painful, both for the subjects and for the author who is reliving these moments. The fact that Shalamov was able to produce these stories at all is a testament to his integrity as an artist and documentarian. He leads us down the path towards inhumanity. He shows us that this path is lined with theft and murder and indecency, but he never outright blames anyone for following it. The criminal world could not exist without the government that created it, so this journey is just a symptom of the Soviets’ immoral, self-serving policy. Shalamov lays this bare as he brings us all the way to inhumanity. Only then, lost and battered, can we start answering the bigger question: How do we go back?
Dylan Cook is a student at the University of Pennsylvania where he studies English, with a concentration in creative writing, and Biology. He often reads and writes, and when he’s not doing either of these things, he can be found working in a lab, lost in the woods somewhere, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.