Kolyma vs. Archipelago

(This formed the long middle section of my old Angelfire review of Kolyma Tales. It examines in-depth the differences between Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov and Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn’s depictions of GULAG.)

Shalámov’s wood-cutting partner Garkunov is murdered for his good white sweater in a game of cards, and his only reaction is “Oh well, guess I’ll have to get a new wood-cutting partner.” Compared to how A.I. was very upset when Borís Gammerov and Zhora Ingal, his friends whom he arrived at his first camp with, died soon after their arrival. He even wanted to mark their graves with some of the poetry they had composed during their too-short lifetimes instead of just moving on to find new friends or work partners.

There’s a cat wandering about the hospital in One Day; all the animals in Shalámov’s Hell are eventually killed for their meat and fur. They don’t care that the dog or cat was being friendly with them moments before; they murder these poor defenceless creatures to have meat and warm mittens.

Some things are questionable, though. Shalámov tries to prove, in story after story, that the Medical Section were guardian angels, and were truly looking out for these unfortunates. Granted, his life was saved twice by the Medical Section, but it’s well-known that a lot of camp doctors and medical personnel were first-rate [scumbags] who sent plenty of people to their deaths, through signing death sentences or sending them back out to work in the cold while deathly ill. Just because he had two great life-saving experiences doesn’t mean the majority of camp doctors were these wonderfully beneficent people. Evidence shows they weren’t.

Very questionable is the claim that most women were prostitutes. Women in Kolyma were rare, and you’re telling me that of that small minority, the majority were hookers? Yes, prostitution was declared a crime, and women who were caught were sent to prison and camps, but that doesn’t mean the majority of zechki were hookers! The great majority of the prisoner were “politicals,” convicted under the infamous Article 58, not career criminals or thieves.

It’s true that when women arrived, the trusties looked them over and propositioned their favourites. If the woman knew what was good for her, she agreed to it for better living conditions and treatment. But not all women decided to sleep with the trusties. They weren’t forced to do anything. I have no doubt that a lot of the real criminals did have mistresses, but Shalámov claims they were prostitutes, and were often traded off to new criminal owners. He claims that a criminal could sleep with any woman, but a female criminal (of which there weren’t very many) would be shunned if she slept with a non-criminal.

There were a lot of camp romances and even “camp spouses,” but that was voluntary. The criminals were complete [scumbags] and very sadistic, but I don’t think they treated women the way Shalámov describes. Since women were so rare in Kolyma, they were usually raped, so I don’t doubt his assertion that rapes and gang-rapes were common. It was in Kolyma, in fact, that the term “streetcar” to describe gang-rape originated.

It’s probably true that most of the career criminals wanted their sons to follow in their footsteps, but is it really true that they wanted their daughters to be prostitutes, and if they wouldn’t be, they shunned or beat them? In Archipelago, A.I. barely mentions homosexual activity. Some of the thieves did keep young boys for the purposes of pederasty, but I doubt it was that widespread as Shalámov claims, nor that the thieves also would rape little girls, sometimes as young as three.

Lesbianism also arose among the zechki, when they were in a female-only camp and were very lonely and hungry for love. That’s about the only times homosexuality gets mentioned there, and even then not much space is devoted to mentioning these occasional instances. Shalámov claims most of the criminals were gay, and that they went by girly nicknames without shame and had feminine voices to boot.

In his long chapter on the thieves, A.I. never even mentions what Shalámov claims was widespread, that the criminals had sex with one another and gave everyone venereal diseases. There were some camps with many cases of venereal diseases, but that doesn’t mean every single camp was that way. I have no doubt that he did experience this, but you can’t honestly take some isolated incidents in certain camps and then claim it was like that all over the Kolyma! Oh yeah, and if these guys were such flaming fruits, then why were they “married” to women and enjoying such healthy sex lives with them!?

Snapshots from Hell

(This review of Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov’s classic work Kolyma Tales was taken from the much-longer review I originally wrote for my old Angelfire site around 2004.)

Translation: 2.5 stars

Overall material: 4.5 stars

These stories are great, despite being largely devoid of emotion, but the John Glad translation sucks rocks. I’ve read that it cuts out about 15% of the original Russian. The transliteration is all over the place, and contains THE WORST transliterations I’ve ever seen, even worse than Michael Glenny. I’m sure “Glad” this fellow wasn’t my professor!

It also leaves out all the great GULAG slang and special terminology, such as zek, zechka, dokhodyaga, tenner, fiver, Black Maríya, and Stolypin car. Saying “prisoner” doesn’t convey what the GULAG experience was all about; the traditional Russian word for prisoner is not zek/zechka. To just say “goner” doesn’t convey the same thing as dokhodyaga, the same way that the Lager word (in Nazi death camps) Muskelmann conveyed something terrifying and tragic, more than just calling someone an emaciated prisoner ever could.

Varlám Tikhonovich Shalámov was arrested in 1929 and given three years; in 1937 he was rearrested and given a fiver, but in 1942 his sentence was extended to the end of the War. The year afterward it increased even more when he praised the effectiveness of the German army and called Nobel Laureate Iván Búnin a classic Russian writer.

Aleksándr Isáyevich admitted humbly and respectfully that Shalámov spent a lot longer in the GULAG than he did, and that it was his responsibility to tell the world about the deepest depths of Hell. He actually asked him to co-author Archipelago, but Shalámov declined, since he was old and sick.

I wrote a paper in my Modern Russian Lit course on the differences between them, and it’s obvious that Shalámov is more bitter. He doesn’t have time to delve into people’s lives and personalities, and his zeki have lost all hope. They don’t have time to sit around discussing Marx, Luther, Yesenin, Prince Ígor, and their future plans. These men are often worked to death within days or even hours.

Shalámov’s wood-cutting partner Garkunov is murdered for his good white sweater in a game of cards, and his only reaction is “Oh well, guess I’ll have to get a new wood-cutting partner.” The dead have no respect in this world; in one of the first stories, two zeki go off to lift the rocks from a fresh corpse, a fairly new arrival judging by his weight, so they can have his nice warm clothing. That they’re digging up a corpse and wearing a dead man’s clothes doesn’t even faze them.

The zeki in this cruel barbaric world don’t have the time nor interest to go making political statements or indictments against the man who put them there; who cares about condemning Stálin when you’re being slowly worked to death and only have enough time and energy to plan one day ahead at a time? It’s true that in prison you were freer than in the outside world, since now you were in no danger of being informed on and sent to prison, but the zeki in Shalámov’s world don’t even see themselves as free. They’re slaves, cutting down wood and working to death in mines. They have no concept of hope, love, loyalty, kindness, friendship, freedom, nothing.

The images may be emotionless, but they’re sure unforgettable. Who needs to be emotionally involved in the personal lives of a host of multifaceted characters when you’re getting graphic images of sweaters moving all by themselves because of a massive infestation of lice, or a presumed dead man getting his hands cut off so he can be identified by fingerprints, then returning, confusedly holding his bloody stumps next to his chest? Or the men who deliberately blow their own hands and fingers off to get out of slave labour? They reinfected or worsened wounds just to stay in hospital and not have to work in sixty degrees below zero.

It took awhile to really get into the book, because of the lack of human feeling and emotion, as well as the bad translation job, but these are really incredible portraits of Hell. To survive one must lose all human emotions; emotions are meaningless when you don’t know if you’ll live to the next day or get your daily ration of food after sixteen hours of fruitlessly mining for gold in eighty degrees below zero. Anyone would become bitter after seventeen years in Hell, and despite the questionable claims about the Medical Sections, the thieves, and the women, this is searing writing that is so affecting precisely because it’s so detached and emotionless.