“My writing is no more about camps that St-Exupéry’s is about the sky or Melville’s, about the sea. My stories are basically advice to an individual on how to act in a crowd… [To be] not just further to the left than the left, but also more real than reality itself. For blood to be true and nameless.”.

Varlam Shalamov

I’m writing a little paper about a few short stories from The Kolyma Tales and digging learning more about Shalamov’s life. He was the son of an Orthodox priest which was a pretty precarious position in revolutionary Russia. In his 20s he was arrested twice for resistance to Stalin and both times refused (taking many a beating I’m sure) to sign a form that said he was a criminal, insisting that he was a dissident and not a criminal. After the first he was given the opportunity to travel to Kolyma for colonization. Sarcastically, Shalamov said that he would go there only under enforced escort, but, ironically, fate would hold him to his promise later.  His second sentence  was for 5 years hard labour in Kolyma or “The Land of the White Death.” . In 1943 he was sentenced to another term, this time for 10 years, under Article 58 (anti-Soviet agitation): the crime was calling Ivan Bunin a “classic Russian writer.” These stories document his time in the camps and were  very controversial works under the regime, they weren’t fully published until after his death in the 80s but are now practically a requirement in the Russian education system.  His prose is so natural and sparse but his irony can be almost painful at times. In true Russian fashion he is so darkly funny, and the twisted ironies at the climax of each story feel like a prod with a sharp stick. I can’t explain it he’s just pretty great. Worth a read.