Varlam Shalamov was born in 1907, in Vologda, a Russian village northwest of Moscow. A student of law at Moscow University, Shalamov was arrested in 1929 for publishing Letters to the Party Congress, a document purported to be Lenin's will. The tract's harsh criticism of Josef Stalin earned the author three years of hard labor in the Gulag.
Shalamov returned to Moscow in 1932, publishing stories, and working as a journalist. In 1937, he was rearrested under article 58, dealing with the crime of counter-revolutionary actions. As Eugenia Ginzburg writes in the beginning of Journey into the Whirlwind: "The year 1937 began, to all intents and purposes, at the end of 1934 - to be exact, on the first of December." It was on December 1st, 1934, that Sergey Mironovich Kirov, Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, was murdered. The assassin had reportedly been a member of the party, and this was the excuse Stalin used to begin the mass arrests that followed. In all probability, Stalin himself ordered the execution.
Sent to the Kolyma region of Siberia for five years, Shalamov faced what, for most, would have been a certain death sentence. Prisoners were given little food, forced to work in temperatures of sixty below freezing (the temperature at which spit freezes in the air), and shot if they didn't meet their impossible quotas. He was given an additional ten years for praising Ivan Bunin. Luckily for him, in 1947 a doctor took an interest in his well being, and arranged to have him receive medical training. Being able to work indoors greatly improved his health, and chances for survival.
Allowed to return to Moscow in 1953, Shamalov was able to send Kolyma Tales abroad. It was published in 1966, under tamizdat, the soviet word for publication abroad. Tamizdat and the more well known samizdat, self-publication, were both illegal, and in 1972 Shamalov was forced to denounce the work. This allowed him to continue publishing his poetry in Russia.
The Kolyma Tales are a collection of short pieces concerning the time Shalamov spent in the Gulag. Each one features zeks (the Russian slang for inmates of the camps) who are forced to go to extraordinary lengths to survive. The stories are more bleak and desiccated than those of Solzhenitsyn, because the conditions of Kolyma were the most horrific of all the camps. Solzhenitsyn said of Shalamov: "...his experience in the camps was longer and more bitter than my own, and I respectfully confess that to him and not me was it given to touch those depths of bestiality and despair toward which life in the camps dragged us all."
One feature of Kolyma Tales is that each has a sharp, ironic conclusion, one that illuminates some facet of the humanity of the characters. For instance, in the story, "On Tick", an inmate is murdered for not giving up a sweater his wife had knitted for him. After the sweater is removed from the corpse, the narrator remarks: "Now I had to find a new partner to cut wood with."
Considered to be one of the greatest writers in all of Slavic literature, Shamalov died on January 17, 1982, in a nursing home. His last days were not peaceful ones, as dementia set in, and he began reverting to his former methods of survival. Nurses would find him hoarding things in his bed, and he would scream and cry throughout the night, convinced they were taking him back to Kolyma.
Shalamov, Varlam. Kolyma Tales. London: Penguin Books, 1994.
Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I. The Gulag Archipelago. Harper & Row, 1974.
Numerous lectures conducted by Dr. Olga Cooke