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Book Review: Tales from the Gulag

Kolyma Stories is a collection of short stories inspired by the fifteen years that Varlam Shalamov (1907–1982) spent as a prisoner in the Soviet Gulag. Shalamov did six years of slave labor in the gold mines of Kolyma before gaining a more tolerable position as a paramedic in the prison camps. He began writing his account of life in Kolyma after Stalin’s death in 1953. —The Editors


How do you trample a road through virgin snow? One man walks ahead, sweating and cursing, barely able to put one foot in front of the other, getting stuck every minute in the deep, porous snow. This man goes a long way ahead, leaving a trail of uneven black holes. He gets tired, lies down in the snow, lights a cigarette, and the tobacco smoke forms a blue cloud over the brilliant white snow. Even when he has moved on, the smoke cloud still hovers over his resting place. The air is almost motionless. Roads are always made on calm days, so that human labor is not swept away by wind. A man makes his own landmarks in this unbounded snowy waste: a rock, a tall tree. He steers his body through the snow like a helmsman steering a boat along a river, from one bend to the next.

The narrow, uncertain footprints he leaves are followed by five or six men walking shoulder to shoulder. They step around the footprints, not in them. When they reach a point agreed on in advance, they turn around and walk back so as to trample down this virgin snow where no human foot has trodden. And so a trail is blazed. People, convoys of sleds, tractors can use it. If they had walked in single file, there would have been a barely passable narrow trail, a path, not a road: a series of holes that would be harder to walk over than virgin snow. The first man has the hardest job, and when he is completely exhausted, another man from this pioneer group of five steps forward. Of all the men following the trailblazer, even the smallest, the weakest must not just follow someone else’s footprints but must walk a stretch of virgin snow himself. As for riding tractors or horses, that is the privilege of the bosses, not the underlings.



Hunger made our envy as dull and feeble as all our other feelings. We had no strength left for feelings, to search for easier work, to walk, to ask, to beg. We envied only those we knew, with whom we had come into this world, if they had managed to get work in the office, the hospital, or the stables, where there were no long hours of heavy physical work, which was glorified on the arches over all the gates as a matter for valor and heroism. In a word, we envied only Shestakov.

Only something external was capable of taking us out of our indifference, of distracting us from the death that was slowly getting nearer. An external, not an internal force. Internally, everything was burned out, devastated; we didn’t care, and we made plans only as far as the next day.

Now, for instance, I wanted to get away to the barracks, lie down on the bunks, but I was still standing by the doors of the food shop. The only people allowed to buy things in the shop were those convicted of nonpolitical crimes, including recidivist thieves who were classified as “friends of the people.” There was no point in our being there, but we couldn’t take our eyes off the chocolate-colored loaves of bread; the heavy, sweet smell of fresh bread teased our nostrils and even made our heads spin. So I stood there looking at the bread, not knowing when I would find the strength to go back to the barracks. That was when Shestakov called me over.

I had gotten to know Shestakov on the mainland, in Moscow’s Butyrki prison. We were in the same cell. We were acquaintances then, not friends. When we were in the camps, Shestakov did not work at the mine pit face. He was a geological engineer, so he was taken on to work as a prospecting geologist, presumably in the office. The lucky man barely acknowledged his Moscow acquaintances. We didn’t take offense—God knows what orders he might have had on that account. Charity begins at home, etc.

“Have a smoke,” Shestakov said as he offered me a piece of newspaper, tipped some tobacco into it, and lit a match, a real match.

I lit up.

“I need to have a word with you,” said Shestakov.

“With me?”


We moved behind the barracks and sat on the edge of an old pit face. My legs immediately felt heavy, while Shestakov cheerfully swung his nice new government boots—they had a faint whiff of cod-liver oil. His trousers were rolled up, showing chessboard-patterned socks. I surveyed Shestakov’s legs with genuine delight and even a certain amount of pride. At least one man from our cell was not wearing foot bindings instead of socks. The ground beneath us was shaking from muffled explosions as the earth was being prepared for the night shift. Small pebbles were falling with a rustling sound by our feet; they were as gray and inconspicuous as birds.

“Let’s move a bit farther,” said Shestakov.

“It won’t kill you, no need to be afraid. Your socks won’t be damaged.”

“I’m not thinking about my socks,” said Shestakov, pointing his index finger along the line of the horizon. “What’s your view about all this?”

“We’ll probably die,” I said. That was the last thing I wanted to think about.

“No, I’m not willing to die.”


“I have a map,” Shestakov said in a wan voice. “I’m going to take some workmen—I’ll take you—and we’ll go to Black Springs, fifteen kilometers from here. I’ll have a pass. And we can get to the sea. Are you willing?” He explained this plan in a hurry, showing no emotion.

“And when we reach the sea? Are we sailing somewhere?”

“That doesn’t matter. The important thing is to make a start. I can’t go on living like this. ‘Better to die on one’s feet than live on one’s knees,’” Shestakov pronounced solemnly. “Who said that?”

Very true. The phrase was familiar. But I couldn’t find the strength to recall who said it and when. I’d forgotten everything in books. I didn’t believe in bookish things. I rolled up my trousers and showed him my red sores from scurvy.

“Well, being in the forest will cure that,” said Shestakov, “what with the berries and the vitamins. I’ll get you out, I know the way. I have a map.”

I shut my eyes and thought. There were three ways of getting from here to the sea, and they all involved a journey of five hundred kilometers, at least. I wouldn’t make it, nor would Shestakov. He wasn’t taking me as food for the journey, was he? Of course not. But why was he lying? He knew that just as well as I did. Suddenly I was frightened of Shestakov, the only one of us who’d managed to get a job that matched his qualifications. Who fixed him up here, and what had it cost? Anything like that had to be paid for. With someone else’s blood, someone else’s life.

“I’m willing,” I said, opening my eyes. “Only I’ve got to feed myself up first.”

“That’s fine, fine. I’ll see you get more food. I’ll bring you some . . . tinned food. We’ve got lots. . . .”

There are lots of different tinned foods—meat, fish, fruit, vegetables—but the best of all is milk, condensed milk. Condensed milk doesn’t have to be mixed with boiling water. You eat it with a spoon, or spread it on bread, or swallow it drop by drop from the tin, eating it slowly, watching the bright liquid mass turn yellow with starry little drops of sugar forming on the can. . . .

“Tomorrow,” I said, gasping with joy, “tinned milk.”

“Fine, fine. Milk.” And Shestakov went off.

I returned to the barracks, lay down, and shut my eyes. It was hard to think. Thinking was a physical process. For the first time I saw the full extent of the material nature of our psyche, and I felt its palpability. Thinking hurt. But thinking had to be done. He was going to get us to make a run for it and then hand us in: that much was completely obvious. He would pay for his office job with our blood, my blood. We’d either be killed at Black Springs, or we’d be brought back alive and given a new sentence: another fifteen years or so. He must be aware that getting out of here was impossible. But milk, condensed milk. . . .

I fell asleep and in my spasmodic hungry sleep I dreamed of Shestakov’s can of condensed milk: a monstrous tin can with a sky-blue label.Enormous, blue as the night sky, the can had thousands of holes in it and milk was oozing out and flowing in a broad stream like the Milky Way. And I had no trouble reaching up to the sky to eat the thick, sweet, starry milk.

I don’t remember what I did that day or how I worked. I was waiting and waiting for the sun to sink in the west, for the horses to start neighing, for they were better than people at sensing that the working day was ending.

The siren rang out hoarsely; I went to the barracks where Shestakov lived. He was waiting for me on the porch. The pockets of his quilted jacket were bulging.

We sat at a big, scrubbed table in the barracks, and Shestakov pulled two cans of condensed milk out of a pocket.

I used the corner of an ax to pierce a hole in one can. A thick white stream flowed onto the lid and onto my hand.

“You should have made two holes. To let the air in,” said Shestakov.

“Doesn’t matter,” I said, licking my sweet dirty fingers.

“Give us a spoon,” Shestakov asked, turning to the workmen who were standing around us. Ten shiny, well-licked spoons were stretched over the table. They were all standing to watch me eat. That wasn’t for lack of tact or out of any hidden desire to help themselves. None of them even hoped that I would share this milk with them. That would have been unprecedented; any interest in what someone else was eating was selfless. I also knew that it was impossible not to look at food disappearing into someone else’s mouth. I made myself as comfortable as I could and consumed the milk without bread, just washing it down occasionally with cold water. I finished the two cans. The spectators moved away; the show was over. Shestakov looked at me with sympathy.

“You know what,” I said, carefully licking the spoon. “I’ve changed my mind. You can leave without me.”

Shestakov understood me and walked out without saying a thing.

This was, of course, a petty revenge, as weak as my feelings. But what else could I have done? I couldn’t warn the others: I didn’t know them. But I should have warned them: Shestakov had managed to persuade five others. A week later they ran off; two were killed not far from Black Springs, three were tried a month later. Shestakov’s own case was set aside in the process, and he was soon moved away somewhere. I met him at another mine six months later. He didn’t get an additional sentence for escaping. The authorities had used him but had kept to the rules. Things might have been different.

He was working as a geological prospector, he was clean-shaven and well-fed, and his chess-pattern socks were still intact. He didn’t greet me when he saw me, which was

a pity. Two tins of condensed milk was not really worth making a fuss about, after all.


—translated by Donald Rayfield

© 2018 | New York Review Books

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