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Kolyma Stories (New York Review Books Classics)

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Life in a Russian gulag, based on the author's own years in the Gulag, chronicled in an epic masterpiece. A masterpiece of Gulag literature, the complete Kolyma Stories is a thousand-page epic composed of short fictional tales based on Russian writer Varlam Shalamov's fifteen years in the Gulag. He spent six years as a slave in the gold mines of Kolyma, a far northeast regi Life in a Russian gulag, based on the author's own years in the Gulag, chronicled in an epic masterpiece. A masterpiece of Gulag literature, the complete Kolyma Stories is a thousand-page epic composed of short fictional tales based on Russian writer Varlam Shalamov's fifteen years in the Gulag. He spent six years as a slave in the gold mines of Kolyma, a far northeast region of the USSR and one of the coldest and most inhospitable places on earth, before finding a less intolerable life as a paramedic in the prison camps. He began writing his six-volume prose account of life in Kolyma after Stalin's death in 1953 and continued until his own physical and mental decline in the late 1970s. Kolyma Stories comprises the first three volumes of Shalamov's tales. The line between autobiography and fiction is indistinct: everything in these stories was experienced or witnessed by Shalamov. His work records the real names of prisoners and their oppressors; he himself appears simply as "I" or "Shalamov," or at times, under a pseudonym, such as Andreyev or Krist. These collected stories form the biography of a rare survivor, a historical record of the Gulag, and, because the stories have more than documentary value, a literary work of creative power and conviction.


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Life in a Russian gulag, based on the author's own years in the Gulag, chronicled in an epic masterpiece. A masterpiece of Gulag literature, the complete Kolyma Stories is a thousand-page epic composed of short fictional tales based on Russian writer Varlam Shalamov's fifteen years in the Gulag. He spent six years as a slave in the gold mines of Kolyma, a far northeast regi Life in a Russian gulag, based on the author's own years in the Gulag, chronicled in an epic masterpiece. A masterpiece of Gulag literature, the complete Kolyma Stories is a thousand-page epic composed of short fictional tales based on Russian writer Varlam Shalamov's fifteen years in the Gulag. He spent six years as a slave in the gold mines of Kolyma, a far northeast region of the USSR and one of the coldest and most inhospitable places on earth, before finding a less intolerable life as a paramedic in the prison camps. He began writing his six-volume prose account of life in Kolyma after Stalin's death in 1953 and continued until his own physical and mental decline in the late 1970s. Kolyma Stories comprises the first three volumes of Shalamov's tales. The line between autobiography and fiction is indistinct: everything in these stories was experienced or witnessed by Shalamov. His work records the real names of prisoners and their oppressors; he himself appears simply as "I" or "Shalamov," or at times, under a pseudonym, such as Andreyev or Krist. These collected stories form the biography of a rare survivor, a historical record of the Gulag, and, because the stories have more than documentary value, a literary work of creative power and conviction.

30 review for Kolyma Stories (New York Review Books Classics)

  1. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    I wasn't afraid of my memories. -Varlam Shalamov In 1966, Irina Sirotinskaya, a young mother working for the Russian State Archives, convinced Varlam Shalamov to let her preserve his works. Upon first meeting him, after being warned of his brusque nature, she remarked how his character struck her: My first impression of Varlam Tikhonovich? Big. There was the physique, tall and broad-shouldered, and then a clear sense of an extraordinary, formidable personality — from his first words, at first glanc I wasn't afraid of my memories. -Varlam Shalamov In 1966, Irina Sirotinskaya, a young mother working for the Russian State Archives, convinced Varlam Shalamov to let her preserve his works. Upon first meeting him, after being warned of his brusque nature, she remarked how his character struck her: My first impression of Varlam Tikhonovich? Big. There was the physique, tall and broad-shouldered, and then a clear sense of an extraordinary, formidable personality — from his first words, at first glance. They were to develop a friendship that would last until his death in 1982. This first meeting ended better than expected, with Irina asking to return and Shalamov remarking: “Come by. I like you.” It is to this meeting, and subsequent friendship, that a debt is owed, for what was preserved is a masterpiece of 20th-Century literature. In Kolyma, in the far northeast of Russia, the gates above the prison-camp entrance were emblazoned with the words “Labor is a matter of honor, a matter of glory, a matter of valor and heroism,” but it may as well have read “ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE.” Hell under a different banner. Through 86-stories, most of which are short, precise, and unceasingly palpable, Shalamov writes of his experiences in the Gulag prison system. As a political prisoner sentenced under the sinister “Article 58,” he was entitled to exist in unremitting misery, where “bread was what decided things”; waking early to endure 16-hour workdays mining for gold in temperatures reaching sixty degrees below zero (Below fifty-five degrees a gob of spit freezes solid in midair); enduring beatings from the bosses, guards, foreman, and humiliations from the criminals; the never-ending search for more rations of bread, tobacco, and warmth, only to slump into a plywood bunk when the day was done, embraced by fellow prisoners to keep warm, to make it through the night for a chance of surviving to the next day. The suffering does not stop for a moment: it does not give way to religious epiphanies, it does not provide any redemption or plausible explanation as to why one man survives, while the other dies (You today, me tomorrow). Perhaps this is why Shalamov is persistent in his belief that what separates human beings from every other living species on the planet is not our greater intelligence. It is the unshakable will of humans to survive that allows resistance to death in such a place where the odds are ever in favor of the abyss. And it is certainly why Shalamov proclaimed “Every minute of camp life is poisoned.” In the wake of each story is an elegiac tone, in which Shalamov does not once tread into sentimentality, but rather mournful respect issued from a shared trauma. It is often reiterated that there is no heroism in suffering, and it is best exemplified when Shalamov writes of the dead: “They were martyrs, not heroes.” Kolyma Stories is not just “camp literature,” but, in my view, a supreme work of art. It is a work bereft of moralizing, judgments, lessons, resolutions, and situations that seem always to work out in the end. Though Shalamov survived the camps, it was certainly not because he was ingrained with great wisdom from his experience, and this leads to a realization that what he has produced can be viewed only in the sense of what it is. The conclusions are drawn only in the reader’s mind. Shalamov expressed his view of his works in this way: 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. Irina Sirotinskaya wrote of the time she spent with Varlam Shalamov. The Years We Talked recounts his decline and entrance into several nursing homes, where Irina would visit him less and less over time. When Shalamov was moved to a new nursing home in January of 1982, nude, kicking, and screaming, it would be his last tussle with the hard life he had led. He died two days later. Sirotinskaya captured what followed: On January 17, 1982, he died. He died in the hands of strangers and no one understood his last words. Then there was the funeral, a troublesome matter. Excited faces of strangers who wound up taking part in a sensation. They put on an entire show. I kept talking to him in my mind: “Don’t be afraid, I’m with you.” I had a clear feeling of his presence. His dead face was serene. I put in the pocket of his jacket a talisman of ours which he had given to me a long time ago (“have it on you at all times”) – a small walrus, carved from walrus tusk. Farewell, my friend.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Thomas

    A very important, extraordinarily important period was beginning in my life. I could sense that with my whole being. I now had to prepare for life, not for death. And I didn’t know which was harder. Kolyma Stories is a collection of tales depicting the horrors of labor camp life in the Soviet Union. Relentless and unforgiving. Shalamov masterfully recreates his life experiences in the Gulag with harrowing detail. As Shalamov poignantly states: There are no lessons to be learned from Kolyma. The ca A very important, extraordinarily important period was beginning in my life. I could sense that with my whole being. I now had to prepare for life, not for death. And I didn’t know which was harder. Kolyma Stories is a collection of tales depicting the horrors of labor camp life in the Soviet Union. Relentless and unforgiving. Shalamov masterfully recreates his life experiences in the Gulag with harrowing detail. As Shalamov poignantly states: There are no lessons to be learned from Kolyma. The camps are a negative school of life in every possible way. We had learned to be meek; we had forgotten how to be astonished. We had no pride, no self-esteem or self-respect, while jealousy or passion seemed to us to be something only Martians might feel and, in any case was nonsense. It was far more important to learn the skills needed to button up your trousers in sub-zero winter temperatures. Grown men would weep when they found they could not do that. We realized that death was no worse than life and we were afraid of neither. We were in thrall to total indifference.

  3. 5 out of 5

    J.M. Hushour

    "The same cold that turned saliva to ice in midair had gotten to the human soul." A massive 800-page collection of stories both brusque and pithy. Shalamov was a political prisoner during the Stalin era in the Kolyma region of Russia, one of the most remote and inhospitable places on the planet, where he worked as a miner and then a medical attendant in various prisons. Thus, you'll know what to expect from these stories (mostly) about prison life. What will surprise you is their terse beauty and "The same cold that turned saliva to ice in midair had gotten to the human soul." A massive 800-page collection of stories both brusque and pithy. Shalamov was a political prisoner during the Stalin era in the Kolyma region of Russia, one of the most remote and inhospitable places on the planet, where he worked as a miner and then a medical attendant in various prisons. Thus, you'll know what to expect from these stories (mostly) about prison life. What will surprise you is their terse beauty and succinct art. Shalamov, whose works were largely unknown to the wider world until recently, brings out the obvious barbarity of prison life, but what surprises the reader the most is the ever-present palpable humanity that weaves in and out of all the horrors. Guards, foremen, even officials pop up with tiny kindnesses among the grueling verve of barracks gangsters. There's a lot of ground covered here, a given given the volume's girth (there is another volume, too), and not all the stories are camp-related. A middle section of other, wandering themes is just as good, and less bleak, but most deal with the titular hell.

  4. 4 out of 5

    James Murphy

    I think this book pretty interesting. It's 86 short, autobiographical stories, snapshots the Soviet Gulag in the Kolyma Region of eastern Siberia where gold and coal were mined using the slave labor of political and criminal prisoners serving unbelievably long sentences. Shalamov himself experienced what he wrote about, serving 15 years there. I was impressed by the stories. First, Shalamov offers more variety than you'd think possible about men considered "human refuse" and "human slag" who're w I think this book pretty interesting. It's 86 short, autobiographical stories, snapshots the Soviet Gulag in the Kolyma Region of eastern Siberia where gold and coal were mined using the slave labor of political and criminal prisoners serving unbelievably long sentences. Shalamov himself experienced what he wrote about, serving 15 years there. I was impressed by the stories. First, Shalamov offers more variety than you'd think possible about men considered "human refuse" and "human slag" who're worked to the limits of their endurance, and often to death, in conditions of extreme weather while provided only starvation rations. I thought almost every story interesting in its own way. I'd read a gloss of the book which complained of the sameness of the stories, and even Donald Rayfield's "Introduction" hints at tedium, but I found none. Secondly, I thought the stories more hopeful than I expected. I'd recently reread Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North about Australian prisoners of war being forced to build a railroad through Thailand for the Japanese. Shalamov wrote of harsh conditions and slave labor which included random killing and yet his stories didn't strike me with the same tenor of suffering that Flanagan's POWs faced. The prisoners of Kolyma are a hardy lot. These stories cover every facet of their lives, how and what they ate, how they bathed, how they dressed, how they tried to manipulate the system, the importance of bread, and much more. Stories of deprivation, fear, and cruelty, sure, but stories of the unassailable human spirit, too. Not all the stories can be classed as rigorously fictional. Shalamov sometimes wrote pieces which told how things were rather than telling a story, though they still carry characters. Those describing the conditions under which they lived and worked and the functioning of the Gulag system were for me among the most interesting. One story's about how and why prisoners were killed, another about how equipment was obtained. There's a long one describing many attempted escapes. "Maxim" is about the pleasant relief a lend-lease bulldozer brings to a work site. Especially these, but all the stories, ring with plausibility because you know Shalamov lived the moments of danger and wretchedness he wrote about. Sketches of the Criminal World: Further Kolyma Storie will be published in January in a matching NYRB edition to complete Shalamov's stories of the Gulag. I'll be tempted.

  5. 5 out of 5

    E. G.

    A manuscript page from Shalamov's story "The Apostle Paul" Introduction, by Donald Rayfield Book One: Kolyma Stories --Trampling the Snow --On the Slate --At Night --Carpenters --A Personal Quota --The Parcel --Rain --Pushover --Field Rations --The Injector --The Apostle Paul --Berries --Tamara the Bitch --Cherry Brandy --Children's Pictures --Condensed Milk --Bread --The Snake Charmer --The Tatar Mullah and Clean Air --My First Death --Auntie Polia --The Necktie --The Golden Taiga --Vaska Denisov, Pig Rustler --Serafim -- A manuscript page from Shalamov's story "The Apostle Paul" Introduction, by Donald Rayfield Book One: Kolyma Stories --Trampling the Snow --On the Slate --At Night --Carpenters --A Personal Quota --The Parcel --Rain --Pushover --Field Rations --The Injector --The Apostle Paul --Berries --Tamara the Bitch --Cherry Brandy --Children's Pictures --Condensed Milk --Bread --The Snake Charmer --The Tatar Mullah and Clean Air --My First Death --Auntie Polia --The Necktie --The Golden Taiga --Vaska Denisov, Pig Rustler --Serafim --A Day Off --Dominoes --Hercules --Shock Therapy --The Dwarf Pine --The Red Cross --The Lawyers' Conspiracy --The Typhus Quarantine Book Two: The Left Bank --The Procurator of Judea --Lepers --In the Admissions Room --The Geologists --Bears --Princess Gagarina's Necklace --Ivan Fiodorovich --The Academician --The Diamonds Map --Unconverted --The Highest Praise --The Descendant of a Decembrist --Poorcoms --Magic --Lida --Aortic Aneurysm --A Piece of Flesh --My Trial --Esperanto --Special Order --Major Pugachiov's Last Battle --The Hospital Chief --The Secondhand Book Dealer --On Lend-Lease --Maxim Book Three: The Spade Artist --A Heart Attack --A Funeral Speech --How It Began --Handwriting --The Duck --The Businessman --Caligula --The Spade Artist --RUR --Bogdanov --The Engineer Kiseliov --Captain Tolly's Love --The Cross --Courses: First Things First --The First Secret Policeman --The Geneticist --To the Hospital --June --May --In the Bathhouse --Diamond Spring --The Green Prosecutor --The First Tooth --An Echo in the Mountains --AKA Berdy --Artificial Limbs, Etc. --Chasing the Locomotive's Smoke --The Train Notes

  6. 4 out of 5

    Louise

    I am quitting after 500 pages of this 708 page book of short stories based on the author's 15 years spent in a Soviet gulag. These stories are harsh and hard to stomach, each one filled with misery, treachery and starvation. 300 pages would have been plenty. 700 pages is too much. I am quitting after 500 pages of this 708 page book of short stories based on the author's 15 years spent in a Soviet gulag. These stories are harsh and hard to stomach, each one filled with misery, treachery and starvation. 300 pages would have been plenty. 700 pages is too much.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Miina Lindberg

    A very difficult book to read; a collection of short stories describing the many unimaginable horrors of Soviet hard labor camps in Siberia. The author spent 17 years in Kolyma and experienced the most inhuman treatment possible. Most of the stories were absolutely depressing but all of them were beautifully written. I especially loved the 4 last stories of this book.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Guy Salvidge

    Want to read 700+ pages about life in the 'Gulag Archipelago?' This is your book, and it will have a twin next year too. This supplements and deepens my understanding of life in the far extremities of Soviet Russia, where I learned that 'Trotskyists' rarely had anything to do with Trotsky, and where a child rapist was considered a 'friend of the people' compared to the loathsome politicals. Lots of beautiful writing herein and indeed wisdom regarding the nature of the human condition to match an Want to read 700+ pages about life in the 'Gulag Archipelago?' This is your book, and it will have a twin next year too. This supplements and deepens my understanding of life in the far extremities of Soviet Russia, where I learned that 'Trotskyists' rarely had anything to do with Trotsky, and where a child rapist was considered a 'friend of the people' compared to the loathsome politicals. Lots of beautiful writing herein and indeed wisdom regarding the nature of the human condition to match anything you might find in, for instance, Elie Wiesel's Night. SECOND READING - the only thing I will say against this book is that there's a fair bit of repetition. I would judge that it could probably be edited down to 500 pages from 700. Otherwise, it's about the most important book you or I are ever likely to read.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Rick Slane

    Did you know spit freezes in midair at 50 degrees below zero?

  10. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Polansky

    Observations and episodes from the six years the author spent in the most far flung of the Soviet gulags. Beautiful observations about the natural environment of his distant prison, bleak depictions of the reality of gulag life, a scathing but sincere moral viewpoint, I guess you can figure out why it’s considered a classic.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Miceál

    Honestly brilliant, I have no complaints with this one at all. This was absolutely fascinating, written in such a casual way that was no less devastating for it. It was almost conversational, like I might be sitting on a train listening to someone telling me their story. It's blunt, it's bleak, it's filled with so much information that would have been lost had the author not decided to commit it to paper. It's an absolutely irreplaceable piece of both literature and history, blended together so Honestly brilliant, I have no complaints with this one at all. This was absolutely fascinating, written in such a casual way that was no less devastating for it. It was almost conversational, like I might be sitting on a train listening to someone telling me their story. It's blunt, it's bleak, it's filled with so much information that would have been lost had the author not decided to commit it to paper. It's an absolutely irreplaceable piece of both literature and history, blended together so smoothly that anyone could pick up even a single story from this collection and come away knowing something about the horror that occurred in those camps. This collection is made up of stories written over the course of many years, ranging from a single page to 40+ pages. Occasionally characters reoccur, primarily the author himself or a pseudonym he's using; sometimes events reoccur as well, explored from a different angle or including more detail. Even when this happens, the story is not repetitive. The way that these stories are written is simply so compelling that the same scene or the same theme can be repeated over and over, yet its new context or the author's different frame of mind when writing makes it almost an entirely new story. Every aspect of the author's life in the camp is covered here, from the mundane to the unbelievable, and put all together it's probably the most complex personal account out there. The fact that it's so wonderfully readable is impressive: the book is over 700 pages long, yet at no time did I feel my attention even remotely wavering. I can honestly see why this is one of Those Books in the subject. This really is a must-read for anyone even remotely curious about life in the labour camps, especially if the straightforward non-fiction books seems intimidating in terms of history or context. You'll come out of this book knowing just as much as I've picked up reading more straightforward academic materials.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Dianne

    It took me well over a year to read this amazing account of Kolyma. The cruelty and suffering was too horrendous to keep reading night after night. Sometimes people ask me why I read literature like this, so depressing and so awful, and my answer is that I want to know what happened to people, to honor what they endured, to remember and know what they experienced. This book is more than a historic account, though, as it is wonderfully written. Two quotes: Shalamov is speaking to a companion about It took me well over a year to read this amazing account of Kolyma. The cruelty and suffering was too horrendous to keep reading night after night. Sometimes people ask me why I read literature like this, so depressing and so awful, and my answer is that I want to know what happened to people, to honor what they endured, to remember and know what they experienced. This book is more than a historic account, though, as it is wonderfully written. Two quotes: Shalamov is speaking to a companion about the ending to one of the stories:"That version is no good either, " I said. "Then I'll let the first version stand. Even if you can't get it into print, it's easier when you've written it. If you write it down, you can let go of what happened...." Of course...., Shalamov most likely never would be able to let go. While waiting for the train to Moscow," --it was like having a recurring dream, and then I woke up. I was frightened, and cold sweat broke out on my skin. I was frightened by that terrible human strength, the desire and the ability to forget. I saw I was ready to forget everything, to erase twenty years from my life. And what years they were! When I realized this, I mastered myself. I knew that I would not let my memory wipe out all that I had seen. And I calmed down and went back to sleep."

  13. 4 out of 5

    Thomas

    The suffering endured in the gulags is boggling. Really any systemized, mass violence eludes reason or imagination. Often, we view these events through a historical context in which numbers of victims, sheer volume of horror, are the point of contact and define the atrocities. This book cannot truly explicate on the magnitude of suffering created in the gulag system. The reality may be that there is no proper reckoning with it. Suffering in Kolyma Stories is personal, the forces which control fo The suffering endured in the gulags is boggling. Really any systemized, mass violence eludes reason or imagination. Often, we view these events through a historical context in which numbers of victims, sheer volume of horror, are the point of contact and define the atrocities. This book cannot truly explicate on the magnitude of suffering created in the gulag system. The reality may be that there is no proper reckoning with it. Suffering in Kolyma Stories is personal, the forces which control for ones life are vague and outcomes arbitrary. Perhaps this is the only way you can accurately approach an atrocity. At the very least, if we typically focus on the number of victims, this book ensures that we also know and don't lose sight of the monstrous degree to which an oppressive regime can bear its power with crushing force on one person. Kolyma Stories is a strident illustration of what it means to suffer, and, through absolute deprivation demonstrates what is truly valuable for life.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Karen

    No special salvation for the Gulag prisoners, no neat sentimental endings, justice is rare like angel dust..it is the lower pit of hell and Shalamov's narrators try to convey how one survives and keeps something essential of one's humanity..Or rather, what is the only kind of humanity that can perist in hell No special salvation for the Gulag prisoners, no neat sentimental endings, justice is rare like angel dust..it is the lower pit of hell and Shalamov's narrators try to convey how one survives and keeps something essential of one's humanity..Or rather, what is the only kind of humanity that can perist in hell

  15. 5 out of 5

    Shatterlings

    This is such a hard book to rate, the subject matter is grim and the structure is disjointed. They are short stories but they are also connected but there’s just no time line which I really struggled with. I liked the parts where he wrote about the landscape and the nature around them. It’s an interesting, challenging read and I definitely want to read more Russian literature.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Nissa

    An exceptional Russian classic! This is a very tough read, but well worth the effort. One of the most important books written in the 20th century. Highly recommended.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Technomonk

    Shalamov has a slightly different perspective from Solzhenitsyn, and a more matter-of-fact writing style. I enjoyed these stories and expect to come back to them again.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Andrei Brinzai

    A difficult, overwhelming book about Shalamov's experiences in the Far East Region of Russia. I liked the plain, blunt style used to write this book and, even if some fragments or entire stories are repeated, it did not bother me at all. There is some humor here and there, however most of the stories are shocking and dreadful. Despite all of this, the fragment that stays with me is the following: "Moscow’s Yaroslavl station. Noise, the urban tide of Moscow, a city that was dearer to me than all t A difficult, overwhelming book about Shalamov's experiences in the Far East Region of Russia. I liked the plain, blunt style used to write this book and, even if some fragments or entire stories are repeated, it did not bother me at all. There is some humor here and there, however most of the stories are shocking and dreadful. Despite all of this, the fragment that stays with me is the following: "Moscow’s Yaroslavl station. Noise, the urban tide of Moscow, a city that was dearer to me than all the cities of the world. The carriage coming to a halt. The dear face of my wife, who came to meet me, as she had done before, when I came back from my frequent journeys. This time my absence was extensive, almost seventeen years. But the main thing was that I hadn’t come back from a working journey. I had come back from hell."

  19. 4 out of 5

    Jdcalton

    This collection of short stories from the furthest reaches of the Soviet Gulag surprises with the variety of genres and moods it can extract from what would seem to be a monolithically dehumanizing experience. Of course there are many stories that remind the reader of "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," but without the partially redemptive quality of religious belief. But Varlam Shalamov also manages to depict scenes of humor and nature, stories of hope for prisoners given the chance to be This collection of short stories from the furthest reaches of the Soviet Gulag surprises with the variety of genres and moods it can extract from what would seem to be a monolithically dehumanizing experience. Of course there are many stories that remind the reader of "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," but without the partially redemptive quality of religious belief. But Varlam Shalamov also manages to depict scenes of humor and nature, stories of hope for prisoners given the chance to become human in the process of learning, and finally the resurrection story of the author's return to normal life.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Robert

    needs to be read by more Americans, a companion to the work of Solzhenitsyn

  21. 5 out of 5

    Greg Williams

    This book of short stories is based upon Shalamov's 15 years in Stalin's prison camps in and around Kolyma in the far northeastern USSR. The stories themselves are fictional but based upon his experiences as a political prisoner in the Gulag. As Shalamov writes, the goal of Stalin's camps was not "re-education" but rather to literally work people to death. 14-16 hour days of hard labor in temperatures that can get down to 50 below in the winter, with inadequate clothing and starvation-level food This book of short stories is based upon Shalamov's 15 years in Stalin's prison camps in and around Kolyma in the far northeastern USSR. The stories themselves are fictional but based upon his experiences as a political prisoner in the Gulag. As Shalamov writes, the goal of Stalin's camps was not "re-education" but rather to literally work people to death. 14-16 hour days of hard labor in temperatures that can get down to 50 below in the winter, with inadequate clothing and starvation-level food rations. Some of the things Shalamov says he learned in the camps: * "The extreme fragility of human culture, civilization. A man becomes a beast in three weeks, given heavy labor, cold, hunger, and beatings." * "The main means of depraving the soul is the cold." * "I discovered that the world should be divided not into good and bad people but into cowards and non-cowards. Ninety-five percent of cowards are capable of the vilest things, lethal things, at the mildest threat." * "The most terrifying thing about men who are starving is their behavior." * "Work is what kills people in the camps, so anyone who praises camp labor is either a scoundrel or a fool." It was miraculous that Shalamov survived as long as he did. By combination of "patience and luck", he was able to get away from the gold mine pit face and into the hospital or out on different jobs. Eventually, he was able to train and serve as a paramedic in the camps, which helped him to survive. He writes: "it made no difference whether you had a sentence of five, ten, fifteen, or twenty years, because it was impossible to work at a pit face even for five years. Five weeks was the limit for a mine pit face." The short stories in this book are bleak and sometimes repetitive. But they are also interesting, given that they were written by one of the rare survivors of the camps at Kolyma. If you are interested in first-hand accounts of what life was like in Stalin's Gulag, I'd highly recommend this book.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Vestris

    This book took an age for me to finish, because I find that short story collections, regardless of how well-written they are or how interested I am in the topic, do not always hold my interest. Something about the way that it starts and stops again and again tends to lose me. Nonetheless, although this book took a long time to read, I still completely enjoyed it. I've read a bit about the Gulag before, and so I'm familiar with certain details. Nonetheless, the details here are closer and more per This book took an age for me to finish, because I find that short story collections, regardless of how well-written they are or how interested I am in the topic, do not always hold my interest. Something about the way that it starts and stops again and again tends to lose me. Nonetheless, although this book took a long time to read, I still completely enjoyed it. I've read a bit about the Gulag before, and so I'm familiar with certain details. Nonetheless, the details here are closer and more personal than anything I've read previously. While it is by no means difficult to understand the unpleasantness and horror of the Gulag, this offers something more immediately unpleasant: a sense of the ordinary, banal discomforts that come from the cold and starvation, and the experience of these in an ongoing situation; the general injustice of what happened, the hopelessness therein. With each story I had another impression of all of these small details, and the more that I read the more that it all came together to give a pretty overwhelming sense of just how awful it was. Everything that I read about the Gulag makes me more astounded that it happened at all, much less that anyone could survive it. This is no exception, although with the addition of that I'm amazed at the Shalamov for his recollection of what happened and ability to talk about it in such a way that an impact is felt. I would recommend this to anyone interested in the subject, although I will say that it became a lot easier to read once I started reading it as though I was being told a story or recollection, rather than reading a piece of writing. It definitely has more flow if you imagine that you're sitting across from someone, and I'd say the sense of what I feel became even heavier as I started to get into the flow of it.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Stephen Sakuma

    So I liked many of the stories but I was a little underwhelmed by the repetitiveness and the plainness of the writing. The first few stories were shocking and gripping in their nature and content but most of the stories in each of the 3 sections of the book were quite similar so it was easy to become jaded. I found the book very easy to read (surely a very skilled translation) and Shalamov is often lauded for his objective clarity but it was just a little too plain for me. I really did enjoy lear So I liked many of the stories but I was a little underwhelmed by the repetitiveness and the plainness of the writing. The first few stories were shocking and gripping in their nature and content but most of the stories in each of the 3 sections of the book were quite similar so it was easy to become jaded. I found the book very easy to read (surely a very skilled translation) and Shalamov is often lauded for his objective clarity but it was just a little too plain for me. I really did enjoy learning lots of peculiar circumstances that were unique to Kolyma and the times. It really is amazing how well Shalamov was able to capture the essence of the horrible conditions he went through. He often described that humans are the most resilient creatures (beating out horses and dogs) and could survive the cold, starvation, and abuse. As a side note, I disagreed with the translators decision to translate the gangsta slang as plain english. I was fascinated by the fact that there existed a dialect in Russian that was many generations deep thug but the characters had a very peculiar way of speaking when it was turned into plain english. I know it comes with a set of comprehension issues but I think they should have just used gangster speech from a similar time period in english. Overall, not a terrible book but it could have been shorter to reduce repetitiveness. Shalamov impressively remembered and truly nailed the conveyance of so much rare situational perspective.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Dave

    I'm a sucker for summer reading projects, those really big books that are often tragic and don't ever seem to end. Not to be superficial or anything, but this weighs in at 734 pages in paperback and it's some of the most memorable writing I will ever leave behind me. Shalamov survived 15 years in the Gulag and lived to write wonderfully about his horrible experiences. Why are even Russians with frozen hands and digging with home-made tools in frozen rock able to be great writers? I'm not sure it I'm a sucker for summer reading projects, those really big books that are often tragic and don't ever seem to end. Not to be superficial or anything, but this weighs in at 734 pages in paperback and it's some of the most memorable writing I will ever leave behind me. Shalamov survived 15 years in the Gulag and lived to write wonderfully about his horrible experiences. Why are even Russians with frozen hands and digging with home-made tools in frozen rock able to be great writers? I'm not sure it's worth reading the whole book. There is repetition here from stories he wrote probably for magazines that go over some of the same territory earlier stories covered well. Even with that, though, this document of humanity's cruelty and it's ability to survive is well worth lugging around a good part of the summer.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Davidg

    Back in the 1970's, it seemed that every other bookshelf at college had a copy of "The Gulag Archipelago". It's impact was great, though it was a dry, detailed read. Some, like myself, managed to get through volume 2; not many managed to get through the third volume. "Kolyma Stories" is what the earlier books could have been. Because Shalamov fictionalises his experiences, he is able to give an impression of what the Gulag felt like and how brutal it was. This means it is not dry like the earlie Back in the 1970's, it seemed that every other bookshelf at college had a copy of "The Gulag Archipelago". It's impact was great, though it was a dry, detailed read. Some, like myself, managed to get through volume 2; not many managed to get through the third volume. "Kolyma Stories" is what the earlier books could have been. Because Shalamov fictionalises his experiences, he is able to give an impression of what the Gulag felt like and how brutal it was. This means it is not dry like the earlier books. But it can be harrowing. I have read it over the period of a year. There is a limit to how long you want to spend in this brutal world, where human life counts for nothing, at a time. But it is brilliant. Roll on the second volume.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Justin Kern

    These are some really great fictionalized stories about the frozen arctic soviet gulag nightmare. And they seem to be based on firsthand experience which gives them depth and authenticity. However this book isn't edited/compiled very well. it is a collection of this guy's works, and honestly some of the stories could have been cut. Some of them tell the same story, so it is just weird reading the same story multiple times. Other than that I have no complaints and nothing else really to say. Must r These are some really great fictionalized stories about the frozen arctic soviet gulag nightmare. And they seem to be based on firsthand experience which gives them depth and authenticity. However this book isn't edited/compiled very well. it is a collection of this guy's works, and honestly some of the stories could have been cut. Some of them tell the same story, so it is just weird reading the same story multiple times. Other than that I have no complaints and nothing else really to say. Must read for anyone interested in a glimpse into these dark truths that could befall any nation that lets itself be devoured by ideology.

  27. 4 out of 5

    John Mcdonnell

    More raw, less ideological than Solzhenitsyn. Shalamov does not believe he is redeemed by the camps, but they did teach him things about human nature that one would prefer to learn vicariously. Short stories are a good format for this sort of material. Rated 4 stars because they take an emotional toll; it's probably not necessary to read the whole thing through. More raw, less ideological than Solzhenitsyn. Shalamov does not believe he is redeemed by the camps, but they did teach him things about human nature that one would prefer to learn vicariously. Short stories are a good format for this sort of material. Rated 4 stars because they take an emotional toll; it's probably not necessary to read the whole thing through.

  28. 5 out of 5

    James Spencer

    Most of these stories are very short, some only a couple of pages and they vary in quality, some being truly brilliant and some less so. Shalamov is at times repetitive telling the same stories or pieces of stories more than once. However, in the end, this collection brings home the horror of Stalin's Gulag in as detailed a form as any of Solzenitsyn. Most of these stories are very short, some only a couple of pages and they vary in quality, some being truly brilliant and some less so. Shalamov is at times repetitive telling the same stories or pieces of stories more than once. However, in the end, this collection brings home the horror of Stalin's Gulag in as detailed a form as any of Solzenitsyn.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Chet Taranowski

    A very good long read. However very much a downer. There was a lot of suffering in the Russian Gulag and this book describes it in great detail. Nevertheless, I was very engaged by the stories. Humans can endure a great deal.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Robert Boyd

    Overwhelming. As I read it, I wondered how much of it was fiction and how much was memoir? He structured his stories as stories (except for a few longish pieces, like "Courses: First Things First", in which Shalamov describes in detail his training as a paramedic (a job that saved his life). Overwhelming. As I read it, I wondered how much of it was fiction and how much was memoir? He structured his stories as stories (except for a few longish pieces, like "Courses: First Things First", in which Shalamov describes in detail his training as a paramedic (a job that saved his life).

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