Varlam Shalamov was a Russian writer, journalist and poet who survived three lengthy spells in a Soviet Gulag between 1929 and 1951. The first was a three-year stint undertaking ‘correctional labour’ for distributing a document, supposedly written by Lenin, which recommended removing Stalin as Secretary General of the Russian Communist Party’s Central Committee (the author speculated that Stalin was perhaps “too coarse” for the role). Shalamov’s second ‘crime’ was engaging in “counter-revolutionary Trotskyist activities”, which earned him a five-year sentence in Kolyma, a labour camp in Russia’s Far East. His third mistake was calling Ivan Bunin a “classic Russian writer”, for which he was handed a further 10-year sentence.
Shalamav’s time in Kolyma was characterised by all the standard Gulag specialities: harsh living, frigid weather, hard labour, cruel guards, attempted escapes, extended periods of solitary confinement, gruel for fuel. Yet, amid profound bouts of indifference as to his health and survival, Shalamav found the time (and will) to reflect on the 15 years he’d ended up spending in the Gulag that came to be known as ‘the land of white death’. He penned poems while still in the camp and Kolyma Tales upon his release (a collection of short stories describing labour camp life). He once quipped that the only thing he learnt from his time in Kolyma was how to push a wheelbarrow, but, as a recently released new English translation of Kolyma Tales shows, this was hardly the case.
One of his fragmentary writings, titled 45 Things I Learned in the Gulag, lists just this – and offers no tips on wheelbarrow-pushing. Here are eight of them.
1. The extreme fragility of human culture, civilization. A man becomes a beast in three weeks, given heavy labor, cold, hunger, and beatings.
3. I realized that friendship, comradeship, would never arise in really difficult, life-threatening conditions. Friendship arises in difficult but bearable conditions (in the hospital, but not at the pit face).
7. I saw that the only group of people able to preserve a minimum of humanity in conditions of starvation and abuse were the religious believers, the sectarians (almost all of them), and most priests.
9. I saw what a weighty argument for the intellectual is the most ordinary slap in the face.
15. I realized that one can live on anger.
30. I discovered that the world should be divided not into good and bad people but into cowards and non-cowards. Ninety-five per cent of cowards are capable of the vilest things, lethal things, at the mildest threat.
38. I realized what a terrible thing is the self-esteem of a boy or a youth: it’s better to steal than to ask. That self-esteem and boastfulness are what make boys sink to the bottom.
40. Knowing people is useless, for I am unable to change my attitude toward any scoundrel.