Book Review: Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov


It is estimated that some three million people died in the Soviet forced-labour camps of Kolyma, in the northeastern area of Siberia. Shalamov himself spent seventeen years there, and in these stories he vividly captures the lives of ordinary people caught up in terrible circumstances, whose hopes and plans extended to further than a few hours.

Feeling depressed? Feeling as if life’s unfair? Hard? People are mean? Read Kolyma Tales. That should make you feel better.

Don’t believe me?

“The men were not shown the thermometer, but that wasn’t necessary since they had to work in any weather. Besides, longtime residents of Kolyma could determine the weather precisely even without a thermometer: if there was frosty fog, that meant the temperature outside was forty degrees below zero; if you exhaled easily but in a rasping fashion, it was fifty degrees below zero; if there was a rasping and it was difficult to breathe, it was sixty degrees below; after sixty degrees below zero, spit froze in mid-air. Spit had been freezing in mid-air for two weeks.”

True stories. True stories about real people who suffered in ways that most of us cannot even imagine. For life is not only stranger than fiction, but also a lot more cruel, and a lot more painful.

These stories are not for the faint of heart, for those who want to lie to themselves that there’s great nobility inside your souls, that we are something more than frightened animals…

Under cruel enough circumstances, we become a bit less than frightened animals. And the only thing we want is to survive.

I highly recommend these Kolyma Tales, not only because it puts things into perspective, but also because it is masterfully written. Something not imagined into existence, but pulled from real life onto the page, turned into fiction… the lie that tells the truth, a truth most would like to deny, for it is not the kind of truth we’d ever like to admit about human nature.

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