Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

Kolyma Tales

Kolyma Tales
Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov

PLOT SUMMARY: Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales do not form a single, coherent story from start to end, but rather a collection of snippets from his life in the Gulag. In the first short story of the collection, Shalamov describes how the prisoners beat down a path through freshly fallen snow. In a later story, “Berries,” Shalamov watches a fellow prisoner gather berries to trade for bread. When he ventures too far to collect some, a guard shoots and kills him from behind, before firing another shot into the air (for the first shot is supposed to be a warning shot).

     Still later, Shalamov finds a child’s notebook in a heap of garbage, and upon opening it discovers a collection of drawings, which entrance him and remind him of his own childhood, as well as indicating the bleak and tortured world that the child grew up in. A fellow prisoner snatches the notebook away, throwing it back onto the pile of garbage. In “The Snake Charmer,” Shalamov recalls a conversation he had with a former screenwriter, in which the screenwriter confesses that he would like to write a story about his experiences in the Gulag if he survives. When he dies shortly thereafter, Shalamov decides to tell the screenwriter’s story for him, and so recounts an anecdote in which the screenwriter becomes respected among his fellow prisoners for his ability to recite novels and poems from memory.

ANALYSIS: Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, more than any other work of prison literature in the Russian context, do not tell the reader about the experience of the Russian prisoner, but rather show them these experiences, through a series of dismal portraits of life in the Gulags of Russia’s Far East. Shalamov’s bleak tone in telling these tales further emphasizes the depression and despair that cannot be disentwined from a life in the Gulag. Where Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago gives the reader an idea of the vast scope of the Gulag system and its impact on society as a whole, Shalamov’s Tales really highlight the individual, human effects of the system.

     Each snippet deals with a single, minute aspect of the Gulag and its inhabitants, from the prisoner who is shot for venturing too far to gather berries, to the notebook full of a child’s drawings that Shalamov finds, to Shalamov’s tale of the dead prisoner who in life had earned the respect of the other prisoners for telling stories, and finally to his portrait of the recently arrived camp surgeon, overwhelmed by the horror of it all and unable to issue even a single command. Each of these pithy, pessimistic tales has a profound impact on the reader, and with each successive story, the impact grows stronger and stronger, until the reader, too, is left feeling empty, hopeless, and shaken to their core.


“I had reached the stage of absolute indifference. I could not tolerate rosy-cheeked, healthy, well-dressed, full people…. If I were to die, it would be all the better.” (57–58)

“Seroshapka cocked his rifle and shot in the air. We knew what this second shot meant. Seroshapka also knew. There were supposed to be two shots – the first one a warning.” (60)

“The child saw nothing, remembered nothing but the yellow houses, barbed wire, guard towers, German shepherds, guards with sub-machine guns, and a blue, blue sky.” (79)

BIOGRAPHY: Varlam Shalamov (1907–1982) was a Soviet-era Russian writer, journalist, and poet. He spent nearly fifteen years of his life, from 1937 to 1951, in a Gulag camp in Russia’s Far East, near the Kolyma River. It was this experience that led to his writing of a collection of short stories, known as The Kolyma Tales, for which he is most remembered to this day. This collection is among the most significant works about the Gulag system, along with Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. But where Solzhenitsyn was “a great strategist and tactician,” Shalamov was “just a great writer” (Sirotinskaya 2006, my translation). And Shalamov, having himself borne long witness to the terrors of the Gulag, was in a unique position to be able to write about it.

     Shalamov “belonged to the Tolstoyan tradition in Russian literature,” believing that “Tolstoy led Russian prose away from the path of Pushkin and Gogol.” He revered Blok most of all as a poet; “when he read Blok, he never talked about poetic discoveries, but it was as if he sensed something of his own, his own soul in Blok.” Thus Shalamov’s longtime dear friend—and fellow writer—Irina Sirotinskaya characterized his literary principles in her biography of him. His life was a tragic one, where hope and trauma frequently collided: “I was going to be Shakespeare,” he told Sirotinskaya late in life. “The camp broke everything.”


Sirotinskaya, Irina P. Moj Drug Varlam Shalamov. 2006.


Boym, Svetlana. “‘Banality of Evil,’ Mimicry, and the Soviet Subject: Varlam Shalamov and Hannah Arendt.” Slavic Review, vol. 67, no. 2, 2008, pp. 342–363.
Boym analyzes Shalamov’s paradoxical and defamiliarizing literary outlook and style through the lens of Hannah Arendt and other post-catastrophic works of art. She also strives to bring his stories out of the specifically Soviet and into a broader human context.

Davoliūtė, Violeta. “Shalamov’s Memory.” Canadian Slavonic Papers / Revue Canadienne Des Slavistes, vol. 47, no. 1/2, 2005, pp. 1–21.
In discussing the unclassifiability of Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, Davoliute prefers to hark back to the “order-endowing power of memory and narrative” to categorize Shalamov’s work. She compares his Tales to other twentieth-century works of “testimony,” contrasting these with earlier forms of fiction and nonfiction, and cautioning the reader against making dichotomous distinctions between fact and fiction in such work.

Szulkin, Robert. “The Terror of Transformation in Varlam Shalamov’s Stories.” Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 2, 1983, pp. 207–213.
Szulkin considers the multifaceted manifestations of transformation in Shalamov’s short tales, from his transformation of the very genre, through the various forces causing human transformation in the camps, as well as the numerous ways in which these transformations manifest themselves.

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