Varlam Shalamov

What I Saw and Learned in the Kolyma Camps

1. The extraordinary fragility of human nature, of civilization. A human being would turn into a beast after three weeks of hard work, cold, starvation and beatings.

2. The cold was the principal means of corrupting the soul; in the Central Asian camps people must have held out longer — it was warmer there.

3. I learned that friendship and solidarity never arise in difficult, truly severe conditions — when life is at stake. Friendship arises in difficult but bearable conditions (in the hospital, but not in the mine).

4. I learned that spite is the last human emotion to survive. A starving man has only enough flesh to feel spite — he is indifferent to everything else.

5. I learned the difference between prison, which strengthens character, and work camps, which corrupt the human soul.

6. I learned that Stalin's «triumphs» were possible because he slew innocent people: had there been an organized movement, even one-tenth in number, but organized, it would have swept Stalin away in two days.

7. I learned that humans became human because they are physically stronger, tougher than any animal — no horse endures work in the Far North.

8. I saw that the only group that retained a bit of their humanity, despite the starvation and abuse, were the religious, the sectarians, almost all of them — and the majority of the priests.

9. The first ones to be corrupted, the most susceptible, are the party members and military men.

10. I saw what a forcible argument a simple slap could be for an intellectual.

11. That people distinguish between camp chiefs according to the power of their punches, to their enthusiasm for beatings.

12. A beating is almost irresistible as an argument («Method number three»).

13. I learned the truth about the preparations for the cryptic trials[1] from masters of the craft.

14. I learned why in prison you get political news (arrests, etc.) sooner than on the outside.

15. That prison (and camp) rumours[2] always turn out to be anything but slop.

16. I learned that one can live on spite alone.

17. I learned that one can live on indifference.

18. I learned why a man lives neither on hope — there are no hopes at all, nor on will — what will?, but only on the instinct of self-preservation, the same as a tree, a rock, an animal.

19. I'm proud that at the very beginning, back in 1937, I decided to never become a foreman if my decision could lead to another man's death, if my will would be forced to serve the authorities oppressing other people, prisoners like myself.

20. My body and spirit proved to be stronger in this great trial than I thought, and I am proud to have betrayed no one, to have sent no one to death nor to the camp, to have denounced no one.

21. I'm proud to have made no requests until 1955[3].

22. I saw the so called «Beria amnesty» there and then — it was something to see.

23. I saw that women are more honest and selfless than men — there was not a single husband at Kolyma who came after his wife. But wives did come; many did (Faina Rabinovitch, Krivoshey's wife)[4].

24. I saw the amazing northerner families (civilians, former prisoners) with their letters to their «lawful husbands and wives» etc.

25. I saw «the first Soviet Rockefellers», underground millionaires, and heard their confessions.

26. I saw the hard laborers, and also the large E and B contingents, the Berlag camp.

27. I learned that one can achieve a lot (a hospital, a work transfer), but at the risk of life — at the cost of a beating and the isolation cell cold.

28. I saw an isolation cell carved out in rock, and spent one night in it myself.

29. The lust for power, for unpunished murder is great — from big shots down to regular police operatives with rifles (Seroshapka[5] and his ilk).

30. I learned the unrestrained Russian lust to denounce, to complain.

31. I learned that world should be divided not into good and bad people but into cowards and non-cowards. 95% of cowards are capable of any meanness, lethal meanness, after light threatening.

32. I am convinced: the camp is a negative experience — entirely. If one spent but an hour there — it would be an hour of moral corruption. The camp has never given anything to anyone — and never could. Everyone, both prisoners and civilians, are corrupted by the camp.

33. In every region there was a work camp, there was one at every major construction site. Millions, tens of millions of prisoners.

34. Repressions touched not only the ruling elite but all levels of society — in every village, at every plant, in every family either relatives or friends were repressed.

35. I consider the best time of my life to be the months spent in the cell of Butyrki prison, where I managed to strengthen the spirit of those who were weak and where everyone spoke freely.

36. I learned to «plan» one day ahead, no further.

37. I learned that kingpins are not human.

38. That there are no criminals at the camp, there are your present (and future) neighbors caught behind the line of the law and not those who crossed it.

39. I learned how terrible the ego of a boy, of a youth is: better steal than ask. This and their boasting throws youth to the bottom.

40. Women didn't play a big role in my life — camp is the reason.

41. The discernment of character is a useless ability — I am unable to change my ways for any scum that comes along.

42. The last in the row, which are hated by everyone — by guards and inmates alike — are those dropping behind, the sick, the weak, those incapable of running in the cold.

43. I learned what power is and what a man with a gun means.

44. That the scale is shifted, and this is what is most typical in a work camp.

45. That passing from a prisoner condition to civilian is very hard, and nearly impossible without a long adaptation period.

46. That a writer must be a stranger — in the subjects he describes. And if he knows the matter well — he will write in such a way that no one would understand him.

Translated by Dmitry Subbotin and Robert Denis.

A New Book: Memoirs, Notebooks, Correspondence, Police Dossiers - Eksmo, 2004: 263-268.


  • 1. 'cryptic trials' – the show trials of the Great Terror of 1937.
  • 2. 'rumours' – known in Russian prison slang as parasha - „the slop bucket“
  • 3. In 1955 Shalamov made a request for rehabilitation.
  • 4. See Shalamov's «Green attorney».
  • 5. See Shalamov's «Berries».