Varlam Shalamov

Michael Meyer Brewer

Varlam Shalamov's Kolymskie rasskazy: The Problem of Ordering

Introduction to Master's Thesis

Varlam Shalamov's Kolymskie rasskazy is an enormous and exceedingly complex work, one which is only beginning to get the critical attention it so richly deserves. It is a work of considerable artistic maturity, generic innovation and thematic power. In addressing with ruthless clarity one of the century's most tragic phenomena, the Soviet labor camp system, Shalamov puts on display the very soul of humanity.

The fact that recognition has come so slowly to such a major contribution to twentieth-century literature can be traced, in large part, to the chaotic history of its publication, itself a reflection of the political struggles of the times. As Shalamov wrote “for the drawer,” and was himself not involved in the publication of his work, nearly all aspects of how it finally appeared to the public were dictated by the political, financial or personal motivations of others.

Shalamov's stories began appearing in the late 1950's in samizdat. Yet Shalamov had little respect for the dissident community which created samizdat, and made his work first available. Tamizdat, or the emigre journals of the West, published a number of Shalamov's stories over a period of about ten years beginning in 1966. For them as well, Shalamov's work was primarily a political tool. This is equally true of the translations, which were often made to support the rhetoric of the Cold war[1].

It is understandable that Kolymskie rasskazy, given the nature of Shalamov's subject, and given the nature of contemporary politics both East and West, would be appropriated first and foremost as a historical document[2]. However, it is no longer appropriate to allow the vagaries of special circumstances to obscure the full measure of Shalamov's work. In particular, the fact that the reading of randomly selected single stories vitiated Shalamov's conception of a carefully planned architectonic whole.

In the late 1980's, when formal publication became possible in the Soviet Union, Kolymskie Rasskazy began being printed, first in journals, and then in book form. Unfortunately, (as is evident form the chronology in Appendix B), it was published in no more a systematic way than it had been in the West. With the dramatic upsurge of new material, and the openness within which to print it, it seems that the “author's plan” of the ordering was considered secondary. Soon, however, with the publication of the author's correspondence and notes, it became clear that Shalamov considered ordering crucial to the meaning of his work. He felt that a reading of the whole work in the correct ordering elicited a very different response than did a reading of separate stories (O proze 420). This was his experience, and there seems to be at least some evidence as to this being the case in the West as well[3]. In a Structuralist view of meaning, one may see the entire work as 147 signifiers[4], to which we may assign a particular meaning alone, but really only take on their true meaning within the system of syntagmatic and associative links with the others. Many of the stories, read outside of the larger framework, yield a decidedly different impression. Much of what Shalamov writes about is completely alien to our understanding of existence, and as such, we have no words to describe such material. In this way Shalamov uses syntagmatic links, juxtapositions and associations to create new lexical units, which do not exist outside of the text. The entire work, then, in many ways works like a language, as certain words have little meaning outside of their placement within the system which is Kolymskie rasskazy. Resorting to footnoting does not help, as the often belated understanding of a term, behavior or symbol itself augments the overall effect. The most common of words — life, hope, bread, tree, thief, good or bad — do not correspond with their counterparts outside of the text, or often, as is the case, outside of the author's intended ordering.

Bound up with the question of ordering is the important question of genre, and how the assumed genre of the work has impacted on its reception. The reading of Shalamov's stories in the West has been either as single short stories, or as collections of various stories under a single heading. Even many of the translations, prefaced by stressing the interaction between the stories and the importance of ordering, are ordered incorrectly according to what has been posthumously recreated as the “author's plan.” Kolymskie rasskazy also undoubtedly belongs to the rubric of Gulag literature, and to the larger grouping of Camp literature[5]. Gulag and Camp literature show a remarkable diversity of generic innovation and this is evident in Kolymskie rasskazy as well. There are differences, however, in the way they portray similar subjects and themes. Shalamov's inclusion into a group with authors as diverse as Solzhenitsyn, Ginzburg, Dostoevskii, Shelest, Diakov and Siniavskii, not to mention non-Russian writers, is problematic. Shalamov is more than a memoirist, didactician or chronicler of events. He is also in many ways apolitical, more interested in the larger questions of Good and Evil. He gets at the crux of what it is to be human, by examining the ways in which humans react in extreme conditions, at the depths of existence between life and death.

Any study of Kolymskie rasskazy is also incomplete without at least touching on the author's biography. Shalamov's work must be put into a biographical and historical context, for although Kolymskie rasskazy is a work of fiction, it is certainly also highly autobiographical — as Shalamov once wrote, “[Kolymskie] rasskazy — eto moia dusha” (O moei proze 60). The line between fact and fiction, between memory and reality, is often blurred nearly beyond recognition. This distinction, or lack there of, plays a large part in the way the stories are perceived by the reader, and was a device Shalamov was well informed on using.

As we can see, a critical study of Varlam Shalamov's Kolymskie rasskazy is an immense task, one which cannot hope to be squeezed into a single Master's thesis or even a Ph.D. dissertation. As Shalamov once wrote in reference to the Camp “theme,” — “eto ochen' bol'shaia tema, gde razmestitsia sto takikh pisatelei, kak Solzhenitsyn, piat' takikh pisatelei, kak Lev Tolstoi. I nikomu ne budet tesno” (O proze 551). I think this is equally relevant to the discussion of Kolymskie rasskazy. And so in keeping with this, in this thesis I have only introduced many of the basic problems that face Shalamov scholars in the future. In the body, I have limited my focus to a discussion of Shalamov's biography and an examination of the formal and historical problems of ordering, and how they have impacted on the work's critical and popular reception.

In the brief biography I have listed the important dates and occurrences in Shalamov's life and have inserted commentary where I felt it was pertinent. In the chronology of Shalamov's internment, I have also tried to make references to particular stories that I feel may have evolved from certain life experiences.

The author's correspondence and notes support the view that the work has an intended ordering and that it was constructed and reconstructed by the author toward a certain artistic and semantic goal. I have researched the placement of certain stories within the work, positing why the author's ordering in these instances is important. The repetitions of key narrative events, lyrical passages, camp aphorisms, and other units of text, also link into the importance of ordering — Shalamov's ordering of stories with repeated elements serves to build on their meaning as symbols, as well as ironically juxtapose diverse narratives. The close readings of “Po snegu,” “Sententsia,” “Kant” and “Stlanik” are meant to elucidate how the work, when read in the author's intended ordering, reveals its richness and web-like complexity.

Following the conclusion, I have supplemented the thesis itself with a number of appendices. These are meant to both support the conclusions drawn in the body of the thesis, as well as stimulate further study of Shalamov and his works. The appended bibliography of Shalamov materials is extensive, and is the first of its kind.

In Appendix A, I have put together a list of the stories which make up the “author's plan” or intended ordering of the epic. I have included the dates of authorship, the historical time frame, the setting, the point of view, and the names of the narrators. I feel this will be a helpful listing for further narratalogical study of the epic.

In Appendix B, I have given the chronology of the publication of Kolymskie rasskazy in Russia, the Soviet Union, and the West. It is meant to point out the chaotic history of publication, and the multitude of ways in which the stories have been published, read, and therefore, understood by the public.

Appendix C, is a series of maps relating to Shalamov's biography as well as to the epic. The creation of the maps began as my own desire to better understand the geographical points mentioned in the epic and the complex history of Shalamov's exile and internment. I have tried to give all relevant locations mentioned both in the thesis as well as the work itself. As I was unable to obtain (or even find mention of any) detailed maps of the Kolyma Labor Camp System, I have put this map together using documents from various sources, (including the U.S. Board on Geographical Names for the Soviet Union), as well as a ruler to determine the correct latitude and longitude. Owing to this necessary lack of precision, there may be inaccuracies.

Appendix D is an extensive critical bibliography of Shalamov materials. It includes both works by Shalamov as well as those written about him and his works. Though it is by no means complete, I have added significantly to previous bibliographies by Iraida Sirotinskaia, Genadii Trifonov and Michael Nickolson.

In referring to the entire work, I have used the term “epic” [epopeia]. This is the term Iraida Sirotinskaia, heir to Shalamov's estate, and deputy director of the Russian Literary Archives, uses. I like the term. It conveys its magnitude, while recognizing that it is composed of many pieces, and does not impose a chronology. In reference to Kolymskie rasskazy, Mikhail Geller, among others, has used the term “mosaic," which seems a fitting metaphor, though, in my view, too prescriptive. I see it more as a vast constellation. As in a book of constellations, many of the linear connections from one star to the next are prescribed, but the gaps between them, the actual flesh and fur of the mythic beast it represents, are only suggested. Like the face in a cloud or the carpet, it will look different from person to person, or from reading to reading[6].

Full text of the Masters Thesis can be freely downloaded from “The University of Arisona” website. (If the link doesn't work, just search for the title in the U of A Library Catalog).

Brewer, Michael Meyer. “Varlam Shalamov's Kolymskie rasskazy: The Problem of Ordering.” Master's Thesis. University of Arizona, 1995.


  • 1. See for instance, William Gavin's “A Book Carter Should Read.” The translation of the stories themselves also seems to have caused many problems. The first translations were into German in 1967. In the same year they were then translated from the German directly into both French and South African, (along with the initial German misspelling of the author's name — Schalanov/Chalanov/Shalanov). There then even seem to have been translations from this (or possibly the later 1969) French edition back into Russian. See Mikhail Geller's chapter “Polius liutosti: Varlam Shalamov” in his book Koncentratsionnyi mir i sovremennaia literatura. Though many of the quotes in this article coincide with the original Russian, many have also been translated into Russian from some other language (presumably French). This is also evidenced by the remarkable similarity in the titles of these particular stories to the titles in the translated French version.
  • 2. The stories' use strictly as factual accounts of the Gulag by historians such as Robert Conquest and others, though undeniably important, has also relegated their artistic qualities to a lesser role.
  • 3. In reviewing the book reports of John Glad's collections of translations of Kolymskie Rasskazy, (entitled Kolyma Tales and Graphite), it seems that many of the criticisms stem from a misunderstanding of how the “stories” are interrelated. The problem being that, in Glad's collections, the stories were artificially ordered according to theme, destroying the author's more subtle semantic ordering. They also each contain only a fraction of the complete epic.
  • 4. 147 — the number of stories in the epic.
  • 5. “Gulag” literature referring only to the Soviet state, and “Camp” literature to the larger grouping of prison and camp literature, which is not limited in time or place.
  • 6. Shalamov himself used only the terms “kniga” or “sbornik,” often using the former indiscriminately for both individual cycles as well as the entire work. He did not like the term “tsikl,” as it was used in poetry, and, as far as I can tell, never used the word to describe Kolymskie rasskazy. (Kolymskie tetradi 273).