IN SUMMER 1944 Vice President Henry Wallace visited Kolyma (northeast Siberia) and the big Soviet construction trust which had 300,000 people working in 100 gold mines and other enprises there. Wallace wrote of the activity glowingly, noting that "Stalin has made gold mining a preferred war industry and has frozen men in it." The unintended irony here is fierce. Men were literally frozen in these mines and over 2 million died according to Robert Conquest's estimate. Kolyma was not the TV-type project Wallace naively thought: it was a giant forced labor empire supervised by the secret police.
In Kolyma in 1944, surviving one day at a time, was the writer Varlam Shalamov who had been jailed in 1937 for calling Nobel Laureate Ivan Bunin, a "classic author" of Russian literature. Shalamov was released after 17 years in 1953 and wasn't long in circulating his stories and poetry in manuscript. Solzhenitsyn, impressed by his writing and his background of suffering, asked him to coauthor The Gulag Archipelago when he began it in 1958, but Shalamov, old and ill, declined. Since then Shalamov's stories have been prohibited in Russia, and he has written only poetry.
This volume is Shalamov's first in English. It reveals a very great artist at work. A felicitous translation by John Glad brings us the voice of Shalamov, terse, flat ironic and often beautiful. He has been likened to Bunin and Chekhov, and there are resemblances in style and structure, the major difference being that Shalamov's prose seems wrung from a bloody rag.
Abbe Sieyes, when asked what he did during the French Revolution, responsed: "I survived, Shalamov, a dokhodyagas (goner) who survived, acts as the narrator, a full participant, in these stories. Each story is different from the others, without the gray sameness usual in this genre, but all share constants such as cold, food and work. Kolyma's cold cut like a torch. Convicts worked until spit froze in the air at 60 below; winter ended when the temperature soared to 20 below. This in an area of permafrost in which bodies didn't decay and railroads couldn't be built. To mitigate the terrible cold, food was vital and is an element in every story. A road-building group is starved into suicide ("Dry Rations"); another is given extra rations as a work experiment, providing one man the energy to kill himself ("Quiet"). American aid glycerin is sold as honey, and the convicts eat machine grease without harm ("Lend-lease"). In the bitter cold without adequate food the convicts become docile. There is no sex and few fights -- there simply isn't enough energy. Work norms and assignments can kill, so men stall, trading appendixes ("A Piece of Meat") or lying to get work near a stove ("Carpenters").
Kolyma was sadness ("It was a good thing that tears have no odor"), a sadness "easier to bear if you write it down. Once you've done that, you can forget." And men survive by forgetting. Though bitterness often intrudes, there is no self-pity and no despair. In one story, when several men surrender varius artificial arms and legs before being put into solitary, the chief guard asks what the last man, the narrator, will give up, perhaps his soul? The narrator -- Shalamov -- replies, "No you can't have my soul."
Shalamov's prose also documents. We learn that horses were given rations according to weight, but not humans, which meant that the smaller convicts outlived the bigger ones, and that the famous trials of Bukharin and others in the '30s pivoted on drugs (the Soviet use of behavoir-altering drugs on dissidents as evidenced in L. Plyushch's History's Carnival  was thought to be a more recent innovation.)
In a perceptive Foreward, John Glad, director of Slavic studies at the University of Maryland, writes that there is a lack of unanimity on the part of other readers as to which stories are the most powerful. In my view, two clearly stand out: "Dry Rations" which blends into the plot a virtual catalog of coping, and "Major Pugachov's Last Battle," a stirring saga in miniature, heroic in its defiance.
This long overdue volume (the French edition appeared in 1969) contains only about one-fourth of the 103 stories in the Russian language edition published in 1978 in England. John Glad is now completing a sequal that will bring the remaining stories to American readers. Full publication of the complete stories of this, perhaps the greatest living Russian writer, will further expose his genius and possibly, redeem his suffering.