Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Mark of Frostbite

‘Kolyma Tales,’ by Varlam Shalamov, (1994, English edition) with added stories – ‘Graphite.’

During the Stalin period in the USSR, Shalamov was arrested twice and had his sentence extended twice, spending a total of 17 years in the labor camps of Kolyma, a river basin and mountain range in far eastern Siberia above the Okhotsk Sea.  He was accused of being a Trotskyist in 1929, sentenced to 3 years, arrested again in 1937 for the same ‘crime,’ and sentenced to 5 years, which was extended till the ‘end of the war,’ then extended 10 more years in 1943 for saying something complementary about a writer, Ivan Bunin. 

Kolyma Gold Mine & Prisoners
Unlike Solzhenitsyn, his stories are matter-of-fact depictions of what the political prisoners sentenced under Article 58 went through.  Shalamov thought that just describing the nightmarish gulag conditions would have more impact than adding a political angle, as did Solzhenitsyn.  What stands out is that the Kolyma camp political prisoners came from all walks of life – workers, peasants, intellectuals, engineers, party officials and government bureaucrats, scientists, artists, soldiers, officers, suspect ethnicities - anyone.  It reflected a general dragnet of Soviet society.   

This was also pointed out by Zizek in his book ‘Totalitarianism,’ as almost anyone could be arrested and sentenced - giving the terror a completely irrational surface logic.  Even the first organizer of the Kolyma camps, Eduard Berezin, a Latvian Communist, was shot in 1938.  At that time in 1932 the camps were well-run and very few deaths occurred, as an infrastructure for this region of Siberia rich in minerals was constructed – roads, railroads, bridges, ports.  Only later did this change when the great purges began.  Mass graves became common in Kolyma. 

Another thing that is obvious is that this was a massive project of unpaid prison labor.  The ‘logic’ behind the camp system was to mine gold, tin, zinc, even uranium with virtual slave labor – starved, ill-clothed, ill-housed, over-worked, frozen, terrorized, shot.  This was the ‘primitive accumulation’ of the bureaucratic state economy.  It cannot be ignored that these prisoners were not just being ‘punished’ but were actually doing the work of a working class, but for free. Since so many died of the brutal Siberian conditions of 6 months of winter, much of it in 40 below zero conditions, more prisoners were always needed.  More baseless charges, more arrests, more trains to Siberia were the essential source of labor for this sub-arctic Siberian mining region.    

Shalamov describes absurd visits from high Communist Party bureaucrats who came through occasionally to tell everyone not to mistreat the prisoners, then they would drive away and things went on as usual.  He points out the respite that hospital stays could provide, and the eagerness with which people would get sick or injured, including self-injury.  Or the differences between ‘goners’ – weak prisoners – and the rest.  Shalamov himself was a ‘goner’ at one point.  He describes over and over again the privileged position of the actual criminal element in the camp, who lorded it over the politicals by law and in accord with the camp administrations, who used them to discipline and terrorize the workforce.  One 'tale' concerned a scientific-minded inmate who realized that the official food rations would starve large men first, as the rations were uniform for everyone – as were the clothes.  Shalamov describes all the dodges prisoners would use to avoid death in the gold mines - hiding, getting sick, finding a skill like calligraphy that a prison administrator would find useful. 

Some tales concern ill-fated attempts at escape, as hundreds of miles of taiga stretched between the camps and some kind of ‘freedom.’  One such group was composed of former soldiers who had been sentenced to the gulag, along with thousands of other Soviet Army soldiers, for being captured by the Nazis during WWII.  Really, that was Stalinist policy.  “Thanks for fighting!”  Most of the other prisoners were civilians with no military training, easily intimidated by the professional criminal thugs and the camp guards.  As a result, almost no solidarity existed among prisoners – everyone was left to their own fate, except for occasional individual acts of kindness.  Evidently political organization was not strong at all.  This isolation marked every prisoner.  Only one exception was noted – the “Committees of the Poor” in the formal urban prisons like Butyr in Moscow.  These gathered a ‘tax’ from prisoners for those prisoners without money, who were unable to purchase anything at the commissaries and hence dependent on the starvation food.  The prison administration attempted to stamp them out, but the prisoners held firm, disciplining anyone who informed or did not contribute to the tax. 

These are human stories at bottom – humans in horrendous conditions.  Survivors were marked by the disfigurement of frostbite on face, hands, feet.  Many of the stories are told in the first person and we assume this is Shalamov talking, not several fictional creations - but it could be the latter.  Shalamov ultimately is released and perhaps travels back to his wife in Moscow on the loaded trains, a different person.  He later smuggled these stories out to be published in German and French, but in a statement finally published in 1972, he was forced to say that the “Kolyma Tales” were no longer relevant.  Because of this he had been permitted to publish poetry beginning in 1956, so the statement must have been signed soon after he was released around 1952 or 1953.  He died in 1982.

Other reviews that relate to the USSR:  Cohen’s “Soviet Fates & Lost Alternatives,” Zizek’s “Did Someone Say Totalitarianism?“, “The Struggle for Power – Russia in 1923,” “The Red Atlantis – Communist Culture in the Absence of Communism,”, “Enemy at the Gates,” Grossman’s “Life and Fate.”  

Red Frog
May 17, 2016

No comments: