Wednesday, July 11, 2018

45 Things Varlam Shalamov learned in the Gulag

Varlam Shalamov (1907-1982) spent more than a decade in Stalin's gulag, mostly in the Arctic gold mining camps of Kolyma. My post on his poetry is here.

While he was alive Shalamov always refused to say anything about any lessons he might have learned from his experiences, but after he died a list of 45 things he learned was found in his papers. It dates to around 1961, a decade after his release. Full list here. A sample:
1. The extreme fragility of human culture, civilization. A man becomes a beast in three weeks, given heavy labor, cold, hunger, and beatings.

2. The main means for depraving the soul is the cold. Presumably in Central Asian camps people held out longer, for it was warmer there.

3. I realized that friendship, comradeship, would never arise in really difficult, life-threatening conditions. Friendship arises in difficult but bearable conditions (in the hospital, but not at the pit face).

4. I realized that the feeling a man preserves longest is anger. There is only enough flesh on a hungry man for anger: everything else leaves him indifferent.

6. I realized that humans were human because they were physically stronger and clung to life more than any other animal: no horse can survive work in the Far North.

7. I saw that the only group of people able to preserve a minimum of humanity in conditions of starvation and abuse were the religious believers.

8. Party workers and the military are the first to fall apart and do so most easily.

9. I saw what a weighty argument for the intellectual is the most ordinary slap in the face.

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