Varlam Shalamov spent
seventeen years as a prisoner of conscience in Siberian work camps. At
twenty-one, while a law student in Moscow, he was arrested and sentenced
to hard labor in Siberia “until war’s end.” After that, the soviet state
sentenced him to ten more years for calling the Nobel Laureate Ivan
Bunin a classic author. After Stalin’s death, Solzhenitsyn asked
Shalamov to co-author a history of the gulag, but the long years of
physical abuse and grueling work in sub-zero temperatures without enough
food left him too weak for the vast project.
Still, Varlam Shalamov
encompasses vast territory in the shortest of his stories. In “Iagody”
(Berries), a Siberian labor camp prisoner describes how two guards beat
him for falling exhausted in the snow.
“Now do you understand?” the guard, Seroshapka, asks the bleeding
“I understand,” he answers, and walks silently back to camp.
The next morning, the brutal guard escorts him with other inmates to
a field whose trees they’ve already felled and orders them to dig up
frozen roots for fuel. Seroshapka marks with dry grass hung on branches
the boundaries beyond which prisoners may not set foot. When an inmate
strays beyond the markers, the guards are supposed to fire a warning
shot into the air; if it goes unheeded, they may shoot the transgressor.
The narrator and the inmate by his side pick withered, frozen
berries. His partner, Rybakov, saves them to exchange with the guards’
cook for bread. The narrator savors each shriveled fruit as he picks it.
At the end of the dark winter afternoon, the pair stray toward the
grass markers. The narrator notices them overhead and turns back,
warning his friend. Rybakov moves to gather a large cluster of fruit
just beyond the invisible line and Seroshapka shoots him in the back,
then fires at the sky so it seems to the others, out of sight but within
earshot, that he had first given fair warning.
“Rybakov looked strangely small as he lay among the hummocks. The
sky, mountains, and river were enormous, and God only knew how many
people could be killed and buried in the hummocks,” Shalamov writes.
Seroshapka calmly orders the rest to march back to camp. He hits the
narrator’s back with his rifle, saying, “I wanted you, but you wouldn’t
cross the line, you bastard.”
Shalamov’s “Berries” echoes Chekhov’s story, “Gooseberries,” in which
a character says that if he could have a small plot of land with
berries, he would be happy. Chekhov’s line is a response to Tolstoy’s
statement that all a person needs is six feet of earth — for his grave.
In Shalamov’s tale, the small field of berries becomes a man’s grave
because he desired some of the fruit. The prisoners in this story need
just a bit more than allowed by the regime that is burying them alive.
The privileged Russians in Chekhov’s nineteenth century tale yearned for
a simple life close to nature, gathering berries; the Siberian inmates
in Shalamov’s fiction live that way, but the authorities succeed in
twisting the small wish into a vast nightmare.
The Russian revolutionaries who overthrew the czar at first strove
for utopia. Then the soviets under Stalin’s reign of terror sent
prisoners into one last, unspoiled land and forced them to ruin it.
Countless thousands in heavily guarded camps starved to death while food
grew in profusion just outside the barbed wire.
All limits imposed by the camps were as senseless as the grass
markers in this story. Who could have escaped Kolyma? It was a prison
the size of Western Europe, guarded on the north by the Arctic Circle,
on the east by the Pacific, and on the southwest by mountain ranges.
As this story shows, the regime was not concerned with keeping bodies
from littering the pristine snow. The guards in “Berries” rule a reverse
Eden: a small, circumscribed place in which political prisoners, as
punishment for not being criminal, had to fell trees. They did not have
the right to fall, as we see at the start. The guards decided when they
should drop dead.
What separated the guards from their charges? In the picture Shalamov
gives, the prisoners of conscience are condemned for what they
supposedly know (though little of it proves helpful in their
circumstances) while the guards seem blissfully indifferent to the pain
their cruelty causes. The narrator tells us all the guards’ names, but
the guards call inmates by derogatory epithets only. Shalamov’s narrator
is never addressed, so he seems an anonymous Everyman. Prisoners and
guards are intimate strangers, witnessing each other’s lives and deaths.
From all accounts, the gulag staff hated the intellectual prisoners
more than the hardened convicts; both guards and criminals blamed the
intelligentsia for fomenting the revolution that led to a brutal
totalitarian regime. The young, conscripted guards were prisoners of the
system, too; their jobs were a rare opportunity to escape a meager rural
subsistence, and it seemed to them that the intelligentsia of Moscow and
Leningrad had long enjoyed greater privilege and luxury. Political
prisoners far outnumbered criminals, who served shorter sentences, but
the guards encouraged the most violent convicts to dominate the
prisoners of conscience. Were the guards a little afraid, as the
innocent had some reason to rebel?
Tolstoy, Chekhov and Shalamov’s writings about desire and land are
palimpsests on the story of Eden. Both Genesis and “Berries” chronicle
two figures ordered to stay within a small plot on threat of death. The
first trespassers in each tale are condemned before even hearing the
warning: God never warns Eve directly; before creating Eve, God tells
Adam not to eat the fruit. And Shalamov’s guard fails to fire a warning
In “Berries,” the guard is arbitrary, terse, murderous, and
emotionally distant. The coldness of his heart is much more deadly than
the Siberian climate, which still allows life and beauty. Seroshapka has
only one job, to make sure no prisoners escape. The inmates build a fire
for him — only guards were allowed fire, Shalamov says. At the start of
the piece, the fallen narrator looks up at his “rosy-cheeked, healthy,
well-dressed full” tormentor. To starved, wounded prisoners like the
narrator, this armed guard would seem as unassailable as if he were the
angel at Eden’s gate. Seroshapka (whose name suggests “sulfur-capped”)
sets up boundaries that he admits at the end are meant to tempt the
narrator to take the forbidden, fatal fruit.
Does cowardice, broken spirit, survival instinct or wisdom keep him
from succumbing to the temptation? Shalamov doesn’t say — and does it
matter? In a police state, fear can seem preferable to intellect, which
may be a potentially fatal burden, like all contraband. The narrator
clearly wants us to feel that he is more dead at heart than the man
killed while reaching out with desire for something that lived and gave
life. The survivor here is a shadow figure, separated from his partner
by a thin line.
Like Adam and Eve, soviet prisoners of conscience were condemned for
their knowledge — but who can help knowing what’s in plain sight? Why
such a high price for what we seem made to gather? In this Siberian
story, following one’s nature, obeying one’s survival instincts, is a
capital crime. Gathering fruit seems such an innocuous act, but the
transgression is punishable by death in Genesis, too. Does desire so
frighten the powers that be, however great? Is it because desire is
endless? In Shalamov’s story, the narrator eats the fruit, but his
friend is executed. This small flicker of human nature was the tip of
the iceberg that frightened soviet authorities. Nature’s vast, cold
landscape dwarfed the great gulag system. But Shalamov’s vision shows
that one does not have to construct a new Eden, one has only to let down
one’s guard and take away the imaginary line that forbids entry.
Prisoners repeatedly carved one word into walls of the gulag: “Why?”
No one ever seems to have carved an answer.
Primo Levi writes in SURVIVAL AT
AUSCHWITZ of his
first day at the German camp. After a number is tattooed on his arm, he
walks to the barracks, where the guards “severely forbid touching or
sitting on the bunks for no apparent reason but cruelty…. Tormented by
parching thirst from the journey, I eyed a fine icicle outside the
window, within hand’s reach.” Here there’s no tempting fruit — only a
knife of ice, the one thing growing in the concentration camp. “I broke
off the icicle but at once a large, heavy guard prowling outside
brutally snatched it away from me. ‘Why?’ I asked him. ‘There is no why
here,’ he replied.”
Though perhaps only the dead could answer, Levi and Shalamov keep
Stalin’s regime tried to destroy the Russian Orthodox church and
appropriate its power. He sought to erase the past and start from
scratch, rewriting history with himself as god. Whole bureaucracies
worked to eliminate the executed from historical records. Secret offices
erased their images from photos. Sometimes their shadows remain on the
white ground, like this shadowy narrator in the Siberian field.
What becomes of this totalitarian attempt to rewrite history through
force? The same old story repeats itself until it falls apart and all
the players are dead. The guard’s second gunshot, fired to deceive
listeners, echoes the soviet campaign to revise truth with bullets.
Iagoda, whose name means “berry,” was Stalin’s chief of secret police
for many years. He oversaw the arrest, torture, exile and execution of
thousands of Russian intellectuals. Iagoda experimented with various
means of murder and torture; poison was his favorite hobby. In the late
thirties, he fell into the machinations of his own brutal system. Iagoda
was imprisoned, tortured into confession, and finally shot against a
wall in his chief prison.
Though gulag prisoners harvested graphite and lumber to supply the
government with writing materials, inmates were forbidden to write. Some
carved messages into the trees they felled. Downstream, women searched
the logs for news.
In the story “Graphite,” Shalamov tells us that camp authorities used
only graphite to record the names of the dead. As graphite has
disintegrated to the point where it cannot break down any further, the
records will last forever. And in their frozen mass graves, so will the
pencil-thin bodies with their nametags of graphite on wood.
The mineral’s name comes from the Greek word “to write.” Shalamov
says, “Graphite is carbon that has been subject to enormous pressure for
millions of years … that might have become coal or diamonds. Instead, it
has become something more precious, a pencil that can record all it has
seen.” He notes the paradoxical hardness and softness of the strange
Shalamov writes later in the same piece, “Paper is one of the
transformations of a tree … like diamonds or graphite.” Paper and pencil
both come from the wood the author was forced to cut down. Through them
he records some of what soviets destroyed in Kolyma.
“Berries” begins with a rifle butt held to the narrator’s head as the
guards try to communicate through the silent language of blows. The
story ends with a gun barrel in his back. Rybakov is murdered because he
has hope and tries to provide for his future; his death suggests there’s
no future in hope. But the survival of Shalamov’s works tells another
story. His writing begins and ends with words quietly inscribed on the
page. Like the small wires that tie penciled names to the bodies of his
dead comrades, Shalamov’s short works document lives that the soviets
tried to erase.
N.B.: The quotations here are from John Glad’s translations. He has
published two volumes of Shalamov’s stories: GRAPHITE, in which
“Berries” appears, and KOLYMA TALES, published by Norton in 1981 and
Holly Woodward’s “Eros and Psyche” appeared in Archipelago
Vol. 4, No. 4.
©Holly Woodward 2003.