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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 man.

“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 shot.

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 asking.


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 substance.

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 1980, respectively.

Holly Woodward’s “Eros and Psyche” appeared in Archipelago Vol. 4, No. 4.


©Holly Woodward 2003.



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