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Kolyma Stories


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Life in a Russian gulag, based on the author's own years in the Gulag, chronicled in an epic masterpiece.

About the Author

Varlam Shalamov (1907-1982) was born in Vologda, a small city outside of Moscow, to a teacher and a Russian Orthodox priest. Shalamov attended the Moscow State University in the Department of Soviet Law, and during his years as a student joined a group of Trotskyites. In 1929, he was arrested and sentenced to three years of hard labor and sent to a camp north of the Ural Mountains. After his release, he returned to Moscow, where he married, had a daughter, and worked as a journalist, and wrote poetry and short stories. In 1937, Shalamov was arrested again and spent the next seventeen years in the labor camps of the Kolyma River basin, a period that he would describe in his Kolyma Stories. He was released in the 1950s and allowed publish some of his poetry, though in the 1970s, when he was dependent on the Soviet Writers' Union for money, was forced to denounce his work abroad in a public letter.

Donald Rayfield is emeritus professor of Russian and Georgian at Queen Mary, University of London. He introduced and translated Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls from the Russian for NYRB Classics.


"As a record of the Gulag and human nature laid bare, Varlam Shalamov is the equal of Solzhenitsyn and Nadezhda Mandelstam, while the artistry of his stories recalls Chekhov. This is literature of the first rank, to be read as much for pleasure as a caution against the perils of totalitarianism." --David Bezmozgis

"Available only for the last five years in Russia itself, a searing document, worthy of shelving alongside Solzhenitsyn." --Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review
"The book is packed with gems, each complete in itself. Together they form part of a mosaic unlike anything in world literature. A struggle with memory comparable with that of Proust or Beckett, this is a work of art of the highest order by a writer of extraordinary daring and ambition...He resembled Chekhov in his combination of non-judgemental realism with unyielding severity in his view of the human world." --John Gray, New Statesman

"There is pleasure and perturbation in this huge collection. Shalamov's writing has a light, clear-eyed quality, even if the subject is the inhumane futility of life in the Soviet gulag." --The Irish Times
"These new translations of Varlam Shalamov's astonishing short stories may well establish Shalamov as the new laureate of the Gulag...The power of fiction has never been better exemplified... Shalamov's unique tone of voice and his pared-down style are beautifully rendered here by Rayfield -- limpid, assured, the scarce moments of lyricism expertly caught...One feels that poor Varlam Shalamov would be both amazed and delighted." --William Boyd, The Sunday Times (UK) "Varlam Shalamov's short stories of life in the Soviet Gulag leave an impression of ice-sharp precision, vividness and lucidity, as though the world is being viewed through a high-resolution lens." --Charlotte Hobson, The Spectator "Suffering--elemental suffering--can never be told. There is no other state where the distance between a narration merely truthful and a narration that is truth itself creates such an achingly unfathomable abyss. It is this that elevates the work of Varlam Shalamov. His torturous secret resides in how the focus of his attention is turned only toward the frozen crenellation of palpable concrete details. What he knew about the human being was appalling. And although none of this can be transmitted--nonetheless, he transmits it to us." --Laszlo Krasznahorkai "Shalamov's experience in the camps was longer and more bitter than my own...I respectfully confess that to him and not me it was given to touch those depths of bestiality and despair toward which life inthe camps dragged us all." --Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn "[Shalamov's] prose is as simple and spare as a scientist's. The stories are exciting because they deal with extremes, like stories of Shackleton's expeditions, or Jack London's Klondike tales...Sit with them long enough and you begin to sense the depths of feeling under the permafrost, and something approaching Chekhovian artistry...these stories are literature--great literature, with their own terrible beauty." --Alex Abramovich, Bookforum "Like the landscape gardeners of the late 18th century, Shalamov builds ruins. The sketches remain fragments because they are about fragments--of men, of society, of dreams." --Jay Martin, The New York Times Book Review "There can be no doubt that Shalamov's reportage from the lower depths of the Gulag of a society building a 'new world' will remain forever among the masterpieces of documentary or memoir literature and an invaluable source for the present and future understanding of the 'Soviet human condition.'" --Laszlo Dienes, World Literature Today "A numbness of sorts pervades the tales as a whole, as if the accumulation of horrors could not be related or understood except under very heavy sedation. In Andrei Sinyavsky's apt characterization of Varlam Shalamov: '"He writes as if he were dead.'" --Maurice Friedberg, Commentary

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