46 things I learned from being gulaged

Varlam Shalamov spent much of the period from 1937 to 1951 gulaged in the arctic cold of Kolyma. This is what he learned from the experience.

NKVD photo of Varlam Shalamov, 1937.

Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov (June 18, 1907 – January 17, 1982) was a Russian writer (We recommend Kolyma Stories), journalist, poet, and GULAG survivor. He spent 15 years enslaved in Soviet GULAGs — six of them in the gold mines in the bitter arctic cold of Kolyma — due in part to having supported Leon Trotsky and praised the anti-Soviet writer Ivan Bunin.

One of Shalamov’s surviving writings is a 1961 list of 46 things he learned from his GULAG experience. You will benefit the most from it by already knowing the basics of these slave camps which worked many inmates to death (and in some cases even forced them to eat each other), for which purpose a great video by Simon Whistler is embedded down below. The essay was translated by Dmitry Subbotin and Robert Denis, and our editorial additions are marked in bracketed italics.

Prisoners digging clay for the brickyard. Solovki Island, USSR. Circa 1924-1925.

What I Saw and Learned in the Kolyma Camps

1. The extraordinary fragility of human nature, of civilization. A human being would turn into a beast after three weeks of hard work, cold, starvation and beatings.

2. The cold was the principal means of corrupting the soul; in the Central Asian camps people must have held out longer — it was warmer there.

3. I learned that friendship and solidarity never arise in difficult, truly severe conditions — when life is at stake. Friendship arises in difficult but bearable conditions (in the hospital, but not in the mine). [ed: Reddit user u/LevantineJR had an interesting comment on this: “That this is less than a universal, profound truth, has been demonstrated in the labour camps of Imperial Japan during WW2, as recorded by company commander Ernest Gordon in “Miracle on the River Kwai” a.k.a. “In the Valley of the Kwai” (1963). It’d be very interesting and important to understand why widespread solidarity appeared in the WW2 labour camps in Indochina after a period of ~10 months, while in the GULAG it failed to appear for years, or even decades. Harshness of conditions? The death rates in the Japanese war labour camps were several times higher than in the GULAG. So, the general harshness of conditions is ruled out. Nor could it be simply culture or genes, because those very same inhabitants of Kolyma created resistant collectives of solidarity in the Moscow prisons. Now, what of a particular factor: cold? Plausible, I think. Shalamov may be right that cold was an exceptionally strong, and a sort of a key factor.”]

4. I learned that spite is the last human emotion to survive. A starving man has only enough flesh to feel spite — he is indifferent to everything else.

5. I learned the difference between prison, which strengthens character, and work camps, which corrupt the human soul.

6. I learned that Stalin’s «triumphs» were possible because he slew innocent people: had there been an organized movement, even one-tenth in number, but organized, it would have swept Stalin away in two days.

7. I learned that humans became human because they are physically stronger, tougher than any animal — no horse endures work in the Far North.

8. I saw that the only group that retained a bit of their humanity, despite the starvation and abuse, were the religious, the sectarians, almost all of them — and the majority of the priests.

9. The first ones to be corrupted, the most susceptible, are the party members and military men.

10. I saw what a forcible argument a simple slap could be for an intellectual.

Prisoners working on the Kolyma Highway. The route would become known as the “Road of Bones” because the skeletons of the men who died building it were used in its foundation. Circa 1932-1940.

11. That people distinguish between camp chiefs according to the power of their punches, to their enthusiasm for beatings.

12. A beating is almost irresistible as an argument («Method number three»).

13. I learned the truth about the preparations for the cryptic trials [ed: the show trials of the Great Terror of 1937] from masters of the craft.

14. I learned why in prison you get political news (arrests, etc.) sooner than on the outside.

15. That prison (and camp) rumours [ed: known in Russian prison slang as parasha — “the slop bucket”] always turn out to be anything but slop.

16. I learned that one can live on spite alone.

17. I learned that one can live on indifference.

18. I learned why a man lives neither on hope — there are no hopes at all, nor on will — what will?, but only on the instinct of self-preservation, the same as a tree, a rock, an animal.

19. I’m proud that at the very beginning, back in 1937, I decided to never become a foreman if my decision could lead to another man’s death, if my will would be forced to serve the authorities oppressing other people, prisoners like myself.

20. My body and spirit proved to be stronger in this great trial than I thought, and I am proud to have betrayed no one, to have sent no one to death nor to the camp, to have denounced no one.

Lavrentiy Beria as Minister of Internal Affairs in 1945.

21. I’m proud to have made no requests until 1955 [ed: In 1955 Shalamov made a request for rehabilitation].

22. I saw the so called «Beria amnesty» there and then — it was something to see. [ed: Lavrentiy Beria was one of Stalin’s henchmen — a serial rapist and mass murderer who was responsible for, among other things, liquidating all of the Soviet Union’s 22,000 Polish prisoners (the Katyn massacre). Shalamov’s “Beria amnesty” is a reference to when Beria released a large number of criminal class gulag prisoners as a political play that backfired on him.]

23. I saw that women are more honest and selfless than men — there was not a single husband at Kolyma who came after his wife. But wives did come; many did (Faina Rabinovitch, Krivoshey’s wife) [ed: See Shalamov’s Green attorney].

24. I saw the amazing northerner families (civilians, former prisoners) with their letters to their «lawful husbands and wives» etc.

25. I saw «the first Soviet Rockefellers», underground millionaires, and heard their confessions.

26. I saw the hard laborers, and also the large E and B contingents, the Berlag camp. [ed: Berlag, or Beregovoy Camp Directorate, Special Camp No. 5, was an MVD special camp. These were camps established exclusively for political prisoners convicted according to the more severe sub-articles of Article 58 (enemies of the people). Wrote Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago: “There is no step, thought, action, or lack of action under the heavens which could not be punished by the heavy hand of Article 58.”]

27. I learned that one can achieve a lot (a hospital, a work transfer), but at the risk of life — at the cost of a beating and the isolation cell cold.

28. I saw an isolation cell carved out in rock, and spent one night in it myself.

29. The lust for power, for unpunished murder is great — from big shots down to regular police operatives with rifles (Seroshapka [ed: See Shalamov’s Berries] and his ilk).

30. I learned the unrestrained Russian lust to denounce, to complain.

A “penal insulator” inside of a gulag. Vorkuta, 1945.

31. I learned that world should be divided not into good and bad people but into cowards and non-cowards. 95% of cowards are capable of any meanness, lethal meanness, after light threatening.

32. I am convinced: the camp is a negative experience — entirely. If one spent but an hour there — it would be an hour of moral corruption. The camp has never given anything to anyone — and never could. Everyone, both prisoners and civilians, are corrupted by the camp.

33. In every region there was a work camp, there was one at every major construction site. Millions, tens of millions of prisoners. [ed: Estimations of gulag slaves between 1928/9 and 1953 (earlier gulag stats much harder to analyze) range from 14 to 25 million. This number excludes the millions who were “internally exiled” to the wilds or just outright murdered.]

34. Repressions touched not only the ruling elite but all levels of society — in every village, at every plant, in every family either relatives or friends were repressed.

35. I consider the best time of my life to be the months spent in the cell of Butyrki prison, where I managed to strengthen the spirit of those who were weak and where everyone spoke freely.

36. I learned to «plan» one day ahead, no further.

37. I learned that kingpins are not human.

38. That there are no criminals at the camp, there are your present (and future) neighbors caught behind the line of the law and not those who crossed it.

Posters of Stalin and Marx gaze down at these prisoners inside of their sleeping quarters. Circa 1936-1937.

39. I learned how terrible the ego of a boy, of a youth is: better steal than ask. This and their boasting throws youth to the bottom.

40. Women didn’t play a big role in my life — camp is the reason.

41. The discernment of character is a useless ability — I am unable to change my ways for any scum that comes along.

42. The last in the row, which are hated by everyone — by guards and inmates alike — are those dropping behind, the sick, the weak, those incapable of running in the cold.

43. I learned what power is and what a man with a gun means.

44. That the scale is shifted, and this is what is most typical in a work camp.

45. That passing from a prisoner condition to civilian is very hard, and nearly impossible without a long adaptation period.

46. That a writer must be a stranger — in the subjects he describes. And if he knows the matter well — he will write in such a way that no one would understand him.


If you’d like to learn more about gulags, and the Kolyma ones in particular, Simon Whistler’s video is good: