Preston Fleming's Reviews > Kolyma Tales

Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov
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Nov 20, 2011

it was amazing
Read in January, 2000

Though the Soviet Gulag extended across the entire continent, arguably the worst camps were in the Russian Far East, and particularly the gold fields of the Kolyma River basin.

The port city of Magadan was the gateway to Kolyma, with Vladivostok and other ports as way stations.

I visited Magadan, Vladivostok, Vanino, Khabarovsk, Komsomolsk-on-Amur and other cities of the Russian Far East in the early 1990s when they were first opened to Western businessmen.

Our Russian guides showed us the apartment buildings built by German POWs, the modest Gulag Museum in Magadan built of moss bricks, and the ruins of secret police cellars where political prisoners were shot. Even in the 1990s, these places seemed to retain a ghostly quality, as if permeated by the suffering that built them.

In my view, KOLYMA TALES is unique in describing the effects of absolute tyranny on the human soul. The adages and sayings of the prisoners that Shalamov passes along could not possibly have been invented by anyone outside the camps. The behaviors and attitudes toward life, death, companionship, work and authority reflect a worldview that could not possibly have been forged anywhere else. The hopelessness of the Kolyma camps has a quality of its own that cannot be compared even to the Nazi death camps.

Each story in KOLYMA tales is a meditation on the effects of tyranny on everyone it touches, from the bosses to the low-level trusties to the last-leggers who have lost the will to live.

The gulag is history now, but tyranny continues to thrive in other places around the world. It would be self-delusion to think that, under the right conditions, it could not come to America, labor camps and all.

What if American democracy were replaced by American tyranny? Kolyma Tales shows just how bad it could get.

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