In This Review

Sketches of the Criminal World: Further Kolyma Stories
Sketches of the Criminal World: Further Kolyma Stories
By Varlam Shalamov. Translated by Donald Rayfield
New York Review Books, 2020, 576 pp

During the Stalin era, Shalamov spent over 15 years in prison camps in Kolyma, in the Russian Far East. He documented his experience in short stories, written in a manner that he himself described as “laconic and simple,” with “everything redundant discarded even before . . . picking up my pen.” This book is the second of the two volumes of a complete English translation. In precise and ruthless detail, Shalamov depicts the ordeal of the camp, with its nine months of wintry weather that wore down the prisoners near to death. Survival depended on fortune or cunning. An additional sentence of ten more years didn’t bother an inmate, Shalamov writes, since “there was no sense in planning your life more than one day ahead.” This volume of Shalamov’s stories focuses on the blatari—professional criminals or gangsters. Shalamov condemns the Russian literary tradition (that includes Fyodor Dostoyevsky, as well as Maxim Gorky and Isaac Babel) of romanticizing the criminal world. By contrast, he sees blatari as “beyond human morality.” A story called “The Glove” describes an old man whose hands are blown off for speaking disrespectfully to a young gangster: the man is forced to hold in his bound hands a percussion cap with a fuse.