Sunday 9 May 2010

Out of Hell

Last year I read Anne Applebaum's excellent Gulag: A History, a subject that began to interest me after I had read biographies of Stalin. The chapter that has remained in my mind most vividly is that dealing with attempted escapes.

There were escapes right from the beginning, though weather and location was a factor in determining their frequency. The proximity of many of the earlier camps to Finland was an important incentive in escape attempts. In 1932 alone over 7000 inmates were recaptured trying to cross into Finland. According to the official camp statistics some 45,575 people escaped over the whole system in 1933 alone, of which 28,370 were recaptured. In Kolyma in the far east of Siberia escapees organised themselves into gangs, stealing weapons and terrorising the local population.

It's worth stressing that the overwhelming numbers of these escapees were not political dissidents at all but hardened criminals. Some of their escape strategies were particularly gruesome. In view of the distances involved, lack of food was one factor working against a successful escape. To overcome this prisoners took to escaping in groups of three, two of the party deciding in advance who the 'meat' was to be; yes; that's right, the meat!

There are some good literary accounts of the gulag experience, and Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch immediately comes to mind. But for me nothing will surpass Varlam Shalamov's brilliant Kolyma Tales collection, told with the same insight and economy of prose shown by Guy de Maupassant in his short stories. Once a prisoner himself, his emotional detachment makes the experience all the more intense.


  1. "It's worth stressing that the overwhelming numbers of these escapees were not political dissidents at all but hardened criminals". Forgive one's cynicism, but this is my favourite line. Reveals poetic insight into human nature. As I've always said, one must have a quick wit and friends in high security prison places.

  2. Good morning, Ana,

    Your absence has been noted. All us old hands who blog in the other place remember a charming, witty and rather brave lady whose father was Polish. Her name was Stefa Kaznowska. Her father had been imprisoned at Kolyma, and she told what she knew of his tale movingly in her blog. I came to know her personally, and learned more.

    Not many survived Kolyma in those wartime days. Her father was almost certainly saved by the deal that Britain did with Stalin, and he was transferred effectively to the British Army in the Middle-East.

    If you look up Kolyma on Google Earth you will see what a remote place it is. It is without doubt beautiful, too, if your mission is a quick holiday. There are photos of the prison camps.

  3. Yes, Adam. :-)

    Good morning, Jamie. Yes, I know. :-)

    Had you read Shalamov? He tells brilliant stories of a bleak subject.

  4. Ahhh, Tasha! I read this last year also. Verry goood!!!

    Solzhenitsyn's Gulag was also a great read for me in its original, rubbishy, falling to pieces paperback edition of the was like reading real samizdat. Because of Sanya's obscure style and a struggling translation it was tantalizingly mysterious..I reread it many times...and in parts dozens of times.

  5. No, I haven't read Shalamov, Ana. To be frank, I have seen and heard of so much wickedness and suffering that I have no desire to read more. My eyes are now more often on the future.

  6. Yes, indeed, Retarius.

    Jamie, I understand but as a work of literature it really is worthwhile.