A guide to the New East

Kolyma Stories

Read Varlam Shalamov’s brutally moving fragments of life in Siberia’s gulags

Varlam Shalamov was one of the most powerful chroniclers of the gulag, the brutal network of prison camps built and maintained during the Soviet Union. Himself a survivor of multiple stints for political convictions, Shalamov’s writings are prized for their excoriating honesty about the lives led by the slave labourers who worked and died in squalid and brutal conditions. In his prose, it is often hard to disentangle where personal experience ends and fiction begins. Despite his great lyricism, for a long time, Shalamov was much less well known in the English-speaking world than his counterpart Alexander Solzhenitsyn, himself a professed fan of Shalamov’s writing.

The first reliable translation into English of Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales only appeared in 1980, two years before the writer’s death in a psychiatric hospital. But interest in Shalamov has grown. Earlier this month, New York Review Books Classics published a new translation by Donald Raysfield of Shalamov’s short stories, under the title Kolyma Stories. With the release of the second volume in the series next year, the amount of Shalamov’s writing available in English will have doubled. To mark the publication and the increasing interest in Shalamov among English-language readers, The Calvert Journal has selected four extracts from Kolyma Stories.


Trampling The Snow

How do you trample a road through virgin snow? One man walks ahead, sweating and cursing, barely able to put one foot in front of the other, getting stuck every minute in the deep, porous snow. This man goes a long way ahead, leaving a trail of uneven black holes. He gets tired, lies down in the snow, lights a cigarette, and the tobacco smoke forms a blue cloud over the brilliant white snow. Even when he has moved on, the smoke cloud still hovers over his resting place. The air is almost motionless. Roads are always made on calm days, so that human labor is not swept away by wind. A man makes his own landmarks in this unbounded snowy waste: a rock, a tall tree. He steers his body through the snow like a helmsman steering a boat along a river, from one bend to the next.

The narrow, uncertain footprints he leaves are followed by five or six men walking shoulder to shoulder. They step around the footprints, not in them. When they reach a point agreed on in advance, they turn around and walk back so as to trample down this virgin snow where no human foot has trodden. And so a trail is blazed. People, convoys of sleds, tractors can use it. If they had walked in single file, there would have been a barely passable narrow trail, a path, not a road: a series of holes that would be harder to walk over than virgin snow. The first man has the hardest job, and when he is completely exhausted, another man from this pioneer group of five steps forward. Of all the men following the trailblazer, even the smallest, the weakest must not just follow someone else’s footprints but must walk a stretch of virgin snow himself. As for riding tractors or horses, that is the privilege of the bosses, not the underlings.

Rain

This was the third day that we had been drilling at the new site. Each man had his own prospecting shaft and by now none of us had gotten any deeper than half a meter. Nobody had yet reached permafrost, even though the crowbars and pickaxes were being repaired quickly. This was unusual, but the blacksmiths had no reason to hold things up, because ours was the only brigade at work. The basic problem was the rain, which had been pouring without a break for seventytwo hours. When the ground was stony you couldn’t tell if it had rained for an hour or a month. The rain was cold and fine. The brigades working next to us had been taken off the job and sent home some time ago, but these were brigades of gangsters, and we didn’t even have the strength to envy them.

Our guard rarely appeared. He wore a soaking-wet enormous hooded canvas cloak that was as angular as a pyramid. The bosses were relying on the rain, the cold streams of water lashing our backs. We had long been wet through — not to our underwear, though, because we didn’t have any underwear. The bosses’ crude secret calculation was that rain and wind would make us work. But our hatred of the work was even stronger, and every evening the guard cursed as he lowered his wooden ruler with its markers into the shaft. The escort guards kept watch over us from under their “mushroom,” a well-known piece of camp equipment. We couldn’t climb out of the shafts, or we would have been shot. Only our foreman was allowed to move from shaft to shaft. We were not allowed to shout to one another, or we would have been shot. So we stood silently, up to our waists in the ground, in stone pits, a long chain of shafts that stretched along the banks of a dried-out stream.

The nights were too short to dry out our pea jackets; at night we nearly managed to get the tunics and trousers dry on our bodies. I was hungry and angry, but I knew that nothing in the world would make me commit suicide. This was when I began to understand the essence of life’s great instinct, the quality that human beings possess in the highest degree. I could see our horses getting worn out and dying — that’s the only way I can put it, there are no other verbs to apply to the horses’ existence. The horses were no different from the human beings. The north, the unbearable workload, the bad food, the beatings were killing them, and although they suffered only a thousandth of what the human beings suffered, they died first. I also understood the main thing: man was human not because he was God’s creation, or because he had an amazing thumb on both hands, but because he was physically stronger, more enduring than any other animal and, eventually, because he succeeded in making his spiritual side the effective servant of his physical side.

That’s what I was thinking about for the hundredth time in this shaft. I knew I wouldn’t kill myself because I had tested my will to live. In a similar shaft, only a deeper one, I had recently taken out an enormous stone with my pickax. I spent many days carefully freeing its terrible weight. From this unkind weight, as the Russian poet put it, I thought I could make something fine. I thought I could save my life by breaking my leg. This really was a fine intention, a purely aesthetic prospect. The stone was meant to tumble out and shatter my leg. And I would be a permanent invalid! This passionate dream depended on careful planning, so I took care to find the right spot to place my leg, and I imagined how I would make a slight twist of the pickax, and the stone would tumble down. I’d decided on the day, the hour, and the minute, and they came. I placed my right leg under the hanging stone, praised my own calmness, raised a hand, and, as if it were a lever, turned the pickax wedged behind the stone. The stone started moving down the shaft wall to the place I had carefully calculated. But I don’t know how it happened: I jerked my leg back. The shaft was tight, so my leg was squashed, and I had two bruises and an abrasion — a meager result for such a well-planned job.

So I realised that I was no more suited to self-harm than to suicide. All I could do now was wait for small disasters to alternate with small successes, until the big disaster ran its course.

The next success was the end of the working day and three mouthfuls of hot soup; even if the soup was cold it could be warmed up on the iron stove in a pan that I had made of a three-liter tin can. I could light a cigarette, or rather a stub I could beg off our orderly Stepan.

That’s how I waited, mingling “astral” questions with trivia, soaked to the skin but calm. Were these reflections a form of brain training? Certainly not. This was all quite normal, it was life. I understood that my body, and thus my brain cells, were short of nourishment. My brain had been on starvation rations for such a long time, and this would inevitably result in madness, early sclerosis, or something worse. . . . I found it a cheering thought that I wouldn’t live that long, that I would never live long enough to get sclerosis. The rain poured down. I remembered a woman who had passed along the path near where we were working and who paid no attention to the guards’ shouts. We greeted her and thought she was beautiful. She was the first woman we had seen in three years. She waved to us, pointed to the sky, at some angle to the firmament, and shouted, “Not long, boys, not long!” We answered with a joyful roar. I never saw her again, but I have remembered ever since how she found a way of understanding and consoling us. When she pointed to the sky, she certainly didn’t mean the next world. No, she was just showing an invisible sun setting in the west, which meant that the working day would soon be over. In her own way she was repeating Goethe’s words about the mountain peaks. What I was thinking about was the wisdom and magnanimity of this simple woman, who was or had been a prostitute — for there were then no other sorts of women in these regions. The sound of falling rain was a good accompaniment to these thoughts. The gray stony riverbank, the gray mountains, the gray sky, men in torn gray clothes — all that was very easy on the eye, very much in harmony. Everything had a monochrome harmony, a satanic harmony.

This was when we heard a faint cry from the next shaft. My neighbor was a certain Rozovsky, an elderly agronomist whose fairly specialised knowledge, like those of the doctors, engineers, and economists, was wasted here. He was calling my name, so I responded, paying no attention to the threatening gesture coming from a guard, sheltering far off under his “mushroom.” “Listen,” Rozovsky was calling, “listen! I’ve been thinking for a long time. And I’ve realised that there is no sense in life . . . none — ” Then I leapt out of my shaft and ran to intercept him before he rushed at the guards. Both guards were coming toward us. “He’s sick,” I said. Just then we caught the distant sound of the siren, muted by the rain, and we started forming ranks. Rozovsky and I went on working together for a while, until he threw himself under a loaded wagon that was rolling downhill. He stuck his leg under the wheel, but the wagon just leapt over him, without even bruising him. All the same, he was charged with attempted suicide and tried for it. We then parted, for there was a rule that anyone convicted after a trial would be sent to some other camp. The authorities were afraid that the victim might take revenge on his interrogator or the witnesses. That was a wise rule. But there was no need to apply it to Rozovsky.

Handwriting

Late one night Krist was summoned to go “behind the stables.” That was what the camp called a cottage that was right at the base of a hill on the edge of the settlement. It was inhabited by the interrogator for especially important cases. The joke in the camp was that there were no cases that were not especially important, since any infringement or even the appearance of an infringement was punishable by death. Either death, or complete acquittal. Not that anyone could say they’d been fully acquitted. Ready for anything, indifferent to everything, Krist followed the narrow path. A light came on in the kitchen building. It was probably the bread cutter starting to cut up the bread rations for breakfast. For breakfast tomorrow. Would Krist live to see tomorrow and its breakfast? He didn’t know and was very happy not to know. Krist’s feet trod on something not like snow or ice fragments. He bent down, picked up a frozen crust and immediately recognized it as a clump of frozen turnip peelings. The ice had already thawed in his hands, and he thrust the crusty peelings into his mouth. There was obviously no need to hurry. Krist walked the length of the path, starting from the last barracks, and he realized that he was the first to walk this long, snow-covered path, that today nobody had trodden it before, along the settlement edge, to see the interrogator. Pieces of turnip had frozen to the snow all along the way. They looked as if they were wrapped in cellophane. Krist found ten pieces, some bigger, some smaller. It was a long time since Krist had seen anyone who would throw turnip peelings into the snow. It must have been a free contract worker, not a prisoner, of course. Perhaps it was the interrogator himself. Krist chewed up and swallowed all the crusts. He could taste in his mouth something he had long forgotten: his native earth, fresh vegetables. In a happy mood, Krist knocked at the door of the interrogator’s cottage.

The interrogator was a short, skinny and unshaven man. All he had here was his office and an iron bunk covered with a soldier’s blanket and a crumpled dirty pillow. The desk was a roughly made piece of furniture with crookedly placed drawers, packed tight with papers and folders. There was a box of index cards on the windowsill. The set of shelves was also packed tight with folders. Half of an empty can served as an ashtray. The clock showed half past ten. The interrogator was lighting the iron stove with paper.

His skin was white, he was pale, like all interrogators. He didn’t have an orderly, or a revolver.

“Sit down, Krist,” he said, addressing the prisoner politely and moving an old stool for him to sit on. He was sitting on a chair, another homemade item, with a high back.

“I’ve looked through your file,” said the interrogator, “and I have a proposition for you. I don’t know if you’ll find it acceptable.” Krist froze in expectation. The interrogator said nothing for a while. “I need to know a few more things about you.”

Krist raised his head and, although he tried not to, belched. It was a pleasant belch with an insistent taste of fresh turnip.

“Write an application.”

“An application?”

“Yes, an application. Here’s a sheet of paper, here’s a pen.”

“An application? What about? To whom?”

“To anyone you like! All right, if not an application, then a poem by Blok. It makes no difference. Do you get it? Or Pushkin’s ‘Bird’: Yesterday I opened the prison Of my ethereal captive, I returned the songster to the woods, I gave her back her freedom,—” the interrogator declaimed.

“That’s not Pushkin’s ‘Bird,’” Krist whispered, straining every fiber of his desiccated brain.

“Whose is it then?”

“Tumansky’s.”

“Tumansky’s? That’s the first I’ve heard of it.”

“Aha, you need a handwriting sample for an expert opinion, do you? To see if I’m a murderer? Or if I wrote a letter to the outside? Or forged a shop voucher for the gangsters?”

“Not at all. We don’t have any problem getting samples of that sort.” The interrogator smiled, exposing his swollen bleeding gums and small teeth. However slight this flashed smile was, it added a little light to the room. And also to Krist’s soul. He couldn’t help looking into the interrogator’s mouth.

“Yes,” said the latter, catching Krist’s gaze. “Scurvy, scurvy. Even free men aren’t exempt from scurvy here. There are no fresh vegetables.” Krist thought about the turnip. It was Krist who had gotten the vitamins, since there were more vitamins in the peelings than in the inside. Krist wanted to keep the conversation going, to tell the interrogator how he had sucked and stroked the turnip peelings that the interrogator had thrown away. But he held back, fearing that this boss would punish him for being excessively familiar.

“Well, have you got it, or not? I need to take a look at your handwriting.” Krist still failed to understand a thing.

“Write!” dictated the interrogator. “‘To the chief of the mine. Prisoner Krist, date of birth, article, sentence, application. I ask to be transferred to lighter work. . . .’ That will do.”

The interrogator took Krist’s half-written application, tore it up and threw it into the fire. . . . For a moment the stove burned more brightly.

“Sit at the desk. At the end.”

Krist had a professional calligrapher’s handwriting, which he liked a lot, although all his comrades laughed at it, saying that it wasn’t like the hand of a professor or someone with a doctorate. It wasn’t a scholar’s, a writer’s or a poet’s hand. It was a storekeeper’s hand. People joked that Krist could have had a career as the tsar’s clerk, as in the story by Aleksandr Kuprin.

But Krist wasn’t embarrassed by these jokes. He had gone on having his beautiful fair-copy manuscripts typed. The typists approved of him, but made fun of him in secret.

Fingers that are used to handling a pickax or a spade handle have enormous trouble holding a pen, but in the end they managed.

“Everything here’s a mess, chaos,” the interrogator was saying. “I realize that. But you can help me to put things in order.”

“Of course, of course,” said Krist. The stove was now burning well and the room was warm. “I’d like a cigarette.”

“I don’t smoke,” the interrogator said curtly. “And I don’t have any bread either. You’re not going to work tomorrow. I’ll tell the labor manager.”

So it was that for several months Krist came once a week to the camp interrogator’s badly heated, uncomfortable accommodation to copy papers and stitch them into folders.

The deadly winds of the snowless winter of 1937–38 had now got into the barracks in full force. Labor supervisors ran every night around the barracks with some list or other, looking for people to wake up and join a party to be sent out. Even before this terrible winter happened, nobody had ever come back from these “parties,” and now prisoners had stopped even thinking about these nighttime actions. A deportation party was a deportation party, and work was so hard that you couldn’t think about anything.

The working hours were extended, escort guards were introduced, but the week passed and Krist, barely alive, would wend his way to the familiar place, the interrogator’s office, to endlessly stitch papers. Krist stopped washing, he stopped shaving, but the interrogator seemed not to notice that Kris was starving, nor that his cheeks were sunken and his eyes inflamed. Krist just kept writing, and stitching. The quantity of papers and folders kept on growing, and there was no hope of ever putting them in order. Krist was copying out endless lists that showed only surnames, while the top of the list was bent back and he never even tried to get at the secret of this office, although all he had to do was bend back the sheet of paper in front of him. Sometimes the interrogator picked up a batch of “case files” that had appeared out of nowhere in Krist’s absence, and he would then hurriedly dictate lists for Krist to write down.

Dictation used to end at midnight, and Krist went back to his barracks and slept and slept. He was exempt from the next day’s roll call for work. Week after week passed, as Krist kept getting thinner and kept writing.

Then one day, picking up the next batch of papers to read the next surname, the interrogator stumbled, looked at Krist and asked him: “What’s your first name and patronymic?”

“Robert Ivanovich,” Krist replied with a smile. If the interrogator started calling him by his first name or any other polite way, he wouldn’t have been surprised. The interrogator was young enough to be Krist’s son. Still holding on to the folder and not uttering anyone’s surname, the interrogator turned pale. He went on turning pale until he was whiter than snow. The interrogator’s quick fingers leafed through the thin sheets of paper stitched into the folder—there were neither more nor fewer pages than in any other folder in the pile lying on the floor. Then the interrogator took decisive action. He opened the stove door, and the room at once became bright, as if his soul had been fully illuminated and something very important and human had been discovered at the bottom of it. The interrogator tore the folder into pieces and pushed the pieces into the stove. The light became even brighter. And, without looking at Krist, the interrogator said.

“Bureaucratic nonsense. They don’t understand what they’re doing, they’re not interested.” He looked at Krist with a firm gaze. “Let’s continue writing. Are you ready?”

“I am,” said Krist. Only years later did he realize that the folder has been his, Krist’s.

By then many of Krist’s fellow prisoners had been shot. The interrogator too had been shot. But Krist was still alive and sometimes, at least once every few years, he would remember that burning folder, the interrogator’s decisive fingers as he tore up Krist’s “case file”: a present to one doomed man from another. Krist wrote in a lifesaving calligraphic hand.

Lepers

Just after the war I witnessed another drama, or rather the fifth act of a drama, being played out in the hospital. The war brought from the lower depths of life into the light layers and pieces of life that had always, everywhere been concealed from bright sunlight. I don’t mean criminal or underworld circles: this was something quite different.

In areas where the war was going on the leprosy hospices were demolished and the lepers mingled with the ordinary population. Was this a secret or an open aspect of war? Was it chemical or bacteriological warfare?

People suffering from leprosy had no trouble pretending to be war wounded or war cripples. Lepers mingled with those fleeing eastward, thus returning to real life, however terrifying, where they would be assumed to be victims of war, even heroes.

Lepers lived and worked. Not until the war ended would the doctors remember about the lepers, and the terrible card-index lists of the leprosariums began to fill up again.

Lepers were living among people, sharing retreats, attacks, the joys and miseries of victory. Lepers were working in factories and on the land. They were becoming bosses and subordinates. The one thing they could never be was soldiers, even though the stumps of their fingers and toes were almost indistinguishable from war wounds. In fact, lepers claimed to be war wounded, a small number among the millions of real ones.

Sergei Fedorenko was a stores manager. As a war invalid, he was very clever at managing with his awkward finger stumps and did his job well. He could expect a career, a party ticket, but once there was money he could lay hands on, he began drinking and taking time off work, so that he was arrested, convicted, and arrived at Magadan on one of the Kolyma ship voyages as a prisoner sentenced to ten years for nonpolitical crimes.

Once in Kolyma, Fedorenko changed his diagnosis. There were plenty of cripples here, self-mutilated ones for example. But it was better, more fashionable, and less noticeable to merge with the mass of frostbite victims.

That’s how I came across him in the hospital: symptoms of third- or fourth-degree frostbite, sores that would not heal, a stump of a foot, stumps of fingers on both hands.

Fedorenko had treatment: it didn’t work. But every patient fought his treatment in any way he could. After many months of trophic ulcers, Fedorenko discharged himself and, wanting to stay in the hospital, became a male nurse, ending up as a senior nurse in a surgical department of some three hundred beds. This was the central hospital, with a thousand beds just for prisoners. On one of the floors there was an annex, a hospital for free contracted workers.

One day the doctor who had Fedorenko’s file fell ill and a Dr. Krasinsky, an old military doctor, a lover of Jules Verne (why?), took over his case: Krasinsky, despite living in Kolyma, had not lost his desire to gossip, chatter, and discuss.

Examining Fedorenko, Krasinsky was struck by something he himself couldn’t put a finger on. He had known this uncertain feeling ever since he was a student. No, this was not a trophic ulcer, not a stump resulting from an explosion or an ax blow. This was tissue slowly disintegrating.

Krasinsky’s heart began to pound. He called in Fedorenko again and pulled him over to the window, to the light, where, looking hard at his face, he could not believe what he was seeing. This was leprosy! This was the lion’s mask: a human face more like a lion’s.

Feverishly Krasinsky leafed through his textbooks. He picked up a big needle and pricked repeatedly one of the many white spots on Fedorenko’s skin. No pain at all! Pouring sweat, Krasinsky wrote a report to the authorities. The patient Fedorenko was isolated in a separate ward, flakes of skin were sent to the center, first to Magadan, then to Moscow, for a biopsy. A reply came in two weeks. Leprosy! Krasinsky walked about like the hero of the day. One group of authorities corresponded with another about establishing a special squad for a leprosarium in Kolyma. The leprosarium was set up on an island, and at the ferry-crossing points on either bank machine guns were set up. It needed a special squad.

Fedorenko did not deny that he had been in a leprosarium and that the lepers, once abandoned, had fled to freedom. Some had tried to catch up with the retreat, others had gone to welcome Hitler’s troops. Just as in life elsewhere. Fedorenko calmly waited to be sent away, but the hospital was seething like an anthill. The whole hospital. Those who’d been badly beaten under interrogation and whose souls had been reduced to dust by a thousand interrogations, while their bodies were wrecked and exhausted by unbearably heavy work, prisoners with sentences of twenty-five years plus five years’ deprivation of rights, sentences that were unsurvivable, which you could not hope to come out of alive. . . . All these people were trembling, yelling, and cursing Fedorenko, because they were afraid of catching leprosy.

This was the same psychological phenomenon that makes an escapee decide to put off a well-prepared escape attempt, just because on that particular day tobacco or parcels are being issued in camp. There are as many peculiar examples that contradict all logic as there are camps. Human shame, for example. What are its limits and range? People whose lives have been destroyed, whose future and past have been trampled into the ground, suddenly turn out to be in thrall to some trivial prejudice, something banal that for some reason can’t be surmounted or set aside. A sudden onset of shame, likewise, comes like the most refined of human feelings and is remembered for a lifetime as something authentic, infinitely precious. There was an incident in the hospital when a paramedic, who was not yet qualified but was just assisting, was given the job of shaving women, a whole newly arrived group of women prisoners. The bosses wanted a bit of amusement, so they ordered women to shave the men and men to shave the women. Everyone amuses themselves as best they can. But the male barber begged a woman he knew to perform this sanitary ceremony herself, and he refused even to think that their lives were in any case ruined, that all these amusements of the camp bosses were just some filthy foam in this terrible cauldron where personal lives were being boiled to death.

The laughable, the tender, the human in human beings is revealed out of the blue.

There was panic in the hospital. Fedorenko had been working for several months there. Unfortunately, in leprosy the dormant period of the infection, before any outward symptoms appear, lasts for several years. Those who were prone to worry were doomed to stay afraid forever, whether they were free or prisoners.

There was panic in the hospital. The doctors feverishly looked for those white insensitive spots on the skin of the patients and the staff. Along with the stethoscope and the rubber mallet, a needle became part of the essential equipment for a doctor’s preliminary examination. The patient Fedorenko was brought and undressed in front of paramedics and doctors. A warder armed with a pistol stood some distance from the patient. Dr. Krasinsky, armed with an enormous pointer, lectured on leprosy, pointing with his stick at the former nurse’s lion face, or his missing digits, or the shiny white patches on his back. Literally every single person in the hospital, free or imprisoned, was reexamined. Suddenly a small white patch, an insensitive white patch, was found on Shura Leshchinskaya’s back: she had been a nurse at the front and was now the duty nurse in the women’s section. She had only recently, a few months ago, come to the hospital. She did not have a lion face. Her manner was no more severe and no more obliging, her tone no louder and no gentler than any other hospital nurse who was also a prisoner.

Leshchinskaya was locked up in one of the women’s wards, and a piece of her skin was sent to Magadan and then to Moscow for analysis. And the reply came: it was leprosy!

Disinfection after leprosy is a difficult business. Any house inhabited by a leper is supposed to be burned, so say the textbooks. But burning down, reducing to cinders a ward in an enormous two-story building, a gigantic building, was something nobody would undertake. Similarly, people will take risks when it comes to disinfecting expensive furs, preferring to leave the microbes alone rather than lose their expensive possessions (for a high-temperature “baking” kills not just the microbes but the fabric they inhabit). The authorities would have kept just as silent if it had been a case even of plague or cholera. Somebody took the responsibility for not burning the building down. Even the ward in which Fedorenko was locked, while awaiting dispatch to a leprosarium, was not burned. They merely drowned everything by repeatedly spraying phenol and carbolic acid.

Immediately a new and serious cause for alarm appeared. Both Fedorenko and Leshchinskaya were occupying wards big enough to take several beds. A response to this problem, like the special squad of two men to escort them, still had not materialized, despite all the reminders from the bosses in their daily, or rather nightly telegrams to Magadan. In the basement they set aside an area and built two cells for prisoners with leprosy. This was where they moved Fedorenko and Leshchinskaya. Behind heavy locks, with armed guards, the lepers were left to wait for orders and for the squad to escort them to the leprosarium. Fedorenko and Leshchinskaya spent twenty-four hours in their cells; the next shift of sentinels found the cells empty.

Panic broke out in the hospital. Everything in those cells was as it should be — windows and doors.

Krasinsky was the first to realize what had happened: they had escaped through the floor.

Fedorenko, a very strong man, had taken the joists apart and gotten into the corridor, raided the bread-cutting room and the operation theater of the surgical department. After collecting all the alcohol and alcoholic extracts from the cupboard, as well as all the codeines, he hauled off his loot to his underground den.

The lepers marked off a place to sleep on which they threw blankets, mattresses; they made a barricade of joists to keep the world, the guards, the hospital, the leprosarium at bay. There they lived as man and wife for several days, three, I believe.

On the third day the searchers and the guard’s search dogs found the lepers. I was one of the search party, having to bend only a little under the hospital’s tall cellar ceiling. The foundations were very deep. The joists had been taken apart. Down at the bottom, not bothering to get up, lay both lepers, naked. Fedorenko’s mutilated dark arms were embracing Leshchinskaya’s shining white body. They were both drunk. They were covered with blankets and taken up to one of the cells: they weren’t separated again.

Who covered them with a blanket, who touched those terrible bodies? It was a special male nurse, whom they found in the hospital as one of the employed staff, and to whom they gave seven days off his sentence for every day worked (at the instigation of the top bosses). So he got better terms than he would in the tungsten, lead, or uranium mines. Seven days off for one day worked. His article of the Criminal Code was irrelevant in this case. They had found a front-line soldier who had been given twenty-five plus five years for betraying the motherland: he naively supposed that his heroism would reduce his sentence and that the day of his release would be brought nearer.

Prisoner Korolkov, a lieutenant in the war, guarded the cell day and night. He even slept by the cell doors. But when an escort arrived from the island, prisoner Korolkov was taken along with the lepers, to look after them. That was the last I heard of Korolkov, of Fedorenko, or of Leshchinskaya.

From Kolyma Stories by Varlam Shalamov, translated from Russian and with an introduction by Donald Rayfield. An NYRB Classics Original, the collection of stories is out now on Amazon

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