Writer Varlam Shalamov on the criminal underworld’s obsession with motherhood | extract

Writer Varlam Shalamov on the criminal underworld’s obsession with motherhood | extract

14 May 2020
Text: Varlam Shalamov

In this extract from the Sketches of the Criminal World, gulag-survivor, journalist, and writer Varlam Shalamov explores the myth of the mother in the criminal world. Having spent many years in prisons and labour camps under the Soviet regime, Shalamov got to know not only political prisoners like himself, but also criminal offenders.

“Fiction has always represented the criminal world sympathetically, sometimes sycophantically. Deceived by cheap and tawdry ideas, it has given the world of thieves a romantic aura,” Shalamov says in the opening of this book.

Shalamov is keen to correct the romantic image of criminal offenders, and describe prison culture in all its brutality. In this extract, he contrasts gangsters’ false adoration for their mothers with their disdain for women more generally.

Published in English earlier this year, Sketches of the Criminal World is the sequel to the 2018 English translation of Kolyma Stories. Together, these two volumes constitute the first complete English translation of Shalamov’s stories.


“The gangster’s imagination constructs a malicious and hostile world, encircling him on all sides. In a world populated by his enemies there is just one bright figure worthy of pure love and respect and worship. That is his mother.

The cult of the mother, despite an embittered contempt for women in general, is the criminal world’s ethical formula for dealing with the woman question, and the formula is expressed with a special prison sentimentality. A lot of rubbish has been written about prison sentimentality. In reality, this is the sentimentality of a murderer who waters his bed of roses with the blood of his victims. It is the sentimentality of a man who will bind an injured bird’s wounds, yet an hour later is capable of tearing that living bird into pieces with his own hands, for the spectacle of a living creature’s death is the best of spectacles for a gangster.

You have to know the true face of the authors of the mother cult, a cult that has a poetic haze wafting over it.

With the same uncontrolled theatricality that makes the criminal sign his name with a knife on the corpse of a renegade he has killed, or rape a woman in public and in daylight so that everyone can see, or force himself on a three-year-old girl, or infect a male Zoika with syphilis, and with just the same expression, the criminal poeticises the image of the mother, deifies her, makes her the object of the most refined prison lyrics, and forces everyone to show her every kind of respect, even though they can’t see her.

Kolyma Stories: Shalamov's brutally moving extracts on life in a Siberian gulag
Read more Kolyma Stories: Shalamov's brutally moving extracts on life in a Siberian gulag

At first glance, a thief’s affection for his mother seems to be the only human aspect surviving in his grotesque and distorted feelings. The criminal would always appear to be a respectful son, and any coarse talk about someone else’s mother is invariably cut short in the criminal world. Mother is a lofty ideal, and at the same time something completely real, something which everybody has. A mother who forgives everything, who will always take pity.

“Mommy worked so we could live. But I quietly began to steal. ‘You’ll be a thief, like your daddy,’ my mother used to say, as she shed tears.”

Those are lines from “Fate,” a classic song of the criminal world.

The thief understands that only his mother will stick with him through his short and stormy life until the end, and so he spares her his cynicism.

But this apparently unique bright feeling is as mendacious as all the impulses of the gangster’s soul.

Glorifying the mother is a camouflage; praising her is a form of deceit and, at best, only an observed expression of prison sentimentality. In what you might think to be an exalted feeling, the thief is lying from beginning to end, as in everything he says or thinks. None of the thieves ever sent his mother so much as a penny; they never helped her even in their own way; they spent the thousands of rubles they stole on drink and women.

There is nothing but pretence and theatrical lying in this feeling for mothers.

The cult of the mother is a peculiar smoke screen that covers up the unprepossessing world of the thieves.

The cult of the mother is a pretence and a lie, since it is never transferred to a wife or to women in general.

The attitude toward women is the litmus test for any system of ethics.

The cult of the mother is a pretence and a lie, since it is never transferred to a wife or to women

This is the place to note that it was the poet Yesenin who created the cult of the mother, which coexists with cynical scorn for women: 30 years ago, Yesenin was a very popular author in the criminal world. But more about that when the time comes.

A woman thief or a thief ’s girlfriend, any woman who has directly or indirectly entered the criminal world, is forbidden to have any sort of romance with freiers. If she does, however, she won’t be killed or “done over”. A knife is too noble a weapon to be used on a woman: a stick or a poker will do for her.

Things are quite different when it comes to an affair between a male thief and a free woman. That is honour and valor, the subject of boastful tales by the lucky man and secret envy from the others. These cases are quite common. But such a mountain of fairy tales is piled up around them that it is very hard to discern the truth. A typist turns into a female prosecutor, a messenger girl into the director of an enterprise, a shopgirl into a minister. Fantasy drives truth into the darkness, somewhere at the back of the stage, and there is no prospect of making sense of the show.

It goes without saying that a number of gangsters have families in their native towns, families long ago abandoned by the gangster husbands. Their wives and small children all battle with life the best they can. Sometimes the men return to their families from imprisonment, but they usually return for only a short time. “The restless spirit” draws them on to new wanderings, and in any case the local criminal investigation department eases the criminal’s departure. So children are left behind in families for whom the father’s profession does not seem horrible; instead, it arouses pity and, worse still, the desire to follow in their father’s footsteps, as in “Fate”:

“If you have the strength to fight with fate, Continue the fight to the very end.

I’m very weak, but I shall still be compelled To follow in the path of my dead father.”

The gangster has little to do with questions of fatherhood or bringing up children, although these questions are not excluded from the criminal’s Talmud. The future of his daughters (should he have some somewhere) seems to a thief completely assured if they choose to be prostitutes or the girlfriends of famous thieves. Generally speaking, there is no moral burden (even of the specific criminal kind) weighing on a gangster’s conscience in this matter. The fact that his sons will also grow up to be thieves seems utterly natural to a thief.

Sketches of the Criminal World was published by NYRB Classics. Get your copy here.

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