In 1936, Varlam Shalamov, a journalist and writer, was arrested for counterrevolutionary activities and sent to the Soviet Gulag. He survived fifteen years in the prison camps and returned from the Far North to write one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century literature, an epic array of short fictional tales reflecting the years he spent in the Gulag. Sketches from of the Criminal World is the second of two volumes (the first, Kolyma Stories, was published by NYRB Classics in 2018) that together constitute the first complete English translation of Shalamov’s stories and the only one to be based on the authorized Russian text.
Shalamov spent six years as a slave in the gold mines of Kolyma before finding a less intolerable life as a paramedic in the prison camps. He began writing his account of life in Kolyma after Stalin’s death in 1953 and continued for the next twenty years. In this second volume, Shalamov sets out to answer the fundamental moral questions that plagued him in the camps where he encountered first-hand the criminal world as a real place, far more evil than Dostoyevsky’s underground: „How does someone stop being human?” and „How are criminals made?” By 1972, when he was writing his last stories, the remnants of the camps were being destroyed, the guard towers and barracks razed, the barbed wire rolled up and taken away. „Did we exist?” Shalamov asks, then answers without hesitation, „I reply, 'We did, ’ with all the expressiveness of an official statement, with the responsibility, the precision of a document.”
Sketches of the Criminal World: Further Kolyma Stories