Sample Literature Essays on Varlam Shalamov “Kolyma tales”

Shalamov’s Experience and Human Nature

Born in 1907, Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov was among the individuals who experienced the harsh conditions of imprisonment in Russia. The most fearful experience was detention in the nation’s labor camps. In his experience, Shalamov preferred being locked up in prison to being sent to the labor camps because the consequences that the scenarios had on human beings.  The intense labor changes the way people behave and their attitude towards one another. The stories written by Shalamov describe the effect of the detentions on human nature concerning physical and psychological aspects.  During the first days in the labor camps, individuals would be calm but as the days went by, they changed completely into monsters. The harsh conditions had a way of bringing out a side of human nature that people did not know. The specific aspect of human nature that Shalamov’s experience brings out is the survival tactics of human beings when they are exposed to inhumane conditions.  Shalamov’s experience in the labor camp enhances one’s understanding of human nature in with respect to their adaptation, behavior and the psychological impact if such experiences.

For the prisoners to survive, they had to adapt to the harsh conditions such as starvation, cold, and diseases. The other story that described human nature when subjected to harsh conditions was “Berries”, where Shalamov described the survival tactics that the detainees adapted to access necessities, such as food. The story describes the harsh conditions that the prisoners faced including hard labor. The guards did not care about the well-being of individuals, forcing them to devise survival tactics. To beat the harsh starvation that the prisoners faced, Rybakov, one of the detainees, agreed to pick berries for the prison officials, and he would receive a piece of bread for the work (Wilkinson and Chandler 2). Shalamov’s cites that there was no way he could allow any person to help him pick the berries because he was not willing to share his bread with them. The selfish nature that he developed was a survival tactic to overcome starvation. Dishonesty was another tactic that the prisoners adopted to survive starvation. Shalamov writes about an incident where Rybakov lost a cane of berries and instead of giving it to him; he hid it so that he could exchange it for bread.

The harsh conditions in the labor camps affected the behavior of the prisoners. After three weeks of being in the labor camps, the kind nature of human beings would be replaced by a mean behavior (Subbotin and Denis 1). In one of the stories, Shalamov describes the lessons he learned from the labor camps about human nature. He was surprised to learn about the fragile nature of human beings when subjected to harsh conditions. The harsh conditions in the labor camps forced the individuals to define survival tactics, and nobody cared about the welfare of the others. The starvations, beatings and cold conditions forced individuals to become selfish, an act they would not have if the circumstances were different. One would expect that in conditions where a group of people was isolated from the rest, they would have strong social ties, united by the common experiences that they faced. Contrary to the expectation, Shalamov observed that the harsh conditions changed the human beings to unfriendly individuals. It is a survival tactic, as the individuals have to look for ways of making their lives more bearable in the prisons. One of the most helpful survival tactics that Shalamov observed was reliance on spiritual strength. Priests and other religious leaders who were in the labor camps had easier time coping with the harsh conditions.

The harsh conditions in the labor camps had some psychological effects on the individuals as described by Shalamov’s story of the “Snake Charmer”. In the story, Shalamov had a chance of socializing with one of the prisoners before he succumbed to the harsh conditions of the labor camp. His name was Platonov and he had more experience in the labor camps. Platonov narrates about the way he used to read novels to criminals to get food and a lighter workload (Wilkinson and Chandler 1). The prisoners in Jankhara were criminals and a person had to relate well with them to survive, otherwise, they ensured that an individual did not access food and other basic supplies.  The expression on Platonov when Shalamov asked him about his experience in Jankhara was evident that he was psychologically disturbed.

In conclusion, it is evident that human nature changes according to the present circumstances. To survive in harsh environments people must adopt survival tactics, which force them to do things they would not do in different circumstances. The tendencies that people have, such as being selfish and mean may not be their will, but the circumstances they face in life shapes their behavior.   The anti-social behavior adopted by the prisoners indicates the instability of human nature when subjected to harsh conditions. The psychological torture that the prisoners face does not only result from the insecurity of accessing basic necessities but also personal security from the colleagues, especially in labor camps where majority o the prisoners are criminals.


Works Cited

Subbotin, Dmitry, and Robert Denis. “What I Saw and Learned in the Kolyma Camps // Varlam Shalamov.” A New Book: Memoirs, Notebooks, Correspondence, Police Dossiers – Eksmo, 2004: 263-268.., 2004. <>.

Wilkinson, Nathan, and Robert Chandler. “Berries // Varlam Shalamov.” Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida (Penguin Classics 2007). n.d. <>.

Wilkinson, Nathan, and Robert Chandler. “The Snake Charmer // Varlam Shalamov.” Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida (Penguin Classics 2007). N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Feb. 2016.