Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov
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This week, Matt and Cameron read Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov. Although the Gulag narrative was most popularized by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s works, Shalamov’s tales are equally compelling, especially driven by their mix of reality and fantasy. As a not one, not two, but three-time convict sentenced to hard labor Shalamov wrote stories that combined his real experiences with fantasy in order to convey the realities and feelings of life in the camp.
Major themes: gulags, carnivorousness, latent classicism, guerilla warfare.
32:18 - It would be more accurate to say Red Army soldiers, since there were many more ethnicities than only Russian in the Soviet military.
Hello and welcome. You are listening to Tipsy Tolstoy: Russian Literature for the Inebriated.
I am Matt HGTV Gerasimovich.
And I'm Cameron-I was a Japanese major for three years without realizing it-Lallana
Title is not as succinct. But I'll allow it.
This time. This is a podcast where me and my good pal Matt get to unwind from our week with some Russian literature and a drink or two or three or four, we don't judge here.
How did you go three years without realizing you were a Japanese major Cameron?
I took one Japanese class at my community college when I was in high school. And when I went back there two years later, I just kind of assumed I'd been an English major, because those were the courses I was taking. Which when I went to study... switch to political science, right before I left two years later, I was not. I was never an English major. I was a Japanese major the whole time. Despite taking exactly one Japanese class when I was about to be a junior in high school,
You've actually probably really done them a solid by helping out their enrollment during that period. Even though you were only taking one course, you know, still counts.
I was one of the prestigious five people in the Japanese department there.
Yeah. I mean, hey, it's all about prestige, baby.
Yeah, actually, that was one of the most haunting experiences of my life because a friend of mine went to Japan when I was in that class. And he came back and gave me a shirt. And one day wore it to class and the professor walked up to me and was like, Cameron-san, where did you get that shirt? I said, my friend bought it for me from Japan. And then he just laughed and walked away. It was never explained. And I still wonder what that shirt said.
Your friend definitely did you dirty. I feel like he definitely knew what he was doing the whole time. I feel that my story is not nearly as interesting for this week. It's just that I've been watching a lot of HGTV. And that's about it. I just... just something about watching somebody renovate a home, I'll watch it.
Something about the sexy Property Brothers.
Yeah. And I like to also judge people for poor life planning and poor life choices, even though I know that I'm going to make no better life choices in the future.
Well, you know, that's I think, the essence of reality TV.
Yeah. Before we get into Kolyma Tales, I wanted to ask you: what are you drinking?
I am drinking... I'm drinking a pretty extravagant cocktail actually tonight. It is... So step one, you fill your glass with ice. Step two, you pour some vodka over it and *muah* chef's kiss. You got yourself a cocktail. It is a grapefruit and rose vodka. So it's actually pretty good. It's fine to drink over ice. Yeah, I can pretend like I'm fancy, even though I'm not. What are you drinking this week?
Okay, I know we've already kind of stretched out this intro long enough. But I just wanted to let everyone know how much I struggled tremendously for this podcast, because I bought all of the stout craft beers in the stores around where I live. So I had to go all the way across town to the fancy grocery store to buy something there. Oh, when I was checking out I knew I was in the wrong place because I just gotten off work. And I was about to come back here and record. So I was like buying... I bought like a cookie that's also a protein bar for dinner and beer. And as I was checking out with just this cookie protein bar and beer, I was surrounded by people who were buying exclusively green vegetables and sushi. So...
Yeah, that's a certain demographic, isn't it?
Yep. Yep. It's the kind of place where in the checkout line, they only have magazines about like clean living and Buddhism. Okay, well, I think we've put it off long enough this week: Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov.
Yeah, we got a little bit of a doozy in for us this week, Cameron. Boy do we. We are reading three short stories from the Kolyma Tales: we are reading "Tamara the Bitch," "Vaska Denisov: Kidnapper of Pigs," and "Major Pugachev's Last Battle." It is quite an episode we have ahead of us. Not particularly a happy one, but definitely a rewarding one, I think.
Yeah, I mean, usually when you get literature about gulags, you kind of assume it's gonna be, you know, kind of a story of people overcoming just like, you know, Charles Dickens.
Yeah, this one, it actually is. My point that I'll take away from this is that it actually is relatively optimistic in at least two of the three stories, in some ways, in its own way.
Okay. All right. I'm interested in hearing your reasoning for that.
Yeah. It'll be maybe a little bit of a stretch. We'll see. I have a little bit of a background on Shalamov here, if you would, care to hear it.
Alright, it's a little bit short this week just because the stories, I think, stand on their own without much need for too much of a biography or a background on the author. But that being said, it is good to get some of that, and especially some parts of this really do play into the story and the realism of all of it. So Shalamov was born in 1907 lived all the way to 1982. He, during the late 30s, was imprisoned in a forced labor camp in Kolyma for most of that time. He between 1937 and 1951, was imprisoned, kind of in and out and was around that area. For who's really to say what. I think officially it was mostly for supporting Trotsky. And he praised the anti-Soviet writer, Ivan Bunin, who I don't know... It's such an interesting idea to think of today that you could be sent to the forced labor camp for liking a writer. The fact that anybody at any point in history cared about literature that much is crazy. So unfortunately, Shalamov never actually saw Kolyma Tales, published in his own language in his own lifetime. It was published in the West in the 1960s, and only in the USSR in 1987. So he had already been dead for five years. And of course, there were like publications that were self done. There is definitely some element of like underground literature and whatnot in the Soviet Union, but it wasn't officially published and recognized in the Soviet Union until '87. He eventually, after the Thaw, when Khrushchev was in power, he was allowed to return to Moscow. But his health was permanently damaged from spending so much time in the forced labor camp, presumably from just horrific conditions, terrible nutrition, basically living on a starvation diet for the 20 years that he was in... the 15 or 20 years that he was in these camps. So these three stories deal extensively with his experiences. They're very autobiographical, and draw on his experiences in the Kolyma camps, which were very famous at the time and still are. They were the inspiration for Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago. And he kind of, I think popularized, at least in the West, the idea of the gulag. Though, that being said, I think that this is a better depiction of what the gulags actually were. I think that the... I think that Shalamov is just a better writer overall, he just achieves a much different effect than Solzhenitsyn does. And the Gulag Archipelago or in The First Circle. And that is my kind of background on Shalamov. I think that's the main points. I don't know if you had anything you want to add before we got into the stories?
Nothing I really wanted to add, I just thought it was kind of interesting that he was released twice before they a couple years later sent him back. An interesting kind of in and out you don't usually think of with the Gulag system that that was a possibility that you could be, you know, eventually would be released.
I think it's most people didn't live that long in the camps.
Yes, yeah. As I understand it, sometimes the death rates can be very low, because technically, if you were really really sick, they would release you, you know, a couple days before you died, so you didn't technically die in their care.
Exactly, exactly. So with that, do you want to get into our first story?
Yeah. Okay, we're going to start off with "Tamara the Bitch," which, a little fun fact, I learned this week: I'm sure if you've ever been on the internet, you have heard the phrase suka blyat. I did not know that suka, insult for women or I guess sometimes men in Russian, has the same undertones that doesn't English. Bitch meaning, or suka, in this case, meaning female dog or denigrating someone kind of a fun fact.
You know, the more you know.
The more you know. That's the tagline for this episode.
Something like that.
Yeah. So "Tamara the Bitch" is a story which mostly focuses around a blacksmith named Moses Kuznetsov. And Kuznetsov is just an incredible blacksmith who is married to a waitress in Minsk. His wife doesn't particularly care for him. So on the advice of her best friend, she denounces him to the police. And as the story notes, in these years, that was more reliable than any hex or spell, and even more reliable than sulfuric acid. So Moses Kuznetsov is immediately disappeared into a camp. So at this camp, the foreman is trying to run a tight ship for all the essential roles, blacksmith doctor, etc. they have two prisoners there who could do the job and at one point one prisoner will be serving the other prisoner will be working in the camps. And if the one who's working f---s up, then he gets switched with the other prisoner as sort of an incentive. For the most part it doesn't work except with the blacksmith, because Kuznetsov is just an incredible blacksmith, the boss kind of puts up with him because he's just so good at what he does. One day when Kuznetsov is out and about he comes upon a Yakut dog and he thinks the wolf, he's terrified, but she's very friendly. He takes it back to the camp. Everyone loves this dog. They are pretty into it, because they kind of feel like this is an escape from their terrible, terrible lives. She's about to have pups, so everyone shows her affection. She, even when they try to give her food will only take just like a little piece of salted salmon. So everyone's like, that's cool that you've got moral fiber. Even if she spends time in the kitchen, she doesn't take their food. They name her Tamara. This goes on for a while, they really love this dog, she gives birth to her pups. Until later in the winter, some soldiers show up who are doing searches for escaped prisoners. And everyone's like, okay, we're gonna keep our heads down. It's fine, except for Tamara, who hates these soldiers, she immediately tries to attack them, they try to shoot her, they separate them. It's clear that Tamara has a history of these soldiers. And one day when the soldiers are just pissed off at Tamara, and she's being a little bit aggressive. One of the soldiers, Nazarov, shoots Tamara. And this is kind of like the straw that broke the camel's back, the workers in the camp basically began to take up their pickaxes with the intent of killing these soldiers and the soldiers just as they're only five, actually, there are only two at this point, take off, they have their skis, and they go out into the forest. And the soldier who had actually shot tomorrow, while trying to escape skis right into a stump, which had been covered in snow and is impaled and dies. For the most part that's it. They string up, Tamara's hide on a wall, but they did a bad job. And it kind of shrivels down to something that doesn't really believe... that doesn't really seem like a huge Yakut hunting dog like it had once been. Sometime later, a forester shows up to help fall some trees and takes her hide in order to make some mitts. And according to him, the bullet holes in the side don't matter. And that is the end of "Tamara the Bitch."
And I'm gonna go out and say right off the bat, that's a positive story-ish.
Okay, that's a strong out the gate assertion.
I'd like to hear your reasoning for that.
I'm going to do it because I think that we can work backwards on it a little bit. So I think that the main feature of Tamara is that she's about to give birth to pups. The prisoners in the camp take her in because they recognize their own mother in her, they recognize something human in this dog. And this is something that Shalamov does a lot in this story and he will continue to do throughout his other stories, and something that other Soviet writers will also do, which is very, very important. And that is they give human qualities to animals or things in nature. And Tamara does this in several points in the book. One of them you pointed out was how she appears to do something that other prisoners do, which is she doesn't eat all their food, she has some sort of humanesque moral code to her. And to me, Tamara is actually the most human in the story, funny enough. The prisoners can't find any humaneness in the system, they don't find any human aspects in the soldiers. They only find it in Tamara. And so in some ways, this story is like a story of I don't know how to say it exactly. But almost like a cosmic justice, where Tamara creates life. Tamara continues to aid people even after she's dead with, you know, her hide being turned into something useful, mittens, that is. Whereas the soldiers that everywhere they go, they create death, and they're impaled by a tree stump. And that's I don't know if that's exactly what Shalamov was going for. Maybe he just wanted to write a story about a dog. But that's what I take out of it. That's why I like it so much because it's one of those again, I really like these stories where they're super short, but super impactful.
That makes sense. Actually, as I'm kind of scanning back to the story, as you're talking, I did kind of notice some features which kind of supported that. Especially when the soldiers show up the residents, quote, accepted their uninvited guests with the usual indifference and submissiveness. But the moment that Tamara, again, only five soldiers, but the moment that Tamara is shot, that all falls by the wayside, and they immediately begin to take up their axes and crowbars and the soldiers don't fight back. They just disappear. They're like already feeling like they are overwhelmed. And this passion that's suddenly there that which otherwise would not have appeared if Tamara had not been shot, even though they had the power that they had in that moment that they had the whole time.
Yeah, Tamara is pretty, pretty good. I think that there was a passage that I liked a lot when they kind of... when the narrator's describing how she had these human qualities, which is she quickly established good relations with all the necessary people. Tamara understood the role played by Kasaev and Vasilenko, the other foreman in the camp. She also knew how important it was to be on good terms with the cook. At night, she would take her place next to the night guard. And so it's just interesting to see the way that the dog is characterized, because it is a dog, but it's the first time that they're able, I think, to see anything positive to give them some indication of life outside of the camp, even if it is, again, just a dog. It's something positive, something nurturing something that they would probably hope to return to, or, you know, in an ideal life, this is what they would hope to be around is around people that are nurturing and growing things instead of those that are bringing death and destruction along their paths.
Yeah. And so I also want to go back to the beginning for a second there, because this isn't something that's directly tied to maybe the theme of the story. But I like the second paragraph, just because there's a dark humor in the, in those years, this approach was more reliable than any hex or spell. It's just like a little simple thing. But it really, I think, encapsulates so much of the dark humor about what was an incredibly horrifying time for so many people in the second wave of purges. So in the 1930s, you really like two waves of kind of arrests and purges, and both not great, I think you could generously call them. But the second was by far, the more invasive and aggressive of these sweeps. So by being characterized by the late 1930s, even that's really not the focus of this, it kind of does capture the horror and sometimes even the arbitrariness of how this could happen in that our initial protagonist, Kuznetsov is simply not on good terms with his wife.
It's also not funny, but just like... important to point out that divorce in the Soviet Union really wasn't that difficult to do, you could get divorced very easily. There weren't the former religious ties associated with it. And so she could have just gotten divorced instead of reporting him to the police. And yet she does. And oftentimes, I think that the sort of denunciations would come along with like, personal perks. I think they were looked very highly upon by the government, when you would report somebody who you said was a traitor to the Soviet Union, even though he wasn't he was just a good blacksmith. His wife just didn't like them. Yeah, I mean, I'm okay to move to the next story. It was a really good story, but it was also really short story.
Yeah, that's "Tamara the Bitch." It's a pretty short story. I only maybe spent like five minutes reading this. I'm reading on my computer. So I have a hard sense of... I don't have a good sense of how many pages that was, but pretty enjoyable, sad. But as Matt has convincingly argued to me, has some happy-ish undertones.
Yeah, not happy in like jumping up and down happy but happy in the way... I guess maybe content is the way I would describe feeling after reading it.
Which is maybe the best you can get in terms of a gulag story.
Yeah, I think that's about the level that you're kind of looking for.
Yeah. Well, let's get to something which has fewer funny or happy undertones. "Vaska Denisov, Kidnapper of Pigs."
So this is a story about a man named Vaska. He is somebody who is imprisoned in a forced labor camp in the Soviet Union. And this one deals a little bit more about not just the camp, but the relationship of... the relationship between the camp and the surrounding areas. Because thing that I did not know prior to reading a little bit more about this was that the gulags were not necessarily always isolated camps in the way that we would tend to think of them, we would think, Oh, this is such a horrific incident to have ever occurred during history, surely, it must have been far away because nobody who had lived near them would be okay with this. And this is one of the stories that shows you, no, these were often closer to home than we would be comfortable thinking about. And so this shows the relationship between Vaska who works in a gulag, and the people in the town that he is supporting through his forced slavery. And throughout the story Vaska basically, he doesn't do a ton at the beginning. He's just... he is carrying a log to a man's house. And the man says, Oh, you know, let me get dressed and I'll help you. And then the saw that they're going to cut it with is dull and it's not set and he gives him an axe instead and says, You know what, just cut it with this dull axe and bring it inside. Don't leave it in the foyer, just bring it inside when you're done. And so Vaska does that, he is starving because he's living on basically no food, but he continues and he cuts the firewood up for the man. And he brings it inside and instead of being paid with food, like he would want, the man says sorry, I've given all the food to the pigs and instead he gives Vaska three rubles for all the wood and the labor. Three rubles at this point, three rubles at any point, is basically nothing you may as well have just given him nothing. And so Vaska tears up the money on the man's porch, he watches it float off into the wind. And as he's kind of, he's going back, he is starving, and he walks up to a porch and he opens the door, and he finds a storeroom of food and grains and whatnot. And he sees frozen pig carcasses. And he runs to the back and he finds a baby pig carcass, and he picks it up, and he runs to the village headquarters, barricades himself in, and he just starts eating the frozen pig. And the story ends when they're able to break the barricade, and half the pig has been eaten. And that is "Vaska Denisov, Kidnapper of Pigs."
The title indicates much more whimsy than is actually the case here.
Oh, yeah, exactly. It's pretty depressing.
It's incredibly depressing. This isn't so much a comment on the themes, but I think I kind of want to reiterate how much Vaska's hunger is a portion of the story. In the opening scenes, when he's walking through the village, it's night, he can barely lift the log that he's trying to bring to this house because he's almost dizzy with hunger. Like that is something that he's really dealing with as he's going there. He's kind of anxious, he kind of notes at the beginning that, you know, people like him can only pass through this village normally by guard because otherwise the... it's not just like the civilians don't, as Matt alluded to earlier, like they just don't think about it or they don't know, they know. And they're relying on prison labor to a degree. But even though they rely on this labor, they're uncomfortable seeing, quote, his kind walk without a guard, even though he's doing their chores for them. As he's cutting the wood. He's barely able to do it. He's so hungry. And, you know, by the time he stepped back out onto the porch after having done all this for essentially nothing, he's staring at the pigs and thinks those pigs had eaten his bread and soup, which is, you know, not exactly the moment he snaps. There isn't like one moment when he has a shift in consciousness, we're really not privy to that. But I think that for me was kind of the moment that stuck out in this whole story because you have the moment between him just existing as someone who's like, basically a spirit just trying to get something to eat. And then at that moment, he like kind of... it is put right in his face, how much more a pig or even a couple of pigs is worth than his life. And he tears the money and then just eats an entire frozen piglet.
Yep, yeah. He is shown in this part of the story to be lower than a pig. The pigs are far more important to this man than Vaska is. He's dispensable, the pigs are not. And so the way that I kind of read this, I don't know that this one necessarily has as positive of undertones to some of the themes. The way I like to read this is that Vaska is trying to reclaim some shred of dignity throughout the story. The way that he rips up the money on the man's porch, the way that he goes ahead and eats a pig. You know he's basically going to be executed following this. There's no way anything besides that happens after this. And so I think that in his last stand, if you will, which we will get to a little bit more in our third story. In a similar vein Vaska is taking a civilian's last stand against an incredibly unjust system.
Yeah. And one that, as the story indicates, was not just like a top down sort of thing. It was something where people in the areas around it were complicit. When he steals the pig and the first bill that chase are not guards. It's, I mean, somewhat understandable if someone steals your pig you're gonna go after him, but he's basically chased by like the whole town who are yelling at him and even shooting at him. And it's only when he's barricaded himself that the guards finally arrive and open up the barricade. He is someone who is alienated even to outside of the apparatus of the state, just his fellow men and women around him.
Yeah, it's interesting because I think a lot of the times when you think of gulags, you think of big towers and guards and guns and really militarized operation. But interestingly, I don't even think they mentioned the camp, this all takes place inside of a town, he is still so much of a prisoner, even before they start shooting at him. He has absolutely no power at any point in the story. And I think that yeah, you can read the story for themes, but the main thing is really the way that everybody in these towns were complicit in perpetuating the system.
Boy this episode is just to slide down of any sort of joy that you could have taken from the first one.
Yeah, I think the second one or sorry... I think the third one has some positive endings.
Some positive ways you could read part of the ending.
I can get behind that assertion. But let's get to that. Let's talk about "Major Pugachev's Last Battle." So "Major Pugachev's Last Battle" can be a little bit difficult to summarize, since it's kind of told out of order, it begins as it points out, it could begin at a lot of points. The opening line is a lot of time must have passed between the beginning and the end of these events. For the human experience acquired in the far north is so great that months are considered equivalent years. Even the state recognizes this by increasing salaries and fringe benefits to workers of the North. It is a land of hopes, and therefore rumors, guesses suppositions and hypothesizing. And that's important because this is... although it has a particular locus where the story is, a lot of the stories in the center of surrounding area and what's happening to those characters were maybe only mentioned once or twice. So it opens by saying, we could begin the story with, you know, this doctor who was not even here during these events, or we could start with this other doctor who only joins the story much later on. We could do it at any number of places. But we're gonna start with the arrests of the 30s, which is long before this story actually takes place. So the story takes place slightly after World War II. And it begins at this camp, which the entire story is centered around with these random victims who were arrested in the quote, false and terrifying theory of a heightened class struggle accompanying the strength of socialism. You might see some of... I keep wanting to say Balmashov... you might see you might see some of Shalamov's Trotskyite sympathies, here, and especially his anti-Stalin sentiments here, and this crowd of the 30s, professors, union officials, soldiers and workers who had built the prisons, were not even certain why they were there. They were, for the most part, even supportive of this system. And this lack of community kind of decimates them. They did not defend or support each other, which was precisely the goal the authorities as the story points out. But after the war, their replacements, former Soviet citizens who have now lived through the incredibly difficult war years, are a little bit more hardened, or at least they have seen things which sort of prepare them for this. As the story notes they were... they knew how to take chances and believed only in the gun. And among this crowd, is a Major Pugachev, who is a former soldier of the Red Army, who was a POW who escaped from the German POW camp and returned to the Soviet Union only to find that he was suspect because he was a POW and was eventually sent to the camps because of it. And so he plans his escape, because he believes it's better to die, living like a man, even if he couldn't actually escape. So over the course of some number of months, or potentially even years, a timeline is not really given. He and some other soldiers and people who work in weaponry begin to hatch a plan. One spring night, they enact it, they take over the Guard Station, they have a well-formed plan, which allows them to take out all the guards on duty and take their clothing and weapons and they are able to actually leave the camp without anyone really noticing. All the guards who initially notice them are strangled. And all the guards who later see them assume that it's just a patrol leading a work group out to do something, and they escape. And this only lasts for about the next day. They think about themselves. They reflect on their lives as they are planning to go to a nearby town and try to steal a plane. The next morning, while they're reconnoitering the area, they happen upon some of the soldiers who are looking for them, and they begin to fight. A few of them are killed, they retreat to another area and that's where they kind of have their last stand and have a shootout with the soldiers kill about 18 of them and wound many more. And in the end, they're all killed except for one who was later arrested and sentenced to death. Although he was only one of 60 people who was put on trial in sort of a darkly comedic twist for this whole affair, except for Pugachev who in the events had run and actually fallen down kind of a hill and was not found because he was kind of crawling away. And at the end of the story, he is in a cave reflecting upon these men that he tried to lead to freedom unsuccessfully and thinks that they must have been the finest men that he ever could have led. And then he puts a gun in his mouth and shoots himself.
And again, I will say this is a somewhat happy ending.
Okay. I actually agree with you, based on how the story is written. I don't want to put too much focus on his suicide because that one you could easily read a lot into and I don't think that's the point actually of that last scene.
I don't think so either. I think the point is the focus on prisoners of war. And this one... I think each of these stories gives you a little bit of information about different aspects of the Gulag system. And the first two of them kind of focused on, I guess they could have happened at any point during the history. But none of them are as distinctly this World War II era as this one when the Soviet Union... and there's a scene in here where Major Pugachev recounts being in a... in a Nazi forced labor camp, where the prisoners of war from other countries are receiving packages and notes from different clubs and people back home. And he was saying, like, Oh it was no wonder that they wanted to help the Soviets break out of the camp, because they had all these people supporting them to go back to, whereas the soldiers, they did not. They were getting reports that prisoners of war are being put on trial, that they were being sent back to Soviet forced labor camps. And so I think the difference here is you get soldiers who basically went from one forced labor camp to another, because the Soviets assumed that if you didn't fight to the death, you didn't fight hard enough, and you should not be rewarded for that. And so that's why a lot of them ended up going to these camps. They thought maybe they were spies being sent back. Maybe they just you know, they were anti-Soviet overall. And that it leads to a different and a more interesting dynamic, I think, where they're not willing to just sit there and continue to be prisoners, or at least in this story.
Yeah. And to add to that, I also want to point out something which definitely, I'm sure the Soviet censors had they ever had a chance to read this is a book that was actually, you know, legitimately being put up for publishing prior to Glasnost. He Shalamov mentions the Vlasovites in the camps. And for those of you who aren't familiar, General Vlasov was a Russian general who was captured by the Germans during World War II, and at some point agreed to basically lead a Russian army of liberation. And he was the general for a group who was made up of Russian Army soldiers who had been captured and turned to fight for the Nazis. So Vlasovite emissaries show up in the camp. And they tell all the Russians that your government has renounced you, any prisoner of war is a trader in the eyes of your government. And they kind of show these papers and say, so join the Nazis. And although the Vlasovites are obviously fighting for the Nazis, they're right in this case. In this particular case. That when Pugachev, who didn't believe them, goes back, he finds out that everything the Vlasovites had said was true, which that's literally what's written in the story: everything that the Vlasovites had said was true. Hell of a thing to write in the Soviet Union. I gotta say, yeah.
Oh, yeah. I think it goes back even further, because Pugachev actually, he led a very famous rebellion in real life. The Pugachev Rebellion against Catherine the Great, which Pushkin would later go on to write about. And I think that this is a hint back at literary history perhaps. And the way that when Pushkin wrote this, he wrote a very nuanced character. In Russian history, Pugachev is not really considered a positive character as a whole for leading this peasant Cossack rebellion. But Pushkin really wrote him as very nuanced, very respectful in some instances. And I think that you actually see that bleed through in here. The main character of this story has a very similar sentiment and some similar characterizations to Pushkin's Pugachev, particularly when they're kidnapping the guards and killing them and taking their clothes. One of the guard's wife comes in and sees them do this. And instead of killing her, which they totally could have done, they already had weapons, no one else is in the room, they instead just restrain her, and they don't kill her, which may not seem like that much of a sacrifice, considering you had already killed so many other people. But I think it's an attempt to show some sort of nuance to the character of the prisoners. And kind of a hint back at, again, literary history, and showing that, you know, not everything is black and white.
Yeah. And I kinda want to continue on with that thread about not just Pugachev but kind of extend it out to everyone else in the camp because this, even though it's not the focus, does demonstrate some of the solidarities that kind of happen between the prisoners in this camp. One thing they mentioned is that they, the 12 men who break out are not the only people who know about this plan. In fact, there are quite a few people who Pugachev approached and asked about it and pitched them who turned him down, and they all kind of expected at some point that might be turned in. But despite ample opportunity to do so, and probably even with a lot of incentive to do so, no one turns them in. The operation is completely safe up until they run into a much larger military force. But that couldn't have been foreseen. And it was not... was obviously not the fault of everyone else in the camp. And I also kind of want to go towards the end of the story, because this is for me, this was the point when I really felt like it hit it's sort of apex. When Pugachev is wounded, he's lying in the cave, he's thinking back about his life. He thinks about all the people he has loved: his mother, his teachers, and so many others who he has been through life with. And then finally he thinks about his 11 dead comrades, quote, none of the other people in his life had endured such disappointments, deceits, lies. And in this northern hell, they had found within themselves the strength to believe in him, Pugachev, and to stretch out their hands to freedom. These men who had died in battle were the best men he had known in his life. And then the very last moment of his life, as he finds an overripe blueberry which has no taste, he thinks about one of his men, Ashot, who the whole story he could not remember his name. And his very last thought, before he shoots himself is ah yes, finally, I remember his last name, it's Hakhachurian. And then he thinks about them all one last time and shoots himself. And again, I want to emphasize, I think the point of the story is to be found in his emphasis at the very end of his life, even with... even against his own mother, someone he had, he thinks about how much he loves. These these 11 dead comrades, who had endured so much still had the strength of character, to try one more time, even though as its mentioned earlier in the story, they all kind of knew they were going to their deaths.
Yeah, I think at the end of the story it shows him doing something that he does throughout the story as well, in a different way. At the end of the story, he's rearranging his values. And the fact that, again, his comrades are some people that he thinks of more highly than even his mother, because of their resolve in the way that they're willing to, again, try to escape. And that's the culmination of him rearranging his values and his priorities, which are in this case freedom over death, the attempt to get to freedom is more important than them actually dying. If that happens, it's in this case, it's worth it to try. And I think that that's something that comes from again, as we had already said, it's something that comes from being a soldier that was already in a forced labor camp in a different country. I can't imagine... I mean, at the end of the story, it says, it talks about disappointment, I can't imagine the amount of disappointment It must have been fighting for your country being forced labor camp in a different country, because of you fighting for your country. And then going back to your country, to then have people say, Oh, well, you're a spy, or you didn't fight hard enough, and then send you to a forced labor camp. I mean, that is beyond disappointment I would say.
And actually, as they're breaking out, they prove that they are, this is incidental, I don't know if it was intended, but they prove themselves to be superior soldiers in the final firefight, they, what... 10 of them are killed, and 18 of the other soldiers are killed along with a number of other wounded. So they, they proved themselves to be more experienced than these guards who, depending on who they were, NKVD or whatever may not have even thought, like they had.
I imagine the guards being like stormtroopers in Star Wars where they're just like not good. But there's just a ton of them, like they keep coming, they're lined up all along the highway, like there's basically no escape for them, even if they are really not that good at fighting
Throughout the story they kind of mentioned... and early Russian literature is not something I associate with like action literature. But one of the soldiers who dies very early on, it's mentioned that like, every time he shot, he killed someone, he was standing there, he's helping everyone else escape and he was like a crack shot in the middle of all this. And you know, they are there. They're there. They'd fought hard, and they learned some skills that they're now finally using to die as they feel they should be allowed to, rather than slowly wasting away under gun butts. So before we get to wrapping up, I just want to go back to the point I made at the beginning about kind of this story also being about the peripherals. And in one way that's about... even though it's focused on Pugachev, it's kind of about the men around him. It's also about the people who experienced this, because at the very outset of the story, they have a bit of you could call it comedy, I found it comedic in the context of the story. When it finally comes time for the trials to happen, 60 people are tried, including the doctor who had attended to the wounded soldiers there, the camp attendant who had no idea what was happening, including a doctor who wasn't even there at the time, she was traveling elsewhere. And they, you know kind of mentioned like, oh, but you know, only the the escaped prisoner was the only one who's actually sentenced to death. But, you know the blame for this fell on everyone, regardless of whether or not they were involved, could have been involved, could have known, could have stopped it, were even within hundreds of miles of it potentially.
I think the reason I laugh was because similar to you like it's definitely a very dark humor in this instance, when he's kind of saying that any of them could have been sent to death, it really doesn't matter what their role is whether you were actually trying to escape, whether you were trying to stop the person from escaping, or whether you were even part of this at all.
Yeah. In fact, the head of the camp is sentenced to 10 years. So theoretically, the person who had overseen these men might have been working right alongside them not too long after this event.
Yeah, there's a little discussion about that, as they're having the battle, kind of saying, like, you know, you're either gonna die here, or you're going to be again, you're gonna be working alongside as you're gonna be sentenced. You're going to be sentenced to years working in these camps.
Yeah, in fact, there's one officer who they kill who they kind of wonder about how he was so brave. And then one of them says, Well, he was only so brave because they would have shot him for our escape if he survived. So, yeah that's the last battle of Major Pugachev.
Yeah, I think it's a little bit optimistic. Not totally. I think as much as it could be for a piece of gulag literature, the way that he's, in a sense, reclaiming his dignity, again, at the very end of the story, by choosing to take his own life rather than have somebody else take it, or like you said, continue to just wither away in one of these camps.
Yeah, so... I'm going to take a quick swig of my beer to deal with this. So that's "Major Pugachev's Last Battle." Overall, of what I've read of the story collection so far, I've tried to go a little bit beyond this. I've had a really good time with this. I have not read a lot of other gulag literature other than a little bit of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. And I'll say this is, for me, personally, a little bit more engaging. I think I see your point about him being... about Shalamov being a better writer.
I just think when you come to a gulag literature, Shalamov is the best that you will find in my personal opinion. But I don't think anything can hold a candle to quite how incredible these stories are written.
Well, Matt, before we go, what are we reading next week?
Next week, we are going to continue on our somewhat theme of Soviet literature when we go back in time a little bit. And we're going to read "26 Men and a Girl" by Maxim Gorky. It's a short story. It's a really good one. Hope to see you next week. But Cameron before we end up wrapping up totally here. I wanted to ask you one last final question. And that is after your drinks on a scale from one to Yeltsin. How drunk are you right now?
I... Oh, gosh. I am about as dry as no, I can't compare myself to a convict who doesnt' have access to vodka... That's a line I'm not gonna cross. I am similar to our episode on Isaac Babel. This is something about early Soviet literature that does it. Not that drunk outside of a few big swigs after sad moments, I'm pretty sober. So I think that's gonna be how it's gonna be when we're talking about forced labor for the most part. But how about you? Where have you ended up?
Unfortunately similar, where I think I've actually drank more than I have on some of our other episodes. But something is just incredibly sobering about reading these stories and talking about it. That is just something unique to them.
Yep. Yeah. Well, until next week, when we have a similarly sad story, except, instead of being forced labor for the Soviet state, it's forced labor for your boss, prior to the Revolution. A lot of constants in Russian history.
Yeah, but it'll be a little different. So come along with us next week as we spin a tale about some pretzel makers, about a girl named Tanya, and maybe something else. We'll find out next week.
Well, I'm excited to read those and if you all want to read along, you're certainly welcome to. But until then, I think we'll see you next week. The music used in this episode was "soviet march" by toasted tomatoes, you can find more of their stuff on toastedtomatoes.bandcamp.com and also on YouTube under the same username. If you enjoyed this episode. Well, first of all, that makes us happy, but also grad school doesn't pay very well. So if you happen to have a few dollars to spare, you can find us on Patreon on patreon.com/tipsytolstoy. It'll help us buy the books we'll be reading in the future. If you're looking for other places to find us, you can also follow us on Instagram at TipsyTolstotPodcast or visit our website, tipsytolstoy.com. You'll hear from us again soon.