Varlam Shalamov was born in Vologda to a priest and a schoolteacher. In 1929, while studying law at Moscow University, he was arrested for distributing copies of Lenin's Testament, a letter sharply critical of Stalin. Shalamov was sentenced to three years in a concentration camp in the Urals. After returning to Moscow, he worked as a journalist and published a number of short stories. In 1937, Shalamov was rearrested, convicted of "counter-revolutionary Trotskyite activities" and sent to Kolyma, the vast network of labour camps in the north-east of Siberia. His sentence was extended; then he was given an additional ten years for "anti-Soviet agitation". Shalamov remained in Kolyma until 1953. In 1956 he returned to Moscow.
Shalamov wrote Kolyma Tales over a period of nineteen years. Rather than presenting a simple, factual account of life in the camps, the tales blend reality and illusion, conveying the terrible surreal world inhabited by the starving prisoners. Shalamov was a poet, acclaimed by Pasternak, and his prose is rich in music and imagery. As well as portraying the grimness and barbarism of Kolyma's camps, the stories communicate a deep reverence for Siberia's nature. The startling contrast between Shalamov's beautiful language and the bleak world described in Kolyma Tales lends the work an intense, haunting power.

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