Varlam Shalamov

— relatable to the gulag

Reading Varlam Shalamov’s Forty Five Things I Learned in the Gulag, I was surprised how relatable the gulag is to today.

“I realized what a terrible thing is the self-esteem of a boy or a youth: it’s better to steal than to ask. That self-esteem and boastfulness are what make boys sink to the bottom.”

To steal than to ask reminded me of the ‘It’s Better To Beg For Forgiveness Than To Ask For Permission’ attitude. People who live by this rule often brag about bending the rules/finding a loopholes–basically brag about being an asshole. The fact that you know beforehand that you’ll have to ask for forgiveness later means you totally don’t deserve to be forgiven. It’s anticipating that you’ll have to apologize insincerely.

“The people whom everyone—guards, fellow prisoners—hates are the last in the ranks, those who lag behind, those who are sick, weak, those who can’t run when the temperature is below zero.”

Inside and outside the gulag, the poor and weak are unpopular. Is it because they aren’t ‘adding value?’

“Ordinary people distinguish their bosses by how hard their bosses hit them, how enthusiastically their bosses beat them.”

There are many examples of distinguished people who beat hard–rarely are there celebrated examples of distinguished persons who don’t beat at all. This quote reminded me of a lady who was grateful that her superiors gave her harsh criticism, telling her she was too selfish. There’s seems to be a correlation between beating and respect. I’m not sure if ‘distinguish’ in the quoted text meant simply to tell apart or whether it meant to set apart on a higher level.

Lastly, #45 was the one that made a lot of sense but I can’t explain why.

“I understood that a writer has to be a foreigner in the questions he is dealing with, and if he knows his material well, he will write in such a way that nobody will understand him.”

journal

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