(A few words about “The Gulag” as a rhetorical device. Unlike others who identify with an anti-authoritarian left, I don’t think it sufficient to reference “The Gulag” to ward it off, as if we could confront the Stalinist Rumpelstiltskin with its true name and make off with a future of the left now ‘innocent’ of all association with the political configuration of a repressive, carceral command economy. Like Mark Fisher, Jodi Dean, and Williams and Srnicek, I locate the above incantation in a broader rhetorical strategy adopted by others on the anti-authoritarian left which, in its superficial reference to institutions like the Gulag (abstracted from its specific causes and consequences), conflates left authoritarianism with the left’s (potential or actual) acquisition of any authority whatever. At the same time, there’s no reason for us to wait for some definitive account of the institutional logic of the Gulag as such (cf. Plamper on Foucault’s fraught attempt to pull this off) before we can return to it as critics.)
Varlam Shalamov was a criminal of letters but never became an intellectual. He is first arrested for allegiance to Trotskyist group & publication of the anti-Stalinist document “Lenin’s Testament” in the late 1920’s. He is later interred in the gulag for 15 years or so (1936-1951) for, in part, praising anti-communist literary darling Ivan Bunin as a great writer of classic Russian literature. Named for the Kolyma gold-mine gulag where he labored for six years, his Kolyma Stories (written from ’54-’73) consists of a series of anti-novels in which the rudiments of narrative form are retained for the sake of presenting recollections of some just-survived encounter by a given narrator (“I,” “Shalamov,” “Andreyev,” etc.). If you find yourself directly addressed by Varlam Shalamov even when he didn’t write what you’re reading in the second person, this is, no doubt, because he’d so deeply internalized a vital piece of gulag wisdom: to never speak in the presence of a third party. Shalamov’s literary form of address is a direct consequence of having been de-socialized by the disciplinary machinery of the gulag. He’s left totally incapable of romantic intimacy (“In my life women have not played a major part: the camp is the reason” […]) and camaraderie (“Friendship arises in difficult but bearable conditions (in the hospital, but not at the pit face) […]”) (‘Forty-Five Things I Learned in the Gulag,’ FFTILITG).
And yet, despite having claimed to learn nothing at the “negative school” of the Kolyma Gulag but how to wheel a loaded barrow, Shalamov extracts positive content – a concept – from his internment that suggests a way for us to conceive of a properly communist sociality without recourse to romance or friendship. Shalamov and his fellow prisoners still participate in a collective gastronomical imaginary: “pointless daydreaming, gastronomical fairy tales, quarrels with each other, lonely dreams—for we all dreamed the same dreams: loaves of rye bread flying over us like fireballs or angels.” (‘Field Rations,’ FR). Much to the chagrin of the Gulag authorities, prisoners come together to stockpile and compose a little commons wherever they find a blindspot in surveillance, a loophole in production policy.
Shalamov talks about prisoners pairing up, alternating their efforts to make sure at least one of them met the otherwise impossibly high expectations for production each day. Rewarded with greater rations for meeting the daily norm, one of the pair would pool their reward rations with the other’s punishment rations so that, every night, the pair ate more together than they would have if alone (FR). Of course, it never lasts for long. Whenever the Gulag bosses discover a little commons, they intervene with violence, fragmenting both stockpilers and stockpile. Shalamov remembers guards materializing out of the icy mist, kicking down the door of the barracks, interrupting a modest cookout:
“If you’ve got pots, that means you’ve got food to cook,” the mine chief expounded with an air of profundity. “That, you know, is a sign of plenty.” “Well you ought to see what they’ve been cooking,” said Kovalenko as he trampled the pots flat.” (‘The Parcel,’ TP)
Out of fear of discovery, prisoners internalize the violence and fragment themselves apart before the plenty ever appears. When prisoner Shestakov seduces Shalamov to conspire with him to escape by promising to share stolen condensed milk, Shalamov’s gastronomical fantasies – of perforated, planet-sized cans of condensed milk endlessly leaking their sweet, sticky contents like stars into the night sky – aren’t strong enough of a pull to motivate him to become Shestakov’s accomplice. Shalamov takes advantage of Shestakov’s willingness to share a few handfuls of condensed milk, only to back out of the escape attempt entirely and return to camp (‘Condensed Milk,’ CM). It’s clearly not enough for people to be visited by the same gastronomical phantasmagoria to bring them together.
As a libidinal attractor, these visions become more powerful to the extent that they present not only shared desire for wealth, but shared desire for sharing wealth. Shalamov describes not his fear, but his amazement at discovering the logging detachment he’s been assigned to with a few others not only lacks sufficient rations for the duration of their assignment to the woods, but also that they’ll be responsible for coming up with the food themselves (FR). As they begin to plan, pool, and divvy up their individual ration-shares, Shalamov marvels at their collective capacity to work miracles: “The operation of feeding the five thousand with five loaves of bread was probably easier and simpler […]” (FR). The “common kitty” these loggers share begins with a concerted, conscious effort on the part of each to give up sole possession of his rations (FR). However, this little commons is only maintained by a succession of miracles: the soup is made so thin, it asymptotically approaches 0; two coals and careful tending-to keep a fire burning on like a divine spark; the land’s “miraculous qualities” are revealed as the loggers discover burying any caught animal in the cold ground before cooking it makes the meat lose its smell (FR). It would be wrong to compare them to a primitive band of hunter-gatherers surviving on the whims of old gods. The undernourished loggers become an avant-garde of the future commons, freed from the interference of drunken cooks, thieving store men, greedy overseers, remorseless bosses (FR). True, it only lasted a week or so, but, powered by shared dreams of sharing bounty, the loggers coalesced into a unit of Red Belonging: “a movement that offers unconditional care without community (it doesn’t matter where you come from or who you are, we will care for you any way).” Rather than refer to these loggers as a generalizable model, we can recall their week in the woods as an example – just one, but a suggestive one – of the power of a collective gastronomical imaginary to motivate cooperative care among people otherwise incapable of community.