Revealing the dark side of the soul after 17 years in the Gulag

Soviet writer Varlam Shalamov. Source: ITAR-TASS

Soviet writer Varlam Shalamov. Source: ITAR-TASS

The work of forgotton author Varlam Shalamov, who 
wrote deeply moving stories about life in the Gulag, deserves wider recognition.

When Varlam Shalamov rejected Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s offer to co-author the latter’s book, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, which describes the forced labour camp system in the Soviet Union. In so doing, he sparked a conflict between the two on the question of whether suffering is redemptive, and what role art should play in society.

Solzhenitsyn once asserted that “literature becomes the living memory of a nation”. And this has indeed become the case for The Gulag Archipelago as it is now part of Russia’s high-school literature curriculum. But the work of his contemporary, Varlam Shalamov, who survived 17 years in the same camp system and who wrote as powerfully and brilliantly as Solzhenitsyn, failed to gain much recognition in Russia or abroad.

For anyone interested in the experience of the Gulag, Shalamov’s collection of short stories Kolyma Tales isan absolute necessity required reading, a complement to Solzhenitsyn’s work with its contrasting style and philosophy. John Glad, who produced the first translation of Kolyma Tales, writes in his foreword that the reader is “a person whose life is about to be changed”. This can be seen as a kind of disclaimer, a warning that this material is not for the faint-hearted, with its unflinching presentation of the brutality of power and the range of human suffering.

Shalamov’s central question is what sustains and drives humans, giving us the capability to survive experiences such as the Kolyma camps. Source: ITAR-TASS

Shalamov’s wrote that “a writer must be a stranger in the subjects he describes. And if he knows the matter well, he will write in such a way that no one would understand him.” His work is defined by his direct, objective presentation of suffering, with the detached gaze of his narrators serving to bringing the subject matter into sharp relief. Thematically, each of the stories is self-contained, focusing on a different element of camp life, a specific event, or a personality. However, this thematic division masks a deeper artistic unity.

Varlam Shalamov's profile

Born: June 18, 1907, Vologda

Died: January 17, 1982, Tushino

Education: Moscow State University

Occupation: Writer, journalist, poet

Notable works: Kolyma Tales, Graphite

Time spend in the Gulag: 1929-1931, 1937-1951

Critic and translator Robert Chandler notes that: “Whole passages are sometimes repeated between stories, but the story will end differently.” For Chandler, this creates the impression that Kolyma Tales is like a mosaic that has been shattered, and intentionally so, as if to exemplify the factdemonstrate that the experience of the Gulag really does shatter one’s world.

Indeed, it can be hard to read the stories about the terrible plight and loneliness of Shalamov’s lyrical heroes as readers cannot feel indifferent towards the material.

Shalamov declined to collaborate with Solzhenitsyn partly because of their differing philosophical outlooks but also because Shalamov didn’t likedisapproved of Solzhenitsyn’s use of the historical approach. ThusShalamov did not embark on a historical project with eyewitness testimonies in the mould of Auschwitz survivors such as Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi.

Shalamov claimed that “Solzhenitsyn is bogged down in the themes of 
19th-century literature”, and that “all those who follow Tolstoy’s precepts are cheaters”. He believed that “art has lost the right to preach”, and seems to suggest through his writing that no greater good could possibly emerge from the Gulag. Thus in sentences such as: “I felt a strange and terrible pity at seeing adult men crying over the injustice of receiving worn-out clean underwear in exchange for dirty good underwear,” there is no sense of a deeper moral imperative at work, just a sparse yet intensely emotional presentation of humiliation and degradation.

Other Gulag camp stories of lesser-known Russian memoirists tell their own stories rather than inventing heroes. For example, Efrosinya Kersnovskaya wrote about moving to different camps all over the country, working in different roles from a laundress to a miner. When she returned home, she painted a series of pictures illustrating her experiences and put them in an album. These paintings have been exhibited several times in Russia and the album, with her own subtitles, was published in several European countries.

Shalamov’s central philosophical question is: what sustains and drives humans, giving us the capability to survive experiences such as the Kolyma camps? One of his narrators gives the explanation that “a human being survives by his ability to forget; memory is always ready to blot out the bad and retain only the good,” while another, who stumbles on a picture of children, is moved by happier childhood memories which momentarily distract him from his situation.

Such bittersweet moments punctuate the otherwise bleak narratives. In the story Sententious, the mere memory of one word brings about unbridled joy to a man whose language and memory have been all but crushed.

Shalamov examines the notion that humans require more than just survival on a physical level, touching on the soul’s spiritual requirements through lines such as: “Needing more than bread, I dip a crust of dry sky, in the morning chill, in the stream flowing by.” In his series of notes, “What I’ve seen and learnt at Kolyma camps”, Shalamov concluded that “the extraordinary fragility of human nature, of civilisation”, is one of his most important lessons.

Shalamov consistently played down the profundity of his work, claiming: “My stories are basically advice to a man on how to act in a crowd.” This statement is typical of an unassuming writer who deserves much wider recognition for his great contribution to world literature.

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