Varlam Shalamov

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Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov (SHAH-lahm-uhf) was a prose writer, poet, and essayist whose seventeen-year imprisonment in Soviet labor camps provided him with the material for a remarkable set of short stories, known collectively as Kolyma Tales. He was born on July 1, 1907 (June 18, according to the Julian calendar used in prerevolutionary Russia), the fifth child of a Russian Orthodox priest. Vologda, Shalamov’s hometown, is a provincial city some 250 miles northeast of Moscow. Shalamov continued to live in Vologda through World War I and the revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power; soon afterward, though, his family began to come apart. The first blow was material: Under the new, officially atheist government, Shalamov’s father lost his pension. Then in 1920 one of Shalamov’s brothers was killed in the civil war between the regime and its opponents, and his father went blind from glaucoma.

In 1924 Shalamov left Vologda for Moscow, where he first worked as a tanner at a leather factory. In 1926 he enrolled in the law department of Moscow State University. Throughout the late 1920’s he was very much caught up in Moscow’s cultural life, with its rapidly evolving literary groups and the fierce polemics that raged in the press. While a student, he came into contact with circles that opposed the emerging Stalinist direction in the Soviet Union’s political life. In February of 1929, he was arrested during a raid on an underground printing press and was sentenced to three years of hard labor in the northern Ural Mountains.

He was freed a year early, in 1931, and by 1932 he had returned to Moscow, where he worked for the next five years as a journalist, critic, and writer, publishing several articles and stories in some of the more prestigious literary journals. He was rearrested in 1937, at the beginning of the purges, and that year he was sent to hard labor in the Kolyma region, one of the coldest inhabited places on earth. In 1942, when his original five-year sentence should have ended, his term was extended until the end of the war, and in 1943, after having been denounced for remarking upon the quality of German armaments, he was sentenced to ten more years. (According to one story, he was also condemned for referring to Ivan Bunin, the 1933 Nobel laureate who had emigrated from the Soviet Union, as a classic Russian writer.) On several occasions Shalamov narrowly escaped execution, and he was often close to death from cold, hunger, and exhaustion. Somehow he survived, and during the 1950’s he returned once more to Moscow to resume his literary career.

Shalamov’s subsequent writings can be grouped into four categories. He wrote a handful of essays on literature, primarily on poetry; to the general Soviet reader, though, he was best known as a poet of moderate talent, with five collections of poetry appearing between 1961 and 1977. He had begun to publish his poems in 1957, but before that—beginning in the late 1930’s and continuing until 1956—he wrote the poems that made up the unpublished collection “Kolymskie tetradi” (the Kolyma notebooks). These works represented a first attempt to detail the horrors of Kolyma and to reflect upon his experience. The third type of work, and that for which he is most likely to be remembered, comprises the more than one hundred short prose pieces that deal with his imprisonment. He appears to have written the vast majority of them during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Some were smuggled out to the West and published abroad, but even during the relatively liberal Khrushchev years,...

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his writing on Kolyma was too graphic to be printed in the Soviet Union. In 1972 Shalamov was forced to denounce the publication of his works abroad, though the statement he issued was not without its ambiguities. Even under the policy ofglasnost instituted by Mikhail Gorbachev, Shalamov’s stories were not published immediately; only in June, 1988, did the highly regarded literary journal Novy mir print a major selection of the Kolyma Tales. The fourth category of Shalamov’s writing, his memoirs, remained unpublished during his lifetime. During the 1970’s, his health gradually began to fail. He died on January 17, 1982, with his major achievements yet to be recognized in his homeland.

For many years the Soviet public knew Shalamov only through the verse that he could publish openly. Much of it deals with nature; some of it is about poetry itself. Running through nearly all of his poems is a reflective mood. He seems less interested in capturing a moment than in conveying ideas that have been given time to mature. On the surface the poems seem simple and direct, and they are often classical in their form. Yet their quiet exterior conceals a second meaning that no doubt escaped readers unfamiliar with Shalamov’s life or with his other works. Thus in the poem “Stlannik” (dwarf cedar) he describes how that tree grasps the earth and seeks only a drop of warmth, how it nurtures life though seemingly dead, and how it rises from the snow in the spring. Readers of Kolyma Tales would readily see the poem as an allegory of the survival of prisoners in the far north.

Shalamov’s greatest achievement is clearly Kolyma Tales. The stories’ power derives in part from their understatedness: Their form is laconic and often seemingly artless, their emotional tone neutral. Shalamov wants to convey a physical suffering and spiritual despair so great that at times his characters are beyond feeling anything at all except perhaps an animal instinct to survive or a blind desire to end their misery. While some writers—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, for example—have remarked that people could grow stronger as a result of their experiences in the camps, Shalamov has stated that nothing good ever came to anybody from Kolyma, and his stories illustrate that conviction. However, he also believed that human qualities can survive in the camps, even if they must remain dormant.

Shalamov manages to remove the usual narrative distance between the reader and the events that he describes; thus, his audience comes into direct contact with a world in which the usual values have been turned upside down or have lost their meaning entirely. His brief pieces powerfully condemn the modern totalitarian state’s oppression of the individual.


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