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, 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 of glasnost instituted by Mikhail Gorbachev, Shalamov’s stories were not published immediately; only in June, 1988, did the highly regarded literary...
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