Varlam Shalamov

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Varlam Shalamov was primarily a writer of short stories, although the particular nature of the genre he developed is unique. His stories are a blend of fiction and nonfiction. Shalamov was also a poet, and his only works to be published in the Soviet Union have been poems. A collection of poems titled Shelest List’ev (rustling of leaves) was published in 1964 and Tochka kipeniia: Stikhi (boiling point: poems) appeared in Moscow in 1977. Shalamov has also written essays, in particular Ocherki prestupnogo mira (n.d.; essays on the criminal world).


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Varlam Shalamov’s achievements cannot be measured by ordinary standards or norms. Certainly, his greatest achievement was to stay alive during his seventeen years in what he calls the “death camps”—as opposed to ordinary camps—in Kolyma in northeastern Siberia. He survived: Although he was indelibly marked by the experience, it did not break him.

The quality of his short stories, which are a subtle blend of fiction and nonfiction, is extraordinarily high. John Glad, who translated most of the Kolymskie rasskazy into English in two volumes, Kolyma Tales and Graphite, claimed in 1981 that Shalamov was “Russia’s greatest living writer.” Although this might seem excessively enthusiastic, particularly in view of the achievements of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the claim is not to be lightly dismissed. The stories are strikingly original in their use of the short-story form. Solzhenitsyn himself had the highest regard for Shalamov’s talent. When he first read Shalamov in 1956, he later recalled, he felt as if he had “met a long-lost brother” and believed that in some ways Shalamov’s experience surpassed his own. “I respectfully confess,” Solzhenitsyn wrote, “that to him and not to me was it given to touch those depths of bestiality and despair towards which life in the camps dragged us all.” Solzhenitsyn writes relatively little about the mining camps of Kolyma in Arkhipelag GULag (1973-1975; The Gulag Archipelago, 1974-1978) or about the infamous “numbered” death camps that had no names but only numbers to designate them.

The critic Grigori Svirski has well described the shock experienced by Russian readers when Shalamov’s first stories were circulated in samizdat form in the 1960’s:It was truth and not perfect style that was required of Shalamov, and in each new story he uncovered new pages of truth about convict life with such power, that even former political prisoners who had not witnessed such things were struck dumb. The truth revealed by Shalamov shocks because it is described by an artist, described with such skill, as they used to say in the nineteenth century, that the skill is invisible.


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Conquest, Robert. Kolyma: The Artic Death Camps. New York: Viking Press, 1978. An excellent source of background information about the Kolyma concentration camp, facilitating better understanding of Shalamov’s stories. Contains frequent references to, and quotes from, Shalamov.

Glad, John. “Art Out of Hell: Shalamov of Kolyma.” Survey 107 (1979): 45-50. Seeing Shalamov’s stories in the Chekhovian tradition, Glad discusses his struggle with the authorities and his contribution to the camp literature as a lasting document of human courage.

Glad, John. Foreword to Graphite, by Varlam Shalamov. New York: W. W. Norton, 1981. Glad describes the conditions in Kolyma and the Soviet penal system. He sees the uniqueness of Shalamov’s stories in their being a bridge between fact and fiction. Their artistic quality, however, especially their pantheistic surrealism, makes them true works of art.

Glad, John. Foreword to Kolyma Tales, by Varlam Shalamov. New York: W. W. Norton, 1980. Similar to Glad’s article in Survey.

Hosking, Geoffrey. “The Ultimate Circle of the...

(This entire section contains 392 words.)

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Stalinist Inferno.”New Universities Quarterly 34 (1980): 161-168. In this review of the Russian edition of Kolyma Tales, Hosking discusses several stories and the overall significance of Shalamov as a witness of crimes against humanity. He also compares similarities and differences between Shalamov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as writers of camp literature.

Toker, Leona. “A Tale Untold: Verlam Shalamov’s ‘A Day Off.’” Studies in Short Fiction 28 (Winter, 1991): 1-8. A discussion of some aspects of Shalamov’s modernist techniques, comparable to the works of Hemingway and Nabokov, as embodied in his story “A Day Off.” Claims that Shalamov’s work is part of the tradition that presents the darkest sides of experience against the belief in the ultimate triumph of humanist values.

Toker, Leona. “Toward a Poetics of Documentary Prose: From the Perspective of Gulag Testimonies.” Poetics Today 18 (Summer, 1997): 187-222. Discusses the clash between the rhetorical principles of “defamiliarization” and the “economy of effort” in documentary prose by a brief analysis of Shalamov’s story “Berries.”

Toker, Leona. “Toward a Poetics of Documentary Prose—From the Perspective of Gulag Testimonies.” Poetics Today 18 (Summer, 1997): 187-222. Places documentary genres into a nonmarginalizing perspective by constructing a paradigm of narrative modes on the basis of the ontological status of the fabula; discusses the clash between the rhetorical principles of “defamiliarization” and the “economy of effort” in documentary prose by a brief analysis of Varlam Shalamov’s story “Berries.”


Critical Essays