Varlam Shalamov

Irina Sirotinskaya

The Years We Talked

It is very hard to write memoirs. In the first place, you remember everything as flashes, pieces. Something vivid, at times trivial, ingrains itself into your memory in every detail, down to an intonation, a gesture, while something important, something major might leave a general impression, some emotional sensation, difficult to translate into words. And in the second place, you can never say everything.

As Varlam Tikhonovich used to say: ‘What do we know about someone else’s grief? Nothing. What do we know about someone else’s happiness? Even less.’

I have this conviction, a feeling rather, that there are things that the public has no right to know. An individual has autonomy, a line which others should not cross. I never wrote down Varlam Tikhonovich’s own words, as probably no one writes down the words of someone near and dear. These things lie at a different depth in a relationship. And only in 1981, I sensed that he was fading, and felt the need to somehow detain, to slow down these last days that were slipping away. And so I started to write. I simply took a fresh notebook and wrote his words in it, his last poems, and, at the same time, those things that I remembered. I put the notebook in my desk so that it would be near at hand. So I now have two thick notebooks already filled with such fragments of memories. It is from these notebooks that I have taken several excerpts.

What He Was Like

My first impression of Varlam Tikhonovich? Big. There was the physique, tall and broad-shouldered, and then a clear sense of an extraordinary, formidable personality — from his first words, at first glance.

I was to know him for many years. That first impression never changed, but it gained in complexity… It is impossible, nor should one reduce this complex, contradictory personality to a single denominator. Within him, different facets of his personality co-existed and battled, always at the boiling point.

A poet, sensing the forces which drive the world, the mysterious connections of phenomena and objects, his soul in touch with the threads of fate.

An intelligent mind with an amazing memory. Interested in everything – literature, painting, theatre, physics, biology, history, mathematics. A bookworm. A scholar.

An ambitionist – tenacious, striving to gain a foothold in life, to break through to fame, to immortality. An egocentric.

A pitiful, angry cripple, an irreparably crushed spirit. ‘The bottom line of life is: life is not a blessing. All my skin has been renewed – my soul has not.’

A small defenceless boy, longing for warmth, nurture, heartfelt sympathy. ‘I would like you to be my mother.’

An infinitely selfless, infinitely dedicated knight. A real man.

Her colours – they are now revealed
Both in my scarf and on my shield.

March 2, 1966

Examining his papers, I found in an envelope the carefully preserved page of a desk calendar from this date with his note ’11:30’. On that precise day and time I came to him for the first time. I came about a work-related matter as an employee of the Acquisitions Department of the Central State Archive of Literature and Art. The meeting was arranged by my friend Natalya Yuryevna Zelenina, whose mother, the poet and scholar Vera Nikolayevna Klyuyeva, was friends with Varlam Tikhonovich. Natasha warned me:

‘Watch out, he’s very brusque. One thing not to his liking, and you are flying down the stairs.’

I decided to risk it, all the more so as Varlam Tikhonovich lived on the first floor then. By that time I had read those of his stories which were available through samizdat. ‘Typhoid Quarantine’ made me feel downright pain, a piercing pain in the heart. It seemed that something had to be done right now, urgently. To live differently, to think differently. Some sort of foundation had caved in, the supports of a soul accustomed to believing in justice, in the ultimate justice of the world: that good will triumph, and evil will be punished.

I came unto him as if to a new prophet to ask him how to carry on with life. But my excuse was proper and official – I was going to propose that he turn over his manuscripts to TsGALI [the Central State Archives of Literature and Art] for permanent preservation.

The door was thrown open before me by a tall bright-blue-eyed man with deep wrinkles on a wind-worn face. A Viking! (V.T. reproached me for bookishness, but he liked being a ‘Viking,’ which had even made its way into his poetry.)

The Viking gallantly helped me off with my coat, led me to a narrow room (7 or 8 square metres) and offered me a remarkably shabby old chair. Without delay, I outlined my official mission. While I spoke, he looked at me slightly squinting, with a penetrating look, absolutely piercing. But that somehow didn’t embarrass me, although I have always been easily embarrassed, often blushing a bright red. But soon the tension of his face eased, it became gentle and kind. He agreed to my proposal regarding his manuscripts. And without beating around the bush, I proceeded to my main purpose. How should we live our lives? The question didn’t surprise him. Maybe I wasn’t the first to ask him this. He answered, according to the Ten Commandments — that's how. There's nothing else, nothing else is needed. I was slightly disappointed. That’s it? And then he added an eleventh commandment – thou shalt not teach. Thou shalt not teach another how to live. Each has his own truth. And your truth may be inappropriate for another because it’s yours, and not his.

Leaving, I asked if I could visit him sometimes.

In a declamatory, authoritative voice, as if a professor to a student at an exam, he said: ‘Come by. I like you.’ I answered: ‘I like you too.’ And I saw the austere Viking become flustered like a little boy and awkwardly begin helping me on with my coat.

Indeed, he did not disappoint me. He was exactly as the Author of Kolyma Tales should be.

He himself was often one to break his eleventh commandment. His convictions were always coloured by passion in bright, contrasting tones. Semitones were not his element. He didn’t simply speak, didn’t think out loud – he taught, preached, prophesied. He had in him Archpriest Avvakum’s spirit of intransigence and intolerance.

For instance, he never tired of preaching to me, the mother of three small children and the daughter of beloved and loving parents, about Fourier’s phalange, where children and the elderly would be cared for entirely by the government.

‘No generation owes anything to another!’ he insisted, furiously waving his hands. ‘When a child is born — to the orphanage with him!’

This didn’t stop him from receiving my kids with awkward reverence (I often brought them on my visits), from keeping their drawings, even from writing poems about them. My Friend Picasso is a poem about my son Alyosha’s drawings.

‘They’re Drivin’ Convicts!’

During the war, we were evacuated from Moscow to Irkutsk along with the aircraft factory where my father worked. We took up residence at Bolotny [Swamp] District — that was the name of a housing development of two-story barracks in an actual swamp, so instead of sidewalks there were boardwalks. A track ran by — a cobblestone road lined with deep ditches. Once, we were playing next to the house, and the children cried: ‘They’re drivin’ convicts!’ Along with everyone else I ran to the track. From the ditch, we watched the slowly approaching grey columns. I remember the rustle of the shuffling of many feet. And my shock that these were ordinary, tired people. I don’t know what I had expected.

I told Varlam Tikhonovich about this childhood memory and he was deeply shaken: precisely ‘drivin’’ [like cattle], precisely grey. And he told me that ‘Irkutlag’ was one of the largest camps.

Later, we Muscovites often saw long columns of prisoners, and they no longer surprised us, we didn’t run to see them, it was a common thing.

I have always remembered that first encounter. So I must have known it all. But that didn’t stop me from believing in the justice and kindness of the universe to man. Believing not even on an intellectual, but on some biological level. Maybe because I had in me, as did Varlam Tikhonovich, the genes of an ancient dynasty of Orthodox priests. And although I, like him, am not a believer, at some genetic level, a belief in the higher forces of good took hold of me. Varlam Tikhonovich wrote to me: ‘You and I are very similar.’ We really were similar that way.

There is another source of our ‘similarity’ – we both grew up on books, on 19-th century literature. V.T. told me about this at one of our first meetings.

If you carefully analyze Varlam Tikhonovich’s poetry and prose, then you’ll find in it not exactly faith, but the structure of a soul which recognizes its unity with an eternal higher power. In The Vishera Antinovel he wrote: ‘The ideal number is one. ‘One’ is helped by God, by an idea, by faith… Do I have enough moral strength to go down my path like some ‘one’ – that’s what I pondered in cell 95 of the men’s solitary wing of the Butyrka prison.’ That was in 1929.

That's how he has walked his path – as a ‘one’, the first, predominant facet of his personality.

The Cat

Apart from my friend, one other creature rendered me a service in my first acquaintance with Varlam Tikhonovich. At first, I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of the recommendation, and when a big cat started to insistently rub against my legs, I carelessly stroked him with my foot. Then he jumped in my lap and began to poke my hands, and I unceremoniously shooed him away. And I was surprised when Varlam Tikhonovich said, clearly moved: ‘He doesn’t approach strangers.’ He told me about another cat, Mukha, who died in 1965. ‘There was never a creature closer to me than her. Closer than my wife…’ Mukha walked with him in the evenings like a dog. She sat on his desk while he wrote. A creature which loved without getting in the way. When the cat went missing, Varlam Tikhonovich looked for her everywhere, even where they take captured animals. As he told me about this, his entire body trembled. ‘I entered, I was all shaking, there were cats sitting in cages on shelves – silently. They were all silent. They understood everything and were ready to die. I called her, but she wasn’t there.’ Some workmen, who were fixing something in the courtyard, told Varlam Tikhonovich that they had buried a cat that had been killed. At V.T.’s request they dug her up. V.T. washed her, dried her on the radiator, said his farewells and reburied her.

I was endlessly sorry for him and sorry for Mukha. My beloved friend, a mongrel named Dek, who had also died, was left behind in my childhood. I still see him in my dreams. His brown eyes shining with love. And upon waking I think that such a great love cannot disappear from the world without a trace.

Varlam Tikhonovich understood the seriousness of my compassion. ‘People are a far cry from cats,’ he said, ‘but you – you could be a cat.’ That’s the compliment I received, and only later did I realize that it was a big compliment indeed.

The Years We Talked

I began to visit Varlam Tikhonovich often. He would prepare thin strips of paper before my arrival, where he wrote what he wanted to tell me. Some are even still preserved in his papers. And I would be caught under a literal downpour of stories. He was a magnificent storyteller, and, before my eyes, pieces of his life just came to life. ‘For some reason, I can just see everything,’ I said once. ‘That’s because I see it myself.’ I can hear his voice lowering and his speech slowing when his story reaches its climax, his eyes squinting and flashing, his posture becoming tense. And then almost singing: ‘Bu-u-u-t he didn’t take the box…’ (He is telling me about G.G. Demidov, an episode described in the story The Life of Kipreev, Engineer). A pause. And then, like a shot, ‘I’m not going to wear American rags.’ A pause.

Almost all of his stories, especially those written in 1966 and later, I heard from him, and later read. Jokingly, or at times almost seriously, he called me his co-author, he even wrote that in the dedication to his collection The Resurrection of the Larch-Tree. The only truth in that was my admiration for his prose, my readiness to listen, which somehow stimulated his creative stream. He told me more than once how he cherished the opportunity to say it all, to ‘get a load off his mind’. We had arguments, too. I reproached him for his at times drawn out, in my view, exposition, for his excessive philosophizing. This should be tacit, implied, I would say, or go into an essay.

It seemed to me that this was because of his unquenchable thirst to speak out. Because everything went into the story – including what should have gone into essays, memoirs, letters. Words flew out under the pressure of unspoken thoughts and feelings. ‘All of my stories are screamed out…’ he wrote to me in 1971. And that’s how it was.

As the story was being born, it was precisely that high emotional intensity that didn’t allow him to control the flow. But once the story was written, he rarely returned to it.

I was probably wrong – the value of his prose was in its primeval quality, in the primeval quality of a feeling, a thought, a word, in capturing the actual moment of the manifestation of the soul.

Between him and the reader there isn’t even the slightest perceptible barrier, estrangement, or affectation of literary style. The reader steps into a stream of direct contact with the author’s soul. Here, literary refinement, in fact, could only get in the way. As if he didn’t know, didn’t minutely consider his literary devices!

But I told him that he should edit himself a bit – polish this, adjust that after the story was written. He would become very upset, and in response he once wrote me an entire essay, insisting on the ‘free manifestation of the writer’s soul’ as a creative method.

‘Each of my stories is a slap in the face to Stalinism and, like any slap, it obeys the laws of a purely muscular nature… In a story, polishedness does not always correspond to the intention of the author – the most successful stories are written in one draft, or rather, they are copied from the first draft only once. That is how all of my best stories were written. There is no polishing in them, but there is completeness…

‘Everything before – it all sort of crowds together in one’s brain, and it is enough for one to simply open some valve in the brain, take a pen – and the story is written.

‘My stories are an effective and conscious battle with what is called narrative genre… A slap has to be sharp and resounding… Each of my stories is authenticity itself. Documental authenticity… For an artist, for an author, the main thing is the chance to express himself, to hand a free brain over to that stream. The author himself is a witness. With any one of his words, any turn of his soul, he gives a definitive formula, pronounces a sentence. And the author is free not just to confirm or deny something with a feeling or a literary judgment, but to speak out in his own way. If a story has been brought to completion, such a judgment arises.’ (1971)

When Varlam Tikhonovich was already dead, I bitterly reproached myself for not writing down our conversation. But later, having read his notes and everything he had written, I realized – he himself had already written down nearly everything.

I thought then, and I think now, that Shalamov broke a new path in Russian prose.

In contemporary Russian prose, the classical Tolstoyan tradition seems to be stronger than any other. Solzhenitsyn is entirely within that tradition. It is certainly a very honourable and respected tradition. The critics have adapted to it – the character types, the psychological insight, the plot lines, their intersections, the authorial voice…

Shalamov’s prose cannot be judged by those standards, just as Hiroshima, Auschwitz and Kolyma cannot be comprehended within the structure of the psyche of the golden nineteenth century.

I always told Varlam Tikhonovich that he had found an appropriate artistic form for real-life raw material, that this was his great contribution to Russian literature. The extreme conciseness of the story, as if it contained a spring which uncoils in the consciousness, in the heart of the reader. One phrase from An Individual Assignment- ‘Dugaev regretted that he had worked, had suffered for nothing the entire final day of his life, which was today’ – becomes imbedded in the reader's memory for life.

He showed how extreme people’s life and way of thinking can get, how it can go beyond the pale of good and evil. It can only be shown in this way: without forced sentimentalism or psychological finesse – excessive words seem like a sacrilege here. Stern, concise, accurate. This conciseness is the author’s anger and pain compressed to the limit. The impact of his prose on the reader is in the contrast between the narrator’s stern composure, the apparent composure of the narration – and the explosive, consuming subject-matter.

At that time, there were few people who would tell him that. And what little support I offered was important to him. He wrote to me in 1966: “You make me realize that I have my little place in life...” “Little” was said with pride, surely.

I valued his prose more than his poetry, which offended him very much. And I found it painful to hear him sometimes say, in the 70s: “Oh, my short stories, come on, there’s nothing special about them.” His creative flow somehow shifted to poetry, but his poems, it seemed to me, were little by little losing the strength of true poetry. In addition, he tried writing poems “for the occasion”. It didn’t really work, that is, it didn’t come out right. Of course, I said nothing to him, but he sensed it. The prose was dwindling more and more. After 1973, he wrote very little of it.


In the summer of 1969, I visited Vologda. I went to the building near Saint Sophia cathedral, where Varlam Tikhonovich had spent his childhood, I walked around Shalamov Slide. I brought him back some photographs and (I confess this barbarity) a piece of the cathedral that I chipped off of the socle. That same summer Varlam Tikhonovich wrote to me:

July 8, 1968

“I thought the city was long forgotten. My meetings with old acquaintances (he meant the painter V.N. Sigorsky and his wife, both natives of Vologda)... evoked no emotions whatsoever, be they visible or hidden – all that ended after my mother’s death, I completely gave up on that city... But now, after your trip there, I feel, as it were, warm currents somewhere deep inside... It’s amazing that you saw the building where I spent the first fifteen years of my life, that you even entered inside, saw the staircase with the broken glass that leads to the second floor. It’s like a fairytale. The Beloozero stone is not as dear to me as the one from the cathedral, because I’ve never been in Beloozero, while I lived near the cathedral for fifteen years. There were no trees there (if you were looking at the facade). Nor have there ever been. Just an even open ground and a road. A hawthorn bush below the windows. The one tree, a poplar, was in the courtyard, behind the building...”

This is how the flow of memories, The Forth Vologda, began. I won’t recount it here, the readers already know it. During those years, V.T. would almost incessantly tell stories of his childhood, yet some of them did not make it into the final version of the memoirs.

“I didn’t love my father,” Varlam Tikhonovich said. I don’t think this attitude was unequivocal. Rather – it was an inevitable clash of two equally determined and passionate personalities. He wasn’t such a terrible tyrant, after all: he didn’t make any of his sons pursue a clerical career, even though he wanted them to. He didn’t hinder his sons and daughters from spending their free time as they liked, nor did he force acquaintances upon them. As to my mother’s kitchen chores – it’s the most usual and unavoidable thing in a not very well-to-do family.”

In the summer of 1989, I once again went to Vologda. I worked in the city archives doing a bit of research into V.T.’s ancestry. I was somewhat perplexed by his father’s Zyrian descent, as V.T. said (“a shaman”, “a half-Zyrian”). I found out that Tikhon Nikolayevich’s father and grand-father were both priests and that this many-branched family line stemmed from Veliky Ustyug, but only Tikhon Nikolayevich’s father, Nikolay Ivanovich, had wound up in the “Ust-Sysolsk backwaters”, while his grand-father, Ioann Maksimovich Shalamov, came from urban clergy, although, in his last years, he served in the parish church of the Ustyug uyezd. Tikhon Nikolayevich’s family was far from destitute: he received a yearly pension of 1350 roubles for his service in the North American eparchy, a cathedral priest salary of 600 roubles, as well as about 250 roubles of alms-cup money. By pre-Revolution standards, it was a decent income, albeit not a very high one.

V.T.’s mother’s kitchen chores were, of course, from post-Revolutionary times.

Varlam Tikhonovich could not hold back his tears when recalling his mother and his sister Natasha. But then, don’t all women carry the burden of the family household? His mother toiling in the kitchen, Natasha bent over her wash-trough – that’s no big tragedy yet. Then, also, it was his mother who managed family finances, so it was her who divided his father’s hunting trophies. She wasn’t so crushed by his father’s will, after all, as long as she managed to uphold the collapsed arches of the universe over her family.

Tikhon Nikolayevich passed away on the 3rd of March, 1933, and V.T.’s mother, Nadezhda Aleksandrovna, on December 26, 1934, both at 65.

Shalamov owed a lot to his family: his unwavering moral firmness and courage, which can only come from one’s childhood, when one’s personality comes into being, when it gets molded. His scrupulous honesty and his proud search for independence.

How he despised the Moscow intellectuals’ fund-raising campaigns for the benefit of destitute dissidents. “Three roubles at the door, and he is your saviour.” To think of his blind father, who would go out to fight for God, and his mother, how she struggled alone with poverty!

And finally, something about his brother Sergey. V.T. has the following verse:

Invoke, invoke obscurity —
And light will cease.
Envy your brother — and you’ll see
He will decease.

His elder brother, Sergey, was acknowledged as the leader of Vologda urchins. The best hunter, the bravest swimmer, the builder of “Shalamov Slide”. Varlam Tikhnovich’s voice revealed a boy’s reverence when he spoke about his brother, about his endless power over the other boys. There was this episode, when some older boy addressed him on the ice-slide:

“Move over, kid.”

And then the boy nearby (here’s when V.T. took on an extremely funny expression of cold dignity while his lips began to tremble in anticipation of a merry triumph) said slowly and gravely:

“He’s not a kid. He’s Seryozhka Shalamov’s brother.”

There was in him some sort of infantile envy toward his brother, the centre of attention. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be sick, I wanted to be a cripple.” “Why?” I asked, surprised. “So that everyone would love me.”

Maybe, his parents had some sort of foreboding. Death followed Sergey’s footsteps. He died at 22.

Varlam Tikhnovich seldom had heartfelt warm feelings toward men. Respect – yes. But not warmth. But Sergey was a different matter. I saw the vivid infantile love, the admiration, which united V.T. with his long-deceased brother.

A Singer

“What I wanted most when I was a child has not come true,” Varlam Tikhonovich said, “I wanted to be a singer.”

He had no ear for music. Nor did he like or understand music, yet he wanted to be a singer. There was such fresh grief in his words, that I stopped laughing. Yes, he imagined a stage, decorations, ovations... A real and overwhelming success – that which he was never to have. Not some posthumous fame (“what’s in it for me?”), not some readers and admirers that existed somewhere far away, but a real orchestra pit, an amphitheatre, a storm of applause – here and now.

In his youth, he composed exotic songs. “Your knees are cold...” (Orinoco), blue-blouse marches, which he would even sing to me in an unexpectedly high and off-key voice, albeit with great relish. It was very funny and a little sad.


We often played games. We would draw each other, write jocular verses, and design detailed maps of our imaginary country Bimini with bays, ports, palaces, and yachts. I would tell stories about the unusual customs of that country: how, for instance, people there part without words, only sending each other a flower. “Two ships and three dolphins” – this comes from a Bimini map. It has remained in his poems as a “cryptic script the wizards used to charm their secret...”

But in a world that’s not to be
Clad in the form of tales and myths
It was itself a therapy.

(And when she comes to visit me, 1973)

And therapeutic it was. I have been taking care of Varlam Tikhonovich for ten years and in that time he was never ill. I found out recently that mother Theresa says: take a person by the hand. I did exactly that – intuitively. I would come to him and see him nervous and high strung. I would just take his hand, without saying a word. And he would calm down. As if a different face would come out, different eyes: gentle and profound.

Now I think that, having gone through that hell, he had preserved his strength of mind surprisingly well, well enough to play my games: miracles and sails, dolphins and Vikings.

The Taganka Theatre

We met just as I was going through an infatuation with Lubimov’s theatre. Many years have passed, but I still cannot remember having a more vivid impression from the theatre than The Good Person of Szechwan production.

There must be happy endings…
there must, must, must!

Slavina’s ringing voice.

Varlam Tikhonovich was sceptical about my enthusiasm. A note on the photograph of his he gave me then, in 1966, reads: “To Irina Pavlovna with sincere regards and advice to forget the Taganka theatre”

“We’ve already gone through this,” he would tell me. “Meyerhold. But it’s all forgotten now.”

But, giving in to my wish, he started going to that theatre, more and more willingly every time. The Fallen and the Dead, Pugachev. After The Life of Galileo with Vysotsky, he said: “Let’s write a play for this theatre.” I obviously did not agree to be his co-author, but he did regain interest in plays. He started writing drafts for this play Night-Time Conversations. Its plot is simple: a meeting of all Russian writers, Nobel Prize winners: Bunin, Pasternak, Sholokhov, Solzhenitsyn – in a prison cell. They are forced to saw wood, take out the slop bucket. And then, at night, they talk...

Varlam Tikhonovich became a fan of the theatre. We went to see The Days of Our Lives in the Pushkin Theatre, The Intervention in the Satire Theatre. Those were the plays Varlam Tikhonovich remembered from his youth. But now he was disappointed with them, he must have then had a more vivid, more immediate impression of them, an impression enriched and embellished by his memory over long theatreless years.

He did not like MKhAT, all that imitation of life on the stage: the crickets [chirping], the tea-parties, etc. Theatre is theatre. And that's what it should remain. It does not have a fourth wall. He would always talk of Meyerhold, Vakhtangov, and Tairov with great enthusiasm. He considered Alissa Koonen the greatest actress of all.

It is a pity he did not live to see the staging of his play Anna Ivanovna, nor the screen adaptation of his prose. He had, I believe, a feeling for the stage.

“Once at a Matisse exhibit...”

This was the first line of his poem, “And my heart would suddenly choke…” (1969). “The tides of the Styx” were inserted at the insistence of the editor who found it unethical to have a heart attack at the exhibition of a great French painter.

We were together at the opening of the exhibit, there were a lot of people. The air was stuffy, and Varlam Tikhonovich felt sick: I suddenly saw that he was pale, with beads of sweat on his forehead. But he kept stoutly saying, “I’m alright. I’m alright.” It took me an effort to get him to move to another room and sit down, so he could rest a little, get his breath back. And then he wrote a poem about it.

We would often go to exhibits: Matisse, Rodin, Petrov-Vodkin, Pirosmanishvili, Falk, Picasso, Van Gogh, Vrubel… Or we would simply go to the Tretyakov Gallery or the Pushkin Museum.

He did not like the Peredvizhniki’s paintings. He considered it a mediocre imitation of literature. Painting has its own language: the colours. And it is through the colours that the artist’s soul must be expressed.

I remember how we argued, at a Petrov-Vodkin exhibit, in front of his “Mental Attack” [In the Line of Fire], where people rush forward with distorted faces – to kill others like themselves, and the one who was shot dead, holding his hand on his heart, is as though not falling but lifting off with a detached expression, the only human face of them all.

In front of this piece I told Varlam Tikhonovich that the subject-matter, too, is important in the painting, and that it is the subject-matter that expresses the artist’s thought and mind. Varlam Tikhonovich began objecting violently that, had there been only green and red paint on the canvas, without any subject-matter, it would be just as moving.

We also argued at the Rodin exhibit in front of Balzac’s sculptural portrait. Varlam Tikhonovich insisted that a life-like resemblance of the original is not necessary. Rather, it is important to communicate the model’s inner world, the artist’s impression of the model. I, on the other hand, said that it is our face that expresses our inner world, that the traits of real people in the Fayum portraits are, after thousands of years, more moving to us than the countenance of the sphinx which is completely unattached to time. Now, recalling Varlam Tikhonovich’s face, I feel glad that both Fedot Suchkov’s sculptural portrait and Boris Birger’s painted portrait bear a true resemblance, and it is this resemblance, it seems, that has captured a particle of his soul.

Varlam Tikhonovich’s favourite painter was probably Van Gogh, and his favourite painting, The Round of the Prisoners. I think it had to do not only with the colours but with the subject-matter as well. Both the “what” and the “how”.


Varlam Tikhonovich had a strong antagonism toward the Tolstoyan tradition in Russian literature. He thought that Tolstoy had led Russian prose away from the path of Pushkin and Gogol.

In Russian prose, he esteemed Gogol and Dostoevsky above all others.

As to poetry, he related most to the tradition of the philosophical lyric poetry of Baratynsky, Tyutchev, and Pasternak. There was something cerebral, so to speak, in his love for Pasternak. He would often recite passages from My Sister Life and say: “What a way of looking at things! I’m at a complete loss! How does he manage to drag entire new layers into poetry!”

This was a poet’s professional admiration. On the other hand, he loved Blok in a more profound, heartfelt way. When he read Blok, he never talked of poetic inventions, but it was rather as if he sensed in Blok’s poetry something personal, intimate.

It seemed to me sometimes that Blok made him recall his youth, some sort of echo of him before Kolyma. I never asked him about that. These things are so delicate, they shouldn’t be said out loud, translated into words. I only saw how his face lit up and grew younger.

In the 70s, Tyutchev could frequently be found on his desk.

He had some favourite poems by other authors as well. He often read Yesenin’s The Black Man, Tsvetaeva’s Roland's Horn, and some of Khodasevich’s poems.


Oh, what thunderbolts Varlam Tikhonovich hurled in his Fourth Vologda at the notorious pablisiti [love of flashy things?] that was proper of his father! What a eulogy to rags!

That’s how he felt. But on the other hand…

Very funny and touching were the manifestations of this pablisiti in Varlam Tikhonovich himself.

“My raincoat,” he would tell me gravely and authoritatively, “is in the latest fashion.” He pronounced the word “fashion” with the tone of a dandy. Then, after a pause, firmly:

“A black cape.”

He was referring to a black “Bologna” raincoat, which was, indeed, a very popular garment at the time. V.T. would bring it up on numerous occasions, he was evidently proud of such a fashionable item of clothing.

Once I came to him sometime around 1970. He opened the door, I saw him beaming in a particularly festive way and then I noticed what he was wearing — a pair of brightly-striped trousers. This was then a fad with youngsters, but even my sons managed to escape it. In a didactic, somewhat vainglorious voice, V.T. said:

“I buy only the most fashionable clothes. The most fashionable.”

But he saw that his trendy acquisition did not impress me. His spirits immediately fell: “Don’t you like it?” Not wanting to upset him, I muttered something more or less approving. But the trousers were forgotten.

Once Varlam Tikhonovich told me with excitement:

“I go to the hairdresser’s and tell him what kind of haircut I want. And the hairdresser says: look, that’ll cost two roubles. I don’t understand. I think I look quite well-to-do. Quite well-to-do.”

I comforted him: yes, of course, quite well-to-do.

He always dressed as follows: a chequered shirt, a Czech or Polish coarse-wool or ratine jacket with a large plaid print. Dark trousers, bought separately. Soviet-made shoes. In summer, he would wear light-blue short-sleeved shirts untucked. In winter, a fur-lined rain-coat (which was cheap then), a rabbit-fur ear-flapped hat.

I remember the pleasure with which he worked on his new home, having moved to his spacious room on the first floor of 10 Khoroshevo Road from the tiny room on the ground floor where he had lived with his second wife, Olga Sergeyevna Neklyudova. I remember how he discussed with me what to buy for the house: a table-cloth, window-blinds, furniture (at a second-hand [consignment] shop), how he laid out his books, given that he now had more room... When the building was condemned to be torn down in 1972, he moved, with the same diligent bustle, to the bright, spacious room he liked so much at 6 Vasilyevskaya Street.

The new residence was a square room with a window and a balcony door; facing it, a door into the hallway; on either side of the entrance, open bookshelves – bare painted wooden planks; to the left, shelves with The Poet’s Library and poetry in general. Further to the left, high glass-sided shelves with his papers, mounted one on top of the other, a wardrobe, a dining-table – right next to the balcony door – and a small cupboard above it. In front of the window, a pedestal desk. Further to the right, in a shallow niche, a wooden bed, then more open bookshelves. Varlam Tikhonovich was very fond of his modest abode. A tiny territory of independence. Didn’t he always say that independence is the most important thing in life?

That is what he valued money for – for the independence that it offers. “If fame comes to me with no money, I’ll kick it out.” However, another thing was true as well:

As long as poetry is there,
A friend, an enemy,
A beggar or a millionaire:
It’s all the same to me.

The Little Red Riding-Hood

Sometime in 1968 I came to see Varlam Tikhonovich and he said, right off the bat, as if announcing a discovery, as if stating a conclusion, very gravely and in great agitation: “You are Little Red Riding-Hood. I’ve had wolves in my life, I’ve had hunters, but you are Little Red Riding Hood.”

He was serious about myths and fairytales, thinking that in them some eternal models of relationships between human beings have been preserved. And this “Little Red Riding-Hood” sounded like the freshly discovered formula of our relationship.

But I was always in a hurry, what with the kids, the work, the household, so only once did I ask, in passing, offhandedly: “Why Little Red Riding-Hood?” I never even tried to figure out which character he was in my tale. The grandmother? Then who is the big bad wolf? And the hunter? He kept calling me Little Red Riding-Hood. Maybe for the light-heartedness with which I set off into the world, the forest, without heeding the big bad wolves?

There was something I could relate to in this fairytale, even though I had never worn any red hoods.

The careless hand, oh, may it ring
My poetry’s doorbell and bring
Me wisdom...

The careless hand... I recall now that Varlam Tikhonovich often blamed me for my carelessness. “You surprise me, you’re so agile, so quick – and yet so careless.” I would climb on two stools one mounted on top of the other and tumble down with a great clatter, I would bruise my knees, rushing down the escalator. I was always in a rush. I would cut my finger opening a can. Even when confronted with serious problems, I would tackle them just as light-heartedly, just as carelessly. Once I came to visit Varlam Tikhonovich and he solemnly, proudly showed me his cut finger (he had been opening a can): “Just like you. I thought you would’ve done the same thing.”

“And the highway will never come back...”

Varlam Tikhonovich did not like changes in life. The move from Vasilyevskaya Street to Khoroshevo Road was quite hard on him. There, he had left a chunk of his life that going back as far as 1956; that’s where Mukha had been buried.

Whenever I now pass by the place where his old building (number 10) used to be, I recall Mukha who has remained here forever.

Small buildings, four apartments in each one. Varlam Tikhonovich used to say that it seemed to him that it was nothing but an enclosure on the bank of a river — which was actually a highway. Trucks would noisily hum by the windows all the time, but that would not hinder Varlam Tikhonovich’s imagination.

However, he quickly got used to his new place. I remember the fun we had cleaning his room after the renovation, moving the furniture using a method V.T. had taught me: you had to sit down on the floor and, pushing yourself back with your feet, you would move the furniture with your back. The move into the new room was accompanied by a mishap. It turned out that the Frunzensky district authorities had assigned V.T. to a different district of the city. They wouldn’t register the certificate [of residence] at the executive committee. V.T. couldn’t get registered at his new residence for about two weeks and I had to run around various agencies for a while. V.T. was on the verge of a break-down: if he loses his Moscow registration, he will be evicted from Moscow altogether. Finally, I went to the district office and said that I wouldn’t leave until the matter was resolved: I could not tell V.T. that the registration was postponed any longer. Then I disgracefully burst into tears, completely beat down by all that heel-dragging. The matter got resolved right away. They accepted the certificate.

Poor fellow, he felt so powerless! This feeling of powerlessness had become a part of him. They can treat a human being any way they like: they can just go straight ahead and throw him out of Moscow. My attempts to convince him that it only had to do with reciprocal ambitions of rivalling district offices were vain. He did not believe me.

Nadezhda Yakovlevna Mandelshtam

Hanging on the wall of Varlam Tikhonovich’s room, the first room of his that I saw – the small one, on the ground floor – were two portraits, Osip Mandelshtam and Nadezhda Mandelshtam. In his first letter to me, in the winter of 1966, V.T. wrote: “I used to be an object of gamble to everybody, and, only for N.Ya., was I the object of profound compassion. But she, too... (crossed out).

Varlam Tikhonovich told me a lot about N.Ya.’s memoirs, qualifying them as excellent Russian prose, an intimate and exact view of the times in question. He would even say that N.Ya.’s talent was no smaller than her husband’s. Needless to say, I took an interest in this extraordinary woman and asked him to introduce me to her. V.T. usually visited N.Ya. every week. He would sometimes mention, with irritation, “those people from N.Ya.’s kitchen” (the kitchen, as I learned later, was in fact N.Ya.’s living-room).

In November of 1966, I finally met N.Ya., on the strength of V.T.’s recommendation. At first, I found her very uncomely, even unpleasant, but later she completely charmed me with her ability to make interesting conversation, her intelligence, her tact. Never have I met a more interesting conversationalist. She apparently knew just the way to talk to people on topics that interested them. When she spoke to me, it would be about children (“I am a teacher, aren’t I?”), about O.E.’s literary acquaintances, and about those of her own… Soon after, V.T. announced, beaming, that N.Ya. had taken a great liking to me. “I, for my part,” V.T. declaimed, “have conveyed to her my deepest satisfaction.” – “You could have done without that,” I said, much to V.T.’s surprise and bewilderment.

From that time on, the extent of my contact with N.Ya. was mostly limited to my purely professional questions: the disposition of O.E.’s archive, which was in the care of Nikolai Khardzhiyev and Lina Finkelshteyn.

N.Ya. would also, now and then, tell me something about herself and O.E. Now, when reading excerpts of the first draft of the Second Book (Literaturnaya uchyoba, 1989, #3), the history of O.E.’s breakup with Olga Veksel, about the sausages that Khardzhiyev would cook for N.Ya., I realized that it was these excerpts that she was as though trying on me. I think that her rewriting of the Second Book and the destruction of the first version are connected, first and foremost, with her reappraisal of Khardzhiyev’s personality.

When we talked, she said, “To think that I could not forget those sausages my whole life! Well, I’ll show him! He told me: had Mandelshtam lived longer, he would have had a different wife. What’s a wife? Whereas there was only one me in his life.” She was furious. I think she was both jealous and intolerant. Then, she rewrote the book in a completely different key.

N.Ya. turned several of O.E.’s signed manuscripts (The Egyptian Stamp, Dombey and Son, Tennis) and photographs over to TsGALI. I made her a copy of what we had.

In May 1967, she insistently invited me to participate in the expropriation of the archive from Nikolai Khardzhiyev, with the promise to hand it over to the Central Literary Archive.

“He might destroy the manuscripts!” We waited outside while N.Ya. went up to see Nikolay Ivanovich, but she did just fine without our help: he handed the folder with the manuscripts to Nadezhda Yakovlyevna.

She did not, however, keep her word. When I reminded her about it, quite politely, half a year later, she said to me: “What legal right do you have to demand the archive from me? I will give it to those who are working on Os’ka [my little Osip]?”

I answered: “It is your right, N.Ya., I’m not demanding anything, God forbid, I simply asked because I remember your promise.”

That was my last conversation with N.Ya. Never again did she invite me over, as before, with her little hand-written notes.

Soon V.T. asked me (after a visit to N.Ya.'s), whether N.Ya. had promised to give the archive over to us. I said that she did. N.Ya. must have discussed the topic with Varlam Tikhonovich and with irritation, at that.

A little later, V.T. asked me what I thought of N.Ya. I said that she is intelligent, extremely intelligent, but that she is lacking somewhat in generosity. At that point, V.T. suddenly started violently pacing the room:

“There is much, much generosity lacking. I told her I cannot visit her any more.”

I tried to soothe him, to persuade him that he needed a literary circle, acquaintances, people to talk to, that N.Ya.’s circle were interesting people who gave him a chance to discuss things, that…

“I need no one but you,” V.T. answered sharply.

V.T. never settled for compromises. Break-up, break-up it was, once and for all. He did it with G.I. Gudz, his first wife, with O.S. Neklyudova, his second wife, with B.N. Lesnyak, his friend in Kolyma, with many others, and so it was with N.Ya.

He had profound reasons as well for the cooling off of his friendship with N.Ya. All the way back in the beginning of 1967, he let it slip about his visits to N.Ya.: “It is necessary for my work.” I believe that, by 1968, the “necessity for his work,” had been exhausted. Besides, he was irritated by N.Ya.’s “cheerleader” bent, a sharp separation: those playing with us, those playing for the other team. Even an intelligent, enlightened, leftist team was stifling for him. He had an aversion for teams.

Galina Ignatyevna Gudz

When I was collecting materials for Varlam Tikhonovich’s archive, I met Galina Ignatyevna Gudz, his first wife. That must have been in 1969 or so. I hoped that she had kept V.T.’s letters from the Kolyma.

She was a nice, charming woman, small in stature, plump, with bright black eyes. I already knew a lot about her by then. They had met during Varlam Tikhonovich’s first imprisonment. Galina Ignatyevna had come to visit her husband who was also in the Vishera camps, and there it was – as V.T. described it – a sudden love. She left her husband for him... “I think I loved Galina.”

Going back to Moscow in 1932, he was really returning to her. In 1934 they got officially married and their daughter Lena was born in 1935.

At that time, V.T. had other, sometimes strong, infatuations, as well. But his love for his wife remained unshaken.

“I was very selfless in love. Everything was her way. Any acquaintance that she found unpleasant was discontinued right away.”

Her image remained with him throughout all of his terrible Kolyma years. A number of poems from The Kolyma Notebooks were dedicated to her (Cameo, “To the post office again...”, “You’re a snappy dresser, you...” and others).

She connected V.T. with Pasternak, she was an intermediary in their correspondence.

She came to pick him up at the Yaroslavsky train station on the 12th of November.

And it turned out that those seventeen years of separation (and what separation!) were too much for their love, it was only a memory.

Although Galina Ignatyevna had also been in exile in Chardzhou from 1937 to 1946 and then lived in Moscow illegally, with no residence permit, surviving on odd jobs, she still could not bear her husband’s total rejection of violence, which had not been subdued in him even by Kolyma.

“Let’s forget it all, let’s live for our own sake,” she said. She did not approve of Kolyma Tales, which V.T. began writing immediately upon his return.

It was for V.T. the work of his life.

Not even you, with all your might,
Can ever from my memory wrest
The common graves, so dark and tight,
Where my unrotting brothers rest,

— he wrote in the poem Return.

They had to live separately again. A day later, he left for Konakovo, and then to Ozerki, a small community in the Kalinin region. He could not live in Moscow.

Her daughter wrote in questionnaires that her father was dead. She went to college, became a member of the Communist Youth. And then he reappears, still not rehabilitated, and lapses into his old ways again.

V.T. said with grief that even his first night in Moscow he had spent outside of his home. His wife was afraid to bring him, an illegal visitor, into the apartment. Seeing him off to Kalinin, she tried to console him:

“But wait till I write to you! Let’s see if the mail can handle all my letters!”

“Write? Again?”

He was expecting something else, having infinitely elevated in his mind the image of this charming but ordinary woman.

Well, she already had a daughter to take care of, a long wished-for home, and a job. Should she have abandoned it all and accompanied him to obscure uncertainty and poverty? Who has the right to judge this woman? Who thinks high enough of himself to demand that someone else go to Calvary?

Their paths were splitting uncontrollably. Though there still were some letters and encounters. In July, 1956 V.T. was rehabilitated. On August 28 he wrote a letter to Galina Ignatyevna:

“Galina. I don’t think we should live together. The last three years have clearly shown us both that our paths have diverged too much and that there is no hope of them ever coming together again.

“I don’t want to blame you. You probably strive for the best, as you understand it. But this best is bad for me. I’ve felt it ever since the first hour of our encounter - (crossed out).

“I wish you health and happiness.

“Whatever you have left of my belongings (fur coat, books, letters), put it all in a bag, and I’ll find a way to come (I’ll call beforehand) and take it.

“I’m not writing separately to Lena, as I haven’t had a heart-to-heart conversation with her in three years. So I haven’t got anything to tell her now, either.”

In October of the same year he returned to Moscow and married Olga Sergeyevna Neklyudova, a writer, and moved in with her. This break-up was not easy for Varlam Tikhonovich. This was the collapse of the dearest illusion, of a dream. “You should’ve seen me rush about Moscow in those days. Why didn’t I bump into you? I kept on calling you. I would’ve moved mountains...”

Like I said, it should always be remembered that Galina Ignatyevna is that same woman who has been writing a hundred letters a year to the Kolyma.

In 1979, seriously ill, before getting sent to the home for the disabled, he asked me: “Please bring Galina to see me. Tell her that we’ll work on a book together. It’s going to be a return.”

I called Galina Ignatyevna but she was recovering from a stroke and said she could not come. Then I called his daughter Lena but she replied: “I do not know that man.”

In no way do I condemn Galina Ignatyevna or Yelena Varlamovna. This is one of those cases where God is the only judge, as they say. Varlam Tikhonovich broke all contact with them – harshly and for good. Lena, of course, knew him very little and could not have any daughterly feelings for him.

He never said good-bye to the woman whom he had so long and so faithfully loved.

Boris Pasternak

Time and time again reminiscing about Varlam Tikhonovich, recalling his words and deeds, his intonations even, some kind of manifestations of his inner self, I am more and more inclined to think that his perception of the world was one of a religious person. Hence his yearning to see, to recognize the Prophet, the “living Buddha,” as he used to say.

Pasternak has for a long time been such a “living Buddha” for V.T., both in his poetry and personality. V.T.’s ardent desire to set a man on a pedestal, to passionately deify a human being with his human weaknesses and then, once those weaknesses came out, to cast him down with the same passion – this was a desire of a spirit which was raised in faith.

V.T.’s correspondence with Boris Leonidovich has been a topic of our discussions ever since our second encounter in 1966. I had to write down V.T.’s memoirs about Pasternak to his dictation.

“Pasternak is the acme of 20th century’s poetry.”

But by 1966, the human Buddha had already been cast down from his pedestal. “I wished to make a prophet out of him, but I failed,” V.T. wrote haughtily in one of his letters (to G.G. Demidov).

V.T. spoke with a note of disdain of Pasternak’s Letters of Repentance. B.L., he said, has shown no great courage of spirit. Once he had made up his mind to publish in the West, he should have gone all the way. Either go to the West, or spit that Western interviewer in the face instead of answering his questions. Either this or that. He shouldn’t have hesitated, run around asking for advice, fussed about, now thanking for the prize, now refusing it. “The cape of a hero, a prophet, or a God was more than Pasternak could handle.”

Poor thing, would he have ever thought that he would be cast down as a living Buddha, albeit somewhat less sensationally.

Yet this – the tragedy of 1972 and his letter to the Literaturnaya Gazeta – I’ll tell about later.

Is it right for us to impose on others the duty of being our sinless idols for our spirit, our morals, and our faith to rely on? Shouldn’t we rather seek that pillar, that faith, and, if necessary, even hope – within our very selves?

The “FTM”

Varlam Tichonovich, as a man whose personality took shape in the 20s, was fond of abbreviations. “FTM”, “forward-thinking mankind” is one of them. It frequently recurs in his written soliloquies, in the notes he kept for himself in the 70s. He obviously did not mean the truly forward-thinking public figures, but rather the noisy crowd which passionately adheres to every public endeavour, including those endeavours where forward thought is actually to be found. The FTM has few serious things to do, yet has lots of ambition, and likes sensation and rumours. Its foundation is weak, the slightest breath of air will blow off the flamboyant and boisterous activity of those forward-thinking activists.

“They need me dead,” Varlam Tichonovich used to say, “That’s when they’ll be able to run wild. They’ll push me down the hole and write petitions to the UN [about it]”.

Only years later did I realize how right and perspicacious Varlam Tichonovich was. I was somewhat sceptical about his words then. I thought he was exaggerating, dramatizing the situation when he said that “the FTM is half made up of fools, half of government stooleys, but the fools are becoming few and far between.”

He was right. Stooleys accompanied him right unto death, right to the brink of his grave. I was informed of that by Fedot Fedotovich Suchkov, an astute old camps prisoner.


He kept waiting for his book of verse Moscow Clouds to go to print. Varlam Tikhonovich ran about town, asked around for advice, from Boris Polevoy and Natan Zlotnikov in the Yunost, from Naum Marmershtein in the Literaturnaya Gazeta, from V. Fogelson in the Sovetsky Pisatel. He would come [to me] on the verge of a breakdown, angry and despaired. “I am on the lists. I’ve got to write a letter.” I told him: “Don’t. That would be losing your face. Don’t. I feel with all my heart that you shouldn’t.”

“You, Little Red Riding-Hood, don’t know this world of wolves. I’m rescuing my book. These bastards, out there in the West, they publish a story at a time. I never gave my stories to any Posev or Golosa.

He was almost writhing in hysterics, anxiously fluttering about the room. The FTM got their full share as well:

“Let them jump down that hole and then write their petitions, if they like. Yes! Jump down yourself, and don’t make others do it!”

I left. Two or three days after, V.T. called me asking me to come to his place. I came and saw his table covered with rough copies of his letters to the Literaturnaya Gazeta. I started reading, crossing out the craziest sentences, such as “they are trying to paint me as a spy...” I repeated: “You shouldn’t mail this letter.” But I did not insist point-blank, since such decisions are up to each one of us. I just turned around and left.

On the 23 of February, a short version of this letter was published in the Literaturnaya Gazeta. To me this was the collapse of a hero. I’m no cry-baby but I spent an entire week crying. My son, Alyosha, who was twelve at the time, proved to be much more intelligent than me. He said:

“Mom, how can you judge him, how can you leave him? I didn’t expect that from you.”

Before long, V.T. called and I went to see him. He let me in, literally in tears, saying he was not the one I imagined him to be, that he really only deserved to end up in the hole... Really, such a sad and heavy feeling from that conversation.

Only with difficulty did I then overcome, though never completely, some kind of alienation within me. I was not the one to judge him, obviously. And who in his sound mind, could? There is talk now of him having been “ostracized.” That’s all gossip, of course. Gossip of the FTM. Ostracised, they say?! Not long ago, G.G. Demidov’s daughter told me how irate her father was when someone dared, in his presence, to condemn Varlam Tikhonovich for this letter: “Who are you, worms, to judge this man!” Boris Polevoy sent him a letter of encouragement. N. Stolyarova and Fedot Suchkov came to encourage him in person, but he wouldn’t let them in.

Their encouragement was but a trifle to him. His own opinion of himself was what oppressed him the most.

It didn’t take long for him to recover himself in his own eyes. Within two weeks or so he told me: “It takes more courage to do a thing like this than to give a foreign journalist an interview.”

“Well,” I said cruelly, “don’t get too much into it. That way you’re not too far from awarding the title of a courageous man to a stooley.”

To this day I remember how he got confused and quiet. And how my words wiped the righteous didactic expression off his face. I had almost never been harsh on him before. No more than three times, as I recall, have I treated him cruelly. And I regret it.

Meanwhile, Moscow Clouds went off to print on April 17, 1972.

A three-way pressure weighed on him during this sad incident with the letter: on this side of the border, they wouldn’t publish him, he faced being completely muted; abroad, nothing but miserable scraps, published without the author’s approval, “profiteering from the blood of others”; last but not least, his irritation at the FTM, this hysterical and unintelligent crowd, pushing him up the Calvary.

But having written that “the subject of the Kolyma has been closed by life itself,” he kept on writing the Kolyma Tales 2. And he still had 1973 ahead of him, which he called one of the best and happiest years of his life. That year saw him write more poems than ever, several voluminous notebooks: Axe ("The weapon of good and evil..."), "Poetry is pain and pain it eases...", "And when she comes to visit me...", "The best of my years...", and finally, The Vow of the Slavs. A vow to be true to himself, to his life’s work.

Serebryany Bor

In the summer, Varlam Tikhonovich enjoyed going to Serebryany Bor. He swam and sun-bathed there. He was a good swimmer, but careless with the sun, so he would get way too tanned. Occasionally, we went there together. He would always go to the beach across the Moskva River. It was such a bliss for him to stay on the river bank, where he could fully enjoy his agility in the water, keenly notice all that was going on around him. Serebryany Bor is what his story The Beetle is about. It is exactly so, with an astute attentiveness to every human being, every blade of grass, and every bug, that he scrutinized the world around.

Once, a group of basketball players passed us on the way to the beach. They strolled along, soaring above the crowd, detached from the beach bustle, talking sports, saying things we didn’t understand. “Martians,” V.T. said.

He loved rivers, their incessant movement, their soliloquy. He disliked the cold, grey Sea of Okhotsk. He did not like the Sukhumi seashore, either, where he visited his sister, Galina Tikhonovna Sorokhtina, in 1957.

In 1973, he became a member of the USSR Writers’ Union and could spend vacations in Koktebel and Yalta, which he did without fail until the fall of 1978. He was greatly – pleasantly – impressed by the comfort of the writer’s life. I can imagine how out of place he looked at the gated beach. In 1974, leaving for Koktebel, he wrote me a literary letter: “It is not to disturb the shadows of Voloshin and Grin that I am going down to Koktebel...” I didn’t like this. It did not sound like him at all.

I had a tender love for the Crimea. My children and I once drove around the whole peninsula from Feodosia to the Sarych Point. So that all of my correspondence with V.T. in the sixties is either from the Crimea or to the Crimea. Those old trails, overgrown with flat cactuses, towers in ruins, frozen rock-falls, the (then) deserted shores. I got up early, so that the sun would stretch a golden path over to my feet.

V.T. didn’t learn to like the Crimea, never got to feel its ancient charm. He did not like nature. He had some kind of visual, rational way with it. To love nature is to be a part of it, to blend into it, feeling connected with the sky and earth. He paid attention to wood and stone, observantly using nature and its phenomena in his poetry to translate certain subtle human emotions, yet he felt no need to intimately communicate with it.

The Cure-All Solution

Once V.T. asked me: “Do you think I cursed in the camps?” I said, “I wouldn’t think so.”

“I had one of the foulest mouths around. Got into fights, too. Recently, some guy stepped on my toe on the tram. I cussed the fellow out big time. He froze on the spot...”

A slap in the face was his cure-all solution for all kinds of problems, albeit a purely theoretical one.

“The only way to get rid of those bastards (the FTM) is to slap them in the face right in the doorway...”

“I saw Molotov in the Lenin library. And then I... I did not slap him on the face. I saw him – but did not slap him!”

Even in his very final days, he once attempted to scare away a nurse (“a bother-giver”) in the nursing home, flailing his arms at her: “Get away from me, you make me sick!”

A slap in the face is an instantaneous solution to a problem, typical of V.T.’s character, as he could not stand uncertainty or procrastination.

“They’re all looking for a secret in me. Yet there’s no secret in me, everything is clear and simple. No secret whatsoever.”

He could not stand secrets, albeit, of course, he knew how to keep silence, when necessary. However, he was infinitely irritated by all kinds of hints and mysterious allusions.

“I’m used to confronting things squarely. Indiscriminately of their significance.”

He had a very good friend and admirer, Yakov Grodzensky, who lived in Ryazan. He had a passion for conversations pregnant with hidden implications, as though saying: “I understand it all, there are things you cannot say aloud, but I do understand them”. Although he loved “Yashka”, V.T. would get very irritated.

Once I came to visit V.T. and saw him pensive, sad, and silent (he never had any inclination to silence and was always overcome with a desire to speak). “Yashka is dead,” said V.T. It must have been around 1970.

His Opinion of Himself

His views on himself were just as contradictory as his very character.

I once mentioned favourably Yury Osipovich Dombrovsky. He said, as if offended, and with great fervour: “I’m the best of all people!” Then thought for a while and corrected himself: “Only you are better than me.”

The qualities he valued most in himself were faithfulness, moral firmness (“never betrayed anyone in the camps, never ratted anyone out, never played on others’ blood”). And talent. “I am that cobbler born to become a Napoleon, as in Mark Twain’s novel. I was going to become Shakespeare. The camps have killed it all.”

But at times, he would get into a self-derogatory mood and switch to a different kind of talk, calling himself an ungrateful wimp, saying that I think him a better man than he actually is. That, having been crushed to pieces, he had been reassembling himself and that he had been incurably crippled by the camps.

Now that I’m preparing his manuscripts for publication, I see how much his style is in tune with his personality. That’s even apparent from the adjectives he was fond of using: firm, best, energetic, every, supreme… A search for the Absolute, for the inconceivable invariant, for the summit…

O Poet! E’en such art thou.

Passion and reason, free flow, spontaneity, — and yet constant self-restraint. Rigour down to the last little detail. A complete lack of a sense of humour. Superstitiousness. As if in a shaman's trance, something from the inside, something barely articulable strains to find its way into an idea, into words, this is what his poetry is like oftentimes.

He kept repeating: “my life is a failure, just as any human life.” His life, no matter how tragic, leaves a sense of sheer completeness. It was a clash between a strong, firm, unwavering man and the state — between him and that era, the way life used to be. What was bound to happen, happened.


I was pushed by life itself towards some sort of decision. Varlam Tichonovich was, after all, in need of certainty, I saw it clearly. I understood that he needed a friend who would dedicate his entire life to him, and hoped that such a friend would appear after my departure.

True to ourselves, we did not say the final pitiful words. We celebrated ten years of our acquaintance. It was a painful celebration, yet I had the inexorable feeling that everything was over. “There it is. Everything ends like this,” I said. And he replied: “These were ten years of happiness, you gave me the gift of a decade of my life.”

Later, when I opened up the small envelope that said “Urgent, upon my death”, I read: “Thank you for all these years, the best years of my life.”

Of course, this does not mean that we never saw each other since. Occasionally, I would visit him, there were some letters and phone calls. In October of 1977, he sent me his book Boiling Point with a dedication that read: “To my faithful companion and friend with deep emotion.” During my occasional visits to his house, I encountered a woman who sometimes cooked and cleaned for him, for a reward (which he deemed high and she, insufficient). However, by 1979, he already needed a permanent sick-nurse, not just a live-out helper.


In April 1979 he called me asking to come urgently and said he was about to leave for a nursing home. He asked me to take all of what had by then remained of his papers. “Lots of thieves around,” he said. He asked me: “How are your children?” I didn’t reply. And then he said: “You think I don’t care.” And he began to cry. “I thought earlier that you came to me. I thought someone was at the door, so I rushed out – no one. I jumped up to the window and saw a woman with two kids. I thought it was you dropping in on the way to the zoo.” I said: “My kids are already grown up and don’t go to the zoo. They’re already taller than I am.” But he didn’t believe me, to him I was still the same young mother with my little kids snuggled up to me on each side holding me by the hand.

On May 17, 1970, I spoke to the people that had taken away a part of V.T.’s papers, and after our negotiations on October 8, 1979, they returned the manuscripts of four collections of Kolyma Tales (the entire affair was documented). Only years later, when I was finished examining and inventorying V.T.’s voluminous papers, I understood that some of it had not been returned. But V.T. had already gone. Also stolen were my letters to V.T. Fortunately, only those from the 70s.

Of course, what was stolen was but a small part compared with the main bulk of the papers, mainly machine-written manuscript copies. It is, however, possible that some drafts were lost which contained textual differences that ought to be studied during textological work. Lost were some thick poetry notebooks containing firsts drafts of various poems. To Varlam Tikhonovich, the true date of a poem was when it was written down in such a notebook. To him, these notebooks, once lost, were irreplaceable. I was, of course, to blame for not having found any of those notebooks, for not having immediately sorted out all the papers.

Of course, those people should have returned everything back to the archives, to Varlam Tikhonovich’s foundation. Now they say, unlike 1979, that they got those manuscripts as a gift...

The Liberty Prize

He dictated poems to me. Those poems were breaking through to him across the numb darkness of the world, across his incoherent speech and failing memory:

Half-asleep, yet I cannot but ponder
Things a man in my state thinks about.
I wake up and my thoughts come asunder
With the rustling of humans without.
There’s a cricket that chirrs on the mantel
As before. And the memories come back.
As before, I’ll do without a candle.
And I’ll lift myself without a jack.

He was deaf, blind, no longer able to keep his body upright. He had almost lost command of his tongue. Even when in bed, he felt the world buzz and swing around him.

Eternal life is scant of favour,
Hard to befriend.
Your knees bend, hesitant, you waver,
And your knees bend.

I entered this house, smelling of helpless and defenceless old age, and, followed by the dull eyes of old women and of two boys in wheelchairs, I went up to the third floor and opened the door of ward 244. He was lying in bed, curled up in a ball, quivering, with his unseeing eyes wide-open, with his short-cut grey hair – with no blanket, on a wet mattress. He would tear off his sheets and blanket covers from the bed, wad them up and hide them under the mattress, to prevent them from being stolen. He would tie his towel around his neck. His prison habits had come back to him. He would fling himself at his food – fearing somebody would snatch it before he could.

He liked it there. “It’s good here,” and then, in a very serious, grave voice: “The food’s good here”.

A small single room with a broad window, a separate lavatory (“this is very important”), silence, warmth, and food: this was the miserable paradise of his last poems.

To walk a dog is to do a dog wrong.
A dog is sick
Of carrying his deathlessness along
As if it were a stick.
My last abode, my willow grove, my sparkling day,
I finally found.
I dropped my heart, he snuffed it, snatched it, ran away,
My good hellhound.
A piece of human heart is softer than a bone
To gnaw on, and it differs much in price.
And in I walked, a guest, the final one,
To Paradise.

But even here, in this pitiful paradise, where his poor body resided, there still lived the soul of a poet, which sensed the wide world, there still lived his unsatisfied ambition. He craved fame and money, the “golden rain”.

On June 1, 1981 I came to him with the good news: the French section of the PEN club had awarded him the Liberty Prize.

I approached the bed and took him by the hand. He always recognized me by the touch, holding my hand.

It took him a long time and a great effort to get up and sit down on a chair by the bed-side table.

“Day! What day is it?”

“The first of June, Monday!” I screamed into his pale, anaemic ear.

“Time! What’s the time? Hey! What time is it? Hello!”

“It’s five, five o’clock! You got the award! The award!”

“The award! Money! Hello! Hello! The award! Money!

“In France!”

He understood and lost all interest in the prize.

Once I brought him a volume of the Kolyma Tales, published in London, given to me for V.T. by Gennady Aygi. He felt it for a long time with his fingers. “I understand that it was published Over There,” he said indifferently, “but there must be some money.”

Not a single drop of the “golden rain” has fallen upon him to make his last years more bearable. Instead, a publication in the Yunost is what occupied his mind. I had collected some of his old poems and given them to Natan Zlotnikov.

“Issue! Which issue?”

I didn’t yet know exactly, so I yelled to him a wild guess – “the seventh issue”. Actually it came out in the eighth one. This was his last joy. He was worried about the author's copies and wanted them to be ordered beforehand. This was the last magazine issue he has proudly presented as a gift to his visitors. I didn’t take mine because I wanted him to have one more copy to give away.

His life had come to an end. A terrifying life that has shattered a wonderful, talented, and passionate man into little pieces...

He has seen what we haven’t seen, what nobody should see, what should not exist. And it has poisoned him forever. The shadow of the camps finally caught up with him. And the little pieces of a personality, glued together by willpower and courage, fell apart.

And then came the summer of 1981, his last one. The one that brought him the Liberty Prize. He dictated me a poem, his last poem about me.

She belongs in my life alone.
It is her that I choose. Out of Eden
I will lure the Eve of my own —
As the Snake, with the fruit forbidden.
Let her never forget about me.
Let her cherish forever our mystery.
As an annual ring in a tree
She’s inscribed, by no chance, in our history.

I would always bring him his favourite food: apples and waffles. He also liked marshmallows. Once he asked me: “Where are the marshmallow sticks?” I said: “I couldn’t get any, they don’t have them.” “Well, go buy some now.” “There’s none to be found, they’re not selling them anymore.” He hung his head. I could tell he was thinking that I just didn’t feel like going. Fortunately, apples were always available. He would always feel them carefully with his fingers and store them solemnly in his drawer. I think apples gave him impulses for his poems. A little thing, a minor detail would trigger the flow of a poem. Here is his last new poem (although he would often dictate versions of old ones):

So free from earthly fuss.
I hug the ground,
Above the planet thus
I fly around.

He never liked winter. All of his arrests took place in winter: February 19, 1929 and the night of January 11, 1937. He often had colds and got ill in winter.

The last time I saw him is when I came to wish him a happy new year. As always, he recognized me by the hand. He sat up with difficulty and, once perched on a chair, began dictating to me his memoirs of Boris Polevoy. The poor “bother-giver” was rushing about unable to understand either what he was saying or what I was writing (stenographing). Then he dictated the last version of his poem Pigeons. That was all.

On January 15, 1982, his fragile and miserable paradise was destroyed. He was transferred to a different nursing home for disabled people, a neuropsychiatric one. The fuss that had been going on around him starting from the second half of 1981, thanks to a group of well-wishers, has played a certain role in the transfer. Of course, there were among them both genuinely good people, as well as those who were hustling about for selfish motives, thirsty of sensation. It was from among their ranks that two posthumous “wives” of Varlam Tikhonovich’s emerged, who began besieging official agencies accompanied by a crowd of witnesses.

His miserable, helpless old age became the subject of a show. I was unable to stop it. I could only step aside. The nursing home management did not need that show. The times were different then. The “well-wishers” had no mercy on Varlam Tikhonovich, setting up this sensation with photographic flashes, voice recordings, letters to the West, and numerous phone calls to various leftist public figures.

On January 17, 1982, he died. He died on the hands of strangers and no one understood his last words.

Then there was the funeral, a troublesome matter. Excited faces of strangers who wound up taking part in a sensation. They put on an entire show. I kept talking to him in my mind: “Don’t be afraid, I’m with you.” I had a clear feeling of his presence. His dead face was serene. I put in the pocket of his jacket a talisman of ours which he had given to me a long time ago (“have it on you at all times”) – a small walrus, carved from walrus tusk.

Farewell, my friend.

Translated by Mikhail Oslon, Dmitry Ponomarenko, and Robert Denis

Sirotinskaya I. My friend Varlam Shalamov, Moscow, 2006, p. 1 — 53