Varlam Shalamov

Leona Toker

Testimony and Doubt: Shalamov’s “How It Began” and “Handwriting”

Not every statement of fact can be regarded as testimony, or, for that matter, as evidence. The concept of testimony is associated with law; the concept of evidence is, largely, the province of logic. Attesting, testifying, is a speech act that not merely states facts but also gives a certain legal standing to a state of affairs; as logical evidence, these facts form a basis for an interpretation of the state of affairs in question. Evidence is necessary when either the facts or their interpretation are held in doubt; hence evidence, whether presented deliberately or “betrayed” unwittingly, is usually associated with doubt.

By analogy with formal legal testimony, one can say that attesting in literary narrative likewise pertains to issues that are held in doubt, though the state of affairs to which these issues pertain is moral rather than legal. Elsewhere I have attempted to show the mechanisms through which fiction can be used as a speech act that addresses an issue that is held in doubt, in particular, iterative scenes and the “sample” convention: a fictionalized episode can be used to illustrate a general observation attesting to a phenomenon typical of a social setup whose semiotics is not readily accessible to the general reader (Toker 1997: 200 and 2000: 131-34). The result is a paradox: fiction becomes the best way of not just telling the truth but also of addressing (and helping to dispel) doubts. Here I shall suggest that certain segments of reality may be more efficiently rendered in a fictional than in the factographic mode. To do so, I shall concentrate on two stories of Varlam Shalamov, “How It Began” and “Handwriting,” both apparently written in the same year, 1964[1], and both dealing with the same most horrible year of Kolyma concentration camps, 1938.

In his work The Fictive and the Imaginary, Wolfgang Iser opposes the fictive not to the actual, the factographic, but to what he calls the genuine imaginary, which, however, needs the fictive for its articulation (1993: 234). Yet his description of the fictive is implicitly anchored in a modal relationship with reality: what characterizes the fictive is a selection and recombination of the material and the “as if” convention (1993: 4—21). Since the non-fictional mode likewise involves selection and, often, recombination, it is the operation of the “as if” convention that distinguishes the fictional from the non-fictional modes.

I believe that the “as if” convention is anchored in one of the two procedures: (1) the ascription of recognizable actions, thoughts, and features to non-documented, non-documentable subjects or (2) the ascription of non-documented, or non-documentable actions, thoughts, or features to recognizable historical personages (Toker 1997: 190).

Narratology is helpless in determining the factographic status of a narrative, since all the features of a non-fictional autobiographical narration can be faked “in cold blood”[2] : it is only sources external to the text that can corroborate its factographic status. However, reversing the issue, narratology is well equipped for detecting the fictionalizing “as if” convention even in texts that purport to be factographic. Some literary techniques signalize that the “as if” convention is at work (cf. Cohn 109—32): e.g., inside views of third-person characters, shifting internal focalization, the use of the first-person narrator whose name does not coincide with that of the author, sustained scenic presentation of remembered episodes of the past (by contrast with brief flashes of scenes which one could well imagine having imprinted themselves into the narrator’s memory), sustained scenic staging of episodes that the narrator could not have witnessed, a scenic presentation of events that happened at the same time in different places. Less definitive symptoms of fictionalization are contradictory versions of the same events or a non-coincidence of small details pertaining to the same events in different narratives; these can be accounted for by honest mistakes of the memory or by shifts in the author’s understanding. Conducive to the sense of fictionalization are also the vagueness of public verification landmarks, such as dates and toponyms, as well as the name-change convention: when, even if for their own protection, real people appear in stories under aliases, the details of the events in which they take part can likewise be fully expected to have been modified or recombined (see Rimmon-Kenan 2006).


Shalamov’s first Gulag stories, usually frankly fictionalized and nevertheless claiming the status of testimony, were written in the fifties, after Stalin’s death and Shalamov’s return from Kolyma; most of them are collected in his first cycle, “Kolyma Tales.” By 1964 the tasks that he was facing were changed: the atrocities of the Gulag were no longer deniable — not only because Khrushchev’s secret Destalinization speech at the 20th Party Congress in 1956 had been followed by an open condemnation of the so-called “personality cult” at the 22nd Congress in 1962 but also because many survivors had been telling their stories, and Solzhenitsyn’s novella “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” published in Novyi Mir in November of 1962, had painted a systematic and convincing picture of the life in a camp, a softened picture[3] – and all the more convincing precisely because not entirely veracious. As far as the broad public was concerned, still not established were the intensity, the scope, and the details of the atrocities. Shalamov would say that in a camp like that of Ivan Denisovich he could have lived for a long time[4].

Shalamov’s “How It Began” is, in many ways, a response to Solzhenitsyn’s novella or rather to its impact on Russian intellectual circles. The story is emphatically shaped as factographic. Moreover, the deployment of its materials seems to replicate the flow or structure (syntagm and paradigm) of the narrated phenomena as well as the vagaries of individual memory[5]. This impression is, however, only partly accurate.

The “It” in “How It Began” is not the Gulag as such but a more focused phenomenon: the transformation of labor camps into extermination camps. The verb “Began” in the title and in the refrain of this sketch promises an aetiological narrative, with the sequence of the narrative details closely following the chronology of the narrated events; the opening of the story seems to fulfill this promise. However, already the third sentence of the story signals a literary organization of the material.

How did it begin? On which winter day did the wind change and everything became too terrible? In the fall we were still wor…

In the original, the word “working” is deliberately left unfinished: “my eshche rabo…” (381). This is a structural allusion to the unfinished sentence at the end of Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey[6]. It may suggests that the memory of the still quiet autumn work-days is waning in the narrator’s mind, or else that there has been a rude interruption – or both. Of course, the presence of a rhetorical device should not be confused with fictionalization[7].

The opening sentence of the story is then repeated, at this point turning into a refrain – another rhetorical device. It prefaces a long paragraph in which the narrative is strangely intertwined with descriptive touches and characterized by a constantly changing focus:

How did it begin? Klyuev’s team was detained at work. An unheard-of event. The mine-face was surrounded by armed guards.

For its rhetorical effect, a piece of testimony often depends on the dominance of narrative over description (cf. Bal 37); the singulative event[8] of Klyuev’s team not being allowed back to the barracks after a regular work day serves this purpose[9]. The verbless third sentence of this paragraph, which suggests that the event referred to is momentously symptomatic rather than trivial, moves the focus of the story from a retrospective position to the ex-tempore perspective of the prisoners in that fatal winter, to their surprise at the sudden break of a still livable routine. Then follows a sentence that returns the focus to the position of the retrospective narrator annotating, for the sake of the uninitiated reader, the term “mine-face” (zaboi): “A mine face is a ditch, a huge hole cut in the ground”; the end of this sentence effects a return to the narrative: “and it was at its edges that the convoy had taken up position.”

The descriptive phrase in the present tense (“is a ditch”) is an instruction to the reader: “Imagine a huge man-made hole in the ground” — the reader produces in his imagination what the prisoners have produced physically, with spades and picks. Yet the perfective aspect of the second phrase, “the convoy had taken up position” (“vstal convoy”) seems to cancel the imaginative agency of the reader: the overhead posting of the convoy is forced on the consciousness of both the prisoners and the reader. The focus is then shifted to the prisoners, first giving us the external view, “Inside people were plodding, hurrying, hustling one another” (the word “hustling,” podgoniaia, is harshly loaded[10]) and then presenting us with a series of would-be typical inside views: “One with a hidden anxiety, another with a firm belief that this day is but an accident, this evening but a chance event. Sunrise will come, morning, and it will all be dispelled, everything will be cleared out, and life will go on as before, as usual, even if in the camp way.” Here the fictionalizing effect of the inside view is tempered by the “sample” convention: the prisoners who think these thoughts are not identified by names; the sentences represent the typical attitudes to the situation. There follows an account of some of the thoughts and sensations of the workers, oscillating between free-indirect-speech inside views and outward images:

Detained at work. Why? Until they fulfill the day’s task. The snowstorm screeched thinly, small dry snowflakes hit one’s face like sand. In the triangular rays of “jupiters” that lit up the mine at night, snow whirled like motes of dust in a sunray, like motes of dust in the sun ray next to father’s storage hut. But in childhood everything was small, warm, living. Here everything was huge, cold, and malicious. There was the creaking of wooden crates in which the soil was moved towards the cliff. Four people would seize a crate and push, pull, roll, shove, drag it to the edge of the cliff, turn it around and raise its side, pouring out the frozen stone down the cliff. The stones would roll down with a dull sound. There’s Krupianskii, there’s Neiman, there the team-leader Klyuev himself.

At the end of the paragraph the perspective from which these people are glimpsed is explained: “Our team usually replaced Klyuev’s in this mine-face. That day we were put to work in the adjacent mine-face, and it was only at midnight that we replaced Klyuev’s team” (381).

At this point the narrative effects a self-contradictory refus de commencement. The refrain, “How did it begin?” is repeated again, and now it appears that the process had begun some time before the evening in question, when, all of a sudden, a large company of soldiers was brought to the camp where, previously, one armed guard on duty sufficed to keep the peace. The news guards occupied the barracks recently built by the prisoners for themselves, leaving the prisoners to sleep through winter nights in tents. Thus the job of the slow extermination of prisoners had begun before they became aware of its evidence.

On the ensuing several pages, punctuated by the same refrain, the author seems to have a difficulty arranging events in a temporal sequence: all kinds of changes took place, and it does not really matter what came before or after – the team of “trotskyites” who were refusing to work suddenly disappeared (speaking from the focal point of the prisoners, the narrator does not state but only suggests that they were executed[11]); the rations became insufficient, and anything that could double as foodstuffs disappeared from the camp; dogs, German shepherds, were brought in; the miserable pay that the prisoners used to get for their work was discontinued; after a snow-storm the whole camp was dragged, after a full work-day, to clear the roads from the snow – no scruples, even if it meant a 23 hours work day. By this point, as if to reflect the chaos, the narrative has devolved into a mere list of events, with vague temporal links but with an emergent causal link to the emergent agenda of extermination. The items presented as the innovations of that year turn into a list of the instruments of extermination: working and sleeping in the cold, insufficient rations, an unbearable work regime, encroachments of the criminals, terror.

Soon after mentioning the “Grand Indifference” that the prisoner begins to feel during the twelfth hour of interminable work, the narrator gives up the perspective of the prisoner and backs up again, to the events that preceded this murderous deterioration of the prisoners’ condition: the 1937 arrests and subsequent executions of Kolyma’s governor Berzin and his closest entourage. At this point the distribution of the material seems to be analytic: the story does not so much develop its subject further as backtracks and starts all over again, replacing narrative by analysis. The arrests of the chiefs are presented as the first of the deadly hurricanes that swept Kolyma; the second hurricane was the in-camp swift trials and executions of the prisoners, and the third was the immense death-toll caused by the already delineated deterioration of the prisoners’ conditions. In dealing with each of these items, the narrator seems to be plainly unloading whatever he knew about the regularities of each. At this point it does indeed seem that the structure of the remembered reality governs the structure of the narrative. Thus when Shalamov speaks about the arrests of Berzin’s inner circle, he tells us what he knows of each of its members — hearsay is admissible in literary testimony, and, unless presented scenically, does not create a sense of fictionality. When he talks about in-camp arrests and executions, he enumerates and comments on the possible charges; when he talks about the death-toll, he comments on the techniques of burial and on the falsification of records; having previously mentioned the role of the criminals in driving the so-called politicals to their death, he now explains how that worked. He ends the story by concluding that the mass victimization of the people, with total impunity, was actually possible because these people were innocent – that is, they had not really been opponents of the regime, not the stuff that true political prisoners, dissenters, freedom fighters were made of – a point that Solzhenitsyn would also make in The Gulag Archipelago. The coda of the story is “These were martyrs, and not heroes.”

This point was, in fact, a response to the Thaw-period misconception, promoted by such writers as, for instance, Boris Dyakov – the belief that there were, indeed, “enemies” of the Soviet state among the inmates of the camp, enemies, of whom the unjustly imprisoned “loyal communists” like Dyakov[12] or the protagonists of Shelest’s “The Nugget” had to be wary. In general, as noted above, the selection and distribution of the material in the story is not solely or even predominantly governed by the structure of the remembered realities of 1938: the literary and political discourse of the sixties likewise impinges on its shape. The final point of the story underscores the massiveness of the repressions against ordinary citizens – a point consistently downplayed in Khrushchev’s de-stalinization theses which emphasized Stalin’s crimes against true Leninists and loyal communists. Nor does Shalamov consent to idealize the highly placed victims of the 1937 terror wave: some of them were no better than bandits – Tsvirko, for instance, had been arrested in 1929 for having, after an alcoholic feast, fired a volley of bullets at Apollo’s chariot over the entrance to the Bolshoi theatre (a fine literalization of the conflict of the Dionysian and the Apollonian). The description of the 1937 camp conditions corrects the readers’ illusion that the camp of Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich (Kazakhstan, late forties) is a default case: in the Kolyma camps of 1938, or, for that matter, of the early forties, one could become a goner, dokhodiaga, a Gulag version of an Auschwitz Mussulmäner, in a matter of weeks. The explanation about the handling of gold ingots that were often found in the mine face is given under the pretext of explaining one of the charges on which the prisoners would be shot – “for the theft of metal.” Actually, however, it is also a response to Shelest’s story “The Nugget” (“Samorodok”) dealing, in the Khruschevian spirit, with the loyalty of the imprisoned communists to the state[13]. When Shalamov says, “gold did not evoke in me any feeling beside total disgust,” he may be alluding to Thomas More’s Utopia[14] (where the inmates’ attitude to gold was conditioned by using gold to make chamber pots) but it is more likely that the disgust in question is his attitude to Shelest’s story, published in the newspaper Izvestiya in 1962, and reprinted in the journal Znamia in 1964, the putative year of the composition of “How It Began.” Instead of lending support to Shelest’s presentation of the emotional heightening when a gold ingot is found, Shalamov quotes an overseer’s typical scolding of the prisoners who paid too little attention to such treasures: “Hey you, dullards! You have again thrown an ingot into the washing trough” (388). Incidentally, this kind of direct-speech quotation constitutes a flash of a scene too brief to create the sense of the “as if”: sample utterances like this one could well have got imprinted even on the depleted memory of a Kolyma survivor.

Which brings us to the questions that motivates a great deal of the reading of camp literature: how did the writer, the witness, survive such conditions and such events? The question is horribly loaded, since in post-War Russia survivors of ghettoes and German concentration camps where always suspected – with radical injustice and with woeful consequences — of having done something deeply immoral in order to survive. The presentation of Gulag conditions as deadly could have the side effect of casting a similar suspicion on the survivors, including the author himself. This may be one of the reasons why in Shalamov’s collection, according to his plan, stories dealing with terrible atrocities alternate with stories of feats of survival by skill or chance[15] .


Shalamov’s “Handwriting” is one of these stories of survival: its protagonist has a calligraphic handwriting and gets through the terrible times in Kolyma by acting as a police interrogator’s scribe one night a week, after which he is exempt from work the following day and can recover part of his strength. This arrangement lasts several months. On one occasion, the interrogator is distressed on reading a file, and, having asked Krist’s name and patronymic (Krist wonders whether he is now going to address him in this respectful way), burns the file in the stove. Many years later, Krist understands that this must have been his own file and that, but for his handwriting, and the interrogator’s humane moment, he too would have been shot. The interrogator himself becomes a victim of the next wave of the regime’s repressions against its servants, most probably in 1939, after the fall of Ezhov.

Shalamov himself had a calligraphic handwriting: and the story is believed to be autobiographical. However, it is presented as a fictional narrative. Its verification landmarks are vague: though the camp is clearly similar to the camp “Partizan,” where another of Shalamov’s stories, “The Individual Assignment,” pertaining to the same historical period, is also set, the name of the camp is not given. Mainly, however, the story is written in a third-person center-of-consciousness technique, and its protagonist bears the name Robert Ivanovich Krist. This prisoner, also encountered in a number of other stories, is clearly Shalamov’s alter ego, but the change-name convention is a signal of fictionalization.

Coming in the collection immediately after “How It Began” the story must be read as an illustration of the general tendencies outlined in that historical sketch. Krist is one of the prisoners who gets progressively thinner, more exhausted, and hungrier during this murderous winter of 1937-1838. In the course of a few months he stops washing and shaving, stops, it seems, thinking and remembering, loses all curiosity, including interest in the fate of the fellow-prisoners who have been taken away, never to return. This is a far cry from the almost flamboyantly talkative and shrewd Krist whom we meet in, for instance, the story “The Necklace of Princess Gagarin” – which, incidentally, is devoted to the reading of signs just as “Handwriting” is devoted to writing, or rather copying them. When Krist transcribes long lists of names, he does not wonder what they mean: the header of the sheet has been folded out of view, and Krist does not peep. He is quite indifferent to his own fate: when called to the interrogator, he knows that he may not live to get the next day’s breakfast but he does not seem to care. What he does care about is the frozen turnip peelings that he finds on the way to the interrogator’s hut; he eats them joyfully, and they bring back vague memories of his native region, of fresh vegetables, of gladness. Shalamov surpasses many writers, including Primo Levi, in his ability to present eating as a spiritual rather than merely bodily experience.

One of the reasons why the story reads as testimony, despite the clear narrative signs of fictionalization, is the “sample” convention: what is represented is a sample of the predicament described in the previous sketch and perhaps a sample of survival in this predicament. The sample convention need not necessarily apply to what one would imagine as “typical” events: its plot is emphatically not typical but exceptional – it was sheer luck that Krist had a good handwriting, that the interrogator must have somehow known it and must have had a bad one himself, or that the lethal file arrived late rather than early in their acquaintance. The sample convention can work not only with events that are typical but also with those that are “typifying,” that is, events that characterize a system in so far as they have been made possible by that system. The event represented in this story bears affinities with cases in the history of extermination camps, such as Sobibor or Treblinka, where, however, things developed much more speedily. In those camps there was no “Selektion” as on the Birkenau platform (those to the left for the crematoria, those to the right for work camps) – all the victims, Jews from various regions, were brought in by rail and promptly herded to the gas chambers. While they were undressing for the sham shower baths, some of them would be “pulled out” of the mass by the SS or other camp personnel – to be used on maintenance jobs. Cases of separate camp officials getting attached to or psychologically dependent on some of these slaves were not unknown. This is one example of the way the well articulated aspects of the Nazi extermination camps could shed a light on the hidden aspects of analogous camps in Russia.

One of the reasons for the miracle of Krist’s salvation is the character of the interrogator. This sallow, unshaven, unremarkable man must have been an intellectual in the almost forgotten past: he can quote poetry, tellingly confusing Pushkin with Tumansky; he suggests that Krist write down some poem by Blok to give a sample of his handwriting[16]; his ironic equivocation on the wholesale manner of condemnations, without even a semblance of detective work such as comparing handwritings “This type of expertise is not one of our problems” (“Ekspertizy takogo roda nas ne zatrudniayut”) testifies to intellect, whereas his Spartan habits and his bleeding gums, evidence of scurvy, show that he is not corrupt[17] . All these economical touches enhance the plausibility of the story, or perhaps, which amounts to the same thing, the sense of its internal coherence.

For the sake of a Gedankenexperiment, one could imagine the effect of the same story if, in the spirit of Lejeune’s “the autobiographical pact” (1989: 4) it had been written in the first person and if the protagonist-narrator had been referred to as “Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov” (rather than “Robert Ivanovich Krist”) or remained anonymous. Paradoxically, in such a case the inner coherence of the story could signal not plausibility but its opposite – it would seem too “literary,” especially in view of the explicit literary allusions – to Pushkin’s and Tumansky’s poems about imprisoned birds or to Kuprin’s story about a scribe (ousting, in a sense, the inappropriate memories of the scribe in Gogol’s “The Overcoat” – some narrative details are there not only to guide the reader’s cooperative imagination[18] but also to impose boundaries on the freedom of reminiscence or interpretation). Yet the motif of situational irony in camp life, irony of the kind that would have been considered outré in a work of fiction, recurs quite frequently in the literature of the Gulag whether by survivors, from Evgenia Ginzburg (1967, 1979), through Jacque Rossi (1989, 2000), to Martin Amis, or by others, such as the English novelist who had processed his vast readings on the subject in Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (2002). It would, therefore, not, in itself, subvert the function of the story, or its details, as testimony.

What could subvert this function, what could make the reader doubt the personal testimony presented in the story, is the nature of the situation itself. There is a pause during the first meeting between the interrogator and Krist, after the interrogator mentions that he has an offer to make to Krist, who may find it not acceptable. Krist freezes in suspense (Krist zamer v ozhidanii). The moment is highly fraught, because the usual offers made under such circumstances were those of collaboration: the prisoner’s lot would be improved, he would, for instance, get more food or tobacco, if he became a stool-pigeon [19]. Fellow prisoners could well read Krist’s weekly visits to the interrogator’s hut, followed by exemptions from work, as potential evidence (see Achinstein 23, 24 ff) of his turning an informer. In the story there is no sign of this happening, but the fellow prisoners are probably as depleted and incurious as the protagonist himself: they must be too tired to wonder where Krist goes once a week, or what he does back in the camp on his mysterious day of exemption.

Were the story to be narrated in the first person, as an autobiographical narrative, it may have struck the reader as an attempt to explain away the weekly visits to the interrogator’s hut: “yes, I helped him, but without knowing what I did and without any power to change it; I did not draw up the lists of the condemned or influence their composition; I did not write but merely transcribed them, I did not act as an informer,” the narrator would have seemed to say. The interrogator’s remark “Such expertise is not a problem for us” would then likewise have been perceived not as prolonging suspense and not as characterizing the interrogator but as further suggesting that, during that fatal winter, wholesale sentencing of prisoners to death dispensed with such subtleties as informers’ depositions.

The first-person narrator might have been further understood as saying, “true, I did not warn the people whose names I transcribed or whose materials I filed – the latter would have taken some thinking, of which I was incapable, and it would not have changed their fate either” – something of this kind is said by the first-person narrator of Shalamov’s earlier story, “Condensed Milk” (1956), one who does not seek out and warn potential victims of a provocation. The moral ambivalence of a condemned man’s knowing or not knowing about his impending execution is also suggested by the ending of the story “An Individual Assignment” (1954). Had “Hanwriting” been presented in the first person, like “Condensed Milk,” it would have run the risk of being read as an extension of the explicit though faint attempt at self-exoneration made in the latter story. In The Gulag Archipelago Solzhenitsyn confesses to almost becoming an informer in camp; later, neither his explanations of his predicament, nor his account of managing to evade this sale of his soul sufficed to prevent his detractors from using this story against him in the media. It is interesting that in “Handwriting” Shalamov short-circuits the possibility of a suspicion by not explaining what could have made Krist “freeze in suspense” when the interrogator announces his intention of making him an offer.

Furthermore, had the story been presented as directly and unambiguously autobiographical, by a first-person narrator bearing Shalamov’s name, it would have fallen into the limited-access domain of testimony that cannot be confirmed by external sources, the only other person in the know, the interrogator, being nameless and dead. As Carlo Ginzburg points out in an article called “Only One Witness,” documents regarding facts than cannot be corroborated are to be treated not as testimony to the facts they recount but as, in themselves, facts to be taken into account. In logical rather than legal terms, they should be regarded as potential evidence – in this case evidence on a possible way of surviving the hurricanes of 1938 without selling out – a way, moreover, that gives a new twist to the literary topos of the scribe, the copying clerk. The fact of the existence of the fictionalized story, is also potential evidence to the writer’s awareness of the doubts that it could arouse – not so much on the state of affairs and what it could generate in that particular year as on his own unprovable, unverifiable experience and stance.

Thus, some parts of the remembered past seem to be more suitable for presentation in a fictionalized rather than in a directly autobiographical way – and not only because the experience is so ineffable as to fall between conceptual chairs and to lend itself only to artistic figuration. Whereas the fictional mode may activate a suspicion concerning the pragmatic function of the narrative as testimony, it neutralizes the moral suspicions that the events may elicit. This is particularly true of the third-person narrative, since age-old conventions of reading grant authority to the third-person narrator (though not necessarily to the focalizer), suspending disbelief in his version of the narrated events.

Shalamov’s placing of factographic pieces side by side with fictionalized ones, with the mode, factual or fictional, of some of the stories, such as “Condensed Milk” remaining vague, is, among other things, a signal to the reader that all his materials are to be read as testimony, while – and though – the questions that are to be asked of them are the questions that one asks of fiction, viz. questions about symbolism (it is Krist rather than the interrogator who gets the vitamin-rich turnip peelings; the interrogator’s scurvy-ridden smile and his opening of the stove briefly illuminate the room, and, as it were, one’s soul), thematic coherence (the incuriosity of the exhausted prisoners), conservation of character (the little we know of he interrogator makes his burning of Krist’s file plausible), or stylistic economy. And if testimony is needed in cases of factual uncertainty, fictional devices, which may undermine the epistemological efficacy of the narrative as testimony, may also enhance is power of preempting moral doubt.

Works Cited

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-----------. 2001. Vospominania. Ed. I.P.Sirotinskaia. Moscow: Olimp/Astel’.

-----------. 2004. Vospominania, zapisnye knizhki, perepiska, sledstvennye dela. Ed. I. P. Sirotinskaia. Moscow: Eksmo.

Shelest, Georgii. 1962. “Samorodok” [“The Nugget”]. Izvestia #265 (November 6): 6. A longer version entitled “Kolymskie samorodki” (“Kolyma Nuggets” reprinted in Shelest 1964: 164-69.

-----------. 1964. “Kolymskie zapisi” [“Kolyma Notes”]. Znamia #9: 162-80.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. 1975. Bodalsia telenok s dubom: ocherki literaturnoi zhizni. Paris: YMCA Press. English translation by Harry Willetts: The Oak and the Calf: Sketches of the Literary Life in the Soviet Union (London: Collins; New York: Harper and Row, 1980)

-----------. 1978. The Gulag Archipelago: An Experiment in Literary Investigation. Trans. Thomas P. Whitney (Parts I-IV) and Harry Willetts (Parts V-VII) (New York: Harper and Row) III: 228-48 (Part V, ch. 10). Original: Arkhipelag Gulag: Opyt khudozhestvennogo issledovaniia (Paris: YMCA Press, 1973-1975).

Toker, Leona. 1997. “Towards a Poetics of Documentary Prose – from the Perspective of Gulag Testimonies,” Poetics Today 18/2: 187—222.S

-----------. 2000. Return from the Archipelago: Narratives of Gulag Survivors. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Imagined Realities: Fictionality and Non-fictionality in Literary Constructs and Historical Contexts. Ed. Markku Lehtimäki, Simo Leisti and Marja Rytkönen. Tampere: Tampere University Press, 2007


  • 1. The dates of Shalamov’s stories are supplied by I. P. Sirotinskaya. For her principles of establishing the dates of composition, see Shalamov 1998: I: 613.
  • 2. Meir Sternberg, in conversation.
  • 3. See Shalamov’s November 1962 letter to Solzhenitsyn (Shalamov 2004: 641-652). Shalamov’s correspondence with Solzhenitsyn was first published in the journal Znamia (see Shalamov 1990); it was reprinted in Esipov 1994, pp. 63-103.
  • 4. Cf. Nadezhda Mandestam: “I could not form a visual image of the camps -- this only came when I read Ivan Denisovich. Shalamov was annoyed at me over this: this camp described here, he said, was one in which you could quite happily have spent a lifetime” (1989: 612).
  • 5. I am grateful to Beth Holmgren for noting that the imitation of the workings of the released prisoner’s memory may also be read as Shalamov’s structural­ answer to the combination of the omniscient stance and the internal focalization in Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”
  • 6. Shalamov alluded to this novel in his displeasure with the readers’ tendency to pen in the remainder of this word; see (1996: 432).
  • 7. This is where I disagree with Hrushovsky (1984: 235) who is prepared to regard the work as “literary” if it contains at least one strictly internal frame of reference, that is, at least one fictionalized semantic continuum.
  • 8. On “singulative” and “iterative” scenes see Rimmon-Kenan 1983: 56-58.
  • 9. This event is also mentioned in Shalamov’s memoirs of the seventies, in the tone that makes one wonder whether the allusion is to the event itself or to Shalamov’s representation of it in “How It Began” (2004: 170). This brief reference can be seen as an example of the absence of the intention of attesting to the particular fact alluded to: it is no longer held in doubt and is invoked merely as part of the background setting, a building block in constructing the reality-effect.
  • 10. The calculation of the rations according to the output of the whole work team led to prisoners actually policing each other, forcing each other to work harder. According to Shalamov, however, the greatest sin in the camps was to impose one’s will on another prisoner (see 2004: 172, 766, 827).
  • 11. He does state this in his memoirs of the seventies (see 2004: 165).
  • 12. On Dyakov’s camp memoirs see Toker 2000: 49—52. On the morality that transpired in these texts see Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago III, chap. 11: 345-46.
  • 13. The story was published in the newspater Izvestia on November 6, 1962 (No 265: 6), practically on the eve of the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” in Novyi Mir – Solzhenitsyn (1975: 52) believes that this was done with the deliberate intent of defusing the sense of the novelty of the subject.
  • 14. The likelihood of this allusion can be supported by Shalamov’s references to Thomas More in the story “Athenian Nights” (1998, II: 405-414).
  • 15. Another reason may be associated with the rhetoric of “pulsation”: after each respite the reader experiences the next shock all the more keenly, and the effect of escalating atrocities is avoided along with the blunting of the reader’s response (see Toker 2000: 87-89).
  • 16. On memorizing Blok’s poems see “German Khokhlov” in Shalamov 2001, pp. 144—49.
  • 17. Whereas the economic corruption of the SS guards in Nazi camps made them less cruel to their most directly targeted victims, the Jewish prisoners (who sometimes catered to their vested interests), the corrupted armed guards of the Gulag tended to side with the criminal convicts against the political prisoners even though the initial bribes often came from the latter.
  • 18. Cf. Iser (1980: 64) on textual details as instructions to the reader.
  • 19. Incidentally, one of the characters in Shelest’s “The Nugget” has to account for a visit to the police operative to his friends: he assures them that he rejected the operative offer of collaboration.