Varlam Shalamov

Valery Yesipov

They Will Push Me Down the Hole

It is now history: the sixties, political trials, and that new and scary word: dissident. Someone with a different view, in plain language. Which, however, the powers that be understood as an enemy, a traitor. The big names are well-known: Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov. The smaller names never established themselves in the public consciousness.

It is well-known that Shalamov received a cold welcome in the literary world of the sixties. He led a solitary life, communicating only with close friends. It was to these friends that Shalamov confided his Kolyma Tales, rejected by the literary magazines. The short stories would be retyped and, independent of the author’s will, passed around, received with admiration. It gave Shalamov, weakened physically by the Kolyma camps, what little joy he had.

There were other reasons, apart from weak health, that Shalamov stood apart from the dissidents. Firstly, he considered art, including literature, even unpublished, a sufficiently strong means of resistance to any regime. Secondly, he understood how destructive it can be for a writer to slip into political writing. This was Shalamov’s firm sceptical stance, the fruit of much thought in the camps and after: “The affliction of Russian literature is that it sticks its nose where it shouldn’t, trying to guide people’s lives, pronouncing on issues it is not competent in.”

Only once did Shalamov depart from this rule and wrote an article for samizdat distribution. It was on the occasion of the Sinyavsky-Daniel trial in 1966, when Shalamov wrote “A letter to an old friend”.

The letter was defending the right to create, the right to tell the truth about the times one lives in. Shalamov refers to the resolutions of the 20th and 22nd party congresses which cleared the way for the truth. “You cannot put a man on trial for libel and anti-Soviet propaganda just because he has seen Stalin’s time and is telling about it.” “The sentence in the Sinyavsky-Daniel trial plunges Soviet society anew into an atmosphere of terror.”

The letter did not contain any strong political statements, did not question the foundations of society. It reflected the concern, common to the intellectuals of the sixties, about the suspension of freedoms obtained during Khrushchev’s “Thaw” and the reactionary turn of the [official] ideology.

“Letter to an old friend” was anonymous and only the informed reader could recognize the tone and style of the author who wrote Kolyma Tales.

Judging from Irina Sirotinskaya’s memoirs, Shalamov later cooled to the dissident movement. After a series of arrests and deportations he experiences a streak of demoralization and quarrels. He dismissively calls those who hang around him: “FTM”, Forward-Thinking Mankind.

There was no shortage of people who tried to drag him into political intrigue, to make him into a figurehead for the “protest”. “They need me dead, that’s when they’ll be able to run wild. They will push me down the hole and then write petitions to the UN.” Irina Sirotinskaya recorded him saying: “Half the FTM are fools, the other half are government stooleys, but the fools are becoming few and far between.”

This is the backdrop against which Shalamov’s letter to Literaturnaya Gazeta, published in February 1972, should be considered. The letter caused him much trouble. It was no joking matter: among the “dissidents”, it was seen as a sign of the writer’s civil weakness, as a renunciation of everything he accomplished in literature.

The main thrust of the letter, however, is the protest against political speculations associated with the publication of Kolyma Tales in the West. Shalamov was deeply insulted by the publication of his short stories — without his knowledge, of course, — by the odious anticommunist publisher Posev and the New York magazine Novy Zhurnal. He was particularly irate at the “dishonourable way” the stories were published, one or two stories at a time, giving the impression that the author is regularly writing for the magazine.

Shalamov was, without doubt, sincere when he rejected the label of “an underground anticommunist, an internal exile.” As an artist, he refused to serve anyone, to serve either of the two sides.

The letter reflected the tragedy of Shalamov’s fate as a writer, powerless at home and abroad. It was a defence of dignity, rather than self-betrayal.

Shalamov became the victim of so-called liberal terror. It was an alarming symptom: the advocates of democracy were ostracizing an honest writer who proved insufficiently “progressive”.

Those who follow current events will have noticed enough cases of this sort. And it is often those who were themselves intolerant to their fellows that fall victim to liberal terror.

Translated by Mikhail Oslon, Dmitri Ponomarenko and Robert Denis

Krasny Sever, 15/01/1994