Varlam Shalamov

Michael Meyer Brewer

“Authorial,” Lyric and Narrative Voices in Varlam Shalamov's Kolymskie rasskazy: A Close Reading of "Sententsiia”

This paper, in large part, is a reworking of several ideas first raised in an embryonic form in my Master's Thesis “Varlam Shalamov's Kolymskie rasskazy: The Problem of Ordering,” The University of Arizona, 1995. It was presented at the annual American Association of Teachers of Slavic and Eastern European Languages (AATSEEL) conference in Chicago, December 28, 1995.

Any discussion of Kolymskie rasskazy must proceed from the assumption that the text is a single work, as Shalamov considered its ordering crucial to its meaning (Kolymskie rasskazy 420)[1]. His ordering of stories with repeated elements serves to build on their meaning as symbols, as well as ironically to juxtapose diverse narratives. In this way, the reading of randomly selected, single stories vitiates Shalamov's conception of a carefully planned architectonic whole. In the sketch “Zelenyi prokuror” (part of the third cycle, “Artist lopaty"), Shalamov begins with the following statement:

Masshtaby smeshcheny, i liuboe iz chelovecheskikh poniatii, sokhraniaia svoe napisanie, zvuchanie, privychnyi nabor bukv i zvukov, soderzhit v sebe nechto inoe, chemu na “materike” net imeni: merki zdes' drugie, obychai i privychki osobennye; smysl liubogo slova izmenilsia. (Zelenyi prokuror 274)

In a Structuralist sense, one may see the entire work as 145 signifiers[2], to which we may assign a particular meaning alone, but really only take on their true meaning within the system of syntagmatic and associative links with each other. As witnessed by the aforementioned quotation, much of what Shalamov writes about is completely alien to our understanding of reality, and, as such, our language is simply inadequate to describe such material. In this way, he uses the syntagmatic links and associations to create new semantic units that do not exist outside of the text. The entire work, then, in many ways works like a language, as certain words, or stories, have little meaning outside of their placement within the system, which is Kolymskie rasskazy. Resorting to footnoting does not help, as the often belated understanding of a term, detail of behavior, or symbol itself augments the overall effect. The most common of words — life, hope, bread, tree, thief, good or bad — do not correspond to their counterparts outside of the text, or often, as is the case, outside the author's intended ordering[3].

As an example of the importance of ordering, one must only consider the transitional stories, framing the cycles. At the end of each cycle, the narrator seems to approach a geographical or mental escape, where time and space begin to return to pre-camp dimensions, but the subsequent cycle always finds him back in the timeless hell of camp life[4]. The final cycle “Perchatka ili KR-2” ends with the story “Riva-rochchi” and the words — “Cherez tri mesiatsa ia byl v Moskve” (413). But after a thousand pages, it is clear to the reader that any “return” is simply not possible.

Due to obvious spatial restrictions, this paper will discuss only a single story from Kolymskie rasskazy and, to a degree, its context within it. This story, however, is uncommon, displaying as a microcosm many of the complexities of the larger whole: it retains a sense of the unfinalizability and dialogue that is characteristic of the entire work, but is less evident in individual stories, as its development is cumulative. Outside of the larger framework, many stories do not retain these traits, for, as I have shown, the very structure of Kolymskie rasskazy is in some ways as essential to the way it creates meaning as are the stories themselves.

Taken alone, some stories seem to be self-contained moral tales, as the authoritative, aphoristic language is not conditioned by the narrative and stands out in its laconic brevity. Others seem like encyclopedic excerpts from a Gulag history. — documents from a lost era. Outside of the author's ordering, they are not dialogized and narrativized by the fictional frame. The strictly “short story” reader (or for that matter, one reading for content, as was the case in both samizdat and the West) is often overwhelmed by the authoritative language and misses the subtle ironies and eddies created by the undercurrent of narrative events that builds from story to story. Who, after all, can question the wisdom of a seventeen- year camp survivor on the ways of the Gulag? There is no questioning such an authority. And hence the temptation to seize upon the obvious and invest Shalamov's aphoristic bent with a finalizing univocal authority[5]. And yet, listening to the narrative, moving from one story to the next, one constantly feels it both support and undercut the monologic statements. There is a dialogue between the aphoristic statements about the camps, human nature, life, death, etc., and the lyrical elements and narrative events that run parallel to, undercut or bolster them. The authoritative voice of camp veteran is reduced to but one voice in a cacophony. When read in the correct cycle format, it is this interplay, or dialogue, that often gives the work its disturbingly uplifting quality.

The question that this raises, and the one around which this investigation revolves, is the question of authority in Kolymskie rasskazy — something with which the ideas of dialogue and unfinalizability are inextricably linked. What is authority in the work, and how does it manifiest itself?

A single source of authority is power but also limitation. In this way, the singular authority of camp veteran strengthens the authorial position, but also limits its artistic freedom. As an artist, Shalamov seeks both. He first creates his authority in the audience through his camp persona and through the biographical and “documentary” features in the text. Then, however, he goes on to contradict and challenge that position, using the narrative and lyrical elements as vehicles of opposing authority. Authority manifests itself in a number of often overlapping features in the narrative structure — the narrator, the focalizer[6], narrative events, and lyric elements[7]. And though it may be somewhat deceptive to reduce these features to singular “modes of authority,” or to particular “ideological positions,”[8] it also serves to explicate the dialogic nature of the text[9].

There is an especially good and ironic example of this dialogic quality between lyric and narrative elements and the more didactic, camp aphorisms in “Sententsiia,” the story that closes the second cycle[10]. This discursive tension is especially evident because of the initial opposition set up by the very title of the story and the narrative events it describes. “Sententsiia” is the word that suddenly surfaces in the focalizer's consciousness, signaling his return to the living. As the focalizer uses it, it is for all intents and purposes a nonce word: he shouts it with manic glee, oblivious to its meaning, having forgotten all but a handful of essential words, many of them obscenities. At the same time, however, he fully understands that it is only the first of many words and emotions to return to him, if only he can hold on to it. It is his key to humanity, and so he repeats it, screams it to the heavens.

Ironically, however, the narrator begins the story by describing the moral state of a prisoner, the focalizer, on his last legs. As this is a first-person narrative, it is also his own previous moral state. In his description, he makes frequent and stifling use of just such "sententious,” monologic language — telling of the impossibility of having friends in camp; saying that no one is to be trusted, as questions only elicit lies, reflecting the axiom (or “maxim,” as “Sententsiia” is often translated), “ne verish'— primi za skazku.” He catalogs the meager hierarchy of emotions that return one by one to the resurrected "doxodiaga” or “goner.” Any question of love is simply immaterial. First, there is only “zloba” or spite; then ambivalence. Next comes fear, then envy, and finally pity. But it is a pity only for animals: people are left unmentioned — as if the return of this feeling for humans is still questionable, even to the older narrator, viewing the events at a significant temporal and spatial distance.

It is significant in this case that there be a division between the narrator and his narrative vehicle, the focalizer. Nearly all of Shalamov's stories are told through the eyes of a zek, but with the hindsight and bitter memory of an ex-zek, temporally and spatially removed from the narrative events. In this way, there is occasionally a divergence in their ideologies that is expressed as a tension in the text. In this story, the dialogue, or tension, between the ideologies of the narrator and focalizer is especially acute, as the narrator's bitter memory is colored by the focalizer's upsurge of emotion, which accompanies the return of the Word, — that is, the return of Language and thus personality, humanity and the return to life. Ironically, this word — sententsiia — though it signifies the focalizer's return from the dead, better suits the narrator's pessimistic and aphoristic attitude toward the past events: he makes copious use of “maxims” or the very such "sententious” language that the focalizer's emotion and the narrative events themselves oppose.

The final scene introduces yet another “voice,” or rather, another manifestation of “voices” that enter into dialogue with others in the story, as well as with those in other stories and cycles. As "Sententsiia” closes the second cycle, this scene must also be viewed as a kind of lyrical conclusion[11]. It is a riddle that poses some of the most difficult questions in the work.

In the mining colony where the events take place, the day arrives when all the zeks suddenly stop working and flock to the camp headquarters. The focalizer too somehow drags himself there, though still physically less alive than dead. The following passage closes the story (and, as mentioned before, the entire second cycle).

Iz Magadana priekhal nachal'nik. Den' byl iasnyi, goriachii, sukhoi. Na ogromnom listvennichnom pne, chto u vkhoda v palatku, stoial patefon. Patefon igral, preodolevaia shipen'e igly, igral kakuiu-to simfonicheskuiu muzyku.

I vse stoiali vokrug — ubiitsy i konodrady, blatnye i fraera, desiatniki i rabotiagi. A nachal'nik stoial riadom. I vyrazhenie litsa u nego bylo takoe, kak budto on sam napisal etu muzyku dlia nas, dlia nashei glukhoi taezhnoi komandirovki. Shellachnaia plastinka kruzhilas' i shipela, kruzhilsia sam pen', zavedennyi na vse svoi trista krugov, kak tugaia pruzhina, zakruchennyi na tselykh trista let....(142)

There is an incredibly rich and dense layering of images in this scene, which is impossible to sort out all at once. They each hold specific meanings, metonymically associated with them through their placement in the text prior to this scene. First of all, this appearance of music is nearly unique in Shalamov's oeuvre. The quality of magical realism of the final image, though somewhat more characteristic of Shalamov's prose, also crops up only rarely.

The passage certainly ranks as a kind of epiphany, especially after the previous narrative. The day is clear and the air is warm and dry — two things most dear to any old Kolymchanin. The event represents a break from work, but here this seems of secondary importance. The music itself is also accompanied by the constant hiss of the needle. But the protagonist's ability to enjoy, or simply recognize music, or art, signals a return to life on a much deeper level. He recognizes the beauty that men are capable of. At the same time, however, the music, “some kind of symphonic music,” was undoubtedly one of two things: either nationalistic and patriotic, or a classic usurped by the Soviet authorities for their own purposes[12].

RCA/Victor EmblemThe “patefon” also suggests the ubiquitous “gromkogovoritel'”, through which Soviet power disseminated the discourse of authority. And the larger image itself is reminiscent of the old RCA recording label, taken from Francis Barraud's 1895 painting “His Master's Voice.”[13] The trademark depicts a dog sitting obediently in front of the horn of a gramophone. The symphonic music too is a “Master's” voice (i.e. that of Stalin, or Stalinist culture), which, even in that authority's absence, effects the prisoners' obedient behavior. Music was widely used in Stalinist culture as an aestheticized display of authority, played at marches, ceremonies, etc. In the story “Kak eto nahalos'” from the cycle “Artist lopaty”, Shalamov even writes that, during the infamous “garaninshchina”[14], the daily execution orders were preceded and followed by a flourish on horns, played by a convict orchestra (163)[15] Evidently, situating the image in a cultural context does not simply reduce it to a single interpretation, but rather reveals in it numerous and conflicting readings. The fact that the music is itself presented by the authorities as their own and as a token of their beneficence and compassion also seriously compromises its import as a positive symbol.

Nevertheless, the music has a strong synthesizing effect— everyone listens to it. In this regard, the prisoners themselves mirror the musical score, or musicians as a “symphony” of diverse, yet somehow harmonious elements. Significantly, not only the politicals, but also the most base elements in both Russian and camp culture are included in this synthesis: the “blatnye,” whom Shalamov considered “inhuman” and even dedicated the fourth cycle in Kolymskie rasskazy, “Ocherki prestupnogo mira,” to the cause of exposing their depravity; and the “konokrady,”[16] who, though for the Western reader may carry a measure of the romantic aura of the Old West, in Russian folk culture represent one of the most despicable elements of rural life. Also notable in the mix are the camp authorities who stand “riadom.”[17]

The final lyrical image of the spinning stump, coiled up over 300 years like a taut spring, seems outside of this dialogue. Its quality of magical realism also appears to lift it to a different level — it does not represent “reality"; it is not part of the narrative events, nor does it belong to the authoritative voice. However, it dediates between the disparate discursive positions that precede it and then itself enters the larger dialogue.

The image of the stump is itself symbolic within the larger framework of Kolymskie rasskazy. Trees (specifically the “listvennitsa,” but also the “stlanik") are metonymically associated with the zek. In Shalamov's oeuvre, and in the camp slang, the two are often interchangeable. For example, in “Tifoznyi karantin,” the story closing the first cycle, one camp boss writes to another with a request for more trees — “prishlite dvukhsot derev'ev” [meaning “zakliuchennykh"] (141). In “Po lendlizu", the story preceding “Sententsiia", the frozen, unearthed bodies of zeks murdered during the mass executions of the “garaninshchina" are mistaken by the narrator for cut, but uncollected, timber (136), and the bulldozer, acquired through the American Lend-Lease program, intended to clear forest and move firewood, is instead first given to clear the ground of corpses, herding them back into their mass graves. In "Voskreshenie listvennitsy,” ending the fifth cycle, the rankish smell of the “listvennitsa” is first mistaken for decomposing human flesh (276), but the tree's extreme longevity and defiance of the North are associated with the beneficent, equalizing movement of Time, which, it seems, will expose the injustices of Kolyma. In this light, the movement of the stump (though it is only a stump, reduced to that by the deeds of Man) may represent the playing out of history, the uncovering of innumerable horrors, the witnesses to many of which, perhaps, only trees remain. As symbolic of the zek, the stump may also be likened to the author of Gulag literature, who, though also reduced to only a fraction of his former self, records the secrets of Kolyma, which through him will be played out, the primitive and inferior means of their performance notwithstanding. For though the author makes possible their reproduction, it is not without the inevitable distortion — the static hiss, hollowness of tone, and warped, wind-up measure.

This image of the synthesis of this and that world, of the politicals and the thieves, the “konokrady” and the “rabotiagi,” and even the authorities (who stand near by) contradicts every sententious word in the whole of Kolymskie rasskazy, and yet it loses nothing to them. It also refuses be disproven; it will not be compromised. Like the monologic statements, documentary excerpts, and other self-contained discursive elements, alone it seems to stand outside of the realm of discussion and is only dialogized by its inclusion in the larger "novelistic” form of the work as a whole[18].

Shalamov's work has been much criticized for its wholly pessimistic, misanthropic tone[19], its artistically uneven nature, as well as for its occasional factual or historical inaccuracy. But, as argued in this paper, when viewed as a work of fiction[20] within the larger authorial framework, which dialogizes the disparate “voices” and invalidates any question of unevenness by freeing the “stories” themselves from specific generic limitations, these criticisms cease to be appropriate. The entire work, itself dense and coiled-tight like a taut spring, must be left intact to play itself out. Dissonant to be sure, at times in minor keys, it finds its incremental power in contrapuntally recurrent sub-themes, and the interaction of disparate discourses of authority that give Kolymskie rasskazy its profound ambivalence, and semantic and ethical breadth.


  • Brewer, Michael Meyer. “Varlam Shalamov's Kolymskie rasskazy: The Problem of Ordering.” Master's Thesis. University of Arizona, 1995.
  • Capitman, Barbara Baer. American Trademark Designs. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1976.
  • Genette, Girard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Trans. Jane Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980.
  • Morson, Gary Saul. “Tolstoy's Absolute Language.” In Hidden in Plain View: Narrative and Creative Potentials in “War and Peace." Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987. 123- 143.

  • Palamarhuk, Petr. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: putovoditel'. Moskva: Stolitsa, 1991.
  • Rodchenko, Alexander. Houston: Benteler Galleries, Inc. 1983.
  • Shalamov, Varlam Tikhonovich. Kolymskie rasskazy. Moskva: Nashe Nasledie, 1992.

  • Sirotinskaia, Iraida. Correspondence by e-mail with the author, 1994-1996.
  • Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich. ARXIPELAG GULag: opyt khudozhestvennogo issledovaniia. III-IV. Paris: YMCA-Press, 1974.

  • Toker, Leona. Correspondence by e-mail with the author. 1994-1996.
  • —-. “Stories from Kolyma: The Sense of History.” Hebrew University Studies in Literature and the Arts 17 (1989): 188-220.
  • Venclova, Tomas. “Prison as a Communicative Phenomenon: The Literature of Gulag. Comparative Civilizations Review 2 (1979): 65-73.


  • 1. To this point, the only edition in which the author's ordering has been followed with reference to the entire work (though the ordering of the stories within the cycles has been followed in a number of others) is the “Russkaia kniga” edition in two tomes, published in 1992.
  • 2. 147 stories make up the author's plan. Of those, however, only 145 were finished (Sirotinskaia February 17, 1995).
  • 3. The majority of the information as to the author's intended ordering in this paper has come from published materials — mostly from Shalamov's correspondence, but also from personal correspondence with Iraida Sirotinskaia, deputy director of the Russian State Archives of Literature and Art, and heir to Shalamov's estate. I have not, however, had the opportunity to do extensive work in the archives.
  • 4. Occasionally there is a slight overlap. The second cycle ends with “Sententsiia” and the third begins back in Moscow ("Pripadok") — free from camp. But it is a diseased Moscow, one sick with the memory of Kolyma, and the hero, and reader with him, is soon back in camp, from which no permanent escape seems evident (Toker 1989, 204-205). There is also a more subtle overlap in the transition between the fourth cycle “Ocherki prestupnogo mira” and the fifth, “Voskreshenie listvennitsy.” Shalamov, it seems, was simply unable to allow himself to conclude his cycle about the “blatnoi mir,” or criminal world, which he considered “inhuman” to the quick, with a story having even a hint of salvation. Instead, he put it off to the beginning of the next cycle in the form of the more lyrical story “Tropa,” which precedes (and opposes) the more menacing stories “Grafit” and especially "Prichal ada” (which describes entering camp/hell from the inlet of Nagaevo, not far from Magadan).
  • 5. This seems to account for the common view of Kolymskie rasskazy and its author as entirely pessimistic. See, for example, Anna Shur's article “V. T. Shalamov i A. I. Solzhenitsyn; Elena Dryzhakova's chapter on Shalamov in Put' otrecheniia; Petr Palamarchuk's Putevoditel', where he calls Kolymskie rasskazy a “tragediia bez katarsisa” (25); Jay Martin's book review of John Glad's translations “Seventeen Years in Kolyma"; Geoffrey Hosking's review “The Chekhov of the Camps"; as well as John Haig's review of the same translation. Solzhenitsyn also failed to see anything positive in Shalamov's prose (ARXIPELAG GULag 610).
  • 6. The “focalizer” is Genette's term for the one who sees, as opposed to the narrator, who tells (194). In a first-person narration, the focalizer and the narrator are the same person, who are temporally differentiated, and may thus have different ideological positions.
  • 7. By the term “lyric elements,” I mean those segments of text that do not directly serve to move the plot line forward, but are, rather, self contained, often symbolic, descriptive “digressions.”
  • 8. Though it may often be the case, these modes of authority do not necessarily always represent a single, consistent ideological position.
  • 9. In this paper use the term “dialogic” and, though a number of competing ideological positions are discernible, it must be stressed that these positions are not necessarily represented by speaking elements. They take on various forms in various mediums — stories in dialogue with other stories, or the narrative events and lyric elements in dialogue with the didactic statements and aphorisms. These so-called “voices” often do not “speak” at all but, rather, are symbols, which evoke emotions in the reader that then enter into dialogue with the spoken word.
  • 10. The story was written in 1965 and is dedicated to Nadezhda Mandel'shtam. It is most likely set in 1940 at “Chernaia rechka,” a geological expedition site in central Kolyma.
  • 11. See footnote 5.
  • 12. However, as Leona Toker mentions, the intention of the authorities does not preclude “a kind of elevating experience that has still remained precariously possible, just like the experience of the sublime in nature itself — which we are reminded of by the stump” (Toker Correspondence, February 6, 1996)
  • 13. This reading was suggested in my discussions with Helena Goscilo.
  • 14. The “garaninshchina” was the name given to the bloody reign of Garanin, head of the State Administration of the Northeastern Corrective Labor Camps, 1938-1939.
  • 15. In the building of the White Sea canal in the early 30's, convict orchestras were also employed, though presumably for strictly aesthetic, motivational purposes . See for example Aleksandr Rodchenko's photograph, “Channel Construction, the Orchestra, 1933” (Rodchenko 27). The negative association connected with the camp orchestra is also expressed in the jaded camp saying that orchestras in camp always play as an octet, in which “sem' duiut i odin stuchit” ("Kak eto nahalos'” 164). Meaning that everyone is a “stoolie,” that everyone "squeals.” (The verbs dut' and stuchat' are both well known camp euphemisms for “narking”).
  • 16. As far as I know, this is the singular mention of “konokrady” in Kolymskie rasskazy.
  • 17. The image can also be seen as a microcosm, not only of all camp life, but of Soviet life as well. Many commentators have remarked that camp literature presents the gulag as a microcosm of society at large — as its “concentrate” (Venclova 67). Camp terminology supports this assertion, as camp is frequently termed “malaia zona” and the “free” world (limited, of course, to the Soviet Union), as “bol'shaia zona.” In Shalamov's work, this too may be the case, though camp life is also often represented not as the concentrate of Soviet society but rather as its inversion.
  • 18. For a different treatment of this phenomenon, see Gary Saul Morson's article “Tolstoy's Absolute Language.”
  • 19. Though the majority of critics who have attempted to determine a single philosophical position in Kolymskie rasskazy (often, it seems, confusing it with the author) have labeled it as thoroughly pessimistic (see footnote 6), there has also been the desire to isolate and distill only its transcendent qualities. (See for example, Iulii Shreider's article “Granitsa sovesti moei”). And yet, to view the work as propounding any single monologic position, ethical or otherwise, is also to deny it of its profoundly ambivalent nature.
  • 20. If we consider the fiction/history dichotomy as dubious, as much of post-Structuralist theory assumes, questions of “historical accuracy” also become extraneous. (See Hayden White's Topics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism).