Varlam Shalamov

Robert Chandler

The poetry of Varlam Shalamov (1907-82)

Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales is generally recognised — at least by Russians and readers of Russian — as a masterpiece of Russian prose and the greatest work of literature about the Gulag; this thousand-page cycle of stories draws mainly on Shalamov’s experiences as a prisoner in Kolyma, a vast area in the far northeast of the USSR that, throughout most of the Stalin era, was in effect a mini-State run by the NKVD; most of the inmates of its hundreds of camps were either felling trees or mining coal or gold. Shalamov’s poetry, however, still has few readers even in Russia, although he himself seems to have valued it above his prose. One possible reason for this lack of interest may be that some poems were published in the 1960s and 1970s, in censored versions that gave many readers the impression that Shalamov was no more than a competent writer of traditionally crafted poems about the natural world. His prose, on the other hand, was unpublishable before perestroika — and when it finally appeared in the late 1980s, this was in a complete and unbowdlerized edition that sold out almost at once; it was obvious to nearly all readers that no one had written more precisely and truthfully about Kolyma. Shalamov’s poetry may also have suffered from people’s need to pigeonhole writers; it is hard to imagine that the author of the bleak and sober Kolyma Tales could at the same time have been writing poems of ecstatic, almost mystical joy.

Many of Shalamov’s poems do indeed refer to the natural world, but they nearly always have other resonances. “Purple Honey”, for example, is about writing, or reading, poetry:

From a frost-chilled
line of poetry
my anguish will drop
like a ripe berry.

Rosehip juice will dye
fine crystals of snow –
and a stranger will smile
on his lonely way.

Blending dirty sweat
with the purity of a tear,
he will carefully collect
the tinted crystals.

He sucks tart sweetness,
this purple honey,
and his dried mouth
twists in happiness.

Shalamov had been sent to Kolyma in 1937 and during his years there he was close to death at least three times. It was not until 1949, after a sympathetic doctor had allowed him to complete a training course for medical orderlies for which he was not in fact eligible, that he was able to return to writing. It is not surprising that the act of writing — whether of poems or letters — should be the subject of so many of his first poems. In another poem, from the first of the five cycles that he titled Kolyma Notebooks, Shalamov hints at how excitedly he was then working:

Snow keeps falling night and day.
Perhaps some god, now turned more strict,
is sweeping out from his domain
scraps of his old manuscripts.

Sheaves of ballads, songs and odes,
whatever now seems bland or weak –
he sweeps them down from his high clouds,
caught up now by newer work.

All Shalamov’s work has an apparent modesty. The stories that make up the Kolyma Tales are, for the main part, short and delicately written vignettes. Only gradually does the reader come to realise that he is reading an epic, that Shalamov is presenting him with an entire world. Similarly, the poems are short, lucid and traditional in form. Only slowly do we grasp the scope of Shalamov’s ambition; only gradually do we realise — as Naum Leiderman has suggested ( — that he is evaluating his experience of Kolyma against the whole of world literature and, at the same time, evaluating world literature against his experience of Kolyma.

“Athenian Nights”, one of the Kolyma Tales, begins with a discussion of what the Renaissance humanist, Thomas More, considered to be the four essential human needs — for food and sex, and to be able to urinate and defecate. After referring to the need for verse as a fifth such need, Shalamov describes a series of late-evening meetings, during his last, relatively tolerable, years in Kolyma. When he was on night duty in a camp hospital, he and two other medical orderlies — all still prisoners — regularly spent two or three hours together, sharing all the poetry they could recall; these meetings are the “Athenian Nights” of the story’s title. Remarkably, the mainly oral “anthology” they compiled even included an early version of Akhmatova’s “Poem without a Hero”, a long poem first published in the Soviet Union only in the late 1980s; one of Shalamov’s two colleagues, a former writer of film scripts, had been sent a copy by a friend. Sadly, we shall never know the exact make-up of this anthology, but Shalamov’s own poems from these years constitute a short critical anthology of world literature in themselves. He wrote not only about all the most important Russian poets but also about Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Victor Hugo and many others.

The first of the poems in the Kolyma Notebooks is prefatory; Shalamov compares his poems to wild animals that have grown up in a granite cage. This granite cage is, of course, Kolyma, but the implication that the poems are in any way nonliterary is intentionally misleading; Shalamov may have been living far from the supposed centres of Russian culture, but his knowledge of Russian culture was profound. And in the very next poem he alludes to “Echo”, a famous short poem by Alexander Pushkin comparing the poet to an echo: like an echo, the poet responds to all the sounds of the world but receives no response himself. Shalamov describes himself breathing freely and “with all his chest” as he recites his poems to himself in a deserted landscape, with an echo from the distant hills as his only response. What for Pushkin was a metaphor is for Shalamov a literal reality.

After this acknowledgment of the poet often seen as the founder of modern Russian literature, Shalamov turns his attention in the third poem to shamanism — to the origin of all art, poetry and religion; he promises to build a light yet strong and sure “bridge to the clouds”. Shalamov professed himself an atheist, but his father was a priest and there is a great deal of religious symbolism both in his poetry and in his prose. One short poem reads:

Alive not by bread alone,
I dip a crust of sky,
in the morning chill,
in the stream flowing by.

A poem written in 1955, after his return to Moscow, expands on this:

I went out into the clear air
and raised my eyes to the heavens
to understand our stars
and their January brilliance.

I found the key to the riddle;
I grasped the hieroglyphs’ secret;
I carried into our own tongue
the work of the star-poet.

I recorded all this on a stump,
on frozen bark,
since I had no paper with me
in that January dark.

Shalamov is unlikely to have had close contact with the Yakut people who are native to Kolyma and much of eastern Siberia, but he would have been aware of their presence and known that they followed shamanistic practices. Shalamov also seems to have felt that the oral epic still had a presence in the modern world. In “Homer” he describes listening to the singing of a blind beggar. And in “Roncesvalles”, he simultaneously evokes the world of Charlemagne and the stony wastes of Kolyma:

[…] And it may have been Roland’s horn
that called me, like Charlemagne,
to a silent pass where the boldest
of many bold fighters lay slain.

I saw a sword lying shattered
after long combat with stone –
a witness to forgotten battles
recorded by stone alone.

And those bitter splinters of steel
have dazzled me many a time.
That tale of helpless defeat
can’t help but overwhelm.

I have held that horn to my lips
and tried more than once to blow
but I cannot call up the power
of that ballad from long ago.

There may be some skill I’m lacking –
or else I’m not bold enough
to blow in my shy anguish
on Roland’s rust-eaten horn.

Shalamov is suggesting, I believe, that it was his loyalty to old-fashioned ideas of courage and honour that led to him spending over sixteen years in Kolyma. Shalamov was one of the relatively few people whom the NKVD arrested for an actual reason — rather than simply to fulfil a quota. In 1927 he had taken part in a demonstration on the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution; one of the slogans had been “Down with Stalin!” And he was arrested for the first time as early as 1929; he had been involved in an attempt to print and distribute the suppressed letter Lenin wrote shortly before his death, recommending that Stalin be removed from his post as General Secretary of the Party.


Many of the first readers of the Kolyma Tales saw this epic cycle of stories merely as a documentary record, noticing the accuracy of Shalamov’s evocation of Gulag life but failing to notice the Chekhovian subtlety and almost Borgesian formal structuring of many of the stories. Shalamov, however, saw himself not as a historian but as an artist. Many writers of memoirs about the Gulag and the Shoah have seen themselves as following in the footsteps of Dante. What matters to Shalamov, however, is not that he has been on the same journey as Dante, but that he possesses a similar creative power:

Our tools are primitive
and simple:
a rouble’s worth of paper,
a hurrying pencil.

That’s all we require
to build a castle –
high in the air –
above the world’s bustle.

Dante needed nothing else
to build gates
into that Hell hole
founded on ice.

The parallel between Kolyma and the last, frozen circle of Hell is taken for granted; Shalamov’s emphasis on the fact that, like Dante, he has the power to build.


Several poems from the Kolyma Notebooks are devoted to figures from Russian history, above all to the Old Believers — the religious conservatives who resisted the reforms to Orthodox ritual introduced by Patriarch Nikon in the seventeenth century. Shalamov admired the courage and determination of the Old Believers he met in the camps, and he is no less admiring of thesе figures from history. One of the most remarkable of this group of poems is about Boyarynya Morozova, a member of the nobility whose adherence to the Old Belief led to her being exiled and, eventually, starved to death. Shalamov’s portrayal of her is based on a painting by Vasily Surikov (1848–1916); Morozova has just been arrested and is being carried out of Moscow by sleigh. After five stanzas that relate closely to Surikov’s painting, the poem ends:

Not love, but rabid fury, has led
her here. Yet not for nothing does God’s
servant feel pride — first high-born lady
to choose a common convict’s fate.

Gripping her Old Believers’ cross
tight as a whip between her hands,
she thunders out her final curses;
the sleigh slips slowly out of sight.

So this is how God’s saints are born…
Her hate more ardent than her love,
she runs dry fingers through her dry,
already frost-chilled, locks of hair.

Shalamov was himself endowed with rare courage and strength of conviction. What is impressive here is his ability to recognize how easily these qualities can metamorphose into hatred and arrogance. It is possible that he did not intend these lines as a criticism of Morozova, that he considered the strength of her — and his own — hatred to be entirely justified. But even so, he can hardly have been unaware that those who hate evil more ardently than they love good are in a dangerous position.

A companion poem to this is in the voice of the Archpriest Avvakum (1620–82), a still more important Old Believer who can be seen as the archetypal Russian dissident and with whom Shalamov closely identified. Avvakum’s account of his exile and other sufferings is the first Russian autobiography, written with verve and in colloquial, often sardonic language. Like Shalamov, Avvakum was first arrested as a very young man; like Shalamov, he spent well over a decade in the far north; and like Shalamov, he never renounced his convictions. Shalamov’s poem is written in 37 quatrains, perhaps an allusion to the year 1937, the height of Stalin’s purges (as Josefina Lundblad has pointed out in an as yet unpublished article). The poem ends on a note of exultation:

Here, bird-song
is unknown;
here one learns patience
and the wisdom of stone.

I have seen no colour
except lingonberry
in the fourteen years
I have lived as a prisoner.

I’m being led away,
far away and in fetters;
my yoke is easy,
my burden grows lighter.

My track is swept clean
dusted with silver;
I’m climbing to heaven
on wings of fire.

Through cold and hunger,
through grief and fear,
towards God, like a dove,
I rose from the pyre.

O far-away Russia –
I give you my vow
to return from the sky,
forgiving no foe.

May I be reviled,
and burnt at the stake;
may my ashes be cast
on the mountain wind.

There is no fate sweeter,
no better end,
than to knock, as ash,
at the human heart.


Shalamov seems never to have doubted that the traditional forms of Russian verse were still entirely adequate. Most of his poems are written in quatrains and a great many are in iambic or trochaic tetrameter, probably the most conventional of all Russian poetic forms. This apparent conventionality — which may well constitute an additional reason for critics’ neglect of Shalamov — masks an extraordinary variety of tone. At one extreme are several ecstatic poems dedicated to Pasternak. Irina Mashinski, a contemporary Russian-American poet, has written, “Pasternak is my teacher of energy and joy, which are much more difficult to convey in a poem than sadness or fear;” Shalamov evidently felt the same, writing of Pasternak’s poems:

And I whispered them like prayers.
They were water to revive me,
an icon to keep me safe in battle;
they were a star to guide me.

At the other extreme are such poems as this wry, evidently factually accurate, account of how Shalamov obtained a copy of the work of Baratynsky, the greatest of Pushkin’s contemporaries:

Three Robinson Crusoes
in an abandoned shack,
we found a real find –
a single, battered book.

We three were friends
and we quickly agreed
to share out this treasure
as Solomon decreed.

The foreword for cigarette-paper:
one friend was delighted
with a gift so unlikely
he feared he was dreaming.

The second made playing cards
from the notes at the back.
May his play bring him pleasure,
every page bring him luck.

As for my own cut –
those precious jottings,
the dreams of a poet
now long forgotten –

it was all that I wanted.
How wisely we’d judged.
What a joy to set foot in
a forgotten hut.

Baratynsky, about whom Pushkin once wrote, “Here in Russia he is original in that he thinks,” was important to Shalamov. Shalamov does not for one moment entertain the thought that the Gulag has annihilated traditional cultural values. But he is aware that many people would rather smoke or play cards than read Baratynsky, and he does not condemn them for this. He may even have imagined Baratynsky himself being no less accepting of the unexpected uses found for his book.


Irina Sirotinskaya, Shalamov’s last love, has written about Shalamov’s feelings for Alexander Blok, the greatest of the Russian Symbolists: “He loved Blok in a […] profound, heartfelt way. When he read Blok, […] it was 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.’ This is convincing; Shalamov’s deepest inspiration does indeed seem to lie in the poetry of Blok and his fellow Symbolists. Many of his finest poems are those in which he revisits their themes, bringing to them a new depth of experience. The Symbolists often appear to have doubted the existence of the external world; Shalamov, after sixteen years of living within or only just outside the Arctic Circle, had deeper reasons for feeling similar doubts:

Memory has veiled
much evil;
her long lies leave nothing
to believe.

There may be no cities
or green gardens;
only fields of ice
and salty oceans.

The world may be pure snow,
a starry road;
just northern forest
in the mind of God.

Shalamov will be remembered not only for the thousand pages that make up the Kolyma Tales but for twenty or thirty short poems as great as any short poems in the Russian language. Using the simplest words, and in the simplest of forms, he writes poems that are at once transparent and unfathomable.

And so I keep going;
death remains close;
I carry my life
in a blue envelope.

The letter’s been ready
ever since autumn:
just one little word –
it couldn’t be shorter.

But I still don’t know
where I should send it;
if I had the address,
my life might have ended.
Cтатья впервые напечатана в "Times Literary Supplement" (March 7, 2014).