Varlam Shalamov

Yasha Klots

From Avvakum to Dostoevsky: Varlam Shalamov and Russian Narratives of Political Imprisonment

An earlier version of this paper was read at the 2013 ASEEES conference in Boston; I thank the panel organizers, Polina Barskova and Irina Sandomirskaia, for the opportunity to share my work. I also thank them, as well as the panel discussant Elena Mikhailik, for their feedback. I am grateful to Robert Chandler, Roman Utkin, Polina Barskova, Irina Mashinski, and Kirill Sokolov for their help with preparing the paper for publication. This study was partially supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (Germany).

Despite the relatively young age of Russian literature, its tradition of prison-camp writing is one of the world’s richest. Its genealogy goes back to the second half of the seventeenth century, when Archpriest Avvakum (1620-82), an Old Believer burned at the stake for his schismatic views on the Orthodox Church, wrote what scholars believe to be the first autobiographical account of political imprisonment in the Russian language. As Andrew Wachtel and Ilya Vinitsky put it, “written in a spectacularly expressive jumble of colloquial Russian and biblically inflected Church Slavonic from Avvakum’s place of confinement north of the Arctic Circle and poised uncomfortably between a medieval saint’s life and a modern autobiography, it is the first in what would become a long line of Russian prison narratives[1]”. Remarkably, Avvakum’s Life not only became the first Russian text on the subject, but also paved the way for the paradigmatic transition from the ecclesiastical genre of hagiography to that of a genuine autobiography and, by extension, secular literature on the whole. In his first-hand account, Avvakum breaks with traditional hagiographic formulas by focusing on the routine details of imprisonment and replaces outdated stylistic conventions with a more idiomatic, unpolished and simple language. His literary style, according to Nicholas Rzhevsky, “came out of a particularly forceful reaction to the pressing issues of the day,” arguably proclaiming for the first time in the Russian literary tradition “an individual author’s role in society as iconoclast and dissenter[2]”.

I love my natural Russian language, am not accustomed to embellishing speech with philosophical verses, because God does listen not to beautiful words, but wants our deeds. <…> not in the Latin language, nor in Greek or Hebrew, nor in any other language does God want our words, but what He wants from us is love and other virtues; for this reason, I am not concerned with eloquence and do not demean my Russian language…[3]

Since Avvakum, Russian autobiographical writing has gone through several formative stages, each usually associated with this or that social upheaval in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Russian history. Among them is the Decembrist Uprising of 1825 and its defeat by Nicholas I, resulting in five executions and exile to Siberia for many rebels. Much like Avvakum’s seventeenth-century autobiography, the first-hand accounts of the Decembrists and their wives who followed them into exile would serve as a major point of reference for a countless number of authors imprisoned or exiled not only during the Soviet era, but also before them, most notably, for Fyodor Dostoevsky, who was arrested in 1849 for his participation in the liberal Petrashevsky circle and sentenced to death before his verdict was commuted to hard labor and exile[4]. However, by contrast with Avvakum, whose Life introduced the genre of autobiography into Russian literature, Dostoevsky’s account, The House of the Dead, added fictional elements to this master narrative: although it registers the author’s own experiences as a political prisoner in Siberia, and despite its original title (“Notes”), the genre of Dostoevsky’s text is not “notes,” nor autobiography or a memoir, but a novel.

Dostoevsky seems to be the first Russian writer who realized that factual evidence and even plain reportage do not necessarily exclude fictional and allegorical orchestration — a discovery that resonated on an unprecedented scale a century later, in the post-Stalin years. As Leona Toker suggests, “the narrative act,” in the case of Gulag narratives, “seems to be an extension of the author’s life, and that life acquires an aesthetic dimension of its own[5]”. For Dostoevsky, as for Gulag authors a century later, the experience of imprisonment became a narrative technique, or even a metaphor. This metaphor is epitomized in Varlam Shalamov’s short sketch “Through the Snow” (1956), which serves as an “epigraph” to his Kolyma Tales and reflects not only the composition of Shalamov’s cycle and, by extension, the rest of his oeuvre, but also the entire tradition of Russian prison-camp writing as a whole: each step of a prisoner marching in a file through the deep snow leaves a new trace as long as it does not completely overlap with the step of another prisoner marching ahead:

If the others were to follow directly behind the first man, in his footsteps, they would create a narrow path, a trail that is visible but barely walkable, a string of holes more impassable than virgin snow. <…> Every one of them, even the smallest, even the weakest, must tread on a little virgin snow — not in someone else’s footsteps. The people on the tractors and horses, however, will be not writers but readers[6].

In the context of the last phrase, this ordinary scene of camp life “is thus turned into an allegory: the snow becomes a blank page[7]”, suggesting a line of literary inheritance between individual authors, whereby each text is destined to leave a new trace in the readers’ vision of the reality described, as long as it adds something new. Thus, in an extended sense, the entire tradition of Russian prison-camp writing since Avvakum is likened to a file of prisoners beating a path through the snow. Every author in this literary procession is also bound to play the role of a reader — of those who came before him, of times and places where s/he has not been.

Throughout his own works, Shalamov consistently invokes his literary precursors and refers not only to Dostoevsky, as well as tsarist-time revolutionaries such as Vera Figner and Nikolai Morozov[8], but also to Avvakum, whose trace he follows in one of his most memorable poems, “Avvakum in Pustozersk” (1955)[9]. Referring to this poem as “one of his most important” and “especially dear” ones because it “combines the historical figure with the landscape and the specifics of the author’s biography” (III, 458), Shalamov — who died in 1982, exactly three hundred years after Avvakum — speaks through the words of the seventeenth-century Russian religious martyr, but at the same time translates them into the language of his own secular reality three centuries later. In the following stanzas, he addresses the reader in the first person plural and thus, grammatically, blurs the line between his own and Avvakum’s fates[10]:

Наш спор — не духовный
О возрасте книг.
Наш спор — не церковный
О пользе вериг.

We don’t mind about doctrine,
about books and their age;
we don’t debate virtues
of fetters and chains.

Наш спор — о свободе,
О праве дышать,
О воле Господней
Вязать и решать.

Our dispute is of freedom,
and the right to breathe —
about our Lord’s free will
to bind as he please.

(III, 184) Translated by Robert Chandler[11]

Ironically, a revival of interest in Avvakum and his Life took place in the 1920s, the years that shaped Soviet atheism (and, conversely, the anti-Soviet religious identity of Russian émigrés in Europe[12]). It was also then that Shalamov, the son of a priest from Vologda and at the time a law student at Moscow State University, found himself immersed in the ardent debates over literature and politics, philosophy and religion. Rejecting his father’s faith[13], Shalamov became involved with the left anti-Stalinist opposition and was arrested in 1929 for disseminating what’s known as “Lenin’s Testament.” But his formation as a writer was influenced by the formalists, particularly by the OPOYAZ and the New LEF groups, who, one may argue, were interested in Avvakum’s text as part of their advocacy for “literature of the fact” [literatura fakta], a movement that Shalamov would rediscover years later in his genre of “new prose,” as he insisted on referring to Kolyma Tales[14]. This is why, according to Yuri Rozanov, “Shalamov’s version of Avvakum is that of the 1920s, an Avvakum in the Marxist historiographic understanding <…>. Shalamov realized the conventionality of the image, but he needed precisely this type of an archpriest; it was this kind of Avvakum that Shalamov’s own fate could be ideally projected on[15].”

While incarceration has consistently been one of the central themes of modern Russian literature, it was not until the second half of the twentieth century that political imprisonment became so firmly engraved onto these dark pages of Russian history that it nearly formed a separate genre: Gulag memoirs[16]. Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, however, can hardly be ascribed to the memoir genre, in spite of the fact that, just like the memoirs, his stories also register the author’s firsthand experience in the Gulag and share many other features with documentary prose. The rest of this study will deal with the intricate synthesis of fictional and documentary techniques in Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales as seen through the prism of Dostoevsky’s nineteenth-century novel The House of the Dead. While Shalamov’s self-identification with Avvakum over three centuries may be described as biographical rather than strictly literary (after all, “Avvakum in Pustozersk” is a poem, which makes it hard to compare its formal characteristics with those of Avvakum’s Life), Shalamov’s treatment of Dostoevsky reveals, by contrast, a greater literary rather than biographical tension — not only because The House of the Dead is less remote from Shalamov in time, but, more importantly, because it is closer to him on the level of genre. It was Dostoevsky’s oscillation between fiction and reportage, rather than the subject matter of his novel as such, that defines the complexity of Shalamov’s relationships with the classic. In what follows, after briefly discussing various strategies of reading Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead in the Gulag, I will conclude by outlining the role of Dostoevsky’s novel in the literary polemics between Shalamov and Solzhenitsyn, two writers who went far beyond the confines of the memoir genre, albeit in opposite directions and along different paths.

The House of the Dead as a Palimpsest

Writing his Siberian novel in the early 1860s, soon after his release from katorga and exile in Semipalatinsk, Dostoevsky could have hardly imagined that a century later The House of the Dead would become such a major point of reference — and, in fact, a point of departure — for many Gulag survivors, who struggled to find an explanation for the Soviet catastrophe and a literary means to record it in their narratives. Hardly any scholar of Gulag narratives has failed to bring up Dostoevsky and his Siberian novel in this regard: Sarah Young observes that “it is Dostoevsky’s fictionalized account of imprisonment and hard labor which established the tradition of labor-camp writing in Russia and overwhelmingly acted as the major source and point of comparison for twentieth-century Gulag writers[17].” Leona Toker has traced the roots of this tradition to the fact that “since Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead, narratives of imprisonment have tended to combine stories of individual experience with accounts of the ‘shared suffering and common share,’ that is, of the representative experience of the prisoners[18]”. The House of the Dead is thus a rare, if not entirely unprecedented, example of a prison narrative charged with a strong potential for literary continuity but undermined by a striking historical discrepancy: its quasi-autobiographical form, in which the author relates the experiences similar to his own through the words of his fictional first-person narrator/protagonist, whose notes he comes across and rescues from oblivion, is often taken on as a model by Gulag authors, but the experiences of Dostoevsky’s autobiographical character, Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov, are almost exclusively deemed inadequate to the new historical reality and, therefore, call to be rewritten. The House of the Dead, along these lines, can be viewed as a palimpsest for Gulag texts that came a century later — a “page” from which the original writing has repeatedly been washed off, without ever disappearing completely, to make room for a new historical narrative.

There is little disagreement among Gulag survivors about the wide breach that lay between Dostoevsky’s nineteenth-century katorga and their own experiences in the Gulag: “Kolyma,” writes Shalamov in his notes on Dostoevsky, “was not a house of the dead; it was an extermination camp” (V, 208). Yet there is also quite a wide variety of approaches to Dostoevsky’s text in Gulag narratives that derives from the authors’ literary perspectives and is rooted in their individual experiences, which are, of course, also far from being uniform. The strategies of reading The House of the Dead in the Gulag range from unconditional acceptance and affirmation of the novel’s seamless applicability to the new reality to a radical questioning of both the reality described and the artistic method of its description. The latter case is exemplified by Shalamov, whose polemic with Dostoevsky is both literary and historical. Shalamov’s knowledge of the Gulag, perhaps the most merciless of all ever committed to paper, was such that he saw the camps as a “negative experience for a human being from the first to the last hour,” an experience that gave him license to proclaim the death of the novel as a genre: “People who have gone through revolutions, wars and concentration camps do not care about the novel” (V, 148; 144). At the same time, as has already been mentioned, Shalamov’s aesthetic was heavily influenced by the formalists, and his rejection of the novel has to do not only with the experience of concentration camps but also with the literary debates of the 1920s, which I will come back to at the end of this article.

A rare case that affirms the unconditional validity of The House of the Dead in the Gulag is Gustav Herling’s memoir, A World Apart (1951), whose title directly refers to Dostoevsky’s definition of nineteenth-century katorga: “a world apart, unlike everything else, with laws of its own, its own dress, its own manners and customs[19]”. A Polish writer, journalist, and dissident, Herling spent less than two years in the Yertsevo labor camp near Arkhangelsk and was released in 1942 under the Sikorski Amnesty, when Stalin, who now sought support from the Polish government in his war against Nazi Germany, released many Polish prisoners[20]. During his time in Yertsevo, Herling read The House of the Dead twice in the 1894 edition[21]. In the chapter called “The House of the Dead,” he tells the story of how the book was lent to him in secret by a fellow prisoner from the women’s barracks, Natalia L’vovna, who was exempt from the general works because of heart disease and worked in the camp’s accounting office. They first meet in the camp’s club, where prisoners are brought for a screening of the American musical The Great Waltz (1938), a film about Johann Strauss II set in Vienna in 1845. For the prisoner audience, “these images of the past became the forbidden fruit of the present,” and the elevated atmosphere of the event “pushed us back into the past and released the long-frozen sources of emotion[22]”. The effect that the American film had on the prisoners, eager to escape into the distant world on the screen if only in their imaginations, foreshadows and almost rhymes with the effect that Dostoevsky’s novel produces on Herling soon afterwards. The book literally materializes from the words he hears from Natalia L’vovna after the film: “I still can’t control myself whenever I think that it has all happened before, years ago… that for centuries we have been living in the same house of the dead[23]”. The next moment, she brings him the book.

Over the course of the next two months, Herling reads The House of the Dead twice and, having grown attached to the book “as a victim can become attached to the instrument of his torture,” comes to the same conclusion:

[F]rom the moment when I read the first few pages <…> until I closed it for the second and last time at the final paragraph: “Yes, with God’s blessing! Freedom, new life, resurrection from the dead…” I lived in a state of trance, as if I had woken from long mortal sleep. The thing about the book was not Dostoevsky’s ability to describe inhuman suffering as if it were a natural part of human destiny, but that aspect of it which had also struck Natalia L’vovna: that there was not the slightest break between his fate and ours. <…> The greatest torment <…> was the inexplicable fact that the laws of time ceased to apply to it — between the engulfment of our predecessors and our own struggles there was no pause, the stream was continuous. <…> The most trivial details repeated themselves with nightmarish accuracy: the prisoners of the House of the Dead, at the end of a free day, also whispered with terror: “Back to work tomorrow[24]”.

Arguably, it was the shock of realizing this uninterrupted continuity between different eras, this inescapable containment of history, a prison in itself, that lead Herling to find solace in the idea of escape by suicide. But he is “saved” by Natalia L’vovna, who comes to retrieve the book and thus relieves him of the physical and psychological burden. She walks away, “pressing her precious book, old and yellow like her own prematurely aged face, to her diseased heart,” and after “the snow covered her footsteps[25]”, her trace disappears. (At this point Herling abruptly switches to a historical narrative about the fate of Polish Jews in the Gulag and describes yet another event at the same camp club — a theatrical show that brings to mind Dostoevsky’s account of “The Feast of Christmas” in The House of the Dead.) It is not until the very end of the chapter that Natalia L’vovna reappears, at which point the narrator discovers that she had since attempted suicide but had been saved by her neighbor. What empowered her to carry out this act of free will, which not even the camp could take away, was the power of Dostoevsky’s novel, the paradoxical hope in hopelessness it instills. As she had told Herling earlier, “there is always room for hope when life becomes so utterly hopeless <…> — at least so far that one can choose the method and the time of one’s own death… That is what Dostoevsky has taught me[26]”. What used to unite two fellow prisoners has now irrevocably set them apart, and although they see each other many more times in the camp, they do not talk to each other ever again: “There are secrets,” Herling writes, “which unite people, but there are also secrets which, in case of failure, separate them[27]”. The word “failure” here appears to carry a special meaning as it may denote not only Natalia L’vovna’s failure to commit suicide but also the impossibility of reading The House of the Dead in the Gulag and finding the same answers to questions posed by Dostoevsky a century ago.

What prompted Herling to so seamlessly identify with Dostoevsky (that there was never a pause in the flow of time between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that “the stream was continuous”) is precisely what caused most Gulag authors to proclaim Dostoevsky’s novel entirely irrelevant to their fates. To illustrate this point, Elena Mikhailik cites Shalamov’s short story “The Funeral Oration” (1960), in which two prisoners working in a Kolyma gold mine compare their work norms to those assigned to the Decembrists more than a century ago: as Shalamov’s narrator learns from the memoirs of Maria Volkonskaya, who followed her husband Sergei Volkonsky into exile, the difference between their work norms proves to be 800 vs. only 3 puds of ore per prisoner[28]. “If I were to choose a single quotation that defines Shalamov’s manifold relationship with Dostoevsky,” Mikhailik writes,

it would be <…> a passage where Dostoevsky’s name is not even mentioned. And yet it neatly captures the nature of the distance between The House of the Dead <…> and Kolyma Tales. The production quotas have been increased 266.66666666666(6) times. This radical change in the limits of human experience sets the framework within which Shalamov sees Dostoevsky’s philosophical ideas and creative devices[29].

It is important to keep in mind that Herling’s example is a rare exception, but all the same, the length of his term and the conditions in Yertsevo in his memoir would have probably seemed like a vacation to Shalamov. Indeed, the radical increase in work norms, among other things, served as the most common ground for Gulag authors’ polemic with Dostoevsky. But the fact that in “The Funeral Oration” Dostoevsky is not even mentioned, being replaced instead by the collective image of the Decembrists, points to a deeper relationships with the classic than may seem evident on the surface. In his notes on Dostoevsky, Shalamov confesses that the fact that their fates (and even dates) overlapped was of a great importance to him, and that in 1949, while working as a medical attendant in Kolyma, he even contemplated writing a commentary to The House of the Dead: “I carelessly promised myself to expose <…> the naïveté of The House of the Dead, all of its literariness [literaturnost’] and ‘obsoleteness’. But there is also something eternal in The House of the Dead. How little Russia [Raseia] has changed” (V, 208). Elsewhere, however, Shalamov refrains from commenting on the drastic deterioration of living conditions in the Gulag compared to those in nineteenth-century katorga. “There is no need to argue with Dostoevsky,” he explains in “The Tatar Mullah and Fresh Air. “Dostoevsky’s times were a different era, and the katorga that he knew had not yet reached the heights described here [in Shalamov’s short story]. It is difficult to form a right opinion about such things in advance” (I, 129).

This text, written in 1955, is part of the first cycle of Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, a book with a carefully thought-through composition, as the author makes clear not only in the opening sketch, “Through the Snow,” but also in his programmatic essay “On Prose,” where he states that “each story” in Kolyma Tales “stands in its proper place” (V, 153). It is instructive, therefore, to look at “The Snake Charmer,” the text that comes immediately before “The Tatar Mullah.” Written one year earlier, in 1954, it sheds light on Shalamov’s complex relationship with Dostoevsky by translating it into a literary polemic.

Much like Dostoevsky’s novel, “The Snake Charmer” has an inverted composition and two narrators, one telling the story of the other, who is no longer alive to tell it firsthand. The narrator in “The Snake Charmer” hears about the experiences of his fellow prisoner Andrei Fedorovich Platonov — a film script writer in his previous life — about his experiences in the fictional camp Dzhankhara, which is modeled on the historical Dzhelgala that Shalamov remembered as “the lock-up of the whole Kolyma” (IV, 498)[30]. In Dzhankhara, Platonov used to “pull novels” (tiskal rómany) for the entertainment of the local thieves[31]. Platonov says that should he survive, he will some day write a story about his experiences in Dzhankhara, and that he already has a title, “The Snake Charmer.” “Do you like it?” he asks the narrator. “Yes, I do,” the narrator replies. “You just have to stay alive. That’s the most important thing[32]”. Three weeks later, Platonov dies in a gold mine, but his unwritten story outlives its author: “I loved Platonov,” Shalamov’s narrator says, “and I shall try now to write down his story: ‘The Snake Charmer’[33]”. What follows is a third-person account of what Platonov had managed to tell the narrator about his life in the deadly camp.

Clearly, the name Andrei Fedorovich Platonov is a reference to Andrei Platonovich Platonov (Klimentov; 1899-1951), the author of famous Russian dystopias, whose earlier works Shalamov may have known by the time he wrote “The Snake Charmer.” As Robert Chandler points out, the fictional toponym Dzhankhara may even be an allusion to Platonov’s novella Dzhan, which was written in the mid-1930s but remained unpublished until much later[34]. However, the name of Shalamov’s character may also be a reference to Dostoevsky, whose first name, Fedor, he inherits as his patronymic[35]. Moreover, the compositional schemes of Shalamov’s and Dostoevsky’s texts are too close to ignore the message behind the patronymic of Shalamov’s character.

Dostoevsky’s narrator learns that Goryanchikov died “in solitude, without even once calling a doctor to his side” three months after he first met him in the town of K., where he lived as a settler after his release from katorga[36]; Shalamov’s Platonov, meanwhile, dies as a prisoner in the gold mine three weeks after he shares his story with the narrator. So in addition to the increase of work norms by 266.6(6) times, as we find out from “The Funeral Oration,” there is also a marked acceleration of time itself, let alone the fact that while Goryanchikov dies in freedom, Shalamov’s character dies while still a prisoner.

In the town of K., Dostoevsky’s Goryanchikov earns his living by giving private lessons to local children, and spends the rest of his time feverishly writing down his prison notes. After he dies, the narrator discovers

one rather thick volume [tetrad’] of finely written manuscript unfinished, perhaps thrown aside and forgotten by the writer. It was a disconnected description of the ten years spent by Aleksandr Petrovich in penal servitude. In parts this account broke off and was interspersed by passages from another story, some strange and terrible reminiscences, jotted down irregularly, spasmodically, as though by some overpowering impulse. I read these fragments over several times, and was almost convinced that they were written in a state of insanity[37].

Like Goryanchikov, Shalamov, too, had the habit of writing his short stories and poetry (which he called Kolyma Notebooks) in blue schoolchildren’s notebooks. After his return from Kolyma and before he was allowed to move back to Moscow in 1956, Shalamov lived in Turkmen, a workers’ settlement miles away from the capital, where he had a day job at a local peat factory and where he embarked on writing Kolyma Tales. Dostoevsky’s description of the town of K., as well as Goryanchikov and his manuscript must have seemed at least recognizable to Shalamov when he wrote “The Snake Charmer,” one of the earliest stories in the cycle.

Yet while both Shalamov and Dostoevsky survive the protagonists of their respective texts and deliver their stories to the reader, they deal with a priori different “originals” and are bound to carry out their “publishing projects” accordingly: while Dostoevsky’s frame narrator discovers Goryanchikov’s notes after they have already been written down, Shalamov has no manuscript to work with and can rely only on what his narrator remembers from Platonov’s tale communicated to him orally back in the camp. Shalamov’s narrator, therefore, is facing a double mnemonic and artistic task: he first needs to revive his fellow prisoner’s story in his memory and then juxtapose it to what he himself remembers of that time and place; only then can he convert their conversation into a written text and symbolically give it the same title, “The Snake Charmer.” It also should be added that while Shalamov preserves the exact title of Platonov’s story, Dostoevsky slightly alters the original title of Goryanchikov’s manuscript: “Scenes from the House of the Dead” become “Notes” (and in most English translations, even “Notes” is gone).

If we look at this process as an act of translation, one may argue that because of its in-built oral component, “The Snake Charmer” is fraught with a greater potential for distorting the initial author’s “original” (compared to simply “publishing” the notes that have already been written down, as is the case in The House of the Dead). But at the same time, this oral, almost folkloric transmission of someone else’s tale is driven by Shalamov’s intense ethical involvement with his protagonist, if only because he, the “initial author” of the firsthand account, is deprived of the opportunity to tell his story himself, let alone to ever see freedom again. Multiplied by Gulag statistics compared to nineteenth-century katorga, this difference in the intensity of Dostoevsky’s and Shalamov’s involvement with their respective characters contributes to the difference in their artistic methods. What comes to the foreground in “The Snake Charmer” is not the reality described, which has so unrecognizably changed in the course of a century, but the method of coming to terms with and translating this reality into a literary form. Hence Shalamov’s definition of “new prose” as neither a memoir, nor a traditional short story, nor even literature as such, but “prose lived through like a document” [проза, выстраданная как документ] (V, 157).

Finally, both Platonov in “The Snake Charmer” and Goryanchikov in The House of the Dead are outsiders in the predominantly criminal and peasant populations of their respective camps: Goryanchikov is a member of the gentry, Platonov — a political prisoner[38]. But while Dostoevsky’s character has a peasant servant (Sushilov), Shalamov’s Platonov is himself a slave to the local thief, to whom he recounts popular nineteenth-century French novels (and whose name, incidentally, also happens to be Fedya, or Fedechka, a common nickname of high-ranking professional criminals in the Gulag). Over the course of a century, the social hierarchy in the camps and, by extension, in the Soviet world as a whole, appears to have been inverted. This reversal of social and ethical values in “The Snake Charmer” gives Shalamov a moral license to articulate the impossibility of any historical continuity between Dostoevsky’s times and his own. In his essay “On One Mistake of Fictional Literature” (1959), in which he blames writers of the humanistic tradition, including Hugo, Chekhov, Gorky, and even Babel, for their romanticized image of the underworld, Shalamov speaks of Dostoevsky’s hopeless “villains” as being actually rather innocent and even infantile compared to the professional thieves of the twentieth century:

Dostoevsky in his Notes from the House of the Dead avoids giving a direct and uncompromising answer to this question. All these Petrovs, Luchkis, Sushilovs, Gazins — from the perspective of the real criminal world populated by true thieves [blatari], these are all <…> people who are despised, robbed and stepped upon by the real criminal world. <…> Dostoevsky never met them in his katorga, and had he done so, we would have probably never seen the best pages of his book — the affirmation of faith in a human being, the affirmation of virtue inherent in humankind (II, 7-8).

The question, of course, is not about who was tougher — Dostoevsky’s Gazins or the new cast of professional criminals in the Gulag, some of whom sided with the camp administration against political prisoners and were referred to as “friends of the people” (by contrast with “enemies”). Rather, “The Snake Charmer” raises the question about the fate of the intelligentsia and its role in the Russian society — a question that deeply preoccupied both Dostoevsky and Shalamov in their own historical times. But while Goryanchikov, excluded from the community of his fellow peasant convicts for being a gentleman, still enjoys his privileged social status, Shalamov’s Platonov, who deludes himself with the thought that “pulling novels” may actually be a noble mission that promises him not only physical but also moral survival, can never surmount the fateful gap between his social background and that of his criminal audience. Unlike Goryanchikov, who never trades in his identity, Platonov faces a moral dilemma: should he, a former script writer, live longer, if only for a short while, and sacrifice his human and professional dignity in return? Not that he is given much choice or even time to think, but he briefly imagines himself in the role of “a snake charmer,” hoping to bring light into this dark world. “A light gleamed in Platonov’s dull eyes” the moment he is asked if he can “pull novels.”

He could — and how! In the investigation prison, his whole cell had been spellbound while he told the story of Count Dracula. But they had been people. Whereas this lot? Should he become court jester to the Duke of Milan — a jester who was fed for a good jest and beaten for a bad one? But there was another way of looking at it all. He would teach them about real literature. He would enlighten them. He would awaken in them an interest in art, in the word; even here, in the lower depths, he would do his duty, fulfill his calling. As had long been his way, Platonov did not want to admit to himself that it was simply a matter of being fed, of receiving an extra bowl of soup not for carrying out a slop bucket, but for other, more dignified work. More dignified? No, he wouldn’t really be an enlightener — he would be more like someone scratching a criminal’s dirty heels. But the cold, the beatings, the hunger…[39]

Distancing himself from Platonov through the figure of the narrator, who says that he, personally, “never told novels for soup” and always considered it as “the ultimate humiliation” but refrains from blaming Platonov[40], Shalamov projects this moral dilemma onto his own role as a writer and witness. The distance between Platonov and the narrator in “The Snake Charmer” is thus marked both ethically and formally. It distinguishes Shalamov’s third-person narrative from The House of the Dead, where Goryanchikov’s tale is narrated in the first person and thus partly merges with Dostoevsky’s own.

There is yet another text from Shalamov’s later cycle, “The Glove, or Kolyma Tales — 2,” in which Dostoevsky’s novel is once again invoked to illustrate how drastically the conflict between the intelligentsia and the people evolved over the course of a century. This text, “Lesha Chekanov, or the Accomplices in Kolyma” (1970-1971), written in the first person, covers a span of eight years, starting in 1937, the year of Shalamov’s second arrest. While on trial in the Butyrki Prison, Shalamov, by then an experienced prisoner, helps his peasant cellmate Lesha Chekanov withstand the ordeal of investigation, initiating him into the prison world. They happen to be sentenced on the same day and to the same number of years, and are even sent in the same train car to Kolyma, where they meet again eight years later. Shalamov, by now on the verge of death, catches a glimpse of new hope as his former cellmate arrives in the camp as a newly appointed foreman. However, Chekanov not only refuses to help but also insists on sending Shalamov off to an even deadlier camp. As he announces his will to Shalamov, he says: “It is you, the bitches, who have driven us to death. All eight years here I have suffered because of these educated bastards” (II, 330; emphasis added). As it happens, Chekanov only paraphrases the words that Dostoevsky’s nobleman Goryanchikov heard many times from his fellow prisoners a century ago:

The dislike with which as a “gentleman” I was continually regarded by the convicts during my first few years, became intolerable, poisoning my whole life. <…> “You have beaks of iron, you’ve pecked us to death,” the convicts used to say to us, and how I used to envy the peasants who were brought to the prison[41]!

The age-old conflict between the intelligentsia and the people inherent in the Russian society was critical for Shalamov after Kolyma — both in the mid-1950s, when he read Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead, as we could see from “The Tatar Mullah” (1955) and especially “The Snake Charmer” (1954)[42], and a decade later, when he was briefly involved with the Moscow dissident movement and became friends with Nadezhda Mandelshtam. On May 13, 1965, at a memorial evening devoted to Osip Mandelshtam at Moscow State University, he read his short story “Sherry Brandy” about the poet’s last days in the same transit camp near Vladivostok that Shalamov himself had passed through on his way to Kolyma a year or so earlier. That same year he read Nadezhda Mandelshtam’s memoirs and in late June he wrote to tell her that her manuscript “answers the question — what is the greatest sin? It is hatred toward the intelligentsia, hatred toward its superiority” (VI, 410). Also in 1965, Shalamov wrote his essay “On Prose,” a draft version of which (“On New Prose”) contains a discussion of Dostoevsky’s “Pushkin Speech” and an even more radical claim: “Today Dostoevsky would not have repeated his phrase about the God-chosen people [narod-bogonosets]. <…> The people [narod] are greatly indebted to its intelligentsia” (V, 159-160). This question also frames Shalamov’s difficult relationships with Solzhenitsyn, whose novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich he read and praised as soon as it came out in Novyi mir in 1962, but then became gradually disillusioned with. Unlike Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov never saw Kolyma Tales published in the official Soviet press during his lifetime. The reasons are many and too complex to address here in detail. But one of the key motifs behind Shalamov’s polemics with Solzhenitsyn seems to continue his dialogue with Dostoevsky over the role of the intelligentsia and has to do with the two writers’ choices of characters, as well as the genres they worked with.

Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov and the End of the Novel

Clearly, in order to have his novel published and made available to the general reader, Solzhenitsyn had to accept a difficult compromise: his protagonist Ivan Denisovich Shukhov had to be portrayed not only as a resourceful enthusiast of physical labor who never loses heart, but also as a peasant[43]. One may even go as far as to suggest that in his novel Solzhenitsyn, who knew the rules of the game, deftly tried on the mask of Socialist Realism, with its mandate for a “positive character,” in order to ensure the publication of his novel. However, underneath this mask more truth could be read about the camps than there seemed to be on the surface. It was this Aesopian combination of what was true and what was allowed that constituted the great achievement of Solzhenitsyn, who managed to reach out to the general reader but did not have the chance to communicate the whole truth. Arguably, in order to tell more the author not only had to survive a longer and more severe camp experience, such as Shalamov’s, but also, and more importantly, had to find an entirely different literary method, one not so tightly bound by the conventions of Socialist Realism.

In his first letter to Solzhenitsyn, which he wrote the night after he first read the novel, Shalamov passionately admits that everything in it is “perfect, everything makes sense,” and that its special success lies in Solzhenitsyn’s “deep and subtle depiction of Shukhov’s peasant psychology”:

The novel is very clever, very talented. The camp is seen from the perspective of a “worker” <…>. This is not an educated prisoner on the verge of dying [doplyvaiushchii intelligent], but a peasant who has gone through a great ordeal, withstood that ordeal and is now telling about the past with humor (VI, 277).

Two years later, however, Shalamov confronts Solzhenitsyn with a broader question on the same topic that seems to revoke his comment on Shukhov’s peasant psychology. By now, Solzhenitsyn had published a number of other works, including Matrena’s Courtyard (1963), which also uses a peasant protagonist to personify the tragic fate of Russia and its people in the twentieth century and belongs to the canon of Village Prose. In this letter to Solzhenitsyn written on November 15, 1964, Shalamov avoids referring directly to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (or, for that matter, to Matrena’s Courtyard). “So who is the true hero?” he asks Solzhenitsyn. “I believe that the duty of every honest reader is to heroicize specifically the humanistic intelligentsia [gumanitarnaia intelligentsiia], which has always and everywhere <…> accepted the hardest blow. This happened not only in the camps, but in the entire history of mankind” (VI, 297)[44].

Could Shalamov draw a parallel between Solzhenitsyn’s compromise with the Soviet press, including his decision to underplay the role of the intelligentsia in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and the moral dilemma that Platonov was faced with in “The Snake Charmer”? After all, the fate of the intelligentsia, as Shalamov implies, is essentially the same on either side of the barbed wire[45]. Like Platonov, who has no chance at surviving other than by imagining himself as an enlightener of the criminals, could Solzhenitsyn, too, have succumbed to the temptation of becoming “a snake charmer” to the authorities who would decide whether or not his novel would “live” on the pages of a Soviet journal? But the actual stakes of Platonov in “The Snake Charmer” and Solzhenitsyn at Novyi mir’s editorial office are, of course, more difficult to compare: by agreeing to “pull novels” for the entertainment of the thieves, Platonov saves his own life, though not for long, while Solzhenitsyn, by yielding to official demands and making Ivan Denisovich “publishable,” saves both his life as a writer and that of the entire Gulag topic, which, needless to say, was previously strictly silenced[46]. The difference, of course, was more than obvious to Shalamov, who, in his first letter to Solzhenitsyn, praises not only the literary aspects of his novel — “You managed to find an exceptionally powerful form” (VI, 279) — but also its social value: “For a meticulous reader, this novella is a revelation in every phrase. In our literature, it is the first <…> word on the topic that everyone talks yet no one has ever written anything about. Your work is the long-awaited truth, without which our literature cannot move forward” (VI, 283, 287-288).

Yet apart from Solzhenitsyn’s choice of a peasant to speak on behalf of Gulag survivors, Shalamov grew increasingly frustrated with the novelistic genre as such as well as the technical aspects of Solzhenitsyn’s work on Ivan Denisovich. According to Shalamov’s principles of “new prose,” which he had fully formulated by the mid-1960s, it is vital that a writer who also bears witness to the Gulag and its victims remain faithful to the first draft and rule out the very idea of editing, allowing even the most random slips of the tongue into the text and never considering them an error (“On Prose”). In his memoirs The Oak and the Calf (1975), Solzhenitsyn himself speaks at length about the various concessions he had to make while working on Ivan Denisovich[47]. Moreover, Kolyma Tales, according to Shalamov, is about martyrs without biographies who never become heroes, which is rather hard to say about Shukhov, who is portrayed as a “positive character” and lists the strokes of luck that he had in the course of one “unclouded day. Almost a happy one[48]”. The cyclical composition of Solzhenitsyn’s novel, and even the round pieces of sausage that Shukhov receives as a reward at the end of his “lucky” day, is equally hard to imagine in Kolyma Tales, where characters usually seem to be moving from point A to B even when there is no concrete destination — for how concrete can death be[49]? As for the author of “new prose,” he is “neither a tourist nor an observer,” but “an actual participant in the drama of life,” or, as Shalamov puts it in the same essay, “Pluto rising from Hell, not Orpheus who descends into it” (V, 151).

Clearly, this new literary method that Shalamov spelled out in his essay “On Prose” and sustained throughout Kolyma Tales does not sit well with the traditional conventions of fiction in general and the novel in particular — much like in the seventeenth century, it was no longer possible for Avvakum to write about prison in the traditional language of hagiography. In 1922, long before Kolyma Tales, the death of the novel as a genre was predicted by Osip Mandelshtam in his eponymous essay, where he claimed that a contemporary prose writer is reduced to a chronicler, while the novel goes back to its origins, such as The Tale of Igor’s Campaign. Mandelshtam believed that the novel is inextricably linked with the role of the individual in history, which means that “people without biographies,” as Shalamov described his characters, cannot ensure the life of the novelistic genre in the age of historical cataclysms that split the biography of an individual into pieces[50]. Several decades after Mandelshtam, Shalamov proclaims the novel to have died together with the millions of prisoners in Kolyma. Perhaps the novel, according to Shalamov, is even buried in the same grave. But his disillusionment with the novel and humanistic literature on the whole takes root not only in Kolyma, but also in Shalamov’s familiarity with the neo-formalist ideas on literature and society that were in the air during the late 1920s, when he began his career as a young writer and journalist in Moscow[51]. Shalamov’s “new prose,” thus, equals the author’s experience in the deadliest camps multiplied by his literary background, which was to a large extent informed by the revolutionary principles of prose writing and journalism of the New LEF group (Sergei Tretiakov, Viktor Shklovsky, Osip Brik, Nikolai Chuzhak and others) unified under the umbrella of literatura fakta. Since the late 1920s, these principles had been “frozen,” or conserved, in Shalamov’s imagination for more than two decades he spent in the camps, and in the second half of the 1950s they floated to the surface, were adjusted to the new era, and took shape as Kolyma Tales.

A radical attack on the novel as a genre that had exhausted itself in the face of the new historical reality was undertaken in 1929 by members of the New LEF, who announced a crusade against the “creative deadmen” of classical literature of the past, against the belles lettres as “opium for the people” and the “shamanism of literary priests[52]”. Although their manifestos, brought together in one volume, may have come out already after Shalamov’s first arrest on February 19, 1929, throughout the previous year he frequented Tretiakov’s literary workshops on Malaia Bronnaia and was well familiar with the teachings of the so-called “factists” [faktoviki]. Their agenda was to disavow the fictional element (vymysel), the very idea of plot (siuzhetnost’) and the emphasis on the psychology of the main hero set forth in a traditional novel and to focus instead on the social sphere and daily life — “to shift the focus from human feelings and emotions to the organization of the society[53]”. Chuzhak’s claim that “new literature” (cf. Shalamov’s “new prose”) does not tolerate “a writer divorced from the subject s/he writes about[54]” motivates Shalamov’s rejection of the “touristic” approach to prose writing and informs his view of a writer as “a participant in the drama of life” (V, 151). In their attempt to undermine the plot, the advocates for literatura fakta faced the inevitable question of what should be used instead to connect the seemingly disjointed pieces of writing: “Without a plot, a work of prose falls apart like a poem without rhymes. So what should replace the plot?” The solution was to look for “natural plots” (natural’naia siuzhetnost’) abundant in life itself, which is proclaimed “not such a bad inventor” (neplokhaia vydumshchitsa)[55]. And when the so-called natural plots are either absent or scarce, or simply not so obvious, the author’s ability to find and use them in his or her writing is what art is actually about: it is “the art of seeing, on the one hand, and rendering it, on the other[56]”. However cynical it may sound, the monotonous, gray, and uneventful reality of the camps, where the only “natural plot” was to survive till at least the next day, became, for Shalamov, a rich opportunity to test and manifest this highly ambitious principle of the new aesthetics. It is another matter that the doctrine of literatura fakta was driven not only by a purely aesthetic but also by a profoundly political agenda, which was formulated just around the time when the new revolutionary reality, despite the formalists’ best intentions, had evolved into one of the cruelest and most elaborate systems of annihilating the human body and spirit. The deaths of millions in the Gulag, already in its early stages, thus overlapped with the proclaimed extinction of the novel as a genre.

Sergei Tretiakov’s manifesto “The Biography of a Thing” compares the composition of a work of new literature to a production line, along which units of raw material move forth to be turned into “useful products.” The figure of a protagonist, whose psychology and emotions are the part and parcel of a traditional novel, is reduced to a “thing” devoid, as it were, of any feelings, but “animated” by society:

People’s individual and specific features <…> fade away, their personal hunches and epilepsies are invisible, but the professional diseases and social neuroses of a given group become highly prominent instead. <…> Thus, it is not a loner walking through a file of things, but a thing that passes through a file of people — here is the methodological literary device that we consider to be more progressive than the devices of classical belles lettres[57].

It may be argued that this radical postulate of literatura fakta informs the compositional idea of Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales in general and its opening sketch, “Through the Snow,” in particular. Instead of describing a single character with a clear-cut biographical past and overpowering emotions at the present, “Through the Snow,” essentially, is such a “production line,” where the “units of raw material” are portrayed as human beings but, in fact, are reduced to “things” (or tools in the hands of the dehumanizing regime). It is their “biography” that Shalamov resolves to record in his Kolyma Tales. Tretiakov considered the newspaper “the bible of our days,” which made the novel redundant and obsolete: reading a newspaper, “we, basically, turn a new page of that wonderful novel that our contemporaneity represents. The characters of this novel, its writers and readers, are ourselves[58]”. Shalamov, however, unlike Tretiakov (or Solzhenitsyn, for that matter, who focuses on one central character, Ivan Denisovich), does not equate the writers and readers, but redistributes their roles in his chilling portrayal of a file of nameless prisoners marching through the snow, as if their footsteps were “covering” a page of the same “newspaper”: “The people on the tractors and horses, however, will be not writers but readers[59]”.

But why, one may ask, does Shalamov reject the genre of Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich while so consistently going back to Dostoevsky’s Siberian novel? Because Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead is exactly what a conventional nineteenth-century novel is not. This is why, as we see overtly in Herling’s memoir and more implicitly in Shalamov’s “The Snake Charmer,” Dostoevsky’s fictionalized autobiography invites Gulag authors not only to read it while still in the camps, but also, more importantly, to carry on its quasi-documentary pattern in their own narratives of an entirely different historical climate. In “The Snake Charmer,” Shalamov clearly shows what is left of a traditional novel in the criminal camps: it is reduced from román to róman, and it exists in a distorted and unrecognizable form only as cheap entertainment for the thieves. To the best of our knowledge, there are no accounts of Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead being “pulled” like a róman in the Gulag, while even Shakespeare’s Hamlet has not avoided this fate[60]. But, paradoxically, the wider the gap between the reality described in The House of the Dead and the experiences that Soviet prisoners faced a hundred or so years later, the greater seems to be the literary traction between Gulag narratives and Dostoevsky’s nineteenth-century palimpsest.

Of course, Solzhenitsyn read The House of the Dead too. Like Shalamov a decade before him, he even passed through Omsk on a prison transfer in 1950, but while Shalamov describes the Siberian town and its transit prison associated with Dostoevsky as a chronotope and an intersection of history, geography and literary tradition — “When was Omsk?” he asks in his notes on Dostoevsky. “After Omsk the wheels began rolling faster” (V, 206, 208) — Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago only reminds the reader of how little help Dostoevsky’s experience was for prisoners in the Gulag: “As for Dostoevsky’s hard labor in Omsk, it is clear that in general they simply loafed about, as any reader can establish. <…> And what can you say if geese went wandering (!!) in their prison yard <…> and the prisoners didn’t wring their necks[61]?”. This zoological detail of camp life brings to mind Shalamov’s own bewilderment over the cat that walks around free and uneaten in the medical barracks in Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich[62]. In Kolyma, as Shalamov remembered it, a live cat could not walk around safe and sound even as an optical illusion. Nor could the genre of a novel exist as a román, but only as a róman.

The Russian Review (January 2016): 7-25


  • 1. Andrew Wachtel and Ilya Vinitsky, Russian Literature (Cambridge, MA, 2009), 28. Moreover, “copied out by hand and passed from one Old Believer community to the other,” The Life of Avvakum became “the first significant Russian samizdat text” (ibid., 29).
  • 2. Nicholas Rzhevsky, An Anthology of Russian Literature from Earliest Writings to Modern Fiction (Armonk, NY, 2005), 44. For a broader context, see Georg B. Michels, At War with the Church. Religious Dissent in Seventeenth Century Russia (Stanford, 1999); and Margaret Ziolskowski, Hagiography and Modern Russian Literature (Princeton, 1988).
  • 3. N. K. Gudziia, ed., Zhitie protopopa Avvakuma im samim napisannoe i drugie ego sochineniia (Moscow, 1960), 53-54. My translation.
  • 4. See Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: A Writer in his Time (Princeton, 2009), esp. Part II, “The Years of Ordeal. 1850-1859.”
  • 5. Leona Toker, Return from the Archipelago: Narratives of Gulag Survivors (Bloomington, 2000), 74.
  • 6. Varlam Shalamov, “Through the Snow,” trans. Robert Chandler and Nathan Wilkinson, in Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida, ed. Robert Chandler (London, 2007), 320. I am using Chandler’s and Wilkinson’s translations of Shalamov’s short stories rather than the earlier and less accurate ones by John Glad, in Varlam Shalamov, Kolyma Tales (London, 1994). For a comparison of Chandler’s and Glad’s translations of Shalamov’s short story “The Snake Charmer” discussed later in this paper see Lysander Jaffe, “‘Writing as a Stranger’: Two Translations of Shalamov’s ‘The Snake Charmer’,” (unless otherwise noted, all URLs were last accessed September 28, 2015). Translations from Shalamov’s texts available only in Russian are mine. Unless otherwise stated, Shalamov’s texts are quoted from Varlam Shalamov, Sobranie sochinenii v semi tomakh (Moscow, 2003-2004, 2013). In-text parenthetical references, with volume:page information, are from this edition.
  • 7. Toker, Return from the Archipelago, 5.
  • 8. References to their memoirs and other revolutionaries, such as Boris Savinkov and Andrei Zheliabov, are found in Shalamov’s short stories “The First Tooth,” “The Best Praise” and “The Tatar Mullah and Fresh Air,” as well as in his essay “Sergei Esenin and the Thieves’ World.”
  • 9. See also Shalamov’s short poem written five years earlier, in 1950, while still in Kolyma: “Все те же снега Аввакумова века. / Все та же раскольничья злая тайга, / Где днем и с огнем не найдешь человека, / Не то чтобы друга, а даже врага” [The same snow of Avvakum’s age. / The same wicked schismatic taiga, / Where even in daylight you won’t meet a soul, / Not only a friend but even a foe] (III, 29). Avvakum’s name is also mentioned in one of Shalamov’s last poems, “Chtob ne byt’ samosozzhentsem…” (1981) (VII, 192).
  • 10. As Josefina Lundblad-Janjic observes, the poem’s 37 stanzas point to the year 1937. Shalamov, according to Lundblad-Janjic, uses Aesopian language to call for an allegorical reading of his poem: “The necessity of such a temporally removed connection <…> indicates a challenge facing poets in the Soviet Union. [The text] could be read either as explicit representations of the persecution of Old Believers in the seventeenth century or as implicit depictions of juridical abuse during the Stalin period. <…> The remoteness of its explicit content <…> could have allowed ‘Avvakum in Pustozersk’ to be published in the Soviet Union during Shalamov’s lifetime” (Josefina Lundblad-Janjic, “Poetry and Politics: An Allegorical Reading of Varlam Shalamov’s Poem ‘Avvakum v Pustozerske,” “Avvakum in Pustozersk” was published in Shalamov’s second collection of poetry Doroga i sud’ba (Moscow, 1967), albeit in a heavily abridged form: the number of its stanzas was reduced from 37 to 26.
  • 11. I thank the translator for sharing with me his English version of the poem, which is forthcoming in the anthology: Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski, eds., Russian Poetry from Pushkin to Brodsky (London, in 2015). As Chandler points out in his commentary, “Avvakum in Pustozersk” not only maintains a line of literary inheritance from one Russian author to another across centuries, but also goes beyond the Russian literary tradition. In the last stanza, Shalamov alludes to Charles de Coster’s Belgian classic The Legend of Thyl Ulenspiegel: “Нет участи слаще / Желанней конца, / Чем пепел, стучащий / В людские сердца” [There is no fate sweeter, / no better end, / than to knock, as ash, / at the human heart]. Chandler specifies: “Ulenspiegel wears round his neck a sachet containing some of the ashes of his father, Klaas, who has been burnt as a heretic. As he fights for the freedom of Flanders, he repeats to himself, ‘The ashes of Klaas are knocking at my heart’” (ibid.).
  • 12. For example, in 1926, Alexei Remizov compiled a new redaction of Avvakum’s Life and published it with his own commentaries in the first issue of the Russian Parisian journal Versty. See also Dmitry Sviatopolk-Mirsky, “O moskovskoi literature i protopope Avvakume,” also published in Paris in Evraziiskii vremennik 2 (1925). See Yuri Rozanov, “Protopop Avvakum v tvorcheskom soznanii A.M. Remizova i V.T. Shalamova,” K stoletiiu so dnia rozhdeniia Varlama Shalamova. Materialy konferentsii (Moskva, 2007), 301-315.
  • 13. Shalamov writes about his father in his book Chetvertaia Vologda, as well as in his short story “The Cross” (1959) about a blind priest and his wife who trade their family gold cross for money when there is no other way left to survive. In his essay on Shalamov titled “Avvakumova dolia,” Vyacheslav Vs. Ivanov writes: “Born into a family where all men for several generations became priests, Shalamov wanted to do without God” (Vyacheslav Vs. Ivanov. Izbrannye trudy po semiotike i istorii kul’tury [Moscow, 2000], 2: 343-344). On Shalamov’s relationship with his father, see also Valery Esipov, Shalamov (Moscow, 2012), 22-72.
  • 14. In 1923, Victor Vinogradov, who at the time was associated with the OPOYAZ group, published his study “O zadachakh stilistiki. Nabliudeniia za stilem Zhitiia Protopopa Avvakuma,” a work that the young Shalamov may have known; on March 24, 1968, he wrote in a letter to Yuli Shreider that he “once used to learn OPOYAZ papers by heart,” and a year earlier, in his letter to Nadezhda Mandelshtam on August 7, 1967, he claimed that “in order to understand poetry, one needs to read works of the OPOYAZ” (VI, 539; 431).
  • 15. Rozanov, “Protopop Avvakum v tvorcheskom soznanii A.M. Remizova i V.T. Shalamova,” 310-311. Both Rozanov and Lundblad-Janjic mention Nikolai Kliuev’s poem “Lenin” (1918), in which Avvakum is portrayed as one of the first defenders of the working class and, hence, as Lenin’s spiritual precursor. In “A Few Things About My Poetry” (1969), Shalamov speaks about Kliuev’s book Pesnoslov, which includes the poem “Lenin,” as one of his “strongest poetic impressions during those years” (V, 96).
  • 16. See Toker, Return from the Archipelago, 73-100.
  • 17. Sarah Young, “Dostoevsky and the Gulag,”
  • 18. Toker, Return from the Archipelago, 77.
  • 19. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The House of the Dead. A Novel in Two Parts, trans. Constance Garnett (New York, 1915), 6.
  • 20. Those Poles who were released under the Sikorski Amnesty in the early 1940s joined General Anders’s army and eventually made it beyond the Soviet borders, while the rest of the Polish citizens in the Gulag were allowed to repatriate only after the war. See Wladyslaw Anders, An Army in Exile: The Story of the Second Polish Corps (London, 1949).
  • 21. Vol. 3 of the first posthumous edition of Dostoevsky’s collected works (St. Petersburg, 1894).
  • 22. Gustav Herling, A World Apart, trans. Andrzej Ciozkosz (New York, 1986), 158.
  • 23. Ibid., 160.
  • 24. Ibid., 161-162.
  • 25. Ibid., 164.
  • 26. Ibid., 163-164.
  • 27. Ibid., 173.
  • 28. Pud is an old Russian weight measure equal 36.11 pounds (or 16.38 kilograms).
  • 29. Elena Mikhailik, “Dostoevsky and Shalamov: Orpheus and Pluto,” Dostoevsky Journal: An Independent Review 1 (2000): 147.
  • 30. Likewise, when the narrator hears about Dzhankhara from Platonov, he becomes horrified: “I had been in some bad and difficult places myself, but the terrible fame of Jankhara resounded far and near” (Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida, 323).
  • 31. The literary repertoire most welcomed by the Gulag thieves consisted largely, if not exclusively, of romantic adventure novels set abroad in the previous century: Ponson du Terrail’s series about Rocambole (1857-1970), including The Club of the Knaves of Hearts (1858), Victor Hugo’s Les Misérable (1862), Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo (1844), John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819), and so on. Scornful as it may seem, “pulling novels” often saved the life of a political prisoner with the necessary story-telling skills, earning him an extra food ration and protection from his criminal audience. In the last paragraph of his essay “How Novels Are Pulled” (from “Sketches of Criminal Life”), Shalamov explains the title of “The Snake Charmer”: “Among those hungry ‘novelists’ one may also find ‘ideological’ ones <…>. Such ‘novelists’ feel themselves as cultural workers [kul’turnyi rabotnik] at the thieves’ throne. Among them, there are former writers and men of letters, who take pride in remaining faithful to their main profession, which now manifests itself amid such astonishing circumstances. There are also those who feel themselves as snake charmers, or flutists who sing before the twirling clew of poisonous reptiles” (II, 102).
  • 32. Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida, 324.
  • 33. Ibid., 324.
  • 34. Robert Chandler, “Varlam Shalamov and Andrei Fedorovich Platonov,” Essays in Poetics: The Journal of the British Neo-Formalist Circle 27 (Autumn 2002), 185.
  • 35. According to Chandler, the patronymic “Fedorovich” may also refer to the Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorov (1829-1903), whose utopian ideas of transhumanism, resurrection and eternal life were important for Platonov, but much less so for Shalamov (Ibid., 187).
  • 36. Dostoevsky, House of the Dead, 5.
  • 37. Dostoevsky, House of the Dead, 5.
  • 38. In fact, Dostoevsky’s character was imprisoned for murdering his wife. However, as Toker observes, “ever since The House of the Dead fictional transpositions of prison experience have tended to raise problems of consistency — <…> [Goryanchikov’s] fellow convicts treat him as the political prisoner that Dostoevsky himself actually was” (Return from the Archipelago, 216).
  • 39. Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida, 327. Shalamov’s later short story “Pain” (1967) reads as a coda to the “The Snake Charmer.” The protagonist Shelgunov regains faith in life when the thieves pick him for the role of the camp “novelist.” Deceived by the romanticized image of the underworld that nineteenth-century literature had cultivated in him, Shelgunov, like Platonov, is eager to “educate” the criminals by “pulling” them novels. However, he is fooled into writing letters to the wife of another political prisoner with the same name, and when Shelgunov’s namesake is killed, the thieves ask him to inform the widow on behalf of one of the victim’s friends. It is only when Shelgunov is released from the camps and returns to Moscow that he realizes that all these years he has been writing letters to his own wife, who committed suicide when she learned that “her husband” was killed. He is told that “Marina <…> threw herself under the train. Not where Anna Karenina, but in Rastorguevo” (II, 171).
  • 40. Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida, 323.
  • 41. Dostoevsky, House of the Dead, 213 (emphasis added). I owe this observation to Esipov, Shalamov, 320.
  • 42. Lundblad-Janjic has analyzed yet another short story by Shalamov written during the same period (“In the Bathhouse,” 1955), in which the dialogue with Dostoevsky is maintained on the thematic level: the story alludes to the ninth chapter of House of the Dead (“Isai Fomich. The Bathhouse. Baklushin’s Story”) and mentions Dostoevsky’s name twice. See Lundblad-Janjic, “Pereklichka cherez stoletie — cherez prostuiu baniu (K teme ‘Shalamov i Dostoevskii’),” in Shalamovskii sbornik, ed. V. V. Esipov and S. M. Solov’ev (Moscow, 2011), 4:183-93.
  • 43. Cf. Lidia Chukovskaya’s remark in her conversation with Anna Akhmatova on December 29, 1962: “One needs to present a muzhik to Tvardovsky. But ‘Sofia Petrovna’ is a city dweller, halfway from the intelligentsia. He is not interested in this. What interests him is the village” (Chukovskaia, Zapiski ob Anne Akhmatovoi, vol.
  • 44. In yet another undated letter to Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov replaces “the reader” for “a writer”: “The duty of a writer is to heroicize the fates of the intelligentsia, those of writers and poets. They deserve this far more than any other ‘layer’ of the society. (This is not to say that other layers are not entitled to this right)” (VI, 299).
  • 45. One of the morphological features that distinguish Gulag narratives as a genre, along these lines, is “the zone and the larger zone”: “Many Gulag memoirists view the whole of the USSR as the ‘Larger Zone,” <…> a giant prison house with but different degrees of illusory freedom of movement” (Toker, Return from the Archipelago, 91-93).
  • 46. The same effect, and perhaps an even greater one, is created a decade later, when Solzhenitsyn publishes abroad The Gulag Archipelago (1973-1974) and lets much more truth about the Gulag gush out of its passionate pages with a power that leaves no room for any compromise (although here it is channeled through a different genre).
  • 47. Such concessions, among other things, included the novel’s original title, Shch-854, sacrificed to the demands of the editors. See Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The Oak and the Calf. Sketches of Literary Life in the Soviet Union, trans. Harry T. Willetts (New York, 1980). On Solzhenitsyn’s compromises with censorship in his novel The First Circle (1968) see Lev Loseff, On the Beneficence of Censorship: Aesopian Language in Modern Russian Literature (Munich, 1984), 143-67.
  • 48. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, trans. H. T. Willetts (New York, 2005), 181.
  • 49. The circular structures that Solzhenitsyn creates in his works, both on the level of plot and even in some of the titles (for example, in The First Circle, The Red Wheel, and so on) are an element of mythology, which, according to Claude Lévi Strauss, evolves not linearly but along a spiral, that is, in circles (or pivots): “Thus, myth grows spiral-wise until the intellectual impulse which has produced it is exhausted. Its growth is a continuous process, whereas its structure remains discontinuous” (Claude Lévi Strauss, Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf [New York, 1963], 229). Shalamov, conversely, destroys myths. Most of Solzhenitsyn’s works, and particularly One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, seem perfectly rounded and resolved, while Shalamov’s short stories are often open-ended, if not entirely unfinished. Moreover, one is tempted to project the circular composition and organization of space in Solzhenitsyn’s works onto his personal biography and career as a writer: unlike Shalamov, who died in poverty in a mental asylum in Moscow just a few years after Kolyma Tales was first published abroad as a book, Solzhenitsyn triumphantly returns to Russia from exile in 1994 and is honored at the Kremlin by a man who used to work for essentially the same organization that hurled Solzhenitsyn and millions of others behind the barbed wire only half a century earlier.
  • 50. Osip Mandelshtam, Sobranie sochinenii v chetyrekh tomakh (Moscow, 1993), 2: 271-275.
  • 51. See Shalamov’s memoir “Dvadtsatye gody” (IV, 318-398), as well as Esipov, Shalamov, 90-100; Pavel Arseniev. “Literatura chrezvychainogo polozheniia,” Translit 14 (2014): 40-52; and Svetlana Boym. “‘Banality of Evil,’ Mimicry, and the Soviet Subject: Varlam Shalamov and Hannah Arendt,” Slavic Review 67 (Summer 2008): 342-363.
  • 52. Literatura fakta: Pervyi sbornik materialov rabotnikov LEFa, ed. N. F. Chuzhaka (1929; reprint ed. Moscow, 2000), 6, 28.
  • 53. Nikolai Chuzhak, “Pisatel’skaia pamiatka,” in Literatura fakta, 21.
  • 54. Ibid., 15.
  • 55. Ibid., 21-22.
  • 56. Ibid., 22.
  • 57. Sergei Tretiakov. “Biografiia veshchi,” in Literatura fakta, 71.
  • 58. Sergei Tretiakov. “Novyi Lev Tolstoi,” in Literatura fakta, 33.
  • 59. Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida, 320.
  • 60. Although far from being a firsthand account, Aleksandr Mitta’s film Lost in Siberia (1991) includes a scene in which a political prisoner (played by Zinovy Gerdt) “pulls” Hamlet to a mixed audience of prisoners at the camp hospital.
  • 61. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, trans. Thomas P. Whitney (New York, 1975), 2:200, 203.
  • 62. In his first letter to Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov writes: “There are no criminals in your camp! Your camp is without lice! <…> A cat!” A few lines later, on the same page, he exclaims: “Where is this wonderful camp? If only I could spend a year there in my own time” (VI, 284). See Elena Mikhailik, “Kot, begushchii mezhdu Shalamovym i Solzhenitsynym,” in Shalamovskii sbornik, ed. V. V. Esipov (Vologda, 2002), 3:101-14.