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Varlam Shalamov, as the text says on the plaque, “lived in this house between arrests from 1934 to 1937.” The house is in the Arbat district of Moscow, building No. 8 on Chisty (Clean, or, Pure) Lane. The image of the long-suffering writer peering out at us from behind three books, was created by Georgy Frangulyan. It was unveiled to the public on Oct. 30, 2013, and was timed to coincide with the annual memorial day for victims of political repressions.
Shalamov today is a giant in the pantheon of Russian writers. But I’m hazarding a guess (without running much of a risk, I think) to say that outside the tight world of Slavists, Shalamov is either under-appreciated or not known at all. If I write “Alexander Solzhenitsyn,” everyone has a response. Everyone knows, at least in general, who he was, what he did and why. There are some who would criticize Solzhenitsyn for his fame, which I feel is going much too far. Solzhenitsyn earned his fame and his notoriety. Whether you buy into his belief system, or even accept his picture of history, you cannot deny his courage, his strength and his enormous impact.
But there is a reason why Shalamov, among those in the know, is placed on a pedestal far above that of Solzhenitsyn. One reason is that Shalamov was a genuinely great writer. Solzhenitsyn was a powerful, controversial thinker and revisionist historian. Shalamov was an artist, a writer who had perfect command over every letter, every sentence, every paragraph that he wrote. Like Anton Chekhov, perhaps, he was a man of such detail and perfection, that he could only write in short bursts. But fate, as it often has done to humans over the centuries, put him in the way of an evil state machine that saw fit to attempt to destroy him. The machine could not destroy Shalamov, but it wreaked havoc on his life. As such, Shalamov’s brilliant stories and poems were mostly written about life in the prison camps, or at least were “inspired” by it, if I dare use such a word in this context. In English, as in Russian, his main body of work is known by the title of Kolyma Tales, or Tales from Kolyma, Kolyma being the Godforsaken outpost where Shalamov and hundreds of thousands of others lived and died in the Siberian prison camps.
Shalamov (1907-1982) began to publish as a writer – both as a journalist and a short-story writer – in the early-to-mid 1930s. This was after he spent three years in the camps (1929-32) for the crime of supposedly belonging to a Trotskyite group. He was arrested again in 1937 – the year of the Great Terror – and remained in prison work camps until 1951. (He claimed that he was re-arrested for the crime of calling Ivan Bunin a classic of Russian literature, and there is evidence to back up his claim.) While in prison he began writing poetry, probably because poems were easier to commit to memory than prose. He began writing what would become known as the Kolyma Tales around 1954. But, as I have said, these stories were often extremely short – his story “Through Snow,” written in 1956, consists of just two paragraphs and 236 words. Surely, the genre of brevity, which living in the camps forced on him originally, by now had become a kind of artistic method. This is how life and reality had shaped Shalamov’s talent.
A couple of years ago my friend Maksym Kurochkin was commissioned to write a play for Breaking String Theater in Austin, TX. Graham Schmidt, who did the commissioning, asked Max to write something that would resonate in Austin. It was not an easy task for the playwright, not the least of which reasons was the fact that Russia had just attacked Max’s home country of Ukraine. To put it lightly, Max’s thoughts were fiercely occupied at the time. The writing of the play and the staging of it became something of a torture for many, although, as often happens in art after a bit of a struggle, it came out quite well. But my point here is that one of the many sticking points was a little detour that Max tossed in at the end of his first act. The main character in the play (Dulcey and Roxy at City Hall) decides to put on his teaching cap and inform the public about someone and something they probably don’t know. He offers a brief narrative about Shalamov, his nature and his importance, and then he quotes one of Shalamov’s poems. Keeping in mind Max’s anger over the Russia-Ukraine war, you will easily understand why he introduced this writer and this poem into his play. But aside from that, I’ve always thought Max’s brief excursus, together with the poem he quotes, is as good an introduction to Shalamov as any. Here it is, Varlam Shalamv via Maksym Kurochkin:
…VADIM: There was this writer and poet by the name of Shalamov. He was like Solzhenitsyn only he was talented. As talented as O. Henry. But he was also diabolical. Righteously diabolical. Because he went through the prison camps and he remembered everything. And he came to the conclusion that you can’t forget murder. This is a poem. And it has a context. Shalamov opposes killers. Killers of all times and nations. He opposes cannibals as well as their mercenaries and volunteers. And their damn jesters. Here he is: Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov. “A Slavic Oath.”
I swear until my death
to avenge those foul bastards
whose sick science I now know by heart.
I’ll wash my hands with my enemy’s blood
when that blessed moment comes.
For all to see, in Slavic fashion,
I’ll drink from a split skull,
that skull of mine own enemy,
as Svyatoslav did drink.
I’ll throw this funeral feast
the way the old Slavs did –
Eclipsing every fame and glory
of those who disappeared in death.