Wood carving by Russian artist Nikolay Kalita.

Conference reports Shalamov rediscovered: when a poet writes prose

The shift from a primary focus on Shalamov’s prose to a more comprehensive approach which includes his poetic, biographic, and dramatic works informed the conference throughout its three days.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds 1, 2014 pp 42-44.
Published on balticworlds.com on april 30, 2014

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The idea to hold the first conference outside of Russia dedicated to Varlam Shalamov was initially suggested by Jan Machonin, the Czech translator of Shalamov’s work. The National Library of the Czech Republic, the Slavic Library in Prague, the website Shalamov.ru, and the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes succeeded in bringing together thirty-four scholars and translators from all over the world for a three-day conference in the Czech capital September 17—19, 2013. Under the broad title Zakon soprotivlenia raspadu (“The Law of Resisting Disintegration”), concerns of several sorts central to our understanding of Shalamov could be addressed: the literary (his language, poetics, and questions of intertextuality), the historical (his works as documents of events and individuals), the cultural (the translation and reception of his works in several countries over the past four decades), the archival (the disclosure of previously unknown archive materials), and the psychological (theories of trauma narratives). The conference thus integrated various dimensions of Shalamov studies to emphasize that for contemporary scholarship the task is no longer primarily discovery, but rather rediscovery.

This year’s International Shalamov Conference made the daring move from theory to practice in a most literal manner: from discussing literary works about the Gulag to visiting the physical site of an actual camp, Vojna, an experience that left all of us deeply moved.

Jan Machonin presented his Czech translation of Shalamov’s The Left Bank, which was accompanied by a discussion of Valery Esipov’s acclaimed 2012 biography of Shalamov and by John Glad’s tale of the journey of Shalamov’s manuscripts to the West. The most remarkable cultural dimension of the conference was without a doubt the Vologda Chamber Drama Theater’s performance of Our Father, a play based on selections from Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales.

The last day of the conference witnessed the presentation of the seventh volume of Shalamov’s collected works; the awareness of unknown texts will undoubtedly add new layers to both Shalamov’s well-known works and to the established view of Shalamov as primarily a writer of prose. Several papers presented in Prague shed light on the less-known dimensions of Shalamov as a creative writer, particularly Shalamov the biographer and Shalamov the poet. This broader perception of the author of Kolyma Tales might not only invite new discoveries, but perhaps also instigate a shift in paradigm. For example, Shalamov’s six volumes of poetry entitled Kolyma Notebooks have not yet received due scholarly attention and his voice as a poet has not yet been integrated with his prose. The significance of the poet’s voice for Russian culture encompasses a long and vital tradition; but how does this legacy resonate in the works of a writer such as Shalamov, if we are to grant him the coveted status of Russian Poet? This question was posed during this year’s conference, and although it is as yet without a conclusive answer, it has created a poetical subtext to be addressed by scholars as well as translators, both implicitly and explicitly.

Thus it appears symptomatic that the conference opened with a paper by Valery Petrochenkov on one of Shalamov’s most powerful and nearly programmatic poems, “Avvakum in Pustozyorsk”. Through a historical allegory, Shalamov attempts a poetical recuperation of two painful pasts — a religious one in the seventeenth century and a political one in the twentieth — and to articulate his own unwavering stance as an artist of the written word: the inability not to speak. Silence is not an option for Shalamov; neither in poetry nor in prose. Robert Chandler, the English translator of Shalamov’s poetry, soon to be published in an anthology of Russian poetry, continue  d the poetical line through his subtle take on Shalamov’s personal history of Russian poetry from Pushkin to Pasternak. Chandler’s intensely poetic translations of separate poems demonstrates not only his own gift as a translator, but also the as of yet untapped riches contained within Shalamov’s poems. Valery Esipov’s paper contributed to the research of Shalamov’s poetry by stressing the complex philosophical meaning of such “collisions” of the past with the present for Shalamov as a poet, not only in “Avvakum in Pustozyorsk”, but also in other poems written in a similar vein.

The shift from a primary focus on Shalamov’s prose to a more comprehensive approach which includes his poetic, biographic, and dramatic works informed the conference throughout its three days. The poetic dimension was perhaps the most illuminating: it is not simply a new field, but one capable of altering prior conceptualizations of his texts in various genres. Unlike prose, poetry does not have to go “anywhere”: rather, it strives to return. However, just as one cannot step in the same river twice, poetry rarely produces the same reading twice. Poetry is a different vehicle for transmission of human experience. It may be less suitable than prose for communicating the immediacy of testimony to atrocities, yet it has the ability to heal like no other form of art. Poetry affects us not only as we read, but in our memories of previous readings, because it is always the same and yet somehow continually different. Such a view on poetry may be an allegory for Shalamov’s prose. Just as it is difficult to read Shalamov the same way twice, reading one of Shalamov’s short stories on its own gives a much different impression than reading it within the context of his six prose cycles. Shalamov repeats himself: he revisits tropes, reuses plots, gives similar characters different names, shifts the perspective, and leads his reader, as it were, in a circular movement — not forward, but back again. This creative collision between the prosaic and the poetical at the core of Shalamov’s poetics was addressed by Efim Gofman, who showed how subtly, even musically, the short story “Nadgrobnoe slovo” (“Funeral Oration”) is constructed. His paper gestured at the possibility of a successful fusion of future scholarship on Shalamov’s prose and poetry. Shalamov’s works do not exhibit animosity between the two verbal art forms; rather, his poetics inhabit an exceptional space which allows for their harmonious coexistence.

As we continue to explore camp narratives, we perform a task similar to that of those who fed, bathed, clothed, and cared for the survivors of Auschwitz, as described by Primo Levi in the beginning of his memoir The Truce. After all, the history of humanity is not solely a history of survivors and perpetrators — it is also a history within which those who were neither can choose to play their part. Where there is a victim of trauma, there needs to another human being willing to listen, and who can therefore also participate in the crucial act of continued remembrance.

I believe that the continued strength of Shalamov scholarship at the beginning of the 21st century suggests a sustained willingness to both listen and remember. Unlike the survivors of Auschwitz of whom Levi writes, the majority of the survivors of the Gulag did not receive a similar greeting of human kindness and compassion upon their release from the camps. We as readers can grant this through our attentive reception of the works of Shalamov, but only if we never stop reading — although we at times wish to divert our eyes from the horrific stories he has to tell.≈

What I saw and learned in the Kolyma Camps

Excerpt from Kolyma tales

1.  The extraordinary fragility of human nature, of civilization. A human being would turn into a beast after three weeks of hard work, cold, starvation, and beatings.

2.  The cold was the principal means of corrupting the soul; in the Central Asian camps people must have held out longer — it was warmer there.

3.  I learned that friendship and solidarity never arise in difficult, truly severe conditions — when life is at stake. Friendship arises in difficult but bearable conditions (in the hospital, but not in the mine).

4. I learned that spite is the last human emotion to die. A starving man has only enough flesh to feel spite — he is indifferent to everything else.

5.  I learned the difference between prison, which strengthens character, and work camps, which corrupt the human soul.

6.  I learned that Stalin’s “triumphs” were possible because he slew innocent people: had there been an organized movement, even one-tenth in number, but organized, it would have swept Stalin away in two days.

7.   I learned that humans became human because they are physically stronger, tougher than any animal — no horse endures work in the Far North.

8.  I saw that the only group that retained a bit of their humanity, despite the starvation and abuse, were the religious, the sectarians, almost all of them — and the majority of the priests.

9.   The first ones to be corrupted, the most susceptible, are the Party members and military men.

10. I saw what a forcible argument a simple slap could be for an intellectual.

11.  That people distinguish between camp chiefs according to the power of their punches, their enthusiasm for beatings.

12.  A beating is almost irresistible as an argument (“Method number three”).

13.  I learned the truth about the preparations for the cryptic trials1 from masters of the craft.

14.  I learned why in prison you get political news (arrests, etc.) sooner than on the outside.

15.  That prison (and camp) rumors [known in Russian prison slang as parasha — “the slop bucket”] always turn out to be anything but slop.

16.  I learned that one can live on spite alone.

17.  I learned that one can live on indifference.

18.  I learned why a man lives neither on hope — there are no hopes at all, nor on will — what will?, but only on the instinct of self-preservation, the same as a tree, a rock, an animal.

19.  I’m proud that at the very beginning, back in 1937, I decided never to become a foreman if my decision could lead to another man’s death, if my will would be forced to serve the authorities oppressing other people, prisoners like myself.

20.  My body and spirit proved to be stronger in this great trial than I thought, and I am proud to have betrayed no one, sent no one to their death, nor to the camp, to have denounced no one.

21.  I’m proud to have made no requests until 19552 .

22.  I saw the so-called “Beria amnesty” there and then — it was something to behold.

23.  I saw that women are more honest and selfless than men – there was not a single husband at Kolyma who came after his wife. But wives did come; many did (Faina Rabinovitch, Krivoshey’s wife)3.

24.  I saw the amazing northerner families (civilians, former prisoners) with their letters to their “lawful husbands and wives”, etc.

25.  I saw “the first Soviet Rockefellers”, underground millionaires, and heard their confessions.

26.  I saw the hard laborers, and also the large E and B contingents, the Berlag camp.

27.  I learned that one can achieve a lot
(a hospital, a work transfer), but at the risk of life — at the cost of a beating and the isolation cell cold.

28.  I saw an isolation cell carved out in rock, and spent one night in it myself.

29.   The lust for power, for unpunished murder is great — from big shots down to regular police operatives with rifles (Seroshapka4 and his ilk).

30.  I learned the unrestrained Russian lust to denounce, to complain.


1  “Cryptic trials” — the show trials of the Great Terror of 1937.

2   In 1955 Shalamov made a request for rehabilitation.

3   See Shalamov’s “Green attorney”.

4   See Shalamov’s “Berries”.

Published with the permission of Shalamov.ru. Original translation by Mikhail Oslon and Dmitry Subbotin, slightly modified here. Written 1961. Translation from A New Book: Memoirs, Notebooks, Correspondence, Police Dossiers — Eksmo, 2004: 263—268.

Through the Snow

How are roads beaten through virgin snow? A man walks in front, sweating and swearing, barely able to place one foot in front of the other, constantly getting stuck in the deep, powdery snow. He walks a long way, leaving behind him a trail of uneven black pits. He gets tired, he lies down on the snow, he lights a cigarette, and a blue cloud of makhorka[1] smoke spreads over the white shining snow. The man has already gone on further but the cloud still hangs where he rested — the air is almost motionless. Roads are always beaten on still days, so that human toil is not erased by the winds. The man chooses markers for himself in the snowy infinity: a cliff, a tall tree. He pilots his body through the snow, just as a helmsman steers a boat down a river, from headland to headland. Shoulder to shoulder, in a row, five or six men follow the man’s narrow and uncertain track. They walk beside this track, not along it. When they reach a predetermined spot, they turn round and walk back in the same manner, tramping down virgin snow, a place where man’s foot has never trodden. The road is opened. Along it can move people, strings of sleighs, tractors. 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. It’s the first man who has the hardest task; when he runs out of strength, someone else from that vanguard of five goes out in front. 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.

Written in 1956; first published in 1978

Translated by Robert Chandler and Nathan Wilkinson. Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida (Penguin Classics, 2007).