Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov (Russian: Варлам Тихонович Шаламов; July 1, 1907 – January 17, 1982) was a Russian writer, journalist, poet, political prisoner and Gulag survivor. Shalamov was a victim of Stalin's Great Purges who is best known for his book of short stories, The Kolyma Tales, which was based on his experiences there. The idea behind the forced labor camps was rooted in Marxist ideology. In the Marxist view, there is no essential human nature, so there is a need to mold workers to fit into the "worker's state," however in practice it was part of Stalin's attempt to rule by intimidation. Shalamov's work is a testament to the many innocent victims of the Stalinist legacy.
Early life and first arrest
Varlam Shalamov was born in Vologda, Russia to a family of an orthodox religious minister and a teacher. In 1914, he entered the academic gymnasium of St. Alexander, graduating in 1923. In 1926, after working for two years, he was accepted at Moscow State University department of Soviet Law. While studying there, he joined a Trotskyist-leaning group. On February 19, 1929, he was arrested and convicted for distributing the Letters to the Party Congress known as Lenin's Testament, which, in part, criticized Stalin, and for participating in a demonstration marking the tenth anniversary of the Soviet revolution with the slogan, "Down with Stalin." For these "crimes," he was sentenced to three years of hard labor in the town of Vishera, in the North Urals. He was released in 1931 and worked in the town of Berezniki in construction until his return to Moscow in 1932.
Back in Moscow Shalamov worked as a journalist, where he wrote essays and articles, including his first short story (in 1936) "The three deaths of Doctor Austino."
At the outset of the Great Purges, on January 12, 1937, Shalamov was arrested again and sentenced to five years hard labor for "counter-revolutionary Trotskyist activities." He was sent to Kolyma in Siberia, also known as "the land of white death." He was already in jail awaiting sentencing when one of his short stories was published in the literary journal "Literary Contemporary." In 1943 he was handed another term, this time for ten years, for anti-Soviet agitation—the crime was calling Ivan Bunin, an emigre short story writer who was critical of the Bolshevik government, a "classic Russian writer."
The conditions he endured were extreme, first in gold mining operations, and then in coal mining, during which time he also contracted typhus. He was repeatedly sent to punishment zones, both for his political "crimes" and for his attempts to escape.
In 1946, while a dohodyaga (emaciated and devitalized), his life was saved by a doctor-inmate A.I. Pantyukhov, who risked his own life to get Shalamov a place as a camp hospital attendant. The new "career" allowed Shalamov to survive and to write poetry.
In 1951 Shalamov was released from the camp, and continued working as a medical assistant for the forced labor camps while still writing. In 1952 he sent his poetry to Boris Pasternak, who praised Shalamov's work. After his release from the camps, he was faced with the dissolution of his former family, including a grown daughter who now refused to recognize her father.
Shalamov was allowed to leave Magadan in November 1953 following the death of Stalin in March of that year, and was permitted to go to the village of Turkmen in Kalinin Oblast, near Moscow, where he worked as a supply agent.
The Kolyma Tales
Beginning in 1954, and continuing until 1973, he worked on a book of short stories about life in the labor camp, which were published under the title of The Kolyma Tales.
After the death of Stalin enormous numbers of zeks (from the Russian abbreviation z/k for Заключонный (zakliuchonnyi, or inmate) were released and rehabilitated, many posthumously. Shalamov was allowed to return to Moscow after having been officially rehabilitated in 1956. In 1957, Shalamov became a correspondent for the literary journal Москва (Moscow) and his poetry began to be published. His health, however, had been broken by his years in the camps, and he received an invalid's pension.
Shalamov proceeded to publish poetry and essays in the major Soviet literary magazines, while writing his magnum opus, The Kolyma Tales. He was acquainted with Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Boris Pasternak and Nadezhda Mandelstam. The manuscripts of The Kolyma Tales were smuggled abroad and distributed via самиздат (samizdat). The translations were published in the West in 1966. The complete Russian-language edition was published in London in 1978, and reprinted thereafter both in Russian and in translation. The Kolyma Tales is considered to be one of the great Russian collections of short stories of the twentieth century.
Shalamov's stories about life in the labor camp differ radically in tone and interest from those of the most famous survivor of the Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. "Shalamov in his Tales is less interested in a general indictment of the system than in registering brief, particular fragments of physical and mental misery, refractions of the world through a mind in extremis."
Retraction controversy and death
The Western publishers always disclaimed that Shalamov's stories were being published without the author's knowledge or consent. Surprisingly, in 1972 Shalamov retracted the Tales, most likely being forced to do so by the Soviet regime. As his health deteriorated, he spent the last three years of his life in a house for elderly and disabled literary workers in Tushino. Shalamov died on January 17, 1982, and was interred at Kuntsevo Cemetery, Moscow.
The book was finally published on Russian soil in 1987, as a result of Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost policy, when the collapse of the Soviet Union was imminent.
- Kolyma Tales ISBN 0-14-018695-6
- Graphite ISBN 0-393-01476-2
- Vospominaniia (memoirs) ISBN 5-17-004492-5
- Brown, Edward J. Russian Literature Since the Revolution. Harvard University Press, 1982. ISBN 0-674-78204-6
- Terras, Victor. A History of Russian Literature. Diane Pub Co., 2003. ISBN 9780756761486
- Zizek, Slavoj. "The Dreams of Others." In These Times. May 18, 2007.
All links retrieved May 5, 2020.
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