A Slap in the Face of Stalinism


Arts & Culture

Varlam Shalamov in 1929. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

“Every story of mine is a slap in the face of Stalinism,” Varlam Shalamov wrote to his friend Irina Sirotinskaya in 1971, “and like any slap in the face, has laws of a purely muscular character.” He returns to the idea a little later in the letter, contrasting his own ideal of prose to the expansive “spadework” of Tolstoy: “A slap in the face must be short, resonant.” Most of Shalamov’s stories are indeed short, some extremely so, and constitute an argument both with the great nineteenth-century Russian novels and with the wretched ones of the Stalinist era that sought to pour the pap of socialist realism into a pseudo-epic form. The slap works simultaneously as a figure for aesthetic form and political protest, and in Shalamov’s late essays and letters, it functions as a motto of sorts, a creed of laconic defiance echoing, distantly, the Russian futurist manifesto A Slap in the Face of Public Taste and—more intimately and immediately—the famous opening of Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoir Hope against Hope: “After slapping Aleksey Tolstoy in the face, M. immediately returned to Moscow.”

Mandelstam sent the manuscript of her memoir about life with the poet Osip Mandelstam to Shalamov in 1965, and while neither could hope to publish their prose in the Soviet Union at that time, the two established in the correspondence that followed a shared sense of purpose. He writes: “If I had to give a literature course on the second half of the twentieth century, I would start by burning all the textbooks on the podium, in front of the students. The link between eras, between cultures has been broken; the exchange has been interrupted and our mission is to pick up the ends of string and tie them back together.” She replies: “I don’t think we should burn textbooks: it’s too classical a gesture … Let’s just not use any”; her main concern, too, she writes, is “the link that connects one era to another, the only thing that allows society to be human, a human being to be human.”

The task Shalamov took on as a writer was what Osip Mandelstam in the celebrated and chilling poem “The Age” (“Vek”) figured as piecing together the broken back of an animal.

My age, my beast, who will look you
straight into the eye
And with his own blood fuse
Two centuries’ vertebrae?

Shalamov conceives of his writing not only as an act of witness (to a crime) but also as an act of healing or at least of treating an illness or injury. The crimes of Stalinism were committed by a country against itself, in a self-consuming process by which each generation of executioners soon became the next group of victims. Giving an account of the gulag means finding a form for a suicidal cycle of alienation and death. What is being documented has no end, either logically (since to rid the Soviet state of all its possible “enemies” Stalin would have had to exterminate every single citizen) or historically (there was no liberation of the camps, no formal end to the system, even after Stalin’s death and Khrushchev’s denunciation). The literary means to find an escape from a vicious cycle is necessarily elliptical. A narrative slap in the face, as opposed to a physical one, is the opposite of mimetic violence: it is a transformation of pain into artistic form—a form that, like a set fracture, makes the bone stronger than it was before.

But the Stalinist years brought with them—along with the torture, starvation, and destruction of millions of human beings—an assault on language that systematically subverted and diminished the power and viability of words. To resurrect the dead in living memory Shalamov had to bring words back into an organic relation with reality. He found help in the Acmeist movement to which Mandelstam had belonged, the work of a group of poets reacting against the mystical vagaries of symbolism and striving to plant poetry firmly back in the soil of the physical, perceptible world. The essays that Shalamov wrote alongside his stories in the fifties and sixties—including one titled “Diseases of Language and Their Treatment”—are his continuation of that struggle. In their polemical, battle-ready tone and their call for a “new prose” equal to the new crisis conditions of Soviet life, they bring to mind the manifestos of the prewar avant-garde. Challenge and disputation are methods of “tying the ends together” no less than reverence and emulation.

Shalamov’s insistence on the direct participation of literature in life has its roots in the twenties, when he was a student and, briefly, a journalist in Moscow. Few environments in modern history can have been more exciting to an aspiring writer than the Moscow of those years, a revolutionary city teeming with artistic movements, publications, performances, and quarrels. The futurist movement, the radical formal explorations of the journal LEF, and slightly later Novyi LEF and its promotion of “factography” all had a profound appeal for Shalamov, who sincerely believed in the aim of raising millions out of illiteracy and out of the poverty he himself had known growing up in Vologda. Inclined to believe in the place of art in that struggle, he spent several years exploring the contending ideas of art as political instrument and the work of art as a sovereign creation.

In 1925, the year Shalamov arrived in Moscow, the critic Viktor Shklovsky published his Theory of Prose, and in the years that followed Shalamov eagerly read the publications of OPOYAZ, the Society for the Study of Poetic Language, a group that in addition to Shklovsky included the critics Boris Eikhenbaum and Yuri Tynyanov. Although Shalamov didn’t develop into an exemplar of the formalist program, it is hard not to see an affinity between the stony reality of the Kolyma stories and the kind of prose Shklovsky argued for in his Theory: “And so, in order to return sensation to our limbs, in order to make us feel objects, to make a stone feel stony, man has been given the tool of art. The purpose of art, then, is to lead us to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition.” It was also Shklovsky who gave, in Knight’s Move (1923), a brutal description of hunger in civil war–era Petersburg that is already more than halfway to the long drawn-out starvation in the gulag that sounds the ground tone of Kolyma in Shalamov’s stories.

In 1958, drawing from his own experience of near starvation and his passage (a year earlier) through the same transit camp near Vladivostok where Osip Mandelstam died, Shalamov wrote the story “Cherry Brandy” about the poet’s last days hovering between life and death, a narrative of the end of a life permeated and animated by a poetic consciousness (reminiscent in some ways of Hermann Broch’s magisterial novel The Death of Virgil, but condensed into six pages). The later story “The Resurrection of the Larch” enacts an oblique resurrection in the form of a larch branch sent from Kolyma to the poet’s widow. Aided by the woman’s “passionate will,” the branch miraculously returns to life standing in an empty food can with dirty Moscow tap water, growing fresh green needles and exuding the vague odor of turpentine, which is “the voice of the dead.” Only a living culture can remember and mourn. In bringing the branch back to life, both sender and recipient resurrect for a moment “a memory of the millions who were killed and tortured to death, who are laid in common graves to the north of Magadan.”

The story invokes the great age of the Dahurian larch, which is still maturing at two hundred years and achieves maturity at three hundred. The gulag alters not only the measures of human life—emotion, ethical choice, and spirit—but also the scale of historical time. The natural world, on the other hand, even in the hostile climate of Kolyma, can sometimes be enlisted as an ally of art against the prisoner’s extremes of deprivation and erasure. The larch can be called as a witness not only to the fate of a prisoner in the Far North under Stalin but also to the journey Shalamov invokes of the eighteenth-century writer Natalia Sheremeteva-Dolgorukova, who as a young wife followed her husband into exile in Siberia, where he perished: “[The larch] can see and shout out that nothing has changed in Russia, neither men’s fates, nor human spite, nor indifference.”

In the story “Graphite,” the marks (“tags”) made by topographers on notches cut in trees connect the twentieth-century dwellers in Kolyma with the vast time span of the geological earth. The author follows this observation with the unsentimental comment that dead prisoners go into the earth each with a tag of their own tied to one toe and marked with graphite—a product of millennia of compressed organic matter. In “The Resurrection of the Larch” and “Graphite” Shalamov reminds the reader that the bodies of the dead do not decay in the Arctic permafrost: they endure in an icy immortality that is a terrible inversion of heroic glory and also a powerful metaphor for the Soviet inability to mourn the victims of Stalin. (By the same token, the current signs of thaw in the Arctic permafrost as a result of climate change may bring the dead back to press their claims on a world that denied them.)

Nothing has changed: yet elsewhere, Shalamov insists on contrasting the conditions of earlier prisoners with those he himself experienced in Kolyma. In the story “Grishka Logun’s Thermometer,” he marks the distance between the prisoner-narrator and the prisoner Dostoyevsky by pointing to the novelist’s many “miserable, tearful, humiliating but touching letters to his seniors for all of the ten years he spent as a soldier after the ‘House of the Dead,’ ” even his “poems to the empress.” The narrator writes a petition on behalf of his immediate boss, Zuyev, a mining inspector and former prisoner, who is trying to get his conviction annulled by the authorities. The narrator agrees to the job in order to spend a day indoors, out of the lethal cold, but he fails to produce a letter of sufficient rhetorical power because he is so depleted and damaged that “the repository where I used to keep grandiose adjectives now had nothing in it except hatred … There was no Kolyma in the ‘House of the Dead.’ If there had been, Dostoyevsky would have been struck dumb.”

To Shalamov, Dostoyevsky is a genius and an example of artistic integrity, but he is also to be judged severely for his failure to reveal the true depths of depravity in penal-camp life. In “What Fiction Writers Get Wrong,” an argument against nineteenth-century literary romanticization of criminals, Shalamov claims that Dostoyevsky mistook the accidental criminals he came across during his imprisonment for gangsters, for the professional class of criminals who live by their own brutal code of law and have dominated camp life for generations. Shalamov is willing to allow for the possibility that “Dostoyevsky never knew them,” because “if he did see and know them, then, as an artist, he turned his back on them.” Tolstoy and Chekhov also failed in this regard, in Shalamov’s view, although he felt Chekhov had undoubtedly come across real criminals on his journey to the prison island of Sakhalin; in “Crooks by Blood” he is pleased to be able to correct Chekhov on a fragment of gangster cardplayers’ slang misheard on Sakhalin.

Shalamov considered swashbuckling portrayals of criminal outlaws by twentieth-century writers like Babel to be frivolous. In the letter to Sirotinskaya quoted earlier, his censure also falls on Babel’s prose style (to many a model of concision): “If I practically never thought about how to write a novel, I thought about how to write a short story from early on and for decades … I once took a pencil and crossed out of Babel’s stories all their beauty, all those fires like resurrections, and looked at what was left. Of Babel not much was left, and of Larissa Reissner, nothing at all.” As for poets, Sergei Yesenin, despite his great lyrical gifts, was fatally compromised in Shalamov’s eyes by sucking up to the criminal world and by the fact that criminals had adopted him as their bard, tattooing lines from his poems on their bodies. “The gangster … is not wholly without aesthetic needs, however little he may be human. His needs are satisfied by prison songs … usually very sentimental, plaintive, and touching” (this from “Apollo among the Criminals”). Yesenin caters to that taste.

Written in the late fifties, the stories in the fourth volume of his Kolyma tales, “Sketches of the Criminal World,” are a merciless indictment of this corrosive, brutal criminal subculture but also of the ideological delusions Shalamov saw at work in popular attitudes toward it. Soviet propaganda put forward a model of punitive labor as moral transformation: Shalamov more than once refers contemptuously to the primary ideologue of labor in education, Anton Makarenko, whose thirties hit novel The Pedagogical Poem was made into a popular Soviet film in 1955. Shalamov writes of the “fashion for ‘reforging’ ” by labor as a paltry smoke screen for extreme exploitation, which allowed criminals to manipulate themselves into positions of power in the gulag. Another connoisseur of Soviet prisons, the Polish poet Aleksander Wat, recalls in My Century his own bewildering contact during his wartime odyssey with the “immense pararepublic of criminals … a dense network covering Stalin’s tsardom” and remarks on the close sympathy between the gangs of juvenile delinquents he observed in prison camps and the NKVD officers overseeing them, many of whom he rightly assumed had emerged from gangs in the first place. Traditions of criminal organization predating the revolution (and manifest in slang that Shalamov knew well) were themselves preserved and absorbed into the culture of the new Soviet state—institutionalized, just when the prerevolutionary traditions of the Russian intelligentsia were being systematically destroyed. His stories show better than anything written about the gulag how these processes were parallel and inseparable.

It should be said that features of the gulag endure in the current Russian prison system. In an important 2017 book titled Imperiya FSIN (FSIN is an acronym for the Federal Service for the Implementation of Punishments), the Russian human rights advocate and researcher Nikolai Shchur writes that blatnye (gangsters, though not necessarily direct descendants from gulag gangsters) still hold a great deal of power over political prisoners and, with the collusion and often encouragement of the authorities, are able to exert influence on important aspects of prison life, like the number of visits or packages a political prisoner is allowed to receive in a given period. Although during the period of Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency tentative moves (most likely motivated by a transient wish to improve Russia’s international image) were made to de-gulagize the Russian penal system, with Vladimir Putin’s return to the highest office in 2012 all such reforming gestures were abandoned. The system retains the main features of the gulag: pretrial facilities in metropolitan areas and “correctional colonies” mostly in remote locations, with terrifying transports that are an integral part of the punishment. Judith Pallot’s work based on interviews with women prisoners in Russia also throws up grim parallels with Shalamov’s stories.

Shalamov is rare as a writer on camp life because he refuses to provide any variety of redemptive narrative, whether by portraying death in the gulag as martyrdom or by finding heroism in survival or in acts of witness. Survivors have no aura of courage or strength, just qualities of luck or cunning that do not reflect particularly well on their character. Nor does Shalamov participate in the process by which the state, having lost the ability to justify its killing by keeping its victims within a zone of exception, chooses to portray them as tragic sacrifices of a cruel but rational strategy.

In order to resist the inscription of meaning on what is to him, strictly speaking, meaningless suffering, Shalamov employs radical ambiguity and inconsistency. The same stories are given in slightly differing versions; an incident is rendered in such a way as to have contrary meanings. In the story “Brave Eyes,” a geologist’s senseless shooting of a weasel, spilling unborn cubs from its belly, is a whimsical, wasteful killing that echoes how people die in the gulag; on the other hand, the geological excursion is an escape into a wilderness where the dying animal’s eyes have a proud dignity that moves the broken-spirited prisoners. In “The Nameless Cat,” a gulag driver who “wasn’t a spiteful man” breaks a cat’s spine and ribs with an industrial drill bit. It crawls to shelter and, adopted for a time by a paramedic in the psychiatric department of the camp hospital, somehow gives birth to a litter of kittens, one of which survives and works alongside a prisoner attempting to supplement his starvation diet with freshly caught fish from a stream near the camp. After a time it just as unaccountably disappears. Has it been caught and cooked by thieves, like its mother and her other kittens, or has it found a freedom superior to the cowed and humiliated life of men? The question, and its pendant, as to whether this or any life is worth living, is left like an unresolved chord, a snatch of subversive “formalism.” Animals are the repositories of virtues—courage, strength, care—that have fled from human lives.

Alert to the aura of martyrdom that attached itself to the hosts of gulag victims, Shalamov refuses to sanctify them. He repeatedly declared himself an atheist, though the Orthodox Christian culture of his father shaped his imagination in unmistakable ways. Christian symbols, when he discovers them, are irrevocably altered like parts of the human body after exposure to frostbite, to employ one of his central metaphors. They are unhealing wounds rather than trophies. In the story “Graphite,” the larch’s “wounded body is like a newly revealed icon, the Chukotka Mother of God, if you like, or the Virgin Mary of Kolyma, expecting a miracle and declaring a miracle.” In “The Path,” the mere sign of the intrusion of another, anonymous person is enough to curtail the brief spiritual freedom that allows the narrator to compose poems in his head, and the path itself proves resistant to his attempts to turn it into poetry.

Shalamov himself left a body of poetry that, as Donald Rayfield has said, belongs to an earlier century than his prose. Jorge Luis Borges and Ivan Bunin are other examples of twentieth-century authors of innovative prose whose poems for the greater part read like imitations of their fin de siècle predecessors. Shalamov’s stylistic ideals are “early Pasternak and late Pushkin,” and it is Pushkin above all who in his eyes provides a moral and aesthetic antidote to the nineteenth century: to its sentimentality, its distended forms and messianic delusions. Shalamov’s critical essays on poets show him to be an acutely sensitive reader and rigorous analyst of the poetic form, notably patterns of sound repetition and intonation. Svetlana Boym wrote incisively about Shalamov’s use of intonation in prose to counteract the wooden speech, the novoyaz or newspeak of his era. His own poems are well built, honest, and relentless, but it is in his prose that Shalamov’s ear is most exquisitely employed in catching living speech rhythms, desolate cadences of event and emotion in which the pitch patterns of the speaker’s voice, moving against the warp of novoyaz, expose the false harmony imposed in the camp universe.

In 2007, on the centenary of Shalamov’s birth, an exhibition devoted to his life and work took place at the Memorial Society in Moscow. During a discussion organized as part of the commemoration, the critic Ilya Kukulin spoke of the distance between Shalamov’s prose and poetry in terms of the author’s discovery in prose that the formal harmony and order he sought in his poems existed in the world of the gulag only in a malignant form; in Mandelstam’s words, “In the undergrowth a serpent breathes / The golden measure of the age.” In the last of Shalamov’s Kolyma stories, “Riva-Rocci,” we read that “even third-class camps need flowers and symmetry.” Where poetry appears as a natural, even vital human impulse, as in the story “Athenian Nights,” it is interrupted by the incursion of a vindictive superior. This story begins with a curious presentation of what Shalamov cites as “man’s four basic feelings,” listed in Thomas More’s Utopia, “that, when satisfied, provide the highest form of bliss”: eating, sex, urinating, and defecating. It is these urges men are prevented from satisfying properly in the camp. To this list Shalamov adds poetry, also a physical need that manifests itself as soon as the immediate threat of death recedes slightly.

In fact More does not sum up human needs in quite this way; in a chapter titled “Of the Travelling of the Utopians” we are told that they “divide the pleasures of the body into two sorts—the one is that which gives our senses some real delight, and is performed either by recruiting Nature and supplying those parts which feed the internal heat of life by eating and drinking, or when Nature is eased of any surcharge that oppresses it, when we are relieved from sudden pain, or that which arises from satisfying the appetite which Nature has wisely given to lead us to the propagation of the species.” Significantly, More also includes in the top Utopian pleasures the enjoyment of music, which “strikes the mind with generous impressions.” But Shalamov’s argument for poetry is different: it is as vital to prisoners as food, so that even if gathering for recitations in the bandaging room of the camp hospital exposes them to the danger of discovery and punishment, they continue to meet until they are prevented by the imposter “Dr. Doctor.” They recite Pushkin, Mandelstam, and Akhmatova to one another not because they are sublimating or rising above their physical needs but because poetry can aid the return of “goners” to the world of the living.

Shalamov’s Kolyma stories are an astonishing achievement in a tradition of high art that surprises by surviving and describing the very conditions created to destroy it. In Shalamov’s own account, when he wrote he paced and raged in his room, weeping and shouting, saying every story aloud. Most of his best stories, he told Sirotinskaya, “were written in one go, or rather, copied from a draft only once.” They were intentionally left unpolished, in a conventional sense unfinished, meant to retain the rough edges that proved they had been torn whole from real experience. How Shalamov found the strength to carry out this arduous labor after almost two decades of crippling prison life and exile, in impoverished isolation and recurrent physical and mental pain, with no hope of recognition or publication, without the slightest compromise with a timid post-Stalinist literary establishment and without allowing himself to be used as a pawn in the Cold War, is one of the miracles of modern literature.


Alissa Valles is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection Hospitium. Her translations include Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Poems and Collected Prose, Ryszard Krynicki’s Our Life Grows, and Józef Czapski’s Memories of Starobielsk, forthcoming from NYRB Classics this year.

From Sketches of the Criminal World: Further Kolyma Stories, by Varlam Shalamov, translated from the Russian by Donald Rayfield, published by New York Review Books. Introduction copyright © 2020 by Alissa Valles.