Varlam Tihonovitch Shalamov was born in Vologde in 1907. The son of a priest. He was in school from the years 1926 to 1929. He was then arrested for supposedly writing against Lenin in 1929. He left prison in 1932 and was was again arrested in 1937, at the time of the great Stalinist purge, and was sent to 17 years at Kolima, a kind of concentration camp for intellectuals.
After he returned from prison, after the downfall of Stalin, he started publishing his poems in the journal “Yunost” (“Youth”), and “Moscow”. And it was about this time that he started being a somewhat underground figure. He walked with a very shadowy atmosphere, always seeming to be somewhere else. His eyes, people would say, shined with distaste and carelessness towards the systems of the world around him: Soviet Union, America’s McCarthyism, etc. He began writing a series of stories called “Stories from Kolima” about his prison experiences. It wasn’t long until they started circulating in the Moscow underground. The 60s were a very cultural time for the youth of Soviet cities, especially Moscow. For out of this underground came some of the best modern Russian poets and writers that the country has seen since. People would take his stories and copy them down either by typewriter or by hand and pass them around in their circles, much like they did with the poems of Esenin, and the works of foreign writers. Finally in 1977 they were published, but of course not by the Soviets but a publishing house in London. Shalamov was forced to denounce this publication, which was a heartbreaking time for him.
He died in 1982 in a kind of senior citizens home of the Soviet Union, alone and forgotten, never seeing his great work in print. They say there are three great works of “camp” literature and those are “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisevich” by Solzhenitsyn, “Twisted Path” by I. Ginsburg, and “Stories from Kolima” by Shalamov. They were published in 1987, towards the very end of the Soviet regime.
Still many readers view Shalamov as the greatest concentration camp writer, and perhaps the saddest and truest. His prose is written in truthful, confessional, and almost heartbreaking style. As a Russian critic said, “he writes from the inside”. His poetry is much more literary, in his style and wording, but still there is a feeling of a wound that will never heal, that of a life wasted by the cruel whirlwind of the twentieth century.
They’ll kill me on the frontiers limit,
on the frontier of my shame.
And my blood will soak the page,
the page that frightened all my friends.
When you loose the road
between the bristling of hills,
friends will forgive simply too much,
will bear-out a gentle verdict.
But there are watchman towers
serving ones own dreams.
They watch through ageless
losses, worries, vanities.
When in confusion of faint-heartedness
I’ll walk towards a frightening zone,
obediently they’ll aim at me
until I’m in their view alone.
When I come into such a zone
not of my own — but a different country,
they’ll act by law,
the same way we would act on them.
And so the pains would be much shorter,
to simply die for sure,
I’m given into my own hands,
just like the hands of the sharpest sniper.
Memory engulfed so much evil,
without a count or bounds.
All the time life lied and lied,
there is no more trust in life.
Maybe, there are no cities,
maybe no green gardens,
just lives instead the power of ice,
and the salted oceans.
Maybe, the world is just all snow,
and a starlit road.
Maybe the world is all taiga
in the mind of God.