Reading and Writing Against Destruction



This paper was published in Trans-cultural Studies: A Series in Interdisciplinary Research 4 (1), 2008. This is an abridged version; the full text is available here.

Varlam Shalamov (1907-1982), a writer and a journalist, was born in Russian city of Vologda. He spent 17 years in total in prisons and labor camps of Kolyma (1929-1931, 1937-1943, 1943-1951). When Shalamov was released and returned from the camps to the Western part of Russia (Kaliningrad), he started recording his camp experience in the form of the semi-fictional, semi-documentary Kolymskie rasskazy [Kolyma Tales]. Even though his camp prose was never published in the Soviet Union in his lifetime, it received worldwide publicity: Kolyma Tales was distributed by the underground movement of Samizdat and published abroad. The impact of these short stories was immense: they were considered as the most authentic and merciless descriptions of prisoners’ sufferings in the Soviet camps of the Stalinist regime. Shalamov himself attributed his style as a new prose, which must be deprived of any “therapeutic effect that writing may have on the author in order to write well… one has to allow one’s wounds to open.” Most of his prose is dark as the whole subject of GULag; however, the stories that I analyze in this paper (Sententious and Handwriting) stand out for their open-endedness and the sense of hope.

Shalamov’s prose is often compared to Krutoi Marshrut [The Harsh Route], the memoirs by Evgenia (Zhenia) Ginzburg (1906-1977). Formerly a professor of literature and the wife of a prominent Communist party member, she was arrested and imprisoned in 1937. She spent two years in the solitary cell and another eight years in camps of Kolyma. After Ginzburg’s sentence ended (1947), she continued working as a teacher at a local school in Magadan (the capital city of Kolyma). In 1949 she was arrested again, however, soon released and prohibited to leave Kolyma. Ginzburg returned to Moscow only in 1955 and immediately started writing her memoirs. Similarly to Shalamov’s short stories, The Harsh Route was never published in the Soviet Union during her life. While writing the first part of her memoirs, Ginzburg still hoped to publish her book in the Soviet Union. However, this text never passed the censure even in the relatively liberal times of Khrushchev’s thaw. For this reason, the second part of The Harsh Route is written in more straightforward and bitter tone. Parts of her book were published abroad, in Italy; parts of the text were circulating in the Samizdat. The whole edition of the book was published only in 1990, long after Ginzburg’s death. The Harsh Route immediately became a bestseller and was even staged by one of the prominent Russian theaters.

Eduard Kuznetsov (born 1939) was a prisoner in the Soviet penitentiary system, who survived two sentences: first, in the 1960s, and later in the 1970s (1961-1968 and 1970-1979). In 1970, Kuznetsov and a group of Soviet Zionists were arrested for their attempt to hijack a passenger aircraft and flee to Israel. Although Kuznetsov was first condemned to death, his sentence was later commuted to 20 years in a labor camp. In 1979, he was deported from the Soviet Union to exile. While in prison, Kuznetsov kept a diary (1970-1971) and managed to transfer his notes to friends. Later his texts were published in the West, first in Italian translation, then in Russian, and many other languages (1973). Kuznetsov is a journalist and currently lives in Israel. Although he belongs to a different generation of political prisoners, his diary reveals the same tendencies that we see in the prose of Ginzburg and Shalamov.

As the survivors of Soviet camps and prisons testify, the penitentiary system achieved the highest control over the everyday life of prisoners by depriving them of all remnants of the past free life. Ginzburg describes in her memoirs how the camp authorities confiscated photos of children; how women were stripped of their clothes and dressed in prisoner’s uniforms; and how she and her fellow inmate Yulia hid their personal belongings from the search, such as their bras and underwear. All these regulations were enforced to make sure that the prisoner realizes that he or she is no longer a master of his/her body. The prisoner cannot have a private life or even be reminded of its existence.

After being arrested and separated from their families, the heroes of the current article are brought to the edge at a certain point of time—namely, fearing, expecting or being under the threat of execution. In those moments, words fail the writers: they admit that reality is too enormous and too uncanny to translate into the normal narrative. With the threat of death at hand, the inmates report unusual detachment from reality or even from their own identity, and experience a scarcity of words. While under investigation, Ginzburg is told that she will be judged by the military trial—in the time of the Stalinist purges, everyone knew that it would lead to capital punishment. Moreover, the investigator informs her that after the pronouncement of the sentence she will have only 24 hours (till the execution). Evgenia does not doubt that in two days she will be shot. She reports how vague and confused her thoughts are before the trial. Throughout the whole memoir, this is the only moment when she deviates from her usually sharp and precise style of writing:

It is difficult, almost impossible to convey the emotions and thoughts of a condemned person. That is, one probably has to be Leo Tolstoy in order to convey it. But when I remember that night, I can only note strange sharpness of all things and painful dryness in my mouth. And if I would try to recall exactly, the stream of thoughts, I would have gotten strange things.

Next day, she is transferred from the dirty and crowded cells of Butyrka prison to the Lefortovo isolator, where only the important political prisoners are kept. There, in the clean solitary room, she is waiting for the trial. The whole setting appears to become more and more surreal: the rooms are clean, the guards are polite, and Evgenia, when going to the trial room, puts on her best dress and powders her cheeks. The trial itself, as most trials of 1937, lasts 7 minutes and consists of reading out the record of her “crimes” and the verdict of the judges. As Evgenia approaches the moment of the pronouncement of the verdict, her feeling of absurdity of the happening reaches its apogee and she starts seeing herself from the external point of view, as if she is an actor, as if it is a theater play:

For a moment I think that it is all a part of a movie. I act in a film. For it is unbearable to believe that soon I will be murdered for nothing […] It seems to me that I am shouting. No. I am silent and listening. I am standing quietly and all frightening things are inside me. Darkness takes me in. The voice of the reader trickles out to me as a far muddy stream. Soon it will swallow me.

As the feeling of unreality overwhelms Evgenia, she experiences a temporary loss of hearing and sight (even though she does not faint). She does not understand the reader of the verdict anymore until her sentence is pronounced and threat of the imminent death is withdrawn. Then Evgenia is dazed by the “strike of lightning,” when the judges announce her ten-year sentence. She describes this return to life, first, as a light and warmness of the existence, and then by means of her favorite poetry (I will return to this moment later in this article).

It turns out that the condition of the person who is on the brink of execution is inaccessible. Kuznetsov’s prison diary demonstrates even more distinctly how words fail at certain moments of the prisoner’s existence. When describing the peak of his emotional state (the moment when he was summoned from the death cell by the guard to the inspector), Kuznetsov glances at himself as if from the outside:

I cannot remember my heart beating, I cannot remember what thoughts were in my head – it was someone else this was happening to. It wasn’t I who slowly stepped down that corridor […].

This is the point of spiritual death and rebirth: the author expects to be led to execution, but is instead informed of his pardon.

While going through the trial, Kuznetsov registers all the events thoroughly, including his last speech and his dialogues with the prosecutor, attorney, and judge. However, the closer he approaches the death sentence, the fewer thoughts and reflections he entrusts to paper. The last surviving entry dates from the day before the announcement of the verdict. Kuznetsov burns the part of the diary where he records his experience of living through the period between the death sentence and the pardon:

I wrote about myself, about Liapchenko, about what it’s like in death cell. But when I read it through, I realized I had not really come to grips with my subject. Not wishing to keep it even for a rough draft, I destroyed it.

Kuznetsov’s narrative recommences only five months later, when he describes the events that followed the announcement of the verdict. The estrangement from the crucial moment is reproduced both grammatically by replacing the first-person pronoun “I” with the third-person “he,” and conceptually, by destroying the relevant parts of the diary and replacing a first-hand testimony with a secondary narrative. Thus, the narrative resists the temptation to approach the liminal state of the diarist. Although his diary appears to be uncensored, the prisoner submits to an internal censor, which prevents confiding of inaccessible knowledge to paper. Kuznetsov is very much aware of this “censorship.” In keeping his diary he struggles with the inclination to confess, to entrust the deeds or names of his friends to the paper:

If during the first two or three months I kept well away from certain subjects that might have been of use to those who maintain constant watch over our souls, then later I became bolder, my internal censor grew slacker and more liberal […] They contained nothing out of the ordinary but even a psychological analysis of my friends… might have been valuable enough ammunition for those who will have us in their power for many years to come.

This internal censor, that shows up in Kuznetsov’s reluctance to reveal even “psychological portraits” of his friends, is also present as a real threat in the face of the sentinel peering into the cell. Thus, the evidence of the psychological influence on the prisoner in the conditions of the totalitarian prison shows up even in such a private documentary genre as a diary.

In addition to the indirect influence that prison had on the inmates’ mentality, we see also that the intentional totalitarian control extends to the minds and souls of prisoners as well. Such control, first of all, blocks and/or censures the books, journals and newspapers as well as the possibility of writing. In Shalamov’s Sententious, the world of the camp barracks is equaled to the Inferno, where people are deprived of any printed or written word:

I hadn’t seen newspapers or books for years, and I had long since trained myself not to regret the loss. All fifty-five of my neighbors in the torn tarpaulin tent felt the same way. There was no book or newspaper in our barracks… The camp authorities —the foreman, the chief of prospecting, the super-intendant—had descended into our world without books.

Without books, the inmates do not have any point of reference, something solid to rely on, something that reminds them of the regular, free life. In GULag, the people are in danger of losing all the human words and thus degrading to the level of purely biological needs. With the loss of literature, the inmates gradually forget all expressions, which are unrelated to their everyday life in camp. After the years spent in the labor camps, the semi-biographical narrator of Shalamov’s Sententious sees the poverty of language as a complete physical nakedness and defenselessness of the prisoner:

My language was the crude language of the mines and it was as impoverished as the emotions that lived near the bones. Get up, go to work, dinner, end of work, rest, citizen chief, may I speak, shovel, trench, yes sir, drill pick, it’s cold outside, rain, cold soup, hot soup, bread, ration, leave the butt—these few dozen words were all I had needed for years. Half of them were obscenities […] But I did not seek other words. I was happy that I did not have to search for other words. I didn’t even know of they existed.

Likewise, when Ginzburg is placed into the solitary cell, she has to make an effort not to be swallowed by the wretched prison lexicon:

To stay sane I am trying to set up some rhythm, some schedule. The most important thing is not to forget how to talk! The guards are trained to be silent. They say 5-6 words a day: get up, toilet, hot water, stroll, bread…

The processes in the minds of the prisoners are forced to be simplified and the scope of problems is constricted to the small amount of topics. The vocabulary shrinks, and conventional words are replaced with jargon and obscenities. The consequences of this loss are apathy, moral deafness and even madness.

Nevertheless, people managed to preserve their souls by turning to the word—both written and spoken, as the first and the primary tool of the moral salvation. Kuznetsov takes a risk by engaging in the forbidden activity, since the threat of losing his own identity poses a worse threat for him. In one of his diary entries, he explains that:

I write to preserve my own face. The camp is an extremely low environment, it is a conscious constructing of such conditions so that the person would doubt the necessity of serving his ideals and would believe that there is only one biological truth, that is, conformism […] For me, diary is a form of the conscious opposition against the impossible life. To write down the specific traits of the life in prison and camp is to objectify them, to move away from them…

Ginzburg, formerly a philologist, rediscovers “the true meaning” of the words. While being isolated in the solitary cell, or squeezed into the crammed space of the prison carts, she remembers, recites, and quotes the lines of the poems that she has once loved:

After the dinner I plan to read Pushkin. In my head I read for myself a lecture about him. Then I recite everything that I remember. It turns out that my memory, being liberated from any outside impressions, suddenly opened as a chrysalis into the butterfly. What a miracle! It turns out that even Domik v Kolomne I know all, by heart. All right, it is enough till the supper.

The recital of the poems turns into a chant or a prayer for Evgenia: it defends her from the merciless reality. This secret defense, available only to herself and to her fellow cellmate, constitutes the new code, which has to replace the previous, discredited ideals of the Soviet ideology: “In order to be able to use such words and not contradict herself, Zhenia must find a new language, in which she can rebuild her undermined sense of moral identity. This must be a language in which words like “conscience” and “honesty” mea1n more than Major El’shin suggests, a language enabling her to separate herself morally from her oppressors.”

Ginzburg creates a new, inner universe, in which books, poems, and her own poetry becomes a counterpoise against the suffocating conditions of the prison. Together with her cellmate Yulia she establishes the routine, in which the preservation of the secret private life is the main goal. The women do the illegal gymnastics, preserve and hide the forbidden bras from the searches, and write poems and prose. This is how the process of the secret writing is depicted:

I wrote down the poems, memorized them, erased the text with the breadcrumb and overwrote the erased text with the solutions of the algebra sums or conjugations of the French verbs.

Thus, reading and writing are responsible for the restoration and preservation of the prisoner’s soul. Although in the beginning of her ordeals Evgenia shares the common Soviet agnosticism, she clings to books, and moreover, to words in the primary, religious sense. In The Harsh Route, Zhenia grasps with adoration any opportunity of getting in physical touch with books: any ordinary book for her becomes The Book:

Am I deceived? No, it is true—there are books on each bed. I quiver with joy. My dears, I have not seen you for almost six months! For six months I did not look through you, did not breath in the smell of the typographic paint.

It is not accidentally that the hell described by Shalamov’s protagonist in Sententious is deprived of any printed texts. In the atmosphere of the common atheism, the literary text is the religion that can be opposed to Soviet idolization of Lenin and Stalin. When the “bare bones” of language become the only means of communication with others and of expression of feelings and everyday needs, the only thing, which can save the protagonist, becomes a word, which is absolutely unrelated to the life of Kolyma. In Sententious, the rush of the word, which emerges, suddenly overwhelms the protagonist:

[…] in the back of the skull, a word totally inappropriate for the taiga, a word which I didn’t myself understand, not to mention my comrades. I shouted out the word:

“Sententious! Sententious!

I roared with laughter.

“Sententious!” I shouted directly into the northern sky, into the double dawn, still not understanding the meaning of the word that had been born within me. And if the word had returned, then all the better! A great joy filled me.

The protagonist of Sententious is unexpectedly confronted by the “inappropriate” word, which comes back as a mystical vision or an apparition. For a time being, he keeps saying, shouting, and tasting this new word. After a while, the meaning of this word becomes clear for him:

For a week I didn’t understand what the word meant. I whispered it, amused and frightened my neighbors with it. I wanted an explanation, a definition, a translation. And in a week I found it and shook because of the fear and the joy of that fear—for I was afraid to come back to the world, whereto I had no return.

Many days passed before I learned to call forth from the depth of memory new words, one after another… Thoughts and words didn’t return in streams. Each returned alone, unaccompanied by the watchful guards of familiar words. Each appeared first on the tongue and only later in the mind.

It is not a mere coincidence that the first word, with which the protagonist’s lexicon starts to be reborn, to come back to life, is in Latin, and means precisely “a sentence,” a “phrase.” As I mentioned before, in the hell of the Soviet camps and prisons the word receives the sacral power and clearly relates to God. The agitation that Shalamov’s hero experiences, adheres to the revelation of St. Paul, after which he repents and embraces faith. Leona Toker notes: “according to Nietzsche’s contemptuous aphorism, we still believe in God if we believe in grammar. When the protagonist regains language, he regains the freedom that consists in infinite possibilities within conventional limitations.” To extend this analogy, with the acquisition of language the prisoner regains faith.

In the atmosphere of wickedness and hatred, the protagonist of Sententious starts his spiritual return to life with realization that everything around him is animated and bears a soul in it: the river, stone, nature. The next step is compassion for animals, and the will to protect them (he describes how he saved the bird from the shot of the foreman). With the end of the story the history does not conclude—it is meant to be continued. The regaining of language makes the further life of the prisoner possible.

In The Harsh Route, when Zhenia finds out that she will not be executed but will spend the next ten years in the solitary cell, she chants the lines of the poem by the famous Russian poet Boris Pasternak: “Katorga! Kakaia blagodat!” [Labor camp! What a blessing!]. And, in a sudden bout of insight, she understands that these lines are addressing her, in her surreal and strange situation:

The true value of the poetic lines is verified in such moments. My heart is filled with the gentle thankfulness towards the poet. How did he [Boris Pasternak] know that? He, who lived in the apartment of Moscow… If he just knew how his poems have helped me now to comprehend, to withstand this cell, this sentence, those murderers…

The poetic words help Zhenia to objectify her future, to deal with the fact of the imminent sentence and the perspective of being isolated from the rest of the world for ten years.

The salvation arrives not only from the poetic lines (as in case of Ginzburg) or in the form of the ancient Roman word (Shalamov’s Sententious). The word can be at prisoners’s service, and still be a rescue for the doomed man. In Shalamov’s Handwriting, tired and worn inmate Chris (one of Shalamov’s alter egos) is summoned to the investigator—an event, which, as Shalamov notes, usually meant punishment, namely, an execution. However, the investigator summons the prisoner because of his calligraphic handwriting. Chris is excused from work in mines and spends mornings in the investigator’s study rewriting the “lists of some unknown names.” He never asks and never finds out the meaning of these lists. But one day, an extraordinary event occurs: the investigator suddenly asks Chris’s first name and stops dictating:

Once, the investigator picked up the latest file to read the next name and bit his lip […] He looked at Chris and asked: “What’s your full name?” When Chris told him, the investigator’s face grew whiter than snow […] The investigator flung open the stove door, and the room became so bright that it seemed that a soul has been bared to reveal something very important and human at its core. The investigator ripped the folder into shreds, which he shoved into the stove. The room became even brighter. Chris understood nothing […] Only many years later did he realize that the burned file had been his own. Many comrades of Chris were shot. The investigator was also shot. But Chris was still alive and at least once every few years he would remember the burning folder and the investigator’s decisive fingers as he tore up his “case”—a present to the doomed from the giver of doom.

Chris had a life-saving, calligraphic handwriting.

It turns out that Chris, as if he is endowed with the burden of Moirae (the Greek goddesses of fate), is writing down the fate of other prisoners. According to one of the versions of the Ancient Greek myth, one of the Moirae (Lachesis) blindly draws the lot of the humans. Like the ancient goddess, Chris becomes an instrument in the hands of the Fate. However, in this case Chris is brought to the point when he is forced to write his own doom. The investigator spares him of this threat by casting the damned file into the fire. The situation becomes twofold: as the lists of names become the doom of hundreds of people, the same words, when being beautifully written by Chris, deliver him from the imminent execution.

In the conclusion of Sententious, Shalamov narrates how the chief of their camp, after returning from Magadan turned the record player on for the prisoners, with the record of classic music. In the act of listening, the hierarchy of prisoners and their guards becomes irrelevant. Toker interprets the final scene of the story as the theme of orchestration of the person’s soul: “having regained language, the prisoner will be able to control the various instruments of his inner self, like the conductor of a symphony orchestra.” With the return of language, perception of beauty becomes possible once again:

And everyone stood around – murderers and horse-thieves, common criminals and political prisoners, foremen and workers. And the chief stood there too. And the expression on his face was such that he seemed to have written this music for us, for our desolate sojourn in the taiga. The shellacked record spun and hissed, and the stump itself, wound up in three hundred circles over the past three hundred years spun like a taut spring…