“Not in Someone Else’s Footsteps”: Studying Literature from the Gulag

By Lydia RobertsMay 3, 2018

“Not in Someone Else’s Footsteps”: Studying Literature from the Gulag

Intellectual Life and Literature at Solovki 1923-1930 by Andrea Gullotta

TWO MOMENTS IN GULAG LITERATURE capture the peculiar position of the Soviet prisoner-author. The first is from Varlam Shalamov’s “Through the Snow,” in which the author describes a group of men beating a path through the snow, sharing the exhausting task of opening up a new road: “Every one of them, even the smallest, even the weakest, must tread on a little virgin snow — not in someone else’s footsteps.” In the next, and final, sentence of the story, Shalamov transforms the road into a discussion of literary production in the prison camp: “The people on the tractors and horses (who come after), however, will be not writers but readers.”

The second moment is when the title character of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich meets Vdovushkin, a graduate student-cum-medical orderly. Sick and waiting in the camp dispensary, Ivan Denisovich notices that Vdovushkin is copying out a “new long poem that he’d finished the previous evening…” Vdovushkin had been a graduate student of literature before he was sent to the Gulag, and thanks to his talents he is under the protection of the camp doctor, for whom he is copying out the poem. Vdovushkin is sympathetic to Ivan Denisovich, but does not put him on the list of prisoners exempted from work.

For me, these two moments characterize the contradictory role of the prisoner who writes about his experience; the first focuses on the painful work of having to live through, then convey the experience of imprisonment for others; the second focuses on the writer’s remove from many of the worst aspects of imprisonment, facilitated by a representative of camp administration. Both imprisonment and a certain remove from its worst parts are necessary conditions for the imprisoned writer who continues to write. In the earliest years of the Soviet prison system, the Solovetsky Special Prison Camp (SLON) was home to a large group of such imprisoned writers. The subtitle of Andrea Gullotta’s ambitious and timely new study Intellectual Life and Literature at Solovki 1923-1930: The Paris of the Northern Concentration Camps deftly embodies the contradictions of the camp and the literary milieu that it fostered: if there are northern concentration camps, then one of them must be the Paris of the group.

Founded in 1923 on an island that had been home to a famed monastery, SLON was, in the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the “mother of the GULAG.” Before 1930, Gullotta demonstrates, certain prisoners at SLON were allowed to write and publish articles, essays, prose fiction, and poetry in the camp literary journal and newspapers. The literature that they produced demonstrates a degree of intellectual freedom that seems to belie their circumstances. While many of these writers had been imprisoned for their ideological differences with the Soviet authorities, support from camp administration and the island’s isolation from the Russian mainland allowed them to develop a unique degree of expressive freedom. As Gullotta said in an interview with Literalab, “the cultural output of the camp was incredibly free, to the point that most prisoners used the possibility of expressing their creativity to fight the system that was crushing them.”

Gullotta is a lecturer at the University of Glasgow who has written extensively on the topic of Gulag literature. He has recently curated an online exhibition about Solovki culture, “Beauty in Hell,” which highlights many of the people and literary works he examines in Intellectual Life and Literature at Solovki. In the book, Gullotta takes stock of the SLON camp literature that has been preserved, but the fragmented nature of the corpus — scattered across newspapers, literary journals, and memoirs — and the succession of governments and administrators hostile to the preservation of these documents means, inevitably, that lacunae and mysteries persist. And so Gullotta’s admirable goal is to present a study of SLON literature that “foster[s] future research in this field.” Each of his footnotes is the starting point for a potential article, and he provides two useful appendices for future scholars to come: a list of “Selected SLON Publications,” as well as a set of capsule biographies of camp writers and administrators. More importantly, Gullotta’s case study of the SLON camp serves as a model for studies of Gulag writing, and makes a bold statement in favor of a new, synthesizing discourse about Gulag literature.

Gullotta begins by outlining his project and situating SLON’s literary output in the broader context of Gulag literature. He proceeds to a description of the history of SLON and a discussion of the problems of sourcing documents related to the camp. He then describes the cultural history of the camp in detail, and follows this with an extensive analysis of the literature itself, weaving together close readings of certain texts with the biographies of their prisoner-authors into a compelling argument for the development of a unique literary community at Solovki. Until 1925, the literary output of SLON was “by no means different from ‘typical Soviet labour camp literature.’” Gullotta credits three poets — Nikolai Litvin, Boris Glubokovskii, and Boris Shiriaev — with transforming the camp’s journal (until 1925 also called SLON) into one with unprecedented “intellectual autonomy.” Indeed, not only were these intellectual inmates in tune with major trends in contemporary Russian literature, but they also managed to develop them in interesting, unexpected ways:

Isolated on a faraway archipelago, unable to leave the islands during the winter months, the Solovki authorities did not pay enough attention to the need to re-educate the inmates who offered them stunning theatre performances, an extremely interesting press, and other “cultural services”. Taking advantage of the necessity of showing to the outside world the freedom of the inmates of the SLON, they allowed the intelligentsiia to run their “intelligentnyi gorod” [intellectual town]. The final result of this dynamic was more than surprising. The SLON writers often enjoyed more creative freedom than their colleagues in Moscow or in Leningrad.

In my own scholarship on this same group of texts, I have frequently confronted the task of convincing an interlocutor that these Gulag publications have scholarly value. The benefit of Gullotta’s book to researchers like me is that we can now, for the first time, point to an ideal primer on our subject, which makes the case for camp literature’s intrinsic value. This book also comes at a time when access to the materials it analyzes is being limited by the Russian government. In his introduction, Gullotta describes how much more difficult it is to access Gulag publications today than it was 10 years ago. The importance of preserving these accounts of the Gulag becomes even clearer when Gullotta mentions his personal connection to the embattled Gulag scholar Yury Dmitriev, who was recently acquitted of trumped-up child pornography charges that were seen as a governmental crackdown on Gulag scholarship and any attempts to preserve the memory of Soviet repression.

Above all, however, Intellectual Life and Literature at Solovki is a powerful validation of a group of exceptional texts, and a beautiful evocation of the experiences that inspired them. Gullotta makes an important point about the closed circle of SLON authors and readers: “the ‘immediate public’ of the SLON authors was comprised of their fellow prisoners,” who were, in this particular camp at this particular time, “extremely cultured.”

Shiriaev in particular is a poet whose literary output at SLON reflects the ambiguity of the imprisoned writer’s position; Gullotta writes that Shiriaev’s poetry is “torn between his deepest lyrical instincts and the need to win the chekists’ [secret police who served as camp administrators’] esteem.” Shiriaev’s talent meant that even his servile poetry stood out for its quality, while his non-ideological poems are truly stunning. In “Monk’s Minuet,” published in The Solovetsky Islands in 1925, Shiriaev captures the deadening silence of the abandoned monastery that has become a place of confinement:

Swept over by snowdrifts,
The snow, the trail.
Margined with yellow,
The light fails.
Vespers have halted,
The Skete sleeps.
In the frost-covered door,
The creak’s ceased.
Like an icon’s design,
A foot’s print.
The silenced cathedral
Has made it so. 
The warmth of the lamp,
Christ’s face. Aglow.
In gilded vestments,
Silent, He sleeps.
Swept over by snowdrifts,
The snow, the trail.
Margined with yellow,
The light fails.

Instead of focusing only on the official canon of great Russian poetry, teachers might use a work like this as the basis for discussing how cultured Russians living though the catastrophic 20th century appealed to their poetic tradition — which has, in any case, long been marked by repression — in order to make sense, and imaginative art, out of their nearly unimaginable reality. All students of Russian literature and of the human condition owe a debt to Andrea Gullotta, who has tread on virgin snow, following in no one’s footsteps.


Lydia Roberts is a PhD candidate in the Department of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Languages and Cultures at UCLA.

LARB Contributor

Lydia Roberts is a PhD candidate in the Department of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Languages and Cultures at UCLA. She writes about and translates Soviet prison poetry, and tweets about Russian literature at @lydiahr.


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