The Forced Conversion of Varlam Shalamov

Anastasiya Osipova argues that the translators of “Kolyma Stories” by Varlam Shalamov have often obscured the author’s literary and political intent.

The Forced Conversion of Varlam Shalamov

THE PUBLICATION HISTORY of Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories (KS) — six cycles about the Gulag, where the author spent nearly 18 years of his life — resembles a violent battle, the casualty of which was Shalamov himself. It was common for his early publishers in both the samizdat underground publication network in the USSR and the Russian émigré press to read his terse and concentrated tales as unpolished documentary dispatches from the frozen hell of the labor camps, important for their content alone. This attitude freed their hands to “improve” Shalamov’s texts without his permission. For instance, samizdat copiers of Shalamov’s cycles often completed his unfinished sentence from the story “How It Began”: “In the fall we were still wor…” In the original, the break is fully intended, signaling a degree of physical exhaustion that makes further writing impossible. Émigré publishers went further. Roman Gul, the editor of New York–based The New Review (Novyi Zhurnal), where selections from the first cycle of KS were published in a slow drip from 1966 to 1976, excised full paragraphs he felt were overloaded with details, introduced epigraphs, published the stories in an arbitrary order, and even actively discouraged others from considering releasing them as a single book. [1] It is ironic that Shalamov, a former prisoner of the Stalinist camps, was repeatedly denied authorial agency by well-meaning dissident and émigré publishers, who simply did not recognize the artistic program behind his writing.

To its credit, the new English edition of Kolyma Stories, translated by Donald Rayfield, preserves the compositional integrity of the cycles. The first volume, which was published in 2018 and comes in at more than 700 pages, contains three out of six cycles, complete and in the author’s intended order; the second volume will appear later this year. Unlike John Glad, Shalamov’s previous English translator, Rayfield had access to the original Russian manuscripts rather than the émigré editions severely altered by Gul. The difference is dramatic. [2] Rayfield is also a superior stylist, with a keen sense of rhythm, which is important for an effective rendering of Shalamov’s prose, in which the plot and themes are often reinforced by taut syntax and the nearly musical energy of alliteration. However, like many of his predecessors, Rayfield seems to regard Shalamov primarily as a writer of memorable journalistic texts, important for their condemnation of Stalinism, and pays insufficient attention to the author’s poetics and method. This leads him to commit several consequential errors and many smaller ones. What these errors represent is not a lack of skill, but the suppression, be it conscious or unconscious, of aspects of Shalamov’s work that do not fit the narrow generic boundaries of an eyewitness account.

The reasons why Shalamov’s writing proved to be a “hard sell” for dissidents and émigrés also explain why Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn enjoyed such massive success among them. Politically and aesthetically, these two writers are nearly perfect opposites. Unlike Solzhenitsyn, whom Shalamov accused of playing according to the rulebook of Cold War cultural politics, Shalamov never disavowed the Soviet project. Whereas Solzhenitsyn writes in the Tolstoyan literary tradition, Shalamov continues the legacy of the 1920s avant-garde. A man of inexorable anti-authoritarian instincts, an atheist, and a member of the “left” anti-Stalinist opposition (his first arrest in 1929 took place in an illegal printshop, where he was allegedly printing Lenin’s deathbed rebuke of Stalin), Shalamov never renounced his core revolutionary ideals and refused to equate Soviet rule with Stalinism. [3] He was “more left than the leftists,” he would write in his diary in the 1970s. As a young man in 1920s Moscow, Shalamov flung himself into the political and cultural cauldron, eager to “participate in the great battle for the real transformation of life” [4] — a battle that would be lost, but the moral nobility of which he would always hold dear. He attended readings by Vladimir Mayakovsky, admired the concise phrasing of Viktor Shklovsky and the theories of other Russian Formalists, and knew and respected Osip Brik and Sergey Tretiakov, a pioneer of the “literature of fact” (a form of montage-oriented documentary writing), whose artistic strategies influenced Bertolt Brecht. Shalamov never fully embraced Brik’s and Tretiakov’s enthusiasm for “factography,” but his contact with them left its mark on the concentrated, economical prose of KS, which incorporates a wealth of documentary materials.

As he was working on KS in the 1950s and 1960s, Shalamov was simultaneously writing articles in which he outlined his artistic approach. Central to it is a firmly materialist view of literature: writing and thinking, like any form of labor, require calories and are inherently physical forms of activity. Examining the porous border between literature and life, tracing how physical conditions “incompatible with life” destroy or demean literary forms, how poetry at times becomes a surprising source of physical endurance (a dying poet in one of Shalamov’s tales “did not live for poetry, he lived by it”) are some of the central tasks of Shalamov’s stories. The main traits of his “prose of documentary intensity” — the only form of writing he believed was possible after Hiroshima, Auschwitz, and the Gulag — were a strictly non-dogmatic and non-moralistic perspective; a concentration of documentary and sensory details that would reproduce the intensity of lived experience; a critique of spectatorship; and, of course, rootedness in the author’s own life. And while this new prose must in every way possible be faithful to reality — the very right to create art, for Shalamov, is earned through suffering — it is more than a journalistic testament: “KS are the artistic investigation of horror. They are not just ‘information’ or a collection of facts. Although each and every fact in KS is irrefutable.” In other words, while the objective of KS is indeed to represent “the truth of a living life,” it would be wrong to read them as unfiltered autobiography: “In place of a memoir, KS offer a new prose, a prose of a living life, which is simultaneously a transfigured reality, a transfigured document.”

Donald Rayfield, however, seems to approach KS precisely as a memoiristic document. “A reading of the stories thus provides us with a biography of the first fifty years of [the author’s] life,” he states in his introduction. And later on he claims that “[t]ranslating Shalamov is straightforward. He avoids any stylistic effects; most stories are deliberately written ‘roughly,’ without fear of repeating the same adjective, with a minimum of metaphor.” Rayfield is right to point out that “roughness” in Shalamov’s prose is a deliberate stylistic choice intended to emphasize the effect of authenticity. (From his manuscripts we can see just how much scrupulous revision has gone into them.) Shalamov himself stressed, time and again, that “[a]ll the repetitions, all the slips for which readers have reproached [him] are not accidental, are not results of carelessness or haste. […] Authenticity and faithfulness to original experience demand these kinds of mistakes.” [5] Yet one needs to be very careful when dealing with Shalamov’s images. Despite the apparent “facticity” of his language, many of Shalamov’s documentary details also often function as metaphors — or rather, as models — for the process of writing itself. The translator especially must treat these details with utmost attention in order to preserve the meta-poetic subtext.

Rayfield regrets that “no editing […] was carried out [on Shalamov’s manuscripts]” and believes that the fact that “in the later books themes, incidents, and characters sometimes recur” is a sign of a lack of Shalamov’s craft, rather than a deliberate authorial design. Shalamov himself insists on the opposite: “Editing, ‘polishing’ each of my stories is extraordinary difficult, for it has its specific stylistic tasks.” [6] Rayfield’s hesitancy to recognize the semantic depth that stands behind the rough surface of Shalamov’s prose would hardly have mattered, had it not led him to efface the meta-literary dimension of KS. The most startling instance occurs on the very first page. “Through the Snow,” the opening story of KS, has been extensively analyzed by Shalamov scholars as a manifesto for the artistic program of the entire collection. It describes in vivid, technical terms the work of prisoners trampling a road through the virgin snow. The last sentence, however, makes a sharp turn, transforming the description into a metaphor for the process of writing in extreme circumstances:

Из идущих по следу каждый, даже самый маленький, самый слабый должен ступить на кусочек снежной целины, а не в чужой след. А на тракторах и лошадях ездят не писатели, а читатели. (Shalamov)

Of those who follow in the footsteps of the trailblazer, even the smallest, the weakest, must step onto a spot of virgin snow rather than into another man’s footprint. As for the tractors and horses, those are for readers, not for writers. (AO)

The snowy expanse marked by the “uneven black holes” of the footprints comes to resemble the surface of a white sheet of paper with a few sparse words; both tell a tale of labor and exhaustion. (Material surfaces for writing, bearing concentrated traces of violence, suffering, or defiance, are a recurrent theme in Shalamov’s prose. Such is the bullet-ridden pelt of the dog Tamara and the door of the Butyrki prison’s wash-house — the only wooden surface in the entire prison on which inmates could carve their coded messages.) As is typical for Shalamov’s “new prose,” the introduction of a metaphorical dimension does not diminish the tale’s documentary value. The factual and the poetic components coexist, creating a unique doubling effect and a text of remarkable complexity.

Rayfield covers over this metaphor by choosing to translate “readers” as “bosses” and “writers” as “underlings”: “As for riding tractors or horses, that is the privilege of the bosses, not the underlings.” The importance of this substitution is hard to overemphasize. Rayfield effectively erases the meaning of the key sentence for the entire cycle. If we had any doubts that KS is every bit as much about the demolition of the literary tradition as of men in the Gulag, the first sentence of the next story in the collection dispels them. To a Russian reader, the opening of “On the Slate” — a story about a card game between gangsters (a privileged caste of inmates in Stalin’s camps), during the course of which one of the political prisoners watching gets killed for his sweater that is then used to pay a gambling debt — immediately calls to mind Alexander Pushkin’s “The Queen of Spades”:

Shalamov (Rayfield): “The horse herder Naumov was hosting a card game.” («Играли в карты у коногона Наумова.»)

Pushkin (AO): “Narumov, an officer in the Horse Guards, was hosting a card game.” («Играли в карты у коногвардейца Нарумова.»)

Both building on and profaning literary classics — putting “old prose” to the test of the new life in the Gulag — is one of the key devices of KS, which is filled with literary references. In this story, the darkly fantastical tone set by the evocation of one of Pushkin’s most haunting stories is followed by a chain of allusions to other masters of Romantic literature. Like people, these literary works are demeaned and physically tortured: a volume of Victor Hugo is carved into the deck of cards with which the criminals play, Nikolai Gogol’s face is embossed on the lid of a cigarette case that is one of the objects the gangsters gamble, and a tattoo on one dandified gangster’s chest spells out a poem by Sergey Yesenin.

There is no definitive translation of Pushkin that Rayfield should have emulated, and his version of the line does just fine, but it would have been useful to include an explanatory footnote, lest the Anglophone reader should miss what would be obvious to most Russian schoolchildren. In this and other instances, when Shalamov relies on hidden citations and intertextual references, providing commentary becomes an essential part of the translator’s task. Shalamov’s field of references is vast; it includes writers like Gavrila Derzhavin and Yuri Tynianov, Aleksandr Blok and Stendhal, Tacitus and Ovid, Jack London and Ernest Hemingway, Marcel Proust and Anatole France. The critical apparatus provided by Rayfield is regrettably slim.

While the translation of “On the Slate” reads well, Rayfield does lose some of the text’s poetic richness. The story is imbued with hints of theatricality and performativity. The entire scene takes place at night, in the dark, where the only hanging lamp illuminates two exotic-looking gangsters with their tattoos, metal caps worn as fashion statements on healthy teeth, crosses with engraved naked women hanging on their necks, and long and lovingly polished fingernails. The spectators — two political prisoners — look on from the shadows but will soon enough be dragged violently into the spotlight, where one of them will serve as a sacrificial victim in the final act of this mystery play. Shalamov describes the ritualistic exchange of elaborate curses between the two players as they haggle over the value of Naumov’s clothing:

Окружающие игроков зрители терпеливо ждали конца этой традиционной увертюры. Севочка не остался в долгу и ругался еще язвительнее, сбивая цену. Наконец, костюм был оценен в тысячу. (Shalamov)

The spectators around the players patiently waited for this traditional ouverture to end. Sevochka gave as good as he got, cursing even more viciously to knock the price down. At the end, the costume was valued at a thousand. (AO)

The spectators crowding around the players patiently waited for this traditional opening move to end. Sevochka gave as good as he got, cursing even more viciously in order to knock the price down. In the end Naumov’s clothes were valued at a thousand. (Rayfield)

Translating “увертюра” as “opening move” rather than “overture” and “костюм” as “clothes” rather than “costume” obscures the story’s theatrical undertone.

Rayfield’s “straightforward” approach leads him to further trouble in “Cherry Brandy” — a story about the death from starvation of an unnamed imprisoned poet. In his notes, Rayfield tells us that the title comes from a line by Osip Mandestam and concludes that this story “must be read” as a re-creation of that poet’s death in the Gulag. However, both Shalamov’s story and his own notes on it complicate such a direct documentary reading. In a 1971 letter to Irina Sirotinskaya — a scholar and close friend of Shalamov’s to whom we owe the preservation of his archive — the author directly states: “‘Cherry Brandy’ is not about Mandelstam. It has simply been written for Mandelstam. This is a story about myself.” Far from a documentary account of Mandelstam’s last days (which Shalamov did not witness), “Cherry Brandy” is an artistic cenotaph to the poet, a description of the effects of starvation, and a broader meditation on the value of literature in the camps that belongs to Shalamov himself.

Just as “Through the Snow,” “Cherry Brandy” is also built around the shimmering, vibrating interpenetration of the “facts of life” and the “facts of literature,” of a literary hero and a biographical subject. The body of a poet, who is dying of alimentary dystrophy and thinking about immortality, splits into two: that of the poet with his mind on literary craft and posterity and that of a living corpse. What animates the rhythm of the poet’s delirium is an attempt to bring together what is seemingly incompatible: his existence in literature and the “bare life” to which he has been reduced. What does it mean “to die as a poet,” he wonders. Real poetry is born only in an impossible equation of the two: “Having seen that he was now two people, the poet realized that he was now composing real poetry.” Rayfield’s translation does not present the effort to reconcile this split as a key motif throughout the story.

Вся прошлая жизнь была литературой, книгой, сказкой, сном, и только настоящий день был подлинной жизнью.

Все это думалось не в споре, а потаенно, где-то глубоко в себе. Размышлениям этим не хватало страсти. Равнодушие владело им. Какими это все было пустяками, «мышьей беготней» по сравнению с недоброй тяжестью жизни. Он удивлялся себе – как он может так думать о стихах, когда все уже было решено, а он это знал очень хорошо, лучше чем кто-либо? Кому он нужен здесь и кому он равен? (Shalamov)

His entire past life was literature, books, fairy tales, dreams, and only this present day was real life.

All these thoughts took place not as a dispute but secretly, deep down in his inner self. He didn’t have enough passion for such reflections. Indifference had long taken possession of him. How trivial it all was, like mice scrabbling about, compared with the unkind weight of life. He was amazed at himself. How could he be thinking like this about verses when everything had been decided, and he knew it very well, better than anyone? Who needed him here, and who cared? (Rayfield)

The final line of the original could be rendered literally as “Who needed him here and to whom was he equal?” It refers not to the indifference of other prisoners, but to the impossibility of equating the self that has become a substance of poetry with the tortured, imprisoned physical self that is dying of scurvy and hunger. At the end, the poet does gain a form of immortality, which is a brutal parody of undying literary fame. He does not get “written off” the lists of living prisoners and, for the two days after his death, his neighbors continue to receive his bread rations.

Politics opens another gulf between Rayfield and the texts as Shalamov wrote them. Rayfield suggests that Shalamov, a man who spent almost two decades in the Gulag labor camps and who prided himself on having never denounced or betrayed anyone, was somehow responsible for Stalin’s crimes:

In some ways, Shalamov could be accused of complicity: he himself shows admiration for the Red heroes of the Civil War who perpetrated acts of cruelty as ruthless as their Stalinist successors. “The Gold Medal,” one of his longest stories, almost deifies the Socialist Revolutionary terrorist Nadia [sic, for Natalia] Klimova. For all that Shalamov suffered, he never renounced revolutionary killers when they were prompted by idealism and prepared to pay with their own death.

To hold Shalamov accountable, to any degree, for the Stalinist Terror because he deeply sympathized with a Socialist Revolutionary (as well as with a rich tradition of Russian rebels from Avvakum to the Decembrists and the terrorists of the People’s Will) seems a calloused view of Shalamov personally and of Russian history generally. Rayfield is collapsing all revolutionary movements with Stalinism — a viewpoint that runs deeply contrary to Shalamov’s own convictions. In Shalamov’s eyes, Stalin’s concentration camps were more in line with the traditions of tsarist prisons than with idealistic (if misguided) revolutionary terror by individuals resisting police and state oppression. As with the reductively documentary interpretation of Shalamov’s works, the translator’s opinion would not have mattered, had it not altered the message of the original.

Shalamov looks on 19th- and early 20th-century Russian revolutionaries as moral and spiritual heroes whose defiance of tsarist oppression provides a model for his own struggle. Klimova is one such paragon of moral virtue. Awaiting her execution after a failed attempt to assassinate Russian Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin (commuted to a life sentence of hard labor), this 21-year-old girl wrote a parting letter entirely free of bitterness and grief, expressing a profound sense of love toward and intuitive connectedness with the world not only of people, but also of plants, animals, and even rocks. Shalamov's text on Klimova — an interesting blend of biography, fairy tale, hagiography, and meditation on the historical continuity between Russian revolutionaries and the Soviet dissidents of the 1960s — was a result of archival research and collaboration with Klimova’s daughter, who herself spent 10 years in the camps. His description of Klimova’s escape from prison — which she organized, and which freed 13 inmates — contains many quotations from his own “Major Pugachev’s Last Battle,” one of the few stories in KS that is an unequivocal celebration of the human spirit and courage.

“The Highest Praise” presents another hagiography of a female Socialist Revolutionary, Maria Dobroliubova, who, Shalamov writes, shot herself in the mouth after deciding not to go through with the political murder she was assigned to commit. Dobroliubova — a woman of saintly beauty, mystical impulses, and profoundly charitable nature — made a deep impression on several cultural figures, most importantly the Symbolist poet Aleksandr Blok, who saw her as the compassionate Virgin Mary of the revolutionary movement. After describing her legend, the story shifts to an account of Shalamov’s own meeting in the Butyrki prison, after his second arrest in 1937, with a living embodiment of Dobroliubova’s spiritual and political legacy. Aleksandr Andreyev, an elder leader of the right faction of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, and a chairman of the society of prerevolutionary political prisoners, takes a liking to Shalamov and the two become friends. When it comes time for them to part, Andreyev bestows on Shalamov “the highest praise”: he tells the younger man that he has the mettle not to be broken by prison. Shalamov therefore emerges as a spiritual heir to Andreyev and, through him, to all the political prisoners of Russia’s long and bloody history. What inspires him in these men and women is not terror (Shalamov openly disavows it), [7] but their moral fortitude in the face of oppression and their unbending will to freedom.

The unifying theme of the “The Highest Praise” is faith — a religious feeling untethered from religious dogma. Surveying his crowded cell in Butyrki — filled with revolutionaries of all stripes, teenagers accused of political assassinations, and hapless petty thieves, most of them exhausted, enervated, and driven half-mad — Andreyev concludes: “There are only martyrs here. There are no heroes” (AO). Yet in Rayfield’s version we have: “There are only men here; there are no heroes.” It is difficult to explain this substitution as anything other than an instance of political editorializing. What in the original is an expression of respectful sympathy to a generation of people who were defeated and broken by the Stalinist regime becomes, in Rayfield’s version, a wholesale dismissal of their struggle. This phrase is one of Shalamov’s recurrent refrains, which is repeated in his other stories as well as his letters and articles. For instance, it is the closing sentence of “How it Began.” In that context, it refers to the exhausted concentration camp prisoners who have long lost all of their political biographies and subjectivities, and there Rayfield has no problem translating it correctly: “They were martyrs, not heroes.”

Rayfield concludes his summary of Shalamov’s biography with the following sentence: “On the grounds that Shalamov, as the son of a priest, had been baptized, friends and people from the world of Soviet literature organized a church funeral and burial.” Whatever sentiments might have motivated those “friends,” it was definitely not respect for Shalamov’s convictions. The man who wrote a story titled “Unconverted,” about resisting the pressure to convert to Christianity in the camps and thereby losing a bowl of desperately needed soup, was an outspoken atheist his entire life, and an enemy of melodramatic gestures. It is hard not to view the decision to arrange for a church burial — something to which Shalamov, who by the last years of his life had grown deaf, blind, and incapable of communicating, could not have possibly consented — as yet another exploitation. It is unfortunate that, by altering the meaning of Shalamov’s texts and by straitjacketing him as a writer of documentary accounts, Rayfield — despite his admirable qualities as a translator and his extremely welcome work in bringing us a complete English version of the tales — in some ways continues this exploitation.

Shalamov himself was skeptical about the possibility of translation and did not believe that rendering his prose into another language would be possible. He thought his own writing was too deeply embedded in the sound structure of the Russian language and the fabric of Russian culture. [8] We should be deeply grateful to Donald Rayfield for daring to disobey Shalamov and for bringing him closer to Anglophone readers as a result. However, one hopes that in the second volume of his Kolyma Stories, the translations will be free of forced conversions.


Anastasiya Osipova is a scholar, writer, and translator. She is an editor of Cicada Press, a New York City–based imprint that publishes contemporary politically engaged poetic texts. She holds a PhD from the Department of Comparative Literature at NYU and is currently teaching at Gallatin, the School of Individualized Study.


[1] For a detailed history of Shalamov’s publication in the West see Yasha Klots, “Varlam Shalamov Between Tamizdat and the Writers’ Union 1966–1978,” in Russian Literature 96–98 (February–May 2018), pp. 137–66.

[2] The scans on nearly all stories from the first cycle of KS can be viewed online on, a wonderful resource that gathers biographical, scholarly, and archival materials relating to Shalamov.

[3] “I was one of those people who spoke out against Stalin — no one [among us] ever thought that Stalin and Soviet rule were one and the same thing,” Vishera (The Antinovel) (1961).

[4]Storming the Heavens” (1970s)

[5]On Prose” (1965)

[6] The compositional unity and artistry of Shalamov’s story cycles have been commented on by numerous scholars (Valeriy Esipov, Elena Mikhailik, Elena Volkova, and others).

[7] In “On the ‘New Prose’,” Shalamov disavows terrorism together with the didactic liberal and humanistic 19th-century literature that inspired it: “Russian humanist authors of the second half of the 19th century carry on their souls the great sin of human bloodshed. All the terrorists were Tolstoyans and vegetarians, all the fanatics were students of Russian humanists.”

[8] “There are a thousand reasons why I never sent my stories abroad. History is the first reason. A complete indifference to my fate is the second. The hopelessness of translation is the third one. In general, everything is within the bounds of one’s language,” “Letter to Literaturnaia gazeta” (1972).

LARB Contributor

Anastasiya Osipova is a scholar, writer, and translator. She is an editor of Cicada Press, a New York City–based imprint that publishes contemporary politically engaged poetic texts. She holds a PhD from the Department of Comparative Literature at NYU and is currently teaching at Gallatin, the School of Individualized Study.


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