Tenacity and despair

Fortunately, Solzhenitsyn realized his mission — to tell the story to the world on behalf of those who could not — even before his release, and has been true to it since. He persisted in his determination, never forgetting he was on a mission; overcame cancer; saved his manuscripts from the KGB, and got One Day… published in 1962 — a fact that now looks more like a miracle, and is almost as unbelievable. It’s hard not to admire his strong will and perseverance.

Not surprisingly, Solzhenitsyn is not the only Russian author of labor camp stories. A writer of comparable talent, Varlam Shalamov, wrote Kolyma Tales after serving 17 years in various prison camps. Shalamov, however, was extremely skeptical of ‘old’ literature in general; poetry, he agreed with Adorno, was no longer possible after Auschwitz and Kolyma. Still, he wrote in his diary, “Kolyma taught me to understand what poetry means to man. Values are not abolished. On the contrary, their price is comprehended and goes up sharply.”

On the other hand: “In a camp setting, humans never remain human; camps were not created for that.” Shalamov hesitated whether stories of Gulag atrocities should be made public at all — he suspected they would have more power to corrupt than to educate: “A person should not know, should not even hear about the camp. The camp is a negative experience, corruption of all — camp bosses and inmates, guards and spectators, passers-by and readers of fiction.” Sometimes he plunged into cold desperation: “The experience of humanistic Russian literature led to the bloody executions of the twentieth century right before my eyes.” And: “The ruin of its humanistic ideas — a historical crime that led to Stalin’s camps, to the ovens of Auschwitz — proved that art and literature are nothing.”

Shalamov was bitterly critical of both Solzhenitsyn’s literary achievements and his quest for publicity. Ten years older than the Nobel laureate, Shalamov must have had quite different esthetic preferences: he was an adept of Silver Age poetry, for one. Shalamov even managed to publish some fiction between his first and second camp terms. In some ways, he was (then) probably a finer connoisseur of literature than Solzh, whom he considered a graphomaniac. When Solzhenitsyn asked Shalamov to co-author the Archipelago, the latter refused — harshly, I suspect. My guess is that Shalamov viewed the emerging master not only as a poor writer and manipulative publicity-seeker, but a successor to that failed literary tradition. After so much time in Kolyma, one should not be expected to have much trust in people, and Shalamov seemed particularly mistrustful.

The bottom line is, — if there can be a bottom line to this, — Solzhenitsyn was out to lay bare Soviet iniquities even though some of them transcended human understanding. He took it — and later, an exposition of Russian Communism in general — as a duty. But Shalamov’s view was that the Gulag ordeals had brought out something about human nature that would deprive of meaning the very foundations of our world. Why bother about politics, justice or truth itself when one truth you know is a human can be reduced to less than an animal?

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