The article offers an explanation of Varlam Shalamov's negative attitude to the samizdat in the 1970s, particularly puzzling in view of the samizdat's role in making him unofficially famous in the 1960s. It explains the change in Shalamov's views by his struggle for authorial control of the accuracy, structure, and accessibility of his work. Lack of such control was, in a sense, an extension of the Gulag prisoners' inability, despite their best-laid plans, to rule their own fate—a theme explored in Shalamov's story “A Piece of Meat.” One of Shalamov's last acts in the struggle for the control of the fate of his works was his 1972 letter to Literaturnaia gazeta protesting against the piecemeal publication of his work in foreign journals. Contemporaries tended to read that document as a recantation letter renouncing Kolyma Tales; as a result, Shalamov's status was transformed into that of a fallen idol. Yet if one reads the letter with close attention to its composite language, in which current clichés combine with the lexis of the twenties, as well as in the context of Shalamov's predicament in the 1970s (when a work that had appeared in the samizdat had practically no chance of getting into the official press), one may see a message about the importance of Kolyma Tales hidden in plain view. Ultimately, however, it was the samizdat dissemination that, more than anything else, ensured the preservation and the early as well as the future impact of Shalamov's Gulag prose.
Skip Nav Destination
Leona Toker; Samizdat and the Problem of Authorial Control: The Case of Varlam Shalamov. Poetics Today 1 December 2008; 29 (4): 735–758. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-083
Download citation file: