Varlam Shalamov was born in Vologda, Vologda Governorate, a Russian city with a rich culture famous for its wooden architecture, to a family of a hereditary Russian Orthodox priest and teacher, Father Tikhon Nikolayevich Shalamov, a graduate of the Vologda Seminary. At first young Shalamov was named and baptized after the patron of Vologda, Saint Varlaam Khutinskiy (1157-1210); Shalamov later changed his name to the more common Varlam. Shalamov's mother, Nadezhda (Nadia) Aleksandrovna, was a teacher as well. She also enjoyed poetry, and Varlam speculated that she could have become a poet if not for her family. His father worked as a missionary in Alaska for 12 years from 1892, and Varlam's older brother, Sergei, grew up there (he volunteered for World War I and was killed in action in 1917); they returned as events were heating up in Russia by 1905. In 1914, Varlam entered the gymnasium of St. Alexander's and graduated in 1923. After the October Revolution the Soviet regime confiscated Shalamov's house that stands right behind the local church to this day.
Upon his graduation it became clear that the Regional Department of People's Education (RONO, Regionalnoe Otdelenie Narodnogo Obrazovania) would not support his further education because Varlam was a son of a priest. Therefore he found a job as a tanner at the leather factory in the settlement of Kuntsevo (since 1960 part of the Moscow city). In 1926, after having worked for two years, he was accepted into the department of Soviet Law at Moscow State University through open competition. While studying there Varlam was intrigued by the oratory skills displayed during the debates between Anatoly Lunacharsky and Metropolitan Alexander Vvedensky. At that time Shalamov was convinced that he would become a literature specialist.
Shalamov joined a Trotskyist-leaning group and on February 19, 1929, was arrested and sent to Butyrskaya prison for solitary confinement. He was later sentenced to three years of correctional labor in the town of Vizhaikha, convicted of distributing the "Letters to the Party Congress" known as Lenin's Testament, which were critical of Stalin, and of participating in a demonstration marking the tenth anniversary of the Soviet revolution with the slogan "Down with Stalin." Courageously he refused to sign the sentence branding him a criminal. By train he was taken to the former Solikamsk monastery (Solikamsk), which was transformed into a militsiya headquarters of the Visher department of Solovki ITL OGPU (VishLAG). It was here that Shalamov truly realized what the Soviet government was all about and it was here the security guards returned him to the reality of life from the revolutionary euphoria that took Russia as a hostage. Shalamov was released in 1931 and worked in the new town of Berezniki, Perm Oblast at the local chemical plant construction site. He was given the opportunity to travel to Kolyma for colonization. Sarcastically, Shalamov said that he would go there only under enforced escort, but, ironically, fate would hold him to his promise later. He returned to Moscow in 1932, where he worked as a journalist and managed to see some of his essays and articles published, including his first short story "The three deaths of Doctor Austino" (1936).
At the outset of the Great Purge, on January 12, 1937, Shalamov was arrested again for "counter-revolutionary Trotskyist activities" and sent to Kolyma, also known as "the land of white death," for five years. He was already in jail awaiting sentencing when one of his short stories was published in the literary journal Literary Contemporary. In 1943 he was sentenced to another term, this time for 10 years, under Article 58 (anti-Soviet agitation): the crime was calling Ivan Bunin a "classic Russian writer." The conditions he endured were extreme, first in gold mining operations, and then in coal mining. He was repeatedly sent to punishment zones, both for his political "crimes" and for his attempt to escape. There he managed to survive while sick with typhus of which Shalamov was not aware until he became well. At that time as he recollects in his writings that he did not care much about his survival.
In 1946, while becoming a dokhodyaga (an emaciated and devitalized state, which in Russian literally means the one moving towards the ultimate end), his life was saved by a doctor-inmate A.I. Pantyukhov, who risked his own life to get Shalamov a place as a camp hospital attendant. The new "career" allowed Shalamov to survive and concentrate on writing poetry.
In 1951 Shalamov was released from the camp, and continued working as a medical assistant for the forced labor camps of SevvostokLAG while still writing. In 1952 he sent his poetry to Boris Pasternak, who praised Shalamov's work. After his release he was faced with the dissolution of his former family, including a grown-up daughter who now refused to recognize her father.
Shalamov was allowed to leave Magadan in November 1953 following the death of Stalin in March of that year, and was permitted to go to the village of Turkmen in Kalinin Oblast, near Moscow, where he worked as a supply agent.
Beginning in 1954, and continuing until 1973, he worked on his book of short stories of labour camp life, Kolyma Tales.
During the Khrushchev thaw, enormous numbers of inmates were released from the GULAG and rehabilitated, many posthumously. Shalamov was allowed to return to Moscow after having been officially rehabilitated in 1956. In 1957, he became a correspondent for the literary journal Moskva, and his poetry began to be published. His health, however, had been broken by his years in the camps, and he received an invalid's pension.
Shalamov proceeded to publish poetry and essays in the major Soviet literary magazines while writing his magnum opus, Kolyma Tales. He was acquainted with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Boris Pasternak, and Nadezhda Mandelstam. The manuscripts of Kolyma Tales were smuggled abroad and distributed via samizdat. The translations were published in the West in 1966. The complete Russian-language edition was published in London in 1978, and reprinted thereafter both in Russian and in translation. Kolyma Tales is considered to be one of the great Russian collections of short stories of the twentieth century.
Gospodin Solzhenitsyn, I willingly accept Your funeral joke on the account of my death. With the feeling of honor and pride I consider myself the first Cold War victim which have fallen from Your handFrom the undispatched letter of V.T.Shalamov to A.I.Solzhenitsyn
In addition, he wrote a series of autobiographical essays that vividly bring to life Vologda and his life before prison.
The Western publishers always provided the disclaimer that Shalamov's stories were being published without the author's knowledge or consent. Surprisingly, in 1972 Shalamov retracted the Tales, most likely being forced to do so by the Soviet regime. As his health deteriorated, he spent the last three years of his life in a house for elderly and disabled literary workers in Tushino. Shalamov died on January 17, 1982, and was interred at Kuntsevo Cemetery, Moscow.
The book was finally published on Russian soil in 1987, as a result of Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost policy. Selections from Kolyma Tales are now mandatory reading for high school children in the Russian Federation.
In 1980s his family's house still was standing next to the town's cathedral. Since 1991 the house has been turned into the Shalamov's Memorial Museum as well as the local picture gallery. The cathedral's hill in Vologda is called Shalamov's in his memory.
One of his Kolyma short stories, "The Final Battle of Major Pugachoff," was made into a film (????????? ??? ?????? ????????) in 2005.
A minor planet 3408 Shalamov discovered by Soviet astronomer Nikolai Stepanovich Chernykh in 1977 is named after him. A memorial to Shalamov was erected in Krasnovishersk in June 2007, the site of his first labor camp.
His funeral was attended by some 150 people. At his burial site the Shalamov's friend, Fedot Fedotovich Suchkov, has erected a monument, which in the year of 2000 was destroyed by somebody unknown. The criminal case was closed as uncompleted. With the help of some workers from SeverStal the monument was reestablished in 2001.
Thanks to the Soviet regime the name of Shalamov is now illogically associated with something of a former outlaw while he was, in fact, the son of a hereditary priest. The gratitude should also be extended for the state's support for his goal in life. Due to that his works contain an enormous deal of bitterness towards people and the government.
An autobiographical movie about Varlam Shalamov was directed by Aleksandr Sviridov. It is a documentary movie in somewhat gloomy settings where the narrator, acting as Shalamov himself, describes life after the October Revolution by simply reminiscing the facts in chronological sequence as they occurred to him.
The movie starts with a scene that shows a labor camp cemetery with simple wooden sticks placed in the ground to mark burial and can covers hanging from them. The narrator says: "Everybody has died." Then he lists the people who he meant under the everybody. The list is somewhat interesting as some of these people were very famous in their time, later, as well as the narrator, they were sent to the camps.
Nikolay Barbe - the organizer of the Russian Komsomol was shot for being unable to accomplish the Plan (Five-Year Plan)
Dmitriy Orlov - Kirov's referent
Semen Sheinin - economist
Ivan Fediakhin - the organizer of the first kolkhoz in Russia and for organization of which he was sentenced
Fritz David - Dutch communist, the member of the Comintern, lost his mind out of hunger
Yukin - the brigadier of peasants was shot together with his brigade at the Serpentine route
Then the narrator states that he has a great doubt whether anybody would be interested in this sad story of the stomped soul. He says that he has lived 70 years, 20 of which he spent in camps and exile. Then he goes onto his, Shalamov's, autobiography.