Cracks in the Wall of Testimony: Polemical Allusions in Russian Prison Literature

David J. Galloway, Hobart and William Smith Colleges

Most of the autobiographical texts which describe the Soviet GULAG incorporate allusions to other earlier works on prison. These allusions have a pragmatic role, particularly in the case of those which emerged early on and were revelatory either to the West or the Soviet Union. The linkage to other prison works through allusion strengthens both accounts, as authors compare their own experience with that of others in similar time periods and even identical camps. Thus, as a document which bears witness to the GULAG, these works support each other through allusions. They combine to form a “mega-text,” which consists of all testimony on the GULAG, and which exists primarily to confront any denial or assertion of falsehood from its intended readership. Just as some writers include explicit protestations of truthfulness before they describe the horrors of the camps, allusions indicate that the mega-text is the result of hundreds of witnesses, which increases its credibility.

As a result of this primary role, the first texts to emerge detailing the GULAG tend not to criticize other authors and accounts in their allusions. These linkages between works are made in the spirit of solidarity, not dissent. A united front is presented, a united testimony which is made strong by its uniformity. However, starting in the late 1960s and into the 1990s, we begin to see writers who oppose the interpretation or depiction of the camps offered by their peers. Writers still make allusion to other prison works, but this allusion now may function as part of a polemic with the other author rather than a show of solidarity and common belief. There is still a respect for the shared experience, but a watershed has been reached, and it is now permissible to criticize one another.

This new freedom for authors mirrored a freedom for critics. Tomas Venclova noted in 1979, “now we can make an attempt, which seemed blasphemous not so long ago: we can compare new prison texts with the traditional prison texts, finding the archetypes and patterns which either accompanied mankind from ancient times or were transfigured by new experience” (66). Venclova indicates that a minimum separation has been reached, and that now there are critical opportunities available which did not exist in the past, in a time closer to the emergence of these works. Earlier, Venclova implies, critical analysis of a prison memoir could be construed as callous and inappropriate. Now, however, literary analysis can proceed without immediately encountering resistance from those who find the venture incompatible with the socio-historical value of these accounts.

In this paper I examine select instances of effect in several authors and memoirists of the GULAG, including Anna Larina, Varlam Šalamov, Sergej Dovlatov, and Lev Razgon. These men and women find themselves at times in opposition to ideas and beliefs long-espoused in GULAG literature. In each of their works, they seize these moments of contradiction and squarely lay their objections out for the reader. Thus, they reflect an important development of critical distance in the Russian prison memoir, as well as illustrating how Russian prison texts interrelate and continue to debate with each other long after the event which prompted their creation. This dynamic aspect of prison literature is enough to warrant further study of the dialog between writers, but is also intended as a reexamination of texts which have been largely neglected in literary studies, though their historical and testimonial value has never been in doubt.