A light in a dark place: Great works of culture created in the Gulag

Among the thousands of political prisoners sent to Soviet Gulags, there were many of those who belonged to creative professions – writers, poets, musicians and artists – who secretly continued with their artistic pursuits.

Doing anything creative, like drawing or keeping notes, was strictly forbidden, to say nothing of attempts to smuggle anything out of the camps. RBTH has compiled a list of the most significant works of art, music and literature that were created in Soviet prison camps and miraculously survived to become known and remembered by modern generations.

24 Preludes and Fugues for the piano by Vsevolod Zaderatsky

The 24 Preludes and Fugues piano cycle was composed by Vsevolod Zaderatsky at a Gulag camp in the region of Kolyma in the Russian Far East in 1937-39. “He managed to find time and scribble his compositions on whatever scraps of paper he could find,” the composer’s son recalled.

“My father had a very neat handwriting, which helped. Sometimes guards gave him paper too because they valued him as a storyteller. He was like a TV set for them,” he said. The world premiere of the cycle took place 75 years after it was composed, at the Moscow Conservatory on Dec. 14.

Poems and plays in verse by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Solzhenitsyn wrote his world-famous One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago after he had served his term in the Gulag (1945-1953): While in prison, he had no opportunity to work on long prose.

However, in the labor camp, using just small scraps of paper, he composed and learnt by heart (with the help of a rosary he had made himself) several poems and plays in verses: Dorozhenka (‘Little Road’), Plenniki (‘Prisoners’), and Pir Pobeditelei (‘Victors’ Feast’).

As Solzhenitsyn himself wrote in Part V of The Gulag Archipelago, by the end of his prison term, he held some 12,000 lines of poetry in his head. However, Solzhenitsyn decided to publish that early poetry only after he turned 80.

“Those works were my breathing, my life at the time. They helped me to survive,” he explained.

‘Kolyma Notebooks’ by Varlam Shalamov

Shalamov served two terms in prison camps, in 1929-1932 and in 1943–1951. The first was in the northern Urals, while the second, and far more horrendous, was in Kolyma.

It was there, in 1949, after he had managed to escape hard labor to work as a medical attendant at a hospital for inmates, that he began to write the poetry that became the foundation of the future Kolyma Notebooks.

Having read them in 1956 in samizdat, Solzhenitsyn, as he himself later recalled, “trembled as if I had met a brother.”

Boris Pasternak too had a very high opinion of Shalamov’s Kolyma Notebooks.
However, Kolyma Tales, a tough and uncompromising account of life in the camps, once again turned Shalamov into an outcast and an alien for the literary establishment.

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