July 01, 2018

Kolyma, Empires and Chernobyl

When Isaac Babel, the Soviet writer renowned for his tales of Jewish gangsters in Odessa and Cossack cavalrymen in the Russian civil war, was arrested in 1939, piles of unpublished manuscripts were confiscated, including drafts of stories and essays, notes for a book about Gorky, a movie screenplay and a half-written play.

None of this writing has ever been recovered, even though Babel, executed for treason in 1940, was posthumously rehabilitated, the charges against him having been found to be completely false.

The same fate might well have befallen the works of Varlam Shalamov (1907-1982), a writer and poet who survived the notorious Kolyma prison camp, if it hadn’t been for a sympathetic Soviet archivist.

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