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SOLD OUT: Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma Stories with Donald Rayfield and Michael Nicholson



Please join us for a conversation between Dr. Michael Nicholson of University College, Oxford, and Donald Rayfield whose new translation  of Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma Stories was recently published.

Kolyma Stories is a masterpiece of twentieth-century literature, an epic array of short fictional tales reflecting the fifteen years that Varlam Shalamov spent in the Soviet Gulag. This is the first of two volumes (the second to appear in 2019) that together will constitute the first complete English translation of Shalamov's stories and the only one to be based on the authorized Russian text. 

Shalamov spent six years as a slave in the gold mines of Kolyma before finding a less intolerable life as a paramedic in the prison camps. He began writing his account of life in Kolyma after Stalin's death in 1953. His stories are at once the biography of a rare survivor, a historical record of the Gulag, and a literary work of unparalleled creative power, insight, and conviction. 

This new translation is by celebrated writer and translator Donald Rayfield.


Varlam Shalamov (1907–1982) was born in Vologda in western Russia to a Russian Orthodox priest and his wife. After being expelled from law school for his political beliefs, Shalamov worked as a journalist in Moscow. In 1929, he was arrested at an underground printshop and sentenced to three years’ hard labor in the Ural Mountains, where he met his first wife, Galina Gudz. The two returned to Moscow after Shalamov’s release in 1931; they were married in 1934 and had a daughter, Elena, in 1935. Shalamov resumed work as a journalist and writer, publishing his first short story, “The Three Deaths of Doctor Austino,” in 1936. The following year, he was arrested again for counterrevolutionary activities and shipped to the Far Northeast of the Kolyma basin. Over the next fifteen years, he was moved from labor camp to labor camp; imprisoned many times for anti-Soviet propaganda; forced to mine gold and coal; quarantined for typhus; and, finally, assigned to work as a paramedic. Upon his release in 1951, he made his way back to Moscow where he divorced his wife and began writing what would become the Kolyma Stories. He also wrote many volumes of poetry, including Ognivo (Flint, 1961) and Moskovskiye oblaka (Moscow Clouds, 1972). Severely weakened by his years in the camps, in 1979 Shalamov was committed to a decrepit nursing home north of Moscow. Following a heart attack in 1980, he dic- tated his final poems to the poet A. A. Morozov. In 1981, he was awarded the French PEN Club’s Liberty Prize; he died of pneumonia in 1982.   


Donald Rayfield was educated at Dulwich College and the University of Cambridge. 
Most of his life he has been a lecturer and then Professor of Russian and Georgian, at first in Queensland, and for the next 38 years at Queen Mary University of London.  He first visited Georgia in 1973 and has since then written a history of Georgian literature, edited A Comprehensive Georgian-English Dictionary and  a history of Georgia (Edge of Empires, also published in a Russian edition and soon in an updated Georgian version).  He is also the author of a biography of Anton Chekhov and a monograph Stalin and his Hangmen, both of which have appeared in other languages, including Russian. He has translated a number of Russian, Georgian and Uzbek poets, playwrights and prose writers and written on various topics in comparative literature and history, including the Crimean Tatars.

Michael Nicholson is  Emeritus Fellow at University College, Oxford. The bulk of Dr Nicholson’s publications have been on unofficial Russian literature and especially the Gulag theme.  His work on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn ranges from the phenomenology of his reception in East and West to textological and bibliographical aspects of his work, and he has translated several of Solzhenitsyn’s  writings over the years, most recently Tanks Know the Truth: Film Scenario for Variable Sized Screen. His current project is a study of Solzhenitsyn’s writing in the 1940s and 1950s (provisional title: Solzhenitsyn’s Road to ‘Ivan Denisovich’). The other twentieth-century writer on whom he has published is Varlam Shalamov, author of Tales of Kolyma (Kolymskie rasskazy). He is an Honorary Professor of Henan University, China.