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Russia remembers Gulag chronicler Shalamov

Moscow authorities on Wednesday unveiled a commemorative plaque in memory of author and former Gulag prisoner Varlam Shalamov, who chronicled the horrors of Stalin-era forced labour camps.

Like fellow ex-Gulag inmate Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov, who spent 17 years in camps, wrote about humans pushed to the brink of endurance in the deadliest of Soviet-era prisons.

But despite his genius and poignant story-telling, Shalamov has largely remained in the shadow of the Nobel laureate Solzhenitsyn.

Authorities on Wednesday unveiled a bronze plaque at a central Moscow building where the writer lived for three years before his second arrest in 1937.

Shalamov’s sculptural portrait — the first monument to the writer in the Russian capital — was installed on the official day of remembrance for the victims of political repression following requests from historians and activists led by Memorial rights group.

Shalamov’s most celebrated work — a series of short stories dubbed The Kolyma Tales — was only published in Russia six years after his death, at the peak of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika in 1988.

“No doubt, he remains underappreciated,” said Sergei Solovyov, an expert on the author.

“He is still regarded as a witness to prison life, while the poetic nature and existential meaning of his stories are not duly appreciated.”

Shalamov famously rejected Solzhenitsyn’s offer to write together what would later become known all over the world as The Gulag Archipelago.

While Solzhenitsyn believed that the experience of prison life could be positive as it purges a human soul, Shalamov argued that it only corrupts people.

“A human turns into a beast in three weeks of hard work, cold, starvation and beating,” he wrote.

Also Wednesday, Muscovites paid their respects to victims of Stalin-era purges shot to death at a firing range in Butovo, in the south of the city.

About 30,000 people were executed in Moscow alone in 1937 and 1938. Of these, more than 20,000 were killed at the Butovo range, the largest Stalin-era execution ground in the Russian capital.

Names of those executed in Butovo were read out loud in a ceremony set to last through the day.