Notes from the Gulag

The following two poems are written by Arsenii Formakov, a Latvian Russian poet, novelist, and journalist, during two terms in Soviet labor camps, 1940 to 1947 in Kraslag and 1949 to 1955 in Kamyshlag and Ozerlag. This correspondence, which Formakov mailed home to his family in Riga, provides readers with a firsthand account of the workings of the Soviet penal system and testifies to the hardships of daily life for Latvian prisoners in the Gulag.

A Letter Home (1941)
________________________________To my daughter Evgenia
You are a year old today . . . You are already babbling
And running about like a wind-up rabbit.
You are my bright-spirited daughter, who lives so far away
And whom I’ve never seen.

Having trusted false portents,
For two months, I thought: it’s a son again.
I sent greetings to you through the stars as if through the mail,
And called you to come play with me, of course, only in dreams.

Later, my child, you became real to me,
In an agonizing and incredible moment,
When I was brought to life by the sharpest joy,
And then immediately descended into spasms of tears . . .

I did not tremble at your birth,
I did not stay awake nights hovering over you,
I merely touched the pink blanket
In which you now sleep with my hand.

All the cares, anxieties, and sorrows
Of your infancy’s unrepeatable days,
To my misfortune, passed me by,
And were no delight to me.

I know your mother, pressing her hand to your hurts,
Will sing you my songs,
And endlessly repeat stories
About your father, who will suddenly appear out of nowhere.

I won’t make the sign of the cross over you when you go to bed at night,
And won’t be kissing you on the forehead in the morning . . .
But I have asked, and good-hearted San Ivanych will see
That your dreams are filled with everything bright.

And in the day, your mother will watch over you . . . my darling, my dear!
A great heart; bitter sorrow . . . Today,
My daughter, wishing you well, I bow
To the earth, while my soul longs for home, so far away.

It is so wonderful that I am on duty tonight,
That, in our homeland, you are not yet asleep,
And we can see each other more clearly than if face-to-face,
And we can speak to each other in this quiet.

May the New Year again be not without hope,
Trust in your heart, but do not rail against reason.
Caring, faithful, tender, I am with you forever,
My only, my marvelous darlings . . .


Two New Year’s Tangos (1944)
________________________________To my one and only
This New Year’s Eve my heart is with you, my darling.
The stars sing gently, not lamenting anything.
Racing from the moon on high, beams turn silver
And cut a path to you, far, far away, across the Urals.

My friend, you know that in my heart and soul I am with you.
You believe, as I do, that the hour we’ve been longing for will come,
And I will hold you, not in daydreams, but in reality, in my arms,
And on them something will shimmer, perhaps teardrops from your eyes.

Oh, if there are tears then, they will only be of joy!
Oh, if there are words then, they will be like a child’s murmurs of delight!
Believe me, my sunshine, believe me: soon all the rough weather will pass,
And there will be many joyous days again in our life.

On New Year’s Eve I’ve laid bare my soul in daydreams,
And, invisible, sat next to you. Pour me
A little wine, so I can say a toast for you, my darling,
So I can drink with you to the swift arrival of happier times.

New Year’s Eve. Siberia’s distant reaches gleam like silver.
The stars are scattered on the sky’s velvet in an unfamiliar way.
Leaning over me, you softly whisper: “There is no need for sadness!”
And your gaze sparkles with an ardent and familiar love.

Yes, my darling Niusha, all this flies by as swiftly as an arrow, and passes,
Just as smoke disappears, giving way to what is new.
These difficult days doubtless are already almost past:
Hope and faith fill my breast.

New Year’s Eve, just like that first night, the night of our wedding,
Endless love, our pledge, the summation, the farthest limit . . .
Happiness has passed so quickly; oh, what an unfortunate life!
Did I really know? Could I have supposed? Did I want this?

Please understand, dearest, and forgive me for everything!
Be like that tiny star that peeps in the window, not lamenting.
Racing from the moon on high, beams turn silver
And, like a path, stretch into the distance, to the river Dvina, to you.

Happy New Year, my beloved! Let us clink our glasses in friendship.
We’ll exchange kisses in our dreams, and we won’t grieve.
If only I could be with you and the children again . . . I need nothing else . . .
Happy New Year, my darling! May your life be easy.


From Gulag Letters by Arsenii Formakov, translated by Emily D. Johnson, published by Yale University Press in 2017. Reproduced by permission.

Arsenii Formakov (1900-1983) was a Latvian Russian poet, novelist, and newspaper editor. Emily D. Johnson is associate professor of Russian at the University of Oklahoma. She lives in Norman, OK.

Further Reading

Featured Image: “Gulag Museum” by whatleydude, licensed for use on Flickr.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published.