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By: Booksa

Seven Thousand Days in Siberia by Karlo Štajner

Large large od oktobra do otpora 300dpi 1 Cover of the book.

The writer is not an observer, a spectator, he is a participant in the drama of life (...)
He is Pluto, who rose from hell, not Orpheus who descended into hell.
Varlam Shalamov (On Prose, 1965.)

In the “post-memory" era (term introduced by the American scientist Marianne Hirsch), writing about witnesses and testimonies of historical crimes against humanity in the 20th century is challenging, albeit necessary. There is no doubt that for Slavic writers who tried to reveal the naked horror of Nazism, fascism or Stalinism in their novels (like the Croatian writer Daša Drndić or the Russian writer Sergei Lebedev), the creative act presented a kind of moral obligation, a struggle of sort against silence with which we "endure" traumatic memories and against universal oblivion into which unpleasant historical events often fall. Today, when we only seemingly live in a freer and more tolerant world, talking about an unpleasant past says much more about the present we live in and the future we want to have than about times past, over which we no longer have influence. Hence the desire for my contribution to the Reclaiming the Capacity to Imagine program to be a text about one of the most poignant testimonies about the Gulag, and thus about Stalinism, written by Karl Štajner, Croatian communist of Austrian descent. 


Witness is the most important (and most problematic) category in camp prose. From the shocking testimonies of Russian victims, which Catherine Merridale used as her research basis for the book Night of Stone: Death and Memory in Twentieth-Century Russia, 2002, it is clear that the category of surviving witnesses from Stalin's purges is the one that deserves the most attention. After leaving the camp, the former convicts - unlike the victims of the Holocaust - were forced to prove their innocence. They therefore preferred to interpret their arrest as a mistake rather than as the monstrous totalitarianism of the system in which they lived. Witnesses of Stalin's purges who were former detainees, were greeted with suspicion[1] by the society, which did nothing to help them become human again. Alexander Solzhenitsyn is, after all, just a positive case of the predominance of memory over dogmatic history, as he, despite the unwillingness of Soviet society to confront the Gulag and Stalinism, did just that (albeit paying for it with dissidence). Giorgio Agamben opens his famous book Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. Homo sacer III (Antibarbarus, 2008.) with an important quote from the book Auschwitz. Zeugnisse und Berichte (eds. HG Adler, H. Langbein, F. Lingens-Reiner, 1994.): “As far as I am concerned, I have firmly determined not to take my own life no matter what happens to me. I wanted to see for myself, to experience everything, to live everything, to safe-keep it all inside (...) I did not want to destroy the witness I might become ”(according to Agamben 2008: 11). An example of the perfect witness, according to Agamben, would be Primo Levi, who, unlike others who returned from Auschwitz, had a need to constantly talk about his experience. Predrag Finci emphasises that it was this event what turned the chemist into a writer, although Levi never considered himself one - “he becomes a writer only to testify” (Agamben 2008: 12). Levi may have been an ideal witness, but if Agamben is to be trusted, he was not a "real" witness - the real witnesses were "Muslims"[2], ie victims of a logical paradox, as Jean Francois Lyotard pointed out earlier - only those who can no longer testify are real witnesses. The real witnesses, in other words, are dead.


Levi survived and began writing about death, but finding a publisher for notes on death so soon after the war was not easy.  His literary testimony If This is a Man was rejected in 1946 by several Italian publishers. He eventually managed to have the book published in his native Italy in 1947, and in Germany in 1961 (translation by Heinz Reidt) - which for obvious reasons he considered his great victory. It wasn´t until 1970s that Levi gained popularity, when the book got translated into numerous other languages and entered the school curriculum of many European countries. This is not surprising since various political and cultural upheavals took place in the 1970s. The 1970s were likewise of major importance for the Croatian culture of remembrance. After a series of misfortunes and "lost" copies, a testimony written way back in 1958 was published in 1971 - 7000 days in Siberia by Karl Štajner. It took 14 long years for the book to see the light of day and to create a sensation of sort in Yugoslav circles. However, unlike Levi's work, it never made it to the textbooks, ie school curriculum of Yugoslavia, let alone Europe, and it never gained the international reputation it deserved (although it was translated into several languages and quoted in some foreign studies on the Gulag).


Few testimonies managed to provide a glimpse of the hidden Stalinist reality of the 1930-s and 1940-s, as did Karl Stainer's - making him the author of the most relevant Croatian homecoming from the USSR of the 20th century. Not only did Štajner come to know Russia in the way that neither Krleža nor even Ciliga, let alone Cesarec would, but he also wrote one of the world's most important testimonies about the Gulag and one of the most valuable works of prose that got to be known as camp prose in Russian literature. The 1930s were crucial to the Soviet totalitarian mythology. In his study Soviet Censorship in the Era of Total Terror 1929.–1953. (Sovetskaja cenzura v epohu totalnogo terrora, 2000.) Russian historian of censorship Arlen Blium argues that by the mid1930-s a complex mechanism of absolute control over literary production was established, a system of total censorship. Censorship did not apply to literary works alone. Similarly, all public agencies in the USSR were under absolute control, including the activities of foreigners (regardless of whether they were communists). The tragicomic position of foreign and local communists under the Stalin dictatorship of the 1930-s is best illustrated in the famous joke about Karl Radek:

Three convicts meet in a camp.

The first one says: "I was sent to the camp in 1929 because I said Karl Radek was a counter-revolutionary."

The second one says: "And I was sent here in 1937 because I claimed that Karl Radek was not a counter-revolutionary."

And the third: "And I happen to be Karl Radek…" (Mel'nichenko 2014: 330).

In other words, the irrational totality of Stalinist censorship made every Soviet citizen a potential candidate for the Gulag. That there were foreigners in Stalin's camps in the 1930-s and 1940-s, among them Yugoslavs (Ante Ciliga, Julius Baranovski, Agata Oreški, Božo Kuštera, etc.), is nothing new[3]. In that sense, the case of Karl Štajner is in no way different from a number of other foreign communists who had to prove their loyalty and righteousness in the camps. Testimonies from Stalin's Gulag are nothing new either - as Ciliga´s French debut title In the Land of the Big Lie (1938) proves best. Four years after Ciliga's testimony, in 1940, Živojin Pavlović published in Belgrade, in his own edition, the Balance Sheet of the Soviet Thermidor. Review and insights into the activities and organisation of the Stalinist terror. There was a minor boom of camp testimonies in Croatia in the 1980-s (Prison and Siberian Memories 1926-1957 by J. Baranovski in 1981, Siberian Seal by V. Oreški and M. Nikolić in 1983, From Coal to Vorkuta by B. Kušter in 1984.).


Still, the camp prose of Karl Štajner, “the man who wrote it all down” (as Petar Požar calls him in his book Yugoslavs - Victims of Stalinist Purges) is unique in many ways. First of all, it is not just mere archiving of traumatic memories, yet it is nothing like the camp prose written in Russia by Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov, Grossman and Dovlatov either. Chronologically, Štajner picks up where Ante Ciliga left off, departing the Siberian camp in 1935 - a year before Štajner´s arrest in 1936. However, while Ciliga´s In the Land of the Big Lie got published as early as 1938, in French at that, in Paris, the book 7000 Days in Siberia had to wait 14 years for its publication (it was written back in 1958.!), and all this because Štajner, a convinced communist refused to "sell" his memories to the West. Apart from the fact that Štajner reconstructed with incredible precision a) the private chronotope of his twenty-year exile and b) the traumatic episodes from the Siberian Hades, 7000 days in Siberia are, in terms of genre, indefinable. In the book, Štajner is least of all an analytical commentator, and most of all a witness, a narrator of his own memories, an exile who would seek refuge in memories for the rest of his life. Thus Štajner's manuscript offers a multitude of possible readings. Having spent twenty long years in the Gulag (longer than Ciliga and many famous Russian camp inmates, such as Solzhenitsyn) and conserved his memory by keeping a very meticulous record of the camp system and everyday life, Štajner wrote a book that reads as a phenomenological study[4] of kind, about "a country that is not on the map. It is called the GULAG. And the people of this great state, which, according to the census of 1938 counted 21,000.000, are called inmates "(Štajner 1978: 238).


Štajner's 474 pages long testimony about the phenomenon of the state far in the East, whose existence was common knowledge yet no one would or could discuss it in public, should become a mandatory contribution to scientific analytical studies on the Gulag, similar to Anne Applebaum´s historical record History of the Gulag, Nancy Adler`s Survivors of the Gulag, On the other side of the Soviet system and Èkind’s cultural study of memory metamorphoses after the Gulag or even Agamben’s metaparable of surviving witnesses. Applebaum divided her meticulously documented records of life and daily routine in the camp into 12 categories, where  she synthesised numerous testimonies and documented material. Štajner's memory of his twenty years in the Gulag touches on all twelve aspects that Applebaum singles out - from arrest, imprisonment, arrival to the camp and sorting, camp life, camp work, punishment and reward system, guards, prisoners, to wives and children and the dying, but also the strategies needed for survival and ultimately for rebellion and flight. Moreover, it seems that in "modern barbarism" - as Štajner refers to Stalinism in his book - it is possible to find orderliness or rather a certain symmetry in the experiences of the camp inmates. Thus Štajner, like many others, was arrested at the most defenceless and precarious time of day - at night (which Applebaum calls very common), with a typical knock on the door under the pretext of an emergency or under a false name. Coarse bureaucratic language and imperative mode, characterising the Sovietized Russian language, marked the journey beyond life and  within easy reach of death for the Austrian-Croatian communist Karl Štajner on November 4. 1936.

–  Arrest warrant – he said harshly (…), Get up! – commanded the officer (…) -– March! - shouted the officer as he headed towards the door (…) There was a car parked in front (…) – Drive! – he ordered. The car raced through the streets of Moscow, the city still asleep. I was trying to figure out what was going on, but my wife's cries still echoed in my ears. It felt like saying goodbye to life (Štajner 1978: 12).


Štajner, much like Solzhenitsyn, Levi or Ciliga, is an ideal witness according to Agamben - as he dedicated the rest of his life to testifying and reconstructing what he had experienced, on behalf of those who were no longer entitled to do the same: "In the NKVD dungeons, in the icy desert of the Far North, wherever my sufferings exceeded human limits of endurance, I carried within me a single desire: to survive it all and to tell the whole world, and above all my party comrades and friends, what horrors we had suffered ”(Štajner 1978: 7). In the prologue Štajner provides direction to the reader, by defining the boundaries between memory and experience: "What I wrote in this book should not read as a summary of everything I lived, but only as a small excerpt of what really happened" (1978:. : 8). Although Štajner ´s nonfictional prose is often compared to that of Alexander Solzhenitsyn (he gets referred to as the Croatian Solzhenitsyn), who gained world recognition for The Gulag Archipelago (published two years after Štajner 's siberiade, in 1973)  the two works actually, apart from the privileged role of witnessing Gulag, have almost nothing in common. The very title of Solzhenitsyn's work would imply that The Gulag Archipelago had more comprehensive pretensions, and with its three volumes containing about two hundred testimonies, it aimed to become an encyclopaedia of the Stalinist gulag universe. Štajner did not shy away from other people’s lives and destinies in his narrative, provided they, in one way or another, crossed his own path. The dedication of his manuscript is also indicative - Štajner dedicates it to his wife Sonya, who waited for him for 20 long years. Solzhenitsyn, on the other hand, dedicates his work to an unspecified addressee or to the maximalists everywhere, apologising to some extent for the experience he lacks: "I dedicate it to all those who cannot tell the story because their lives were taken. And may they forgive me for not seeing everything and remembering everything, for not thinking of everything "(Solzhenitsyn, electronic publication). Štajner's 7000 days never had monumental and maximalist pretensions, but, on the contrary, factual and intimate, which he himself admitted to, referring to the limitations of his memory: "If I wanted to tell everything I went through, along with tens of thousands of people, in those twenty years I spent in Soviet prisons and camps, I should have a superhuman memory (...) I rarely indulged in analyses and comments on events. My main goal was to document the bare facts.” (Štajner 1978: 8).

And it is precisely the lack of analysis and moralising (apart from overt anti-Stalinism) that adds Štajner's camp prose additional value, turning it into a testimonial novel of its own kind, something that neither Ciliga nor Solzhenitsyn offer in their works. Varlam Shalamov (with whom Štajner shares many more similarities than with Solzhenitsyn) called the bare facts Štajner wrote about "new prose":

Own blood, own destiny – that is what contemporary literature cares about. When a writer writes with his own blood, then there is no need for him to visit Butir Prison to collect material (…) not only is there room for new ways of presenting, but also for new ways of embracing and understanding (…) contemporary new prose can only be created by those who know their own subject matter, those for whom mastering their subject matter, ie its artistic processing is not only a literary task but a debt and a moral imperative (Shalamov, electronic publication).


Karl Štajner's memoirs undoubtedly belong to the "new prose" that Shalamov writes about in the preface to his Kolyma Tales, where his life material is imprinted into a literary text, in other words these two entities merge into the same estuary. By writing this small fragment of "his own blood", his memory that becomes history by the very act of writing (as Pierre Nora reminds us), Štajner proves that he is not a creative tourist[5], that he is not Orpheus descending into hell, but Pluto emerging from it. Following Shalamov's concept, Danilo Kiš would be Orpheus, a kind of "tourist-artist" who collected material for his Tomb for Boris Davidovič precisely from Štajner. He testified to this in the preface to the English edition of Štajner's book and in an essay published in The New York Times on July 10th 1988. Moreover, on that occasion, Kiš openly admits that Štajner was his invaluable guide in writing the collection of stories A Tomb for Boris Davidović, which is why he dedicated one of his stories to Štajner, The Magic Card Dealing.

Kiš did use Štajner's material extensively or, in Shalamov's words, Štajner's blood, but not only is his work not plagiarism, the two are completely different texts, styles and languages. Predrag Matvejević summarised these undeniable differences very concisely, finding that they both wrote two formative texts of the Yugoslav literature of the second half of the 20th century, with Štajner writing "on experiential level and Kiš in the world of true fiction” (Matvejević, electronic publication).  A minor autobiographical detail, used by Kiš to open his American essay on Karl Štajner, reveals a completely different point of view and narrative strategies:

In 1976, in the bar of the hotel Intercontinental in Zagreb, I was to meet the famous witness of Gulag, the author of the book 7000 Days in Siberia, my valuable point of reference when writing A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, to whom I dedicated one of the stories from that book. At some point a ruddy, lively gentleman of medium height and solid build, with short-cropped hair and a hat in his hand approaches our table. No, it's not him! It can't be him (...) "At one point in the book you mention wallpaper," he goes on to say(…) "Ah, young man," Štajner waves his hand at that, "there could have been no wallpaper in Russia at the time!" I was trying to explain to him that I had found this part about wallpaper in an encyclopaedia and that I had used it on purpose, as a bizarre fact reminiscent of an anachronism. Štajner dismisses it like a man accustomed to people not believing him even when it comes to more important, more obvious things (Kiš, electronic publication.).

Naturally, these minor details were completely irrelevant to Kiš's (artistic) concept of A Tomb for Boris Davidovič, but to Štajner they were important material evidence. This is not surprising. One of them was forced by circumstances to become a writer; he became a writer only to testify to the trauma he had lived, while the other was finding ways to portray that trauma. The deep knowledge of the subject matter is reflected in the language itself. As a rule, the smell of death drives a person to a different type of writing, as is also the case with writing in exile.[6] Shalamov claims that, when facing death, one writes in a language that is deprived of unnecessary artistic and expressive means.


Štajner's facts are soaked in blood and are indeed, as he announced in the preface, naked - unadorned. Perhaps the bare simplicity of Štajner's discourse reflects his background.[7] Still it seems to me that this can only partially explain the nudity of his prose. Printer-typographer by profession, he could not have expressed twenty years of superhuman suffering in any other way. Such a text reads as the event itself, not its description. That is the writing of Levi, the writing of Štajner. Admittedly, the camp turned them into testimonial writers (they both wrote only about that). Only bare sentences, without redundancies and embellishments, are used by Shalamov as well in his camp memoirs , which he doesn´t call that: "When they ask me what I write, I answer that I do not write memoirs. There are no memories in the Kolyma Tales. These are not stories either. It would be correct to say that I try not to write a story, but something that does not classify as literature. I do not write documentary prose, but prose that was lived as a document "(Shalamov, electronic publication). It was this reductionism in writing that gave the text-event a new kind of estrangement - this time emotional. When reading a sober depiction of the terrible, we find it even more terrifying, even more hideous. As if out of reverence for the inhumane cruelty they seek to conjure up, stylistic mannerisms must subside, they are muted so that the horror of the subject matter can dominate, for this is no ordinary creative process.


Štajner's literature is certainly not what one would call "belles lettres." Štajner's literature is moral. Holy even, soaked in superhuman suffering and real, not fictional, blood. Shalamov said something similar when regarding the future of prose after the Gulag: “The camp topic in the broadest possible sense, as well as in the narrowest, is a fundamental question of our time. Isn't the destruction of man carried out by the state a key question of our time, of our morality - a question concerning the psychology of every family? "(Shalamov, electronic publication). In his study, which sought to distinguish between trauma and grief, Ètkind claims that Soviet camps were specific in that they were not "death camps; they were torture camps (…). The GULAG was not about eliminating prisoners, but about destroying their language and their world ”(Ètkind 2016: 47). Perhaps this is the reason for the lapidarity of the expression that is often encountered in the so-called camp prose. "History offers depth to an epoch devoid of depth, true stories to an epoch devoid of a true novel. Memory has been promoted to the center of history: thus we mourn the loss of literature "− claimed Nora (Nora 2007: 165). With Štajner, memory is promoted to the center of life. He thus mourns the loss of "the most human of all feelings" (Štajner 1978: 474).


It is well known that there were two realities in Stalinist totalitarian Russia. One is defined in post modern terms by Mikhail Èpstein as hyperreality (and explained as an empire of ideas believed by millions, therefore not open to re-examination through the traditional lie-truth dichotomy). I propose to call the second reality unreality (in a dual sense: as a secret para-reality and as an unimaginable reality, because surreally harsh). That this liminal camp-exile perspective is the only possibility from which the "true" reality can be known was hinted at by Štajner himself: "In order to know what is happening here, one must be in our shoes" (1978: 239).


[1] Nancy Adler writes about the discomfort and problems facing returnees from Stalin's purges in her book The Gulag Survivor. Beyond the Soviet System, 2004.

[2]In Auschwitz they were called "Muselmänner", and in Soviet camps "dohodjagi" (utterly exhausted and tortured people on the verge of life).

[3]V. Oreški, M. Nikolić Siberian Seal, Zagreb: SNL, 1983; P. Požar Yugoslavs Victims of Stalinist Purges, Belgrade: Nova knjiga, 1989.; I. Očak Stalin´s Showdown with Yugoslav Party Leedership in the SSSR, u: Publications of the Institute for Croatian History, Zagreb, Vol. 21, 1988 et al.

[4]In other words, both as memory and as history (as Pierre Nora distinguishes between them in his article Between Memory and History. The Issues of Place, in: The Culture of Memory and History, edited by Maja Brkljačić and Sandra Prlenda, Zagreb: Golden marketing-Tehnička knjiga, 2006.)

[5]For Shalamov, tourists are those writers who, instead of participating in the drama of life, stand aside.

[6]I wrote about it in my book The Poetics of Persecution. Gor'kij i Bulgakov Between the Hammer and the Sickle, Zagreb: Naklada Ljevak, 2013.

[7]Štajner is an Austrian so Croatian is not his mother tongue, yet the issue of language is a complex one, for a man who spent half his life in Russian exile and the other half in his chosen homeland (but not the one of his birth).

Ivana Peruško Vindakijević 

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