Home » Issues & Poems » Issue Twelve » Avvakum in Pustozyorsk

Avvakum in Pustozyorsk

Robert Chandler

Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov (1907–1982)

Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales is recognised by Russian readers as the greatest of all works of literature about the Gulag. Leona Toker has written movingly of the form of this epic story-cycle being ‘grounded in an ethical intention so genuine that its artistic merit seems to be the natural consequence of its truth.’ Shalamov’s poetry, however, is still little read, though he himself valued it as highly as his prose. This poem, one of Shalamov’s longest, is written in the voice of Archpriest Avvakum (1620–82). Avvakum is both the father of modern Russian prose and the archetypal Russian dissident, the most famous of the so-called Old Believers. His refusal to accept the changes to the Orthodox ritual introduced by Patriarch Nikon led to his exile, first to Siberia, then to Pustozyorsk, a military outpost in the far north of European Russia; his wife, Nastasia, accompanied him. After being imprisoned for 14 years in a sunken logframed hut, Avvakum was burnt at the stake. His vividly written account of his life (1672–73) remained under censorship for 200 years, though it circulated widely in manuscript. The original is in short lines, rhymed abab; each line is made up of two stressed syllables and a varying number of unstressed syllables. I have tried to reproduce the sardonic tone, not the precise form. Along with some of Shalamov’s shorter poems, ‘Avvakum in Pustozyorsk’ will be included in The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Feb. 2015), of which I am a co-editor.

Avvakum in Pustozyorsk

The walls of my church

are the ribs round my heart;

it seems life and I

are soon bound to part.


My cross now rises,

traced with two fingers.1

In Pustozyorsk it blazes;

its blaze will linger.


I’m glorified everywhere,

vilified, branded;

I have already become

the stuff of legend:


I was, people say,

full of anger and spite;

I suffered, I died

for the ancient rite.


But this popular verdict

is ugly nonsense;

I hear and reject

the implied censure.


A rite is nothing –

neither wrong nor right;

a rite is a trifle

in God’s sight.


But they attacked our faith

in the ways of the past,

in all we’d loved as children,

and taken to heart.


In their holy garments,

in their grand hats,

with a cold crucifix

in their cold hands,


in thrall to a terror

clutching their souls,

they drag us to jails

and herd us to scaffolds.


We don’t mind about doctrine,

about books and their age;

we don’t debate virtues

of fetters and chains.


Our dispute is of freedom,

and the right to breathe –

about our Lord’s free will

to bind as he please.


The healers of souls

chastised our bodies;

while they schemed and plotted,

we ran to the forests.


Despite their decrees,

we hurled our words

out of the lion’s mouth

and into the world.


We called for vengeance

against their sins;

along with the Lord,

we sang poems and hymns.


The words of the Lord

were claps of thunder.

The church endures;

it will never go under.


And I, unyielding,

reading the Psalter,

was brought to the gates

of the Andronikov Monastery.


I was young;

I endured every pain:

hunger, beatings,



A winged angel

shut the eyes of the guard,

brought me cabbage soup

and a hunk of bread.


I crossed the threshold –

and I walked free.

Embracing my exile,

I walked to the East.


I held services

by the Amur River,

where I barely survived

the winds and blizzards.


They branded my cheeks

with brands of frost;

by a mountain stream

they tore out my nostrils.


But the path to the Lord

goes from jail to jail;

the path to the Lord

never changes.


And all too few,

since Jesus’s days,

have proved able to bear

God’s all-seeing gaze.


Nastasia, Nastasia,

do not despair;

true joy often wears

a garment of tears.


Whatever temptations

may beat in your heart,

whatever torments

may rip you apart,


walk on in peace

through a thousand troubles

and fear not the snake

that bites at your ankles –


though not from Eden

has this snake crawled;

it is an envoy of evil

from Satan’s world.


Here, bird-song

is unknown;

here one learns patience

and the wisdom of stone.


I have seen no colour

except lingonberry

in fourteen years

spent as a prisoner.


But this is not madness,

nor a waking dream;

it is my soul’s fortress,

its will and freedom.


And now they are leading me

far away and in fetters;

my yoke is easy,

my burden grows lighter.


My track is swept clean

dusted with silver;

I’m climbing to heaven

on wings of fire.


Through cold and hunger,

through grief and fear,

towards God, like a dove,

I rise from the pyre.


O far-away Russia –

I give you my vow

to return from the sky,

forgiving no foe.


May I be reviled,

and burned at the stake;

may my ashes be cast

on the mountain wind.


There is no fate sweeter,

no better end,

than to knock, as ash,

at the human heart.2






  1. Old Believers make the sign of the cross with two fingers. One of Patriarch Nikon’s most controversial reforms was his decree that the sign of the cross be made with three fingers.
  2. A reference to The Legend of Thyl Ulenspiegel, a novel by Charles de Coster (1827–79) that has long been popular in Russia. Ulenspiegel wears round his neck a sachet containing some of the ashes of his father, Klaas, who had been burnt as a heretic. As he fights for the freedom of Flanders, Thyl repeats to himself, ‘The ashes of Klaas are knocking at my heart.’

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