"The irruption of the railway into the landscapes of agricultural Russia had the capacity to unsettle and disturb"LOIS WRIGHT

Content notice: this article contains mentions of death, labour camps, and political oppression

For the authors of 19th century Russia, the railway was an object of intense anxiety. A potent symbol of modernity, the irruption of the railway into the landscapes of agricultural Russia unsettled and disturbed, quickly coming to represent distinctly negative ideas of rupture and departure (the flip side of the association of rail-travel with progress and freedom so common in the contemporary West). These fears are articulated in many of the era’s ‘canonical’ works, which frequently construct moments of personal crisis around the image of the railway.

Most famous, perhaps, is the climax of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (in which the eponymous heroine, losing faith in herself and society, is driven to throw herself in the path of a train). Killed by means of a common, impersonal and uncaring instrument, at the moment of her death, Anna is lowered rather than raised, demythologised rather than ennobled. Her status as a ‘tragic hero’ in the classical tradition should be called into question by this ending. Having lost her position in society, she loses her position within the text itself. This cruel, radical negation destabilises the reader’s understanding of the novel, and leaves them with a deep sense of hopelessness and uncertainty at its close.

“Rail-travel, in the Russian literary tradition, has long been linked with the dark side of modernity”

Far less well known, but equally powerful in its portrayal of these themes, is Anton Chekhov’s Platonov. In this work, the fate of the hero (hit by a train in a moment in equal parts horrific and farcical) again serves to demean and denigrate – depriving Platonov of his dignity as well as his life. Such texts, reflecting on the theme of Russian modernisation, confront the emerging future empty handed and with a sense of deep despair.

One can therefore observe that rail-travel, in the Russian literary tradition, has long been linked with the dark side of modernity. This is a theme which was only strengthened with the arrival of the 20th century, and especially the gradual emergence of Stalinist dictatorship. In the works of dissident writers, the railway began to acquire an intimate connection with authoritarian rule. As a very real instrument of political repression – used to transport the supposed perpetrators of counter-revolutionary crimes to the county’s vast complexes of labour camps – the Stalinist railway generated an extensive literature in which it was represented as such.

“The long-standing neglect of these works by readers and translators alike owes much to the visions of unalloyed suffering contained within”

Among the most important of these accounts are the short stories of Varlam Shalamov, which feature commentary on the transit camps of the GULAG system. However, it is only in the last year that these have become available to English readers in their entirety, owing to an excellent new translation of his Kolyma Stories. The long-standing neglect of these works by readers and translators alike owes much to the visions of unalloyed suffering contained within. Refusing to read into the privations and tortures of Stalinism any idea of redemptive martyrdom or individual development, Shalamov presents the organs of repression as stripping their victims of morality and humanity.


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This understanding of dictatorship sets him apart from more popular dissident authors such as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn or Yevgeniia Ginzburg, whose works are constructed around a hopeful (even quasi-religious) narrative of the retention of moral integrity against the odds. Interestingly, the presentation of the railways in the works of the three writers serves as a useful point of comparison and elucidation of their differing world views. While Shalamov speaks of the transit camps breaking up the journey to Siberia as the site of an animalistic battle for resources and survival, the railway possesses a more ambiguous symbolism for Gibzburg and Solzhenitsyn.

For Ginzburg, the long journey into penal servitude provides an unlikely site for female solidarity and community, vividly portrayed in her autobiographical Journey into the Whirlwind. Meanwhile, Solzhenitsyn deploys the symbol of rail-travel to devastating effect at the close of his novel Cancer Ward. At the story’s close, its hero has survived both the social cancer of Stalinism, and his own medical diagnosis of a malign tumour. The reader last sees him boarding the train back to his place of exile, reflecting obsessively on the mindless suffering wreaked upon the innocent by the Soviet regime. The message is certainly one of survival and of change. Whether it is one of hope is a more difficult question to answer: the reader is left with the distinctive sense that Kostoglotov’s new-found freedom may in fact be only a temporary remission. His future path, and that of Russia, is marked by uncertainty. Despite early revolutionary dreams, little had changed from the times of Gogol, when Russia’s future was represented as a speeding troika, disappearing into the night.

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