From letters sent by Arsenii Formakov to his family, in Riga. Formakov was a Latvian poet, novelist, and journalist. In 1940, he was arrested for anti-Soviet activities and sentenced to eight years at Krasnoiarskii Labor Camp. Two years after his release, he was sentenced to another ten years. Gulag Letters will be published next month by Yale University Press. Translated from the Russian by Emily D. Johnson.
august 10, 1944
My sweet, unforgettable, one and only Niushenka! My dear children, Dimochka and Zhenichka!
We have the day off today. The sun is out, but it does not burn too hot during this short Siberian summer. By October it is already winter here. It lasts until April or May with temperatures to minus forty or forty-five. Last winter I worked loading and hauling logs to the lumber works. I spent the whole workday in the open air with the exception of the lunch break, when I would go to the watchman’s booth and sleep there in the warmth. In other words, everything is just fine.
september 20, 1944
My dear, long-suffering Niushenka! My sweet children, Dimochka and Zhenichka!
I am alive and well (my myocardial ischemia does not count!), and through all these terrible years have lived only in hope of the possibility of correspondence with you. Everyone calls me “the old man” or “father” — even those who are two or three years younger than me. I weigh seventy-five kilos, shave twice a week, and wear my hair grown out. I haven’t lost a single tooth. My eyesight is fine. I have not become mentally decrepit.
I work in the wire shop, where I use a special machine to punch eyes in sewing-machine needles. The norm is 900 per day, but I systematically fulfill double that, which gets me a ration of bread, soup, and hot cereal.
october 1, 1944
Dear Aunt Mania:
Yesterday evening I received your postcard and laughed and wept with joy when I learned that my precious Niushenka was alive and well. That my son is literate and my daughter is a high-spirited little girl is the most precious news for me. It’s too bad that our house burned down, but that is a minor thing.
november 9, 1944
Niushenka, my sunshine!
I remember that on November 19, 1941, I held a real celebration. I managed to buy a handheld pie from someone on special rations, got a cube of sugar from someone else, skipped lunch and supper, and got a small onion. As a result, my guests found, on a clean white handkerchief, a pie with six matches stuck into it, and then a piece of bread with a piece of salmon and small slices of onion, and a fourth of the cube of sugar.
I am healthy and look better than I did last year, when I was trying to cope with abscesses on my fingers. Finally they all healed!
january 1, 1945
Happy New Year’s, my dear Niushenka!
I am sitting quietly at the table all alone. Ever since I got in contact with you, I have been in a remarkably cheerful mood. I am more good-humored than I have ever been. I pay no heed to all the surrounding trivialities and rubbish. Physically I now feel my condition is completely satisfactory: recently we had our quarterly medical inspection, and they found absolutely nothing wrong with my health (except for my heart).
On my sleeping spot, I have a mattress, which is stuffed with hay, a sheet, a wool blanket, and my old quilted jacket for softness. On my little nightstand, I have a glass jar with rendered fat, which should last me until Christmas. And soon I will get my pay for December! In other words, I am in clover! Really, by God, Niushenka, without the slightest irony, I feel guilty for leading such a quiet, old-fashioned life while you, with your visor raised, single-handedly do battle with life all alone. I just stand off to the side in awe.
may 20, 1945
My darling Niushenka!
The camp shop has been unusually lively. Yesterday I bought five onions and three heads of garlic for ten rubles, and they were giving out canned fish at three rubles a can, allowing a can for every two men. We’re living it up here!
january 6, 1946
Happy holiday, dear Niushenka!
Now that everything is in the past, I can confess that four months last year were very hard for me physically. Sometimes you drag yourself along the path to the train car with a crosstie on your shoulder, particularly one that is heavy, damp, made of larch (which is like oak). You are drenched in sweat, your heart beats as if it is about to jump out of your chest, you breathe so heavily you start to wheeze, like an overheated horse, and you begin to think: let my leg buckle. You’ll fall and the crosstie will come crashing down on you from above, and that will be the end: no more suffering, everything will end forever!
april 7, 1946
My dearest wife Niushenka, my splendid son Dimochka, and my sweet daughter Zhenichka:
Today my mood is very sunny. Of course, there are also unpleasant things: jibes, legs stuck out to trip you, dirty tricks, but in comparison with what I have survived, nothing now gets me too upset.
Physically, I am not in bad shape. I am scarcely starting to go bald. The days are flying by. I have twenty-two months left until the end of my term!
january 19, 1947
For the past six days we have been experiencing a particularly sharp cold snap: in the mornings the mercury drops below minus fifty. All day long a thick fog hangs over us. You can’t see the sun. The air is like molten steel. It feels as though it will burn your whole insides, almost like exploding gasoline, if you swallow it in more deeply. But in general, it’s nothing too dreadful! The room where we live could be warmer, but I pull my coat over myself on top of my blanket.
january 23, 1947
I ask you not to get the wrong idea about the cold weather. People manage just fine: logs get hauled and trains still run. Magpies fly — although less often than usual. The sparrows have completely hidden themselves. Today one flew after some crumbs, but he couldn’t make it back. Apparently, his feet had gotten frostbitten. I gave him a push, and he flew . . . back home . . . to his family.