Valentin Sokolov

the legendary poet of the GULAG

remembered by Konstantin Kovalev 


Russian prisoner poet Valentin Petrovich Sokolov (1927-1982) and I shared living quarters in the same labor camp barrack from May 1963 to February 1965. We were friends and he was my instructor in the art of poetry. The camp was called "The Seven", i.e. labor camp no. 7 of Dubravlag in Mordovia. When I first came to this camp for political prisoners or, as we were called, "particularly dangerous offenders against the state," Valentin had already served a total of 14 years (first a nine-year term, then a five-year term). As for me, having served six months in prison, I had two more years left until my release. But Valentin would have to suffer another 16 years of prisons, camps and -- which is even worse -- psychiatric hospitals, right up to the hour of his death.


Like most of the prisoners who had the experience of Stalin's labor camps, Valentin Sokolov adhered strictly to unwritten rules and customs among prisoners. In the past, this kind of behavior was, among other things, a way to survive. For Valentin, however, it was primarily a way "to remain pure, strong, luminous, young, and not to fall face-down in the mud at the feet of the iron-faced idol." Therefore he had no liaisons with the camp authorities and no liaisons with inmates who violated the prisoners' code of honor. For his wish to remain pure and strong, the "iron-faced idol" of totalitarianism trampled on Valentine with its giant feet -- but the idol only managed to make the poet's outer appearance look rugged, make him look like an experienced camp inmate, like a roughneck worker. Therefore, when I first met Sokolov, looking at him for the first time, I not only failed to recognize his poetic personality, but did not even recognize an intellectual in him.


I remember how on the very first Sunday after my arrival in the camp I was sitting on an upper bunk looking around me with caution, despite the fact that no one was trying to threaten me. But I was simply being aware of the types of people around me. After all, only yesterday I had been a member of the Komsomol (The Young Communists League) and bore the title of a "highly productive contributor to communist labor." And now I was surrounded by people I knew about only from books and newspapers: Soviets who served as German police goons and who fought under German command during World War II, "Forest Brother" resistance fighters from the Baltic states, and simply people -- some of whom were the same age as me -- who for reasons unknown to me hated communism. Not every evil regime would have imprisoned such a devotee of its system as I have been. To do that it would also have to be a stupid regime, like ours. It punished me for the fact that in spite of all my ideological loyalty I also possessed humanity: I dared to protest against the shooting of a workers' demonstration in Novocherkassk in 1962. Or maybe the regime got it right in its own way. After all, it viewed kind-heartedness and independent thinking as the most serious of all crimes.


And so, sitting on my bunk, I suddenly heard a furious altercation by the entryway. From there, two prisoners entered the barrack, continuing to argue loudly. One of them, a puny young man wearing glasses, and whose political convictions, as I understood, could be described as "pink", that is, a social democrat, was telling his opponent that socialism could be good, "with a human face." His opponent, in a burnt quilted workman jacket, with a rough, weathered face and chipped, but strong teeth, defended capitalism, and not just any old type of capitalism, but American capitalism!


"Do you know what a worker needs?!" the prisoner was shouting hoarsely, almost crouching down, as if getting ready for a mighty jump. "He needs a refrigerator in his house, and meat  inside that refrigerator! And an American worker has all of that! That's why he works so well! Puts his back into it!”


The speaker, or rather, the screamer, even slightly choked on his saliva -- he had not tasted any meat for five years, as I later found out. And unable to argue further, he bent his elbow and depicted something indecent right under the nose of the man in spectacles. 


At this point I could not resist interfering and, addressing the "roughneck" with the word "comrade", tried, like a former University student should, tell him about the delights of Lenin's socialism... The convict, with his large head, like a lion, swung his body in my direction, as if wanting to tear into me, but seeing a naive newbie sitting in front of him, said nothing, and even cooled down somewhat.


A few days later I met a chap -- a camp intellectual, an aesthete, now a writer, whose name I do not give here because he had asked me not to. I began to recite my poetry to him, expecting praise. However, the aesthete said to me, "All this sounds like Isakovsky," adding that I did possess some degree of talent and would perhaps benefit from being introduced to the genius camp poet Valentin Sokolov, or Valek Sokolov, as he was known. And he immediately began to recite Valentin's poems to show me how masterful they were. At that time I had no idea that poetry -- besides rhyme and meter -- also could have consonances, and that sounds and feelings and different concepts could be colored in different colors, and that lines could be left hanging without rhymes, like unfinished chords. And -- most importantly -- that, as it turned out, to start out with an idea and then to proceed giving it a verbal shape was not the way to do it. One should start with form, with a sound, with each consonant and with each vowel, with a rhyme and with a consonance, and then proceed toward an idea and toward a certain feeling. This may sound absurd, and many would disagree with this way of doing things, but poetry did emerge that way, and astounding poetry at that! No wonder it is said, "In the beginning there was the Word." The Word, not an idea. Meanwhile, the aesthete recited:


Nights akin to black halls 

Put a spring in my step

And the night nestles tight

Silent pathways it swept.

The black flesh of the night

Snuggles up to each roof

The night must have grown tired

Sweetly sleeping, unmoved.


He drew my attention to the fact that Sokolov doesn't tell -- he shows, draws, like an illustrator or even like a draftsman, using words instead of brushes or pencils:


The drum beat throbs 

Along the tangent lines

   The night bedecks its screen

With exclamation signs.


   From head to toe in 

                question marks

     A man now runs along

An invitation in his hand

    To where he doesn't belong.


Or this:


Where the line proceeds straightforward

There is wind, and me, and wardens.

Where the line is running bent --

There is you in speckled dress.


According to my new acquaintance, color in Sokolov's poetry was not about assigning colors to different objects, but a designation of their essence. Symbolic, of course. So, blue stood for death, black stood for something secret and forbidden. Naturally, Sokolov was finding colors, sounds, and everything else rather unconsciously (which is characteristic of real artists) and wasn’t inventing anything as a result of a conscious mental effort. But the images and metaphors of Valentin Sokolov are phenomenally striking. The aesthete — in his camp quilted jacket — told me that Valentin was married to a woman ten years older than him, and this is how he wrote about her:


Next to these white hair strands

Next to flaxen hair

My quiet hour almost passed

Worldly joy without care


But something also from above

In the way you drove your 


Barely audible for both                  



Speech was quiet

And its message ran across the night

Any nudity

                      Took flight

On a very quiet note 

We commune with altitude 



"Imagine!" Exclaimed the aesthete and his glasses flashed. "He composed such prayerful hymn about a simple working woman of about forty! I saw her in the house for visits when my mother was visiting me. It so happened that Valek had a visit from his wife on the same date. Do you know what he means when he speaks of ‘White hair strands, flaxen hair’? She has white hair. He doesn't mean blond hair, he means white hair! She already has a lot of white hair. And he sees her the way Don Quixote saw Dulcinea!".


The aesthete drew my attention to the fact that Sokolov, as a modernist (he compared him to Lorca, emphasizing, however, that Valentin was not familiar with Lorca's poetry until 1963) barely uses punctuation marks, and that he positions his lines in zigzags, not in columns, putting one line more to the left, and the alternating line -- to the right, depending on its emotional bearing. Now I need to say this: of all the poems that I am citing here, only those are given the "zigzag" positioning which I have copied from notebooks where Sokolov wrote himself and which he gave to me. Other poems, which I have recorded under the dictation of various inmates, I had to write down in columns, because I did not know how the author himself meant for the lines to be positioned.


And when the aesthete began to recite excerpts from Sokolov's poem "Grotesques" to me, I was thunderstruck. Until then I believed that the age of great Russian poets remained in the past -- Pushkin, Lermontov, Yesenin... And that now, as they say, what we have are poets who at best can be described as "famous". And suddenly here -- in our camp -- such talent! I asked in which barrack this Sokolov person lived. It turned out that he lived in the same barrack as me. I began to mentally sift through the faces of the inhabitants of our barrack, but I could not stop at any one person: there was simply no such sublime poetic personality there! The aesthete refused to introduce me to Sokolov, saying that Sokolov was not too inclined to make new acquaintances, and therefore I should try to get to know him myself. But he promised to point out Valentin to me from afar, so that I would know whom I needed to speak to. And on that same day he pointed out Sokolov to me. At first I thought a joke was being played on me. When a large figure, slowly moving from the stinking dining room toward the barrack, approached, I was dumbfounded: it was that same rude prisoner with a burnt sleeve, who spoke in prison jargon and regularly drank chifir (exceptionally strong tea) in a rather dubious -- as it seemed to me at first -- company. Nevertheless, a couple of days later, I approached Valentin (or Valek, as everyone called him), and, timidly addressing him as "Valentin Petrovich,” said that I was an admirer of his talent and was asking him to give his opinion about my poetry. By the way, I got my prison term for writing poems...


Contrary to what the aesthete had said about Sokolov's reticence, he willingly agreed and went with me to the window. After listening to me reciting my poems, he stopped me and said that I read too well, and this made my poems seem better than they actually were.


He took my notebook from my hands and began to read. My poems were rather inept, since I did not know any real poetry of the twentieth century -- neither Tsvetaeva, nor Voloshin. I haven't even heard their names. I only heard about Pasternak, and I haven't read all of Yesenin’s works, so examples that I followed, indeed, were different kinds of "Issakovskys". But unlike most poets, Valentin Sokolov was not in the habit of "destroying" other people's poetry. He praised some of my poems, advised me to rewrite some others, and then gradually moved to expressing his views on poetry in general, and began to reveal the secrets of poetic mastery. I realized that he was not simply a natural talent, but also a person who deeply understood what he was doing. Valentin was saying that imagery should not "come from the head,” and that he, for example, attunes himself to a "stream of consciousness" and, as it were, catches sounds, rhymes and images from this stream, without straining himself with constant analysis, such as: "Is it appropriate to say this? Doesn't this contradict generally accepted notions?".


But the main thing that Valentin drew my attention to was the utmost brevity, vividness and depth of poetic information: one should not tell, but show, or even more correctly, depict, and depict not as a leisurely painter, but as a graphic artist who omits everything inessential, leaving white unpainted areas on paper, using sharp expressive strokes, applying contrasting colors from a limited palette: black, red, blue, lilac, green, gray. But gray is to be used most often, the way a graphic artist would use a simple lead pencil. Each color is a designation of the essence of an object or a phenomenon. Valentin said that in the twentieth century, information hits a person like a hammer across the head, and that people have no time to delve into lengths and details. Therefore, a person can only be affected by lines which are fast and bright, like a flash of lightning. Wanting to illustrate this point, Valentin, to my delight, began to recite his own poems. He recited them not in his usual broken, hoarse voice, but softly, with the sound coming from his chest, like a secret sigh of a hunted soul:


I am carved 

Into something rough

                Me and iron

                   Iron and lips

                      I steer 

Along some kind of black frontier

                      Into a tear

  Moved by some kind of back voice that I




He was reciting poem after poem, and I noticed that his earlier works, for all their imagery, had more specificity, depicting what one can see with one's eyes. And his later poems might seem incomprehensible at a first reading, since they do not depict a specific reality, but rather the inner world of the poet who was passing through the circles of hell, the kind of hell which is fenced off with barbed wire:


The only reality

Is the one which remains unknown…


Indeed, he does not waste time writing hundreds of ponderous lines (like in prose) about who he is, how old he is, why he became imprisoned, what he looks like, etcetera. He only conveys his feeling of unfreedom, the degree of which he describes as closely as possible to the feeling of death. With his lips, and not only with his lips, but also with his very soul, the poet is  plunged into the iron of the regime: into the handcuffs, into the prison bars, into the barbed wire; there is no joy in such existence.


As a recent Komsomol member, I was surprised to learn that some of Valentin's verses mentioned God. He calmly explained that he was an Orthodox Christian and that he believed in God. Brought up in the spirit of "the only correct teaching," for a long time I could not understand how such a wise poet could, like some kind of grandmother, have "religious prejudices." His political views were also alien to me, for he was a supporter of the capitalist system, and at the time I believed in possibility of "good" socialism. However, in this particular case, I was indifferent to what Sokolov's views were, for talent was what I saw in him above all. 


He recited his poems, and I was carefully examining his face. His features were beautiful, large, the outer corners of his slightly squinty eyes were positioned lower than the inner corners. Despite the lack of formal similarity, this face as a whole somehow reminded me of Chaliapin's face. He was a mighty Russian man of tremendous inner strength and tenderness -- not an intellectual and not a peasant, but everything that the Russian nation contains -- with its wisdom, its daring, its anarchic revolt, and sincerity, which cannot be compared with Western sentimentality, for example, of the German kind.


Valentine's face was covered with premature wrinkles and small bluish dots here and there. Only now, as I am writing this, it suddenly dawns on me that those were traces of coal dust embedded in the miner's face.


By the way, regarding his profession. Although Valentin worked as a slave miner during his first term, and then, after his release -- in the town of Novoshakhtinsk, he was, of course, a professional poet. I am saying this in response to the fact that some Novoshakhtinsk newspapers, in their recent benevolent publications about Valentin Sokolov, used some incorrect phrases, such as "Valentin Sokolov was not a professional poet" or that "he sometimes had rough, inaccurate rhymes." To make things clear: Sokolov did not have inaccurate rhymes -- he deliberately used unusual rhymes or replaced them with consonances that may sound as "bad" rhymes to the uninformed. And the "roughness" of his language is an attempt (as, for example, in Mayakovsky's poetry) to go beyond the generally accepted book language in order to express the inexpressible.


To be continued. 


Translated from Russian by Alissa Ordabai. 

All poems and verses translated by Alissa Ordabai.


Bukovsky at AFT/AFL

Vladimir Bukovsky talks about freedom and captivity with the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Labor in February 1977.

    Bukovsky at AEI

Vladimir Bukovsky heads discussion at an American Enterprise Institute dinner in his honor in June 1979.


Bukovsky FT Interview

Vladimir Bukovsky predicts Russia's disintegration in  a 1993 Financial Times interview.