Georgii Demidov. Picture received from his daughter Valentina Georgevna Demidova.

Author: Georgii Georgevich Demidov

Years active 1956–1980

Year of first publication: 1991

Place of edition: Moscow

Georgii G. Demidov, born in Saint Petersburg in 1908, spent his childhood and youth in Khar’kov. After finishing school, he enrolled at the Institute of Physical Engineering, where he excelled; before he finished his studies, he was invited by the physicist Lev Landau to work at the Centre he directed in Leningrad. Demidov spent ten years working with Landau (“the happiest of my life”), but was arrested in February 1938 during the campaign against “enemies of the people” which had singled out the group of physicists. Landau was also arrested. Demidov was accused of “counter-revolutionary activity” under the infamous Article 58, and sentenced to hard labour in Kolyma, first to eight years, then to another ten, interrupted only by Stalin’s death.  By this time, article 58 had come to include the “family members of enemies of the people”, meaning that the wives, sisters, and mothers of those in prison could be arrested and sentenced to deportation. Children would mostly be moved to “Children’s Homes” (cf. Vilenskii, Kokurin, Atmashkina, Novichenk 2002); a danger to which Demidov, the father of a baby girl only a few months old, was personally sensitive (cf. Demidov 2018).
During his imprisonment, Demidov was forced to work in terrible conditions, under a constant threat of death from frostbite, disease, and violence. He also worked as a technician, fixing the camp’s electrical system and X-ray machine in the hospital where he was hospitalised. It was there that he befriended Varlam Shalamov, a prisoner serving as an assistant nurse; their relationship was complex and conflictual but lasted many years (cf. Demidova 2008). Shalamov would describe the circumstances of Demidov’s second sentence in the short story The Life of Engineer Kipreev (cf. Shalamov 1999).
After Stalin’s death (1953), prisoners started applying to be rehabilitated and leave Kolyma. Georgii Demidov only managed to leave in 1958, moving to Ukhta, in the Republic of Komi, where he worked successfully as an engineer and started to write. His aim was to describe what he had seen during his eighteen years of imprisonment. He met his daughter Valentina for the first time after his release. From then on, she would fight for her father’s work to be recognised and published. Soon, Demidov abandoned his dream of returning to his scientific work: eighteen years away from the laboratories and the serious physical disabilities he suffered from, forced him to leave his job and devote himself completely to writing. His mind swarmed with the things he wanted Russians to know. He worked day and night, bent over his typewriter (the frostbite in his hands prevents him from holding a pen between his fingers), typing onto paper he managed to procure (paper was a precious commodity and suspect to the authorities). He began writing about his return from Kolyma (1956); there are no precise dates for when his works were written. His production can be divided into: a) the novellas, set in the cities (povesti); b) the short stories, set in the GULAGS (rasskazy); c) the autobiographical novel Ot rassveta do sumerek [From Dawn to Sunset]. The novellas Fone Kvas (most likely from 1957 or 1958), Oranzhevyi abazhur [The Orange Abat-jour, 1964-1968] and Dva prokurora [Two Prosecutors, 1969-1974] were first published in the volume Oranzhevyi abazhur (2009). Although, there was no chance for his worked to be published, Demidov typed a few copies onto thin paper for his friends and acquaintances to read. We do not know whether they, in turn, made more copies. Probably not. Just holding those sheets of paper was a risk. To those who suggested publishing his stories abroad, in tamizdat, he replied that he was not interested: his readers were in the USSR. An official came to offer him recognition and honours, if he would agree to write about different subjects but again Demidov said no. His attitude made the regime uncomfortable.
Demidov’s works circulated within a very small group of readers, a sort of mini samizdat. The political situation became more difficult but Demidov seemed indifferent to his surroundings and concentrated on his writing. In this respect he can be considered not only a witness, but a true writer, in the tradition of Tolstoi.
Demidov moved to Kaluga, from where he travelled to Moscow to leave manuscripts and meet his daughter or some old acquaintances,  including Shalamov, who had lived in the capital since the end of his imprisonment. Valentina Demidova recalls their discussions, some very heated, on the role and duty of the writer as witness to the GULAG (cf. Demidova 2011).
At the end of the 1970s, in fear of perquisition, Demidov made seven copies of the manuscripts, which he collected in as many folders: one for himself, one for his daughter, and five for people he trusted. In 1980, the year of the Olympics, repression in the USSR intensified, and writers’ homes were repeatedly searched: it was feared that material might be passed to the West. On 20th August, the police raided the houses where Demidov’s manuscripts were kept, and in a single night, everything (novels, short stories, the autobiography Demidov had been working on for some time, as well as work in progress) fell into the hands of the KGB. The author was left with nothing. From this moment he fell into a deep depression. He died seven years later, with the bitter certainty that all his work had been vain and that not a single line of what he had written would ever be published.  In 1988, however, during the years of perestroika, Valentina Demidova managed to convince A.N. Iakovlev, the secretary of the CPSU, to return the seized manuscripts and determined to make her father’s work known to Russian readers. As a financial crisis hit the USSR, she struggled to find a publisher, also because GULAG testimonies were by now considered to belong to the past.  The Sovetskii Pisatel’ publishing house included a volume with Demidov’s works among its forthcoming publications, but decided not to publish it. In 1990, the magazine “Ogonek” published the short story Zubar’, the first and only work to appear in the Soviet era. It was under this title that Demidov’s first collection of short stories was published in France (cf. Demidov 1991). It was only after another almost twenty years, in 2008, that Semen Vilenskii, the driving force behind the Vozvrashchenie publishing house specialising in GULAG literature, decided to publish volumes of Demidov’s short stories in succession: Chudnaia planeta (2008), Oranzhevyi abazhur (2009) and Liubov’ za koliuchei provolokoi (2010). Demidov’s last work to be published so far is Ot rassveta do sumerek (2014), an incomplete autobiography spanning from his childhood to the civil war. We do not know how much Demidov had written when the manuscript was seized or whether the KGB returned all the writer’s material to his daughter (for example, parts relating to the Holodomor, the famine that particularly afflicted Ukraine in the 1930s, may have remained in the archives). The publication of the second part is in progress; it is not known when it will be published. The death in 2016 of Semen Vilenskii has made the enterprise more complex.

Francesca Fici
[30th June 2021]

Translation by Marta Capossela


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To cite this article:
Francesca Fici, Short stories (G.Demidov), in Voci libere in URSS. Letteratura, pensiero, arti indipendenti in Unione Sovietica e gli echi in Occidente (1953-1991), a cura di C. Pieralli, M. Sabbatini, Firenze University Press, Firenze 2021-, <>.
eISBN 978-88-5518-463-2
© 2021 Author(s)
Content license: CC BY 4.0