„Roguish and inspiring”:

Picaresque humanism in Jaan Kross’s camp short stories


Keywords: Soviet camp literature, short story, picaresque, Jaan Kross, Rolf Hochhuth, life writing

The article deals with the experience of Gulag as reflected in Jaan Kross’s fiction, memoirs and letters from the camp, focusing on its fictional representation in his short stories. The article argues that Kross conveys his experience by using the conventions of the picaresque novel: a loose plot that is based on lucky coincidences and satire that is meant to criticise the power relations in the society. By comparing Kross’s representation to the canonical text about Soviet camp experience by Solzhenitsyn and Shalamov, the article shows that the picaresque key chosen by Kross is linked to his techniques of moral survival in the camp, and is therefore unable to capture the dehumanising impact of Soviet labour camps and the ethical dilemmas it posed to its inhabitants. In the second part of the article, by way of Kross’s intertextual links to German Holocaust literature, his representation is placed in the context of a wider a debate about the representation of extreme historical violence in the 20th century. In summarising a debate between Rolf Hochhuth and Theodor Adorno about the role of the individual, its agency and responsibility in the face of a violent system, the article argues that Kross’s picaresque key in his representation of Gulag is linked to his underlying humanism and the belief in the moral strength of the individual even in the grip of state terror.


Eneken Laanes (b. 1972), Tallinn University, Professor of Comparative Literature, ­Project Leader, ERC grant Translating Memories: The Eastern European Past in the Global Arena (Narva mnt 25, 10120 Tallinn), eneken.laanes@tlu.ee